Dawn Reader

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae: 2

… On 28 July 1814, young Mary Godwin—just sixteen—eloped with the already married Bysshe (he was twenty-one), fleeing across the Channel from England to France. They were gone about six weeks. Both would have birthdays on the trip. Joining them was Mary’s step-sister Jane “Claire” Clairmont, also sixteen. They made it as far as Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, but their money disappeared quickly, so they decided to return via the Rhine—river travel was less expensive than overland—and on 2 September 1814, in the evening, they came ashore at Gernsheim, where the boat’s pilot elected to wait a few hours for the full moon to rise before proceeding. Thirteen miles in the distance—the ruins of Burg Frankenstein.
Surely, so I’ve read, Mary was thinking of those ruins two years later when she created Victor Frankenstein, the student—in Germany!—who crafted the creature that wreaked havoc in Victor’s life and sired those myriads of movies, plays, operas, TV shows (The Munsters),  the 1962 number-one hit “Monster Mash,” comic books, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and other cultural clutter. (The creature’s face has been on a U. S. postage stamp, but Frankenberry cereal—perhaps because it’s pink? or not chocolate?—has never achieved the popularity of Count Chocula.)
But now, sitting here, slurping the dregs of my sundae, I’m certain it didn’t happen.  From Gernsheim—where I was this morning—I could not even see these castle towers.  And now from the castle I can barely see the Rhine.  And it’s been clear today, all day. Mary and Bysshe and Claire were down there in the evening. None of the Shelley party spoke German.  Yes, Mary and Bysshe went for a “walk” (sans Claire) for several hours, but I’m guessing that was not for scholarship but for sex. (A popular choice.)
Not one of the Shelley party mentions the castle or the word Frankenstein in a diary or a letter or in Mary’s 1817 account of their journey, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. It seems odd that she wouldn’t mention the name in that book. She’d begun working on the story that would become the novel Frankenstein since mid-June 1816. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour appeared on 6 November 1818; the finished Frankenstein, not two months later. Perhaps she didn’t mention the name because her novel first appeared anonymously?
But much later in her life, in 1844, she had another opportunity. In that year she published another travel book, Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843, an account of her continental wanderings, one of which took her to Darmstadt, near the castle. And she was traveling on the Bergstrasse! To get to Heidelberg, her next stop, she had to pass right by Burg Frankenstein. But she does not mention it—or the name Frankenstein. Nor does she in her correspondence—not directly.
In a letter to her aunt Everina on 20 July 1840 she writes about her journeys: “We passed through Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Carlsruhe, Baden & Freiburg.  … The country pretty uniform; a fertile plain to the right—to the left a range of low but pleasing hills varied as usual by many a shattered tower & ruined Castle …” (Ltrs III: 2). That’s as close as she ever gets. Anywhere.  Many a shattered tower & ruined Castle.
And so … because no one has ever discovered why Mary chose that name when she began composing her story on that famous stormy night in 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland—her 1814 proximity to Burg Frankenstein has seemed so rich in possibility.
But (slurp) so impoverished (slurp) in reality.  (Final slurp.)
Should I have another?  I could eat a light supper … or skip it altogether …?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

We Take It Personally

'Tain't fun, being sick. I never have liked it--though during my primary and secondary school days, I felt that sickness was a kind of a blessing: NO SCHOOL! (What could be better?) Sometimes, being home with something (flu, infection, test-itis), I was actually productive. I read Gone with the Wind while I was home in bed--and Look Homeward, Angel. Impressive, eh? Of course there were all those other times when I just lay on the couch and watched daytime TV--and in the 1950s, daytime TV was horrible. (When I lived in Amarillo, Tex., in the early 1950s, there were no TV stations at all. In Enid, Oklahoma, we had two or three. In Hiram, there were three until WUAB, Channel 43, arrived, as did others pretty soon via the wonders of UHF.) Soap operas and game shows.

I used to really hate being sick when I was teaching. It was almost easier to go to work than it was to do all the prep I had to do for a substitute--and then having to rearrange everything when I got back to class. So sometimes I dragged myself into work, probably infecting half my students in the process. In the spring of the first year I taught middle school (1966-67), I got some bug that put me down for the final four days of the week. When I got back, so much time had passed that I'd actually forgotten some names; it almost seemed as if I were starting a new job.

Fortunately, I didn't miss many teaching days because of illness--not in my entire career. And that was pure luck because public places are places to share illnesses.

Anyway, a little bit after noon this past Sunday, I started feeling Something Coming On. My muscles were aching; I suddenly had zero energy; I felt feverish. My body was shouting at me: Go to bed--or you will DIE!

But I didn't. I was still in the final stages of my Sunday bread-baking, and I had to wait until the two loaves were out before I could obey the imperatives my body was barking. But as soon as the loaves were out and on the cooling rack, I was upstairs in bed, and within moments of lying down, I was out. It was around 2, I think, when I hit the hay. At 4:30 I awoke--sick as a sick dog--staggered over to Joyce's study and told her she was on her own until further notice.

All I had for supper: some apple slices, Tylenol.

I slept off and on all evening, then watched the DVD of Red whose script I've virtually memorized by now. I turned it off about 9 (about the time they hook up with Helen Mirren) and slept like a dead thing all night--except when my Old Man self awoke and whispered urgently into my ear: Get up and go to the bathroom right now, or you'll be sorry! That whisper is one I ordinarily obey.

Joyce slept in the back room (wise move) but checked in on me before she left for her class at Hiram College. I may have grunted something intelligible--maybe not.

About 8:45 I woke up again and felt ... better. Remarkably better.  I cleaned up ... felt even better ... and drove to Bruegger's (I usually walk or bike), where I did my usual morning work ... and I worked throughout the day--with only an hour's nap in mid-afternoon. And now, as I write this (6 p.m., Monday), I'm feeling virtually normal--at least as "normal" as a 69-year-old man can feel.

I sometimes see on Facebook some posts from friends who note that they're not feeling well and that it couldn't have come at a worse time. I've felt that way--a lot. But, of course, it's really nonsense, isn't it? Illnesses don't arrive to inconvenience us; they arrive because some evil virus or bacterium has moved in and has decided to multiply. (It's what living things do.)

I'm mystified by how quickly this particular virus/bacterium decided to move out and try greener pastures. And grateful, too: I have a presentation on Tuesday evening, and I don't want to reschedule it.

Right now, out my study window, I see a squirrel poking around in the pachysandra. He's probably looking for something he left there? Or something some other squirrel left there? Or maybe he's just cruising around having a good time, somehow knowing that his fine health and energy are fragile, evanescent things. The squirrel is right: We should enjoy them while we have them because, you see, the microorganisms have other ideas. And they always win.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae: 1

Daniel Dyer

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Dyer

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

For Betty Bennett (1935–2006),
Shelley scholar nonpareil, the generous friend who took my hand and showed me the way.

I pursued him; and for many months this has been my task.  … What his feelings were whom I pursued, I cannot know.

— Victor Frankenstein, in Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never—”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

            — Stephen Crane, Black Riders and Other Lines, 1895

There is a sense in which any journey is absurd.
            — William Golding, An Egyptian Journal, 1985

From the Oxford English Dictionary
sundae, n.
Pronunciation: /ˈsʌndeɪ/
Forms: Also (rarely) sundi.(Show Less)
Etymology: Origin uncertain. There exist a number of differing accounts both of the invention of the dish and of the coinage of its name.
The name is generally explained as an alteration of Sunday, either because the dish originally included leftover ice-cream sold cheaply on Monday, or because it was at first sold only on Sunday, having, according to some accounts, been devised to circumvent Sunday legislation. The alteration of the spelling is sometimes said to be out of deference to religious people’s feelings about the word Sunday. For several accounts see H. L. Mencken, The American Language Suppl. I. (1945), pp. 376–7.
... orig. U.S.
A confection of ice-cream topped or mixed with crushed fruit, nuts, syrup, whipped cream, etc. locally also called college ice.
1897 W. A. Bonham Mod. Guide for Soda Dispensers 126 Peach Sundae. Ice cream, vanilla or peach5 ounces. Crushed or sliced peaches2 ounces. Serve with a spoon. Pear, orange, raspberry and other fruit sundaes are made by adding the syrup or fruit to the ice cream.
1904 N.Y. Evening Post 21 May (Sat. Suppl.) 4/7 The Sundi, so popular at the confectioner’s, can be prepared at home. Make a rich vanilla ice cream and over it pour the juice of your preserved fruits.
1904 Minneapolis Times 15 June 6 In one of the Jersey City churches fans and lemonade are distributed. Some brands of ‘sundae’ might be added with propriety.
1910 Chambers’s Jrnl. July 431/1 A sundae—a mixture of ice-cream, soda-water, and raspberry juice.
1927 A. P. Herbert Plain Jane 88 I’m fizzy and fiery and fruity and tense, So let’s have a sundae and hang the expense!
1951 T. Sterling House without Door ii. 22 Year after yearSchrafft’s had been serving lamb and mint jelly and hot fudge sundaes to others.
1970 Kay & Co. (Worcester) Catal. 1970–71 896 Six Bohemian sundae glasses in the Zorka design. Perfect for all sweets.

I: Prelude

29 April 1999.  Near Darmstadt, Germany.  Around noon.

On a blue, lightly hazy Thursday I am sitting in a little restaurant overlooking the Rhine Valley. I am in a range of low mountains called the Odenwald, near the Bergstrasse (mountain road), a centuries-old north-south trading route paralleling the Rhine, a road of some forty-five miles that links Darmstadt in the north with Wiesloch in the south. Lining this scenic route are castles and ruins, views and panoramas—picturesque food for photographers and tourists.
The Rhine is barely visible from where I sit—nearly thirteen miles below, off to the west, flowing past the riverside town of Gernsheim. But not far away from me, perhaps 150 feet, are the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. Burg Frankenstein, in German. The northernmost castle along the Bergstrasse. Frankensteins started living here in the thirteenth century and stayed for four hundred years. Then, things fell apart. In 1965 a restaurant rose among the ruins.
I am eating a large berry sundae, feeling that rich, piercing mixture of pleasure and disappointment in myself familiar to those who struggle with diets and weight gain. When I left Ohio for Europe more than two weeks ago, I had just purchased pants and shorts with 33-inch waists—a size up from the ever-tighter 32s I’d been wearing. I would lose weight in Europe.  Would slip easily back into my accommodating 32s when I returned after my month abroad. The 33s, I assured my wife, Joyce, were just for the comfort of traveling, that’s all. Not a size I was planning to grow into. No way. Now, as I scrape the bottom of the sundae glass with my spoon to extract the last berry molecules, I realize the 33s are feeling a little tight. (Probably just the way I’m sitting.)
This restaurant, I’ve read, is very crowded on Halloween when people swarm to Burg Frankenstein for the obvious reasons. Probably most of those people know what I do—that this castle does not appear at all in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the tale that launched far more vessels than did that famous face of Helen of Troy. But in the old Frankenstein movies (and the parodies) there is generally a castle stormed by torch- and pitchfork-bearing peasants determined to drive out the madman who made the monster who’s terrorizing the countryside. The madman. The scientist. The intellectual. Burn him!
I’m amused with myself, sitting here eating a berry sundae in the Frankenstein castle.  And a bit pleased, too, to tell the truth. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been charging around Europe, visiting sites related to Victor Frankenstein’s creator, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (the middle name—a family name—rhymes with fish and is the name all familiars called him), and to others in their circle: her parents (William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron … the usual suspects.  I’ve come to Burg Frankenstein to see for myself if something I’ve read could possibly be true …

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Chasing Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley
author of Frankenstein--and much more!

When I retired from the Aurora City Schools in 1997, I had just completed a ten-year adventure with Jack London. It started in the fall of 1982 when I'd returned to Harmon Middle School after a four-year absence--trying other things (taught a year each at Lake Forest College and Kent State, two years at Western Reserve Academy). But I'd learned enough about myself that I knew I wanted to teach again in a middle school--and not just any middle school. Harmon Middle School--one of the best in the country, in my view.

Anyway, in 1982 I discovered that the English Department had adopted a new literature anthology, and the novella at the back of that book was The Call of the Wild, a book I'd never read (just the old Classics Illustrated comic--when I was a kid). Well, needless to say, I got obsessed with Jack London and Wild, and by the time my furious obsession cooled, I'd read all fifty of his books, visited many sites related to his life (including two trips to Alaska and the Yukon), and written a YA biography of London (Scholastic Books, 1997) as well as two different annotated editions of The Call of the Wild (Univ. of Okla. Pr., 1995, 1997). (One was a full-meal-deal scholarly edition; the other, for more general readers.)

But by 1997 I was burned out on old Jack. And someone new had moved into my mind and heart: Mary Shelley. It began harmlessly enough. One Halloween late in my middle school career I started talking about Frankenstein, and pretty soon I was off on yet another passionate exploration of a writer and her life. This one, too, consumed ten years of my life and ended with a YA biography (Kindle Direct).

Anyway, a few years ago, I began writing a memoir about my Mary-years--all the reading, traveling, corresponding, thinking, imagining, etc. I called the book Frankenstein Sundae, for a reason you'll quickly see. I haven't finished the book, but I figure if I start serializing it on DawnReader, then I'll have to finish it, right?

I think I've posted excerpts from it here before. Oh well. Here they come again--in order this time. Starting tomorrow (Monday, 27 April 2014) I'm going to begin the serialization that will continue each M-W-F until it's finished. Then I'll revise and publish the entire thing on Kindle Direct.

I hope you enjoy my adventures with Mary Shelley. Like the "Jack London years" they were among the most joyous of my life.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Terrors of a Killer Serial

That's right: "killer serial," not "serial killer."

I just finished serializing the second installment of The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, a YA novel that I'd begun on March 10, 1998, and then, at some point on the later calendar, had abandoned. I think it was probably because I'd gone back to teach at Western Reserve Academy in the fall of 2001, but it may have been earlier than that.

At the point I quit writing, Vickie and Gil had just scored well at the science fair and had learned they were going to get to go to Niagara Falls--a place Gil had long dreamed of seeing (we find out why, too). I had only about 90 pages of typescript at that point.

About a year ago I serialized the first volume of Vickie's Papers (I finished the serialization on May 1, 2013), but there was a difference: I'd already completed that YA novel some years ago, and so the thrice-weekly installments were just a matter of editing previously written text. A hassle (and some pressure)--but nothing like what I just made myself do.

The final version of Victoria that I just finished posting is 221 pages long. That means that I had to compose about 130 pages of new material. And the results prove the folly of doing something like that--at least for the likes of me. (Charles Dickens, by comparison, was sometimes serializing two novels simultaneously! No, I am not Charles Dickens, nor was meant to be.) The whole thing gave me a profound new respect for those nineteenth-century folks who had the courage and the genius to serialize--Dickens, Trollope, Collins, et al.

When Stephen King was serializing The Green Mile (six installments in 1996), he said he would never do it again because (a rough quote) "it gives the critics six chances to kick your ass." Wise words.

Anyway, the last couple of months I've had to create the story as I was going along, and I guess the thing I'm most proud of is that I didn't skip any installments.

But I probably should have. I made quite a few mistakes--of all sorts. I set up things that I never finished; I goofed on geography; I forgot about characters; and on and on.

I'm going to start revising V2 now, though, and when it's in better shape, I'll publish it on Kindle Direct, where it will join the first volume.

And pretty soon I'll start writing the third (and final) volume of Vickie's story. I have notes for it. But I'm going to wait till I have quite a bit of it ready before I start posting it. (Lesson learned ... sort of ... as you'll see.)

In the meantime, I have another nearly-finished-book that I'll begin serializing next week. And I'll tell you about it next time ...

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (86--FINAL)

Editor’s Afterword 

Vickie’s second batch of papers ends right here. At the time, she is in the seventh grade, near the end of the school year. And this, of course, causes me to ask all kinds of questions. Vickie, you see, was in my eighth grade English class the next fall—or, at least, seemed to be. Go back and look at my Foreword to her first volume and read how I met her—and how she somehow made no impression on anyone else that fall.
And so I wonder: When did she leave Franconia in southern Ohio and move to the town where I was teaching, at a middle school near Cleveland, Ohio, a city about as far away in Ohio as you can get from Franconia? And what about her father? He’d been editing the local newspaper back in Franconia? Did he lose his job? Quit? Was Vickie still living with him?
And why did Vickie leave our school? And where did she go?
And what about Harriet’s family? Her mother, with whom she lived? And her father, a physician who had most definitely gone over to the Dark Side, if I may steal an image from Star Wars?
And what about “Aunt Claire,” the mysterious woman who was so important in the first installment? She disappeared “with a scream of pure joy,” wrote Vickie, into the funnel of a tornado at the end of that first installment.
And those bodies that supposedly went over Niagara Falls? The creature, Mr. Leon, Blue Boyle—and, of course, Gil. I should tell you that I’ve been able to find no news stories from May 1996 that confirm Vickie’s account. Now, that’s not totally shocking: Tourism is by far the biggest industry in the region, and it’s in no one’s real interest to write bizarre stories about four people going over the Falls within seconds of one another—and about how no bodies were recovered.
And what about Mr. Leon? How could Vickie have seen him, only moments after he’d gone over the Falls, dry, undamaged, standing among the crowd that had gathered along the shore above the Falls?
And the creature? We know from the first installment that Vickie discovered she is a direct descendent of Victor Frankenstein, who created that original creature in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Surely, it couldn’t still be alive? Or even real?
So many questions …
All I can tell you is that in the note enclosed with Vickie’s second packet of papers was a promise to send me the third and final installment.
I’m waiting …

—Mr. Bob Walton, Teacher of 8th Grade English (retired)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Bard's Birthday

Of course, we don't really know his birthday--not for certain. The church in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where he was born in 1564, kept records of christenings, not of births. He was christened on 26 April 1564. It's likely (though not certain) he was born a few days earlier. Parents liked to get their infants to the church as soon as possible after birth: Infant mortality was high, and the religious rite of baptism gave the youngster a chance for a better afterlife.Here's a link to the service as recorded in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer. It's haunting to think that these words went into Shakespeare's ears--but he heard only strange sounds (an experience many youngsters share when they first study the Bard!).

I've written here a lot about Shakespeare--including a series of posts that led up to our seeing Richard II, last summer--the last of his plays that Joyce and I had not seen onstage. I've written, too, about memorizing his work (I know more than a dozen sonnets + a number of famous speeches from the plays), and I've written about my reluctance even to begin my Shakespeare journey. (I've also published on Kindle Direct a YA biography of the Bard: All the World's a Stage: The Worlds of William Shakespeare, 2012; here's a link to that book.)

I've also written here about my experiences teaching Shakespeare over the years--the good, the bad, the ugly. I had some of the best times of my career working with the Bard--and some difficult times, too.

But today--around the time when he was born--I've been thinking about the whole concept of "birthday" and what it means. And I've realized that Shakespeare is reborn every time someone sees a play, reads a sonnet, watches a film. And I think, too, that each of us, coming to his work for the first time, is in a sense reborn, as well.

The hard part: We must prepare ourselves to enter his world. His vocabulary was different--as was just about everything else: government, religion, family life, transportation, recreation, communication, clothing, food. You name it. We can't really encounter the plays meaningfully if we do not make the effort to enter his world. And that takes some work.

I've said this before--but it's worth repeating. If he were suddenly to materialize in a high school cafeteria today, he would not understand much of anything. Everything he saw would be alien; he would understand few words he heard. The food would surprise him, the music shock him, the clock on the wall puzzle him, the iPhones make him wish he were dead again ...  But if he wanted to communicate with the (very surprised) students at his cafeteria table, he would have a lot of learning to do first--a lot of catching up. Just as we do ...

I can tell you that it's worth it. Things I've learned about the Elizabethan world have illuminated scenes that had always been dark to me. And I've realized a simple formula: The more I know, the more I enjoy.

I'm still learning. I still hear lines from the stage that baffle me. But I know this: It's not his fault. It's mine. And I know that I have more to learn, and more to learn, and ...  It seems endless with the Bard. I taught Hamlet  to high school juniors the last decade of my career, and every single year I noticed things I'd not noticed before, understood lines that had confused me. But for me, this is one of his greatest gifts--the gift of surprise. Endless surprise. I learned that if I'm willing to do what it takes to enter his world, he will be there, holding the door open, inviting me in.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (85)


Have you ever been in an accident? I’ve read about people who have survived bad car wrecks and have said that they were perfectly calm while it was all happening. They were sort of watching it—almost like a movie—rather than feeling they were in it. And then, afterwards, they were confused about the simplest, most obvious details.
Well, that’s the way I was in the moments and hours and days after those events at Niagara Falls. Harriet had to tell me—remind me?—about most of what happened. I clearly remembered running toward Gil, seeing him let himself fall into the river, feeling that hand in my back. Then … things blurred. I only vaguely remembered the voice of the creature, seeing Mr. Leon dive into the river. Lying, alive but dazed, on the shore, Harriet holding me.
Things happened swiftly then. I don’t even want to tell you about Gil’s mom. It was horrible at first. All the screaming outside had awakened her. She’d looked out her window, had seen the two of us near the river, and had raced to us, assuming the worst. Because I was out at the river, you see, she thought I’d known he was going to do it. That we’d planned his suicide together. She screamed at me. I won’t write the words. If I write them, I’ll never forget them. They made me feel even worse than I’d ever thought I could.
Fortunately, I still had his note back in my room and, later, was able to show it to her.

By the time you read this, I will be gone. I decided long ago that I wanted to die this way, not the way my disease wanted me to. Your friendship—though that word seems awfully weak for what I feel—has been one of the most important things in my life. This year was hard for me. It would have been impossible without you. I wish … well, you must know what I wish. And I hope you know how I feel. I’m not going to live long enough to learn all of what love means. But, being with you these past months, I know what I’m going to miss. And it makes me so very sad.

When his mom read this, she hugged me and asked me to forgive her. Which was the easiest thing I’d ever done in my life. By then, she’d found the note Gil had left for her, too, and she knew everything. ­

While the police and the park rangers were talking with me, I was confused about what had happened. I mean, I knew about Gil. But all I could tell them about the rest of it was what Harriet had told me—and, of course, those splinters of memories that I had.
There were some strange things to think about—and to talk about with Harriet and, later, with Father.
For one thing, no bodies were found at the bottom of the Falls—or downriver. This is not as strange as it seems. People who go over the Falls are sometimes lost forever. Bodies never recovered. It’s not unusual. Still, all three of them?
There’s something even more strange. As the authorities gathered around us by the edge of the river, I clearly saw Mr. Leon standing at the edge of the crowd. He and his clothing were dry. Had Harriet and I both been wrong? I eventually talked with him abou it … but I’ll tell about that in the next installment of these Papers.
Here’s something else. Harriet swore that as she had been running toward me on the shore, after the creature had hurled me out of the river, she had seen her father—Dr. Eastbrook—sprinting along the shore toward the Falls, screaming words she couldn’t understand. And after he saw Blue Boyle go over the edge, he stopped just a moment, then hurried on down the road. She didn’t see him again.
Mr. Gisborne acted like an idiot. He actually stood over me by the river and told me that Gil had ruined his trip! That’s the closest I ever came to taking a swing at a teacher. Or swearing at one. But I didn’t need to. Gil’s mom slapped him so hard that he actually fell to one knee and held his head in his hands for a while.

No one went home to Franconia on the bus. All the parents drove up to get us. Father and Mrs. Eastbrook drove together to get Harriet and me. Much of the way home we talked about what had happened, and whenever I talked about Gil, it was all I could do even to say his name.
For some reason, I did not tell anyone about the … creature. Neither did Harriet. We both—without even consulting the other—had told the police that Blue Boyle had just fallen in the river after he shoved me. And that I’d been saved by a stranger.
But not long after we got home—a few days—Harriet came over on a Saturday afternoon, and we went for a walk in the woods at the edge of town. And we talked about all of it.
“My father,” said Harriet. “What we he doing there?”
“I can’t be positive,” I said, “but it seems pretty certain that he and Blue wanted me dead.”
“But why?”
“I don’t know. Revenge for earlier? On Green Island? I don’t know.”
“And, Vickie, that large … thing. That creature …?”
“I know. I know.” We were both silent for a bit.
“Vickie, I saw him run out of the woods and dive in the river. No human can run that fast. Swim that fast.”
“I know.”
“You don’t suppose it could be …?”
“How could it be?” I asked. “Frankenstein’s creature was just something in a book.” I looked at her. “Wasn’t it?”
“Of course.”
But I knew better.

End of the Second Installment of
The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Becoming a Critic

A week from tonight I'm going to be talking at the Twinsburg Library on the subject "How to Read a Book Like a Critic." The library called me out of the blue and asked if I would do this, and I agreed to, mostly because it was a subject I wanted to think about more systematically. And for the past month or so I've been thinking about it and writing my remarks--and putting together a small PowerPoint to show some things that words can't quite handle. Basically, I'm going to talk about how I became the guy who's published more than 1400 book reviews--starting in 1997--and how I figure out what I'm going to say about the books I'm reviewing.

I'm not going to "give away" much here, though, after the talk, I'll probably post the entire thing on this blog, but I thought I'd just mention, in general, what I'm up to--and why I've found the whole enterprise so useful for me.

I'm going to talk a bit about my own background as a reader--what did I read as a child? an adolescent? What do I read now? I'm going to talk as well about a period (early adolescence) when I pretty much didn't read anything at all except the Plain Dealer sports pages and the cereal boxes in the morning. This is not new territory for me: I've written an entire memoir about my reading life (Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss, Amazon Direct, 2012), but I'll share with the audience a few key things.

Then I'm going to talk about how I became a critic--a profession unthinkable when I was a boy--a boy who really wanted nothing more than to ride the range with Hopalong Cassidy. I'll talk about how I did a few reviews for Ohio Writer, then Kirkus Reviews (for whom I'm still working), and the Plain Dealer (ditto). (Other periodicals have re-printed some of them.) I'll talk, too, about my reviewing routines: when do I read? what about notes? The differences between fiction and nonfiction? That sort of thing ...

After that bit of background, I'm going to talk about the principles I try to follow when I'm reviewing. What do I look for? What do I weigh? Some related questions, too: How does it feel to write a negative review? What are some of the "adventures" (and/or hot water) that reviewing has occasioned?

I'll try to answer some nuts-and-bolts questions, too--like How do I choose the books I'm going to review? What do editors do with my reviews?

Finally, I'm going to give those in attendance a very short story, have them read it, and then we'll talk about what we would say if we were going to write a review of it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (84)


Just before dawn I heard something in the hall outside. I slipped out of bed and tiptoed across the room. In the hallway light that leaked under our door, I could see it: a folded piece of note paper. I knew immediately who it was from. I flicked on the light and read it quickly. Harriet stirred in bed, looked over at me.
“Vickie …? What’s …?”
“Oh, no!” I cried. The page fluttered to the floor. I hurried to my clothes, threw them on, pulled aside the window drape and looked outside.
I saw Gil, shuffling across the road. Heading for the Niagara River.
I ran out into the hall, found the elevator, then decided it would be quicker to take the stairs. I raced down them and hurried out into the dawn. I could see Gil, already across the parkway, moving steadily toward the river.
“Gil!” I cried.
He hesitated, just a step, but did not turn around. He knew who had called, I was sure of it.
When he reached the edge of the river, he turned to face me. I was running as fast as I could, crying his name aloud. As I got closer, I could see a small smile on his face. He slowly stretched out his arms, as if reaching for something on either side of him. And then he let himself fall backwards into the raging river. Which swept him away.
“No!” I screamed as I reached the spot. I could see Gil out in the river, heading rapidly for the Falls, on his back, his arms still stretched outward. And he was smiling … smiling.
I felt a palm in my back, a shove, and, suddenly, I was in the frigid waters, too, being swept swiftly along, like a bird in a high wind. I wrenched my head round to look back toward the shore, and I saw Blue Boyle laughing.
But he didn’t laugh for long. Running up behind him was a huge creature—he had to be seven or eight feet tall. Dressed in rags. It looked human … but not, too. Humanoid. With a flick of his wrist he sent Boyle soaring out into the river. I could hear his terrified cry just before he hit the water. And then that creature dived in and began swimming furiously toward me. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw another person dive in, too, a little closer to the Falls. Mr. Leon?
By then I was in almost a trance. The frigid water—I’d swallowed a lot of it—the certain death roaring ahead of me—I had surrendered. I was calm. No longer worried. Oddly, I wondered if I would drown first or be smashed on the rocks below the Falls. It didn’t seem to make a difference.
And then the creature reached me. I told you to watch! he said as he grabbed me by the waist with his two enormous hands, raised me out of the water, and, in an act of superhuman strength, hurled me to the shore only heartbeats before he and Blue Boyle hurtled over the edge of American Falls, where they would join Gil and Mr. Leon, certainly crushed now by the tons of water colliding with the mountainous rocks below.

I lay gasping on the shore, both from amount of river water I’d swallowed and from hitting the ground so hard. I felt familiar arms around me, heard the sweet voice of my dearest friend.
“Vickie! You’re safe.” And then I heard Harriet weeping.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Home Library Woes ...

As I've written here before, Joyce and I have been trying to "downsize" around here--especially our library, which now comprises far-too-many thousands of volumes. We have sold some on Amazon's site (you can check out our listings on D. J. Doodlebug Books on Amazon), and we have given others away and will soon open an account on ABE, where we'll sell our more "serious" books (i.e., collectible editions). The picture shows our living room, which has become a book-storage room, for now. (Or just a pile of clutter--whatever you see.)

Some of the LOA volumes
Anyway, we are also deciding which things to keep, at least for the nonce. Among those we know we're going to keep are the Library of America (LOA) volumes. We have a complete set. First printings--all. I began subscribing when they first started publishing in the late 1970s/early 1980s and have bought every volume they've published. They're wonderful to have in the house: Both Joyce and I have used them all the time for reference, and I've read many of them--e.g., the novels of Henry James when I went on an HJ kick a few years ago.

We also have most (all?) of the special volumes they published outside the subscription: volumes devoted to American poets, anthologies on various subjects (writings about New York, writings about L. A., etc.). And, as I've said, they've been wonderful to have.

But recently ... an adventure. When we were cleaning shelves, pulling off books we didn't want, putting up on the shelf some of the LOA volumes that we'd never shelved properly, we made a grim discovery. On a bottom shelf, four LOA books were water-damaged--badly. Beyond rescue. We weren't sure what had happened, but we imagined a knocked-over drink? A leak of some sort? Anyway, these volumes included two by Zora Neale Hurston, one by Washington Irving, another by Shirley Jackson.

So ... onto the ABE website I went and began ordering replacements (1st printings, of course!), and, in some cases, this was no inexpensive proposition. So far, we have received the Irving and the Hurstons, but Shirley Jackson is still in progress. And here's what that has involved:
  • Unable to find a first printing of her book in a slip cover (LOA publishes two versions: slipcover + traditional dust jacket), I ordered a second printing in a slipcover.
  • I then ordered a first printing in traditional dust jacket.
  • When the latter comes, I will remove the jacket and insert the book in the slipcover!
Soon, all will be well once again on our shelves (and on our living room floor). And I am now positive--if I was not before--that bibliomania exists--and it reigns in our house. (Where, apparently, it also rains--at least it does on some LOA volumes.)

PS: bibliomania (from the OED): 

Etymology:  < biblio- comb. form + Greek μανία madness, after French bibliomanie.

A rage for collecting and possessing books.

1734   T. Hearne Diary 9 Nov. (1921) XI. 389,   I should have been tempted to have laid out a pretty deal of money without thinking my self at all touched with Bibliomania.
[1750   Ld. Chesterfield Let. 19 Mar. (1932) (modernized text) IV. 1517   Beware of the bibliomanie.]
1809   Dibdin (title)    Bibliomania, or Book-madness; containing some account of the history, symptoms, and cure of this fatal disease.
1836   T. Hook Gilbert Gurney II. i. 11   The bibliomania which appeared to engross my friend.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Signal, Anyone?

I groused on FB the other day about people/motorists who don't use their turn signals anymore, and a friend from Hiram High School days reminded me that when we were in driver education class (summer 1960), the teacher--Bob Barnhart (who was also our beloved basketball coach and later went on to become a school superintendent)--taught us the hand signals you see at the top of the page. Lots of people still used them in 1960, even though cars all had electric blinkers, too. In fact, there was a question about whether we ought to use them during our driving test. I did. Though, as I recall, the officer riding around with me seemed more amused than impressed.

I still use the signals when I'm biking (if I'm on a roadway--and if there is traffic). But I don't think I've seen a driver of a car use them in decades. Few people, in fact, even have their windows open nowadays: Everyone has A/C. Why open a window and let bugs or birds inside? (I remember reading, years ago, about fatal crashes caused by curious (or unlucky) starlings or sparrows or condors flying into open car windows.)

Yes, we now all have blinkers to indicate lane changes and turns. But lately I've noticed that fewer and fewer people are using them at all. Last evening (Thurs.) Joyce and I were driving to Chapel Hill Mall to get a new battery for her watch (remember when you had to wind a watch? I didn't think so), and I was noticing how few people used the blinker for lane changes or exits from the Rt 8 freeway. Amazing.

My dad, I remember, was a post-facto turn-signaler. He would turn it on after he'd made his move. I always thought that was kind of weird--as if Dad were giving those behind a message: Here's what I've just done.

I am a fastidious signaler. Every lane change, every turn--even if there is no other car in the county at the time. Habit.

I don't know why people are so careless about it now ... too busy texting? Eating? Changing a CD? Fussing with GPS? Drinking? Skipping ahead on an iPod? Punching a passenger? Using Bluetooth (or hand-held) phone to explain whey they're going to be late? Chiding children. Playing with the dog? Who knows?

All I know is this: It's more dangerous than ever on the road. And I think about the line that used to end the opening sequence of Hill Street Blues every week: Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (the late Michael Conrad) would always say to the assembled cops--Let's be careful out there!

Good advice.

PS -- Here's a YouTube clip of Conrad saying it ... Let's be careful out there.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (83)

Later, in the dark, I heard Harriet’s voice from the other bed. “You never told me the end of that story about Bysshe Shelley’s heart.”
“Well, what happened to it?” she asked.
“This is a hard story to tell right now,” I said. “Especially right now.”
“Because of Gil.” This was not a question.
“I can wait.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said. I took a deep breath, fearing I would break down as I talked. “Well, Bysshe drowned in the summer of 1822, was cremated on the beach. And then his friend Trelawny snatched his heart—or probably just a portion of it—from the fire.”
“And then another friend got it from Trelawny.”
“Right. But then Mary found out—and wanted it.”
“So what happened?”
“Another friend of Mary’s managed to get it back from their other friend who had it—his name, by the way, was Leigh Hunt—and presented it to Mary. But only after some hassles with Hunt, who wanted to keep it.”
“That must have been quite a scene.”
“I imagine.”
“Anyway,” I said, “that was 1822. Mary lived nearly thirty more years, wrote some more books, and raised her only surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley.”
“That’s not a name too many boys today would like,” joked Harriet.
“I guess not. He got the ‘Florence’ part because he was born in that city in Italy.”
“Still … not a name a boy would like. And if you’re going to name your kids after the towns they’re born in, you’d better be careful where you’re living. Your son could never get over a name like Florence. Imagine the nicknames—‘Flo,’ for instance!”
“Or ‘Flower,’” I said, smiling in the dark. Then smiled more when I thought how useless it is to smile in the dark. No one can see you. I went on. “So Mary died in 1851—a brain tumor. February 1.”
“Why do you know all this stuff?” asked Harriet.
Then … “Oh, you know me,” I said.
“Sometimes I’m not sure I do,” said Harriet.
“After Mary died, her son was going through her things and found Bysshe’s heart, dried and flattened, between the pages of one of the books of poetry Bysshe had written.”
Then Harriet said, “I was going to say ‘Gross!’ but then I realized how beautiful that story is. Your husband’s heart among his words.”
“Would you want to keep your lover’s dried heart in a book for thirty years?”
“But there’s more than one way to keep a lover’s heart,” I said.

Deep into the night I felt that presence again, heard the whisper, somehow more urgent this time. Watch, Victoria. Watch. And I’m not sure I slept again the rest of the night.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Little Thought About Memory--and Ice Cream

Yesterday, I was writing some little doggerel to include in the Easter cards we are sending to our grandsons (9 and 5). For the older boy, Logan, I'd written this silly thing ...

Logan wondered if it would be
Really kind of dandy
If he found a way that he could
Get all Easter candy.

Later, lying in bed, the lights out, sleep somehow playing cagey (Morpheus stubbornly refusing to extend his arms), I began thinking about mountains of candy--not that I wanted any, mind you. Just the image appeared. And then--who can tell why?--I began to think about my father. And I remembered ...

When I was a boy, living in Oklahoma, we took several long summer drives to Oregon and Washington, where Dad had grown up--and where he still had many relatives (it seemed to me that there were thousands of them). Our drives--in the late 1940s and on into the 1950s--were in the days before most cars had air-conditioning, so you can imagine the pleasures of driving across the Great Plains, the deserts? Windows wide open, three boys whining for a stop at every Dairy Queen and A & W we passed? Begging for a motel with a swimming pool (a rarity then)? Mom was in charge of the Thermos jug of lemonade that sat at her feet in the front; it began the day cool, but before long the contents were warm--or worse. Nothing like tepid lemonade on a hot day in Utah.

But Dad was full of stories and silliness. He used to tell us--Just wait. Soon we'll be in the Rockies. And then you can be on the lookout for Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls!

I believed they were real, early on. And as soon as we nudged our way into the Rockies, I was on fierce lookout for them. As was little Davi, four years younger than I. Dickie--three years older--never believed, I don't think, but--bless him--he did not (as I recall) disabuse us of our belief. Maybe he was just grateful that it kept us quiet so he could read War and Peace in peace (yes, he read books like that in childhood; I first read it when I was in my 60s; comments welcome).

Of course, I didn't live much longer before I realized the Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls existed only in Dad's imagination. But I don't remember feeling any resentment for the Adult Lie; instead, I think I felt more gratitude for a father who could tell fine stories--and for the image of a mountain I could eat, a waterfall I could drink--ideas that appeal to me even now, in the dark, sleep evading me, and memory washing over me like ... like ... like a Root Beer Falls.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (82)

In town—without Gil, who went with his mother back to the hotel to rest—Harriet and I wandered around, poking in gift shops and other odd little stores and quiet museums. In one of them we looked at a display about people who’d gone over the Falls—on purpose and otherwise. Harriet was shocked when she saw one of the information cards on the display.
“Vickie! Look at that … thousands of people have died at the Falls.” She looked closely at the display. “Accidents. Suicides. Stunts that didn’t work out. I had no idea.”
“I didn’t either,” I lied, not wanting her to know.
She looked at me. “Are you lying?”
She paused. “Are you lying about the Falls? Or are you lying about whether you knew or not?”
Harriet couldn’t help it. She laughed so loudly that a nearby adult with a group of kids from somewhere gave her a sharp look—not something that really impresses Harriet too much.
“But it’s not just people,” I said. “Fish, of course, go over all the time, and a very high percentage of them survive and swim on downriver.”
“I’d actually wondered about that. About how fish manage the Falls.”
“And you want to know a weird one?”
“Of course!”
“In the 1820s some guys bought an old boat and loaded it up with a variety of animals. They announced what they were going to do, and tens of thousands of people showed up to watch.”
“That’s gross,” muttered Harriet.
“Yes.” I waited. “Want me to go on?”
“Of course.”
“Okay, well, on the boat they put two bears, a bunch of geese, a buffalo, an eagle, two foxes, a raccoon, and more than a dozen geese.”
“This can’t be true,” said Harriet.
“I wish. But it is true. So they launched the thing, but the ship was so rickety it fell apart before it arrived at the Falls. The big animals—the bears, the buffalo—jumped off, and one of the bears was saved. All the others went over.”
“That’s horrible.”
“Guess how many lived?”
“No, one goose. And that’s it.”[1]
“I’ll tell you something,” said Harriet as we were back outside, walking back to the bus. “I’ll bet Blue Boyle would survive it. He’d probably just swim right straight up the Falls itself.”
“I’d kind of like to find out,” I said.
Harriet looked shocked, then we both giggled and raced for the bus, not knowing whether our speed of foot was powered by happiness—or terror.

We had our simple Saturday night dinner in the hotel, and Mr. Gisborne gave us strict instructions to go to bed as soon as we could. We were planning to leave after a 7 o’clock breakfast in the hotel so that we could get home in the early afternoon on Sunday. I was ready for that. I was exhausted with all the walking, all the on-and-off-the-bus stuff. And I missed Father—not something that a lot of middle school kids would admit … missing their parents.
We saw Gil’s mom at supper, but she told us he was resting and wouldn’t come down. She was taking a few things up to him in the room. I asked if we could stop in a minute and see him. Which, of course, she was happy for us to do.
We found him propped up in one of the beds reading one of those little pamphlets about the Falls that he or his mom had picked up at one of the gift shops. There was a small pad of note paper beside him, too, and a pen. When he saw us, he closed the booklet and turned over the notepad.
“Writing your memoirs?” I joked.
He just smiled. He looked so pale, so weak. It was hard, in fact even to look at him and pretend I wasn’t seeing something that was breaking my heart.
“Something like that,” he said.
“Am I in it?”
“Oh, of course!” he said. “Major role.”
“And me?” asked Harriet.
“Your role is exactly the same size as Vickie’s.” He gave us a Gil-smile.
“It had better be!” joked Harriet.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I said.
“You should feel pretty good,” he said. “It shows I like both of you.”
“So you say only good things about us?” I asked.
“Of course.”
Harriet said softly, “I don’t think you really feel the same about us, do you?”
He looked at us, now seriously. “I love both of you,” he said.
“I’m glad,” I said, not knowing what else to say or do.
“We love you, too, Gil,” said Harriet.
“Yes,” I said. “We love you, too.”
Gil dropped his head and suddenly—though this doesn’t seem possible—looked even more tired and drained that he had just moments before. I actually think he’d fallen asleep.
“You girls probably ought to go back to your room,” his mother said, her voice tight with emotion. “And I can’t tell you how much …” Her voice trailed off. She came over and hugged us both, and we returned to our room feeling a torrent of emotions.

[1] Unfortunately, Vickie’s story is a true one and can be found in Berton’s book Niagara.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's That Time ... Again

Seidman Cancer Center
University Hospitals

My numbers were good this time.

Last week I had my quarterly blood draws to see how well Lupron is controlling my testosterone--and to see if my body is holding up under the big chemical changes that this treatment for prostate cancer is causing. Of course, I was nervous (not quite a "nervous wreck") as the tests drew nigh. I know that Lupron is only a temporary measure (at some point, my cancer cells will figure out a "workaround"), and I also know that the level of my cancer is dangerous. On the two-to-ten Gleason scale (10 is the worst), my post-op pathology put me at a Gleason 9. So I know that my cancer is a vigorous one and that one of these quarterly tests is going to give me bad news.

But not this time. My PSA remains undetectable. It had shot up to 22.9 last June, and it should be zero (I have no prostate gland--it was removed in June 2005), so any number at all indicates that the cancer cells are, well, eating again. And my life is on the menu.

Also good were my metabolic numbers--and, especially, my liver numbers, which had given us all some worry at various points.

Today (Monday) Joyce and I drove to Seidman Cancer Center (University Hospitals) near Chagrin Falls and met with my oncologist. He actually had suggested I cancel the consultation because things were looking good, but I did want to talk with him about some things.

The side-effects of Lupron are difficult at times to live with. I'm tired a lot (I sleep at least two hours a day more than I did in pre-Lupron days); I have frequent (as often as hourly) suffusions of heat that cause me to perspire heavily; my energy level has diminished (no testosterone). I used to be able to ride the exercise bike--hard--for thirty minutes without stopping, burning about 500 calories and going about eleven miles. Post-Lupron, I can't do better than ten-minute bursts. I do three of them, and if I've not hit 500 calories, I do a fourth, stopping when I hit the 500 mark (anywhere from 2-4 more minutes). By the end, I am exhausted. 

I'm also much more emotional--at least outwardly--than I used to be. I cry easily--over nothing. Even my laughter sometimes morphs into tears. I'm also much more ... moody than before. Depressed some of the time. I don't want to see people, don't want to socialize--though I was never much of a Party Animal at any time. Anyway, it's worse now. I have to force myself to be in company.


But worst of all? No libido. I've lived with a woman I adore for forty-four years. But once I received that first Lupron shot last July 26, my libido drained away in a matter of weeks. And for the first time since the mid-1950s--junior high!--I've had no sex drive--none. I know that Old Folks are not supposed to have any interest in sex--it's a source of humor in many venues. Even disgust. But I'll tell you this: Those who are laughing (and/or feeling disgusted) are the young, who have (as yet) no real clue about how it feels to be in love for forty-four years--to be in love in every way. And then to see it all slip away after a single visit to the doctor's office.

I really like my oncologist at Seidman. He is very patient (never looking at his watch, never making us feel he's in a hurry), very helpful. I like that he doesn't just sit there and ask questions (I've had oncologists who did that). He puts his hands on me, listens, pats my shoulder. Today, I went over some of these anti-Lupron feelings I was having, and we had quite a discussion about alternatives. (And, yes, I had tears in my eyes.) He told me that my pathology (Gleason 9) is dire (many men with that number do not live nine years, as I have--or are suffering grievously)--but that I've lived more than nine years with it and that must mean that my body is fighting hard--and effectively. He reminded me, too, that despite my losses, I have a lot to live for. (Which I know--but it's nice to hear it from someone else.) He also thought it might be okay to go off the Lupron for a while and go on Casodex (Bicaludamide), a drug that will block but not turn off testosterone. It could conceivably reanimate my libido.

This was a decision I did not want to make quickly (Casodex has some different side effects that are not pleasant--e.g., the possibility of enlarged breasts), so I went ahead and got the quarterly Lupron injection today. And Joyce and I will talk it over for a couple of months and see what makes the best sense.

Meanwhile, I'll sweat, and sleep, and cry, and yearn ... and be immeasurably grateful for the woman beside me, holding my hand. Squeezing it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (81)

We rode the elevator back up and then boarded the bus to head across the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side, where we would get a good look at the rapids and whirlpool a little bit downriver from the Falls.[1] Gil and I dropped hands before we began to mingle again with our own group. I’m not sure who made the first move. I hope I didn’t do it. But I might have.
Gil’s energy was high as he stepped up into the bus. I guess the ride on The Maid of the Mist had gotten his adrenalin going because I could hardly keep up with him. We moved quickly to our assigned seats. Mr. Gisborne checked the roll (all present and accounted for) and then took the microphone.
“Okay, people, that was one heckuva ride, wasn’t it?”
Lots of clapping and cheering—even from Harriet, Gil, and me. A surprise. I’d never before applauded anything Mr. Gisborne had to say—and I was pretty sure I never would again, either.
“Now,” he said, “we’re gonna drive down to the rapids and whirlpool area for a little look-see. And then we’ll go back up into town where you can walk around and look at the shops and museums and junk for an hour or so.”
It was a quick time across the border, a quick ride to one of the parking areas. And we all got off the bus and looked at the rushing rapids and marveled at the whirlpool. I stood there with Gil and his mom and Harriet.
After a few moments, Gil said, “Didn’t you say you were going to tell a story here?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said. “It’s another quick story about Edward John Trelawny, who—”
“Was the friend of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley,” said Harriet, sounding authoritative. “And when they burned Bysshe Shelley’s drowned body on the beach—”
My story!” I cried, interrupting, but in a way I hoped sounded playful to Harriet and the others. “My story!”
Harriet grinned at me, her teeth flashing. “See how fun it is to listen to a SmartyPants,” she said. But I could tell she was joking, too, so I just prepared to go on with the story.
“What happened on the beach?” asked Gil.
“I’ll tell you another time,” said, flashing a silent warning from my eyes at Harriet. The last thing I wanted to do was to tell a story about death to Gil Bysshe, who was living his own death story as we stood there.
“About a dozen years after Trelawny had been with the Shelleys,” I said, “he came to Niagara Falls.”
The others were silent now.
“He wrote later that he was about where we are now—about a half-mile below the Falls. And he decided he was going to swim across.”
“That doesn’t seem possible,” said Gil, gesturing toward the river.
“Just listen,” I said, and I pulled from my pocket some pages I’d photocopied. I looked them. He said that the water above the rapids and whirlpool was—let me quote him here: ‘was too sluggish.’ So he swam downriver a little because ‘I was determined to try my strength in those places where the waters are wildest.’”
“How long did he last before he drowned?” asked Harriet.
“He didn’t,” I said. “In fact, he said he swam”—I looked at my sheet—“‘without much difficulty.’”
“I think he’s a liar,” said Gil.
“Well, swimming back, he overestimated his swimming ability, that’s for sure,” I said. “He saw himself getting closer and closer to the rapids and the ‘terrible whirlpool.’ He says that his fear really propelled him to safety—fear and luck.”
“I still think he’s a liar,” said Gil. “I don’t believe anyone could swim in this river—and survive it. And certainly not both directions.”
“Trelawny did have some trouble with the truth,” I said. “Or, at least, that’s what I’ve read.”
“Just like everyone else,” said Harriet. I glanced at her and saw her steady gaze fixed on me.

[1] In 1996 it was much easier to cross the international border between Canada and the United States. Remember that this was well before the horrible events of 9/11, and crossing into Canada was not much more difficult than crossing from Ohio to Pennsylvania.