Dawn Reader

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Strange Story under the Moon

Near the dawn of his writing career, John O'Hara--who'd published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra (to fine reviews), in 1934 and, in the New Yorker and elsewhere, was publishing short stories regularly (over a hundred by the time Samarra appeared)--was lured to Hollywood by ... well, by Hollywood. As most of you know, he was hardly the first writer to hear the siren song; he was not--and will not be--the last.

He'd had a cameo appearance as a craven journalist in the film The General Died at Dawn (1936), and in 1939 he received partial screen credit for I Was an Adventureress and He Married His Wife (romantic comedies). Both films appeared in 1940. I saw them both recently, and they remain the sort of light entertainment that's popular today--though, because of 1940s standards, far more chaste and "innocent."

In 1940, a somewhat popular novel appeared, Moon Tide by Willard Robertson. Published before Pearl Harbor, the novel still began with the common casual racism of the day: Hirota, the pockmarked Jap, who lived next to the California bank, needed a man to tend his barge .... Not the kind of opening sentence you'll find in a novel from today's mainline publishers.

Anyway, Twentieth Century Fox hired O'Hara to write a screenplay based on the novel, and he did, receiving his only sole screen credit for Moontide, released in the spring of 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor. I'm not going to post here today about the film but will reserve that for a later day. Today ... the original novel, which I acquired via ABE for under $20. (The image above is of the book I purchased.) I  finished reading it just the other night.

In the story, which takes on the waterfront near Los Angeles, Hirota hires a character identified throughout only as "the Swede" --a man with drinking problems, a dark past (we find out later in the novel that he and his brother had survived a shipwreck and the ensuing survivor-eat-survivor scenario only by homicide), but with a capacious heart. Hirota owns a bait barge--a docked vessel which fishermen (afoot and aboat) use for their daily needs. The Swede's job is to dole out the bait.

One day--after work--he is down the beach and dives in the surf to rescue a young woman (Ada) who is attempting to drown herself. He takes her back to the barge, where ... gee? I wonder what! Yes, they develop ... a relationship!

And for a while, things look very rosy. He helps her clean up her act (desperately poor, she owned nothing but the clothes she was wearing). Hirota emerges as a gentle, compassionate character (unlike the caricature the opening sentence has led us to expect). The Swede and Ada begin to make plans. Perhaps a floating restaurant?  "Hope is the thing with feathers ...."

But then ... an odious character named Tiny reappears, a former acquaintance. And while the Swede is out at sea helping some folks in need of mechanical assistance, Tiny is left alone on the barge with Ada. Nothing good can happen now, right?


Nothing good happens.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

End of the World News, Part IV

Continuing the story of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man.

Sailing to Greece in search of Raymond--is he dead? Lost? Arriving in Athens, they find the city in mourning: Raymond was a great hero to the Greeks. And then they discover that he's still alive (barely), a prisoner. They (slowly) arrange for his release, and he begins his recovery.

And then ... news of a great plague. And Lord Raymond dies in military action.  And the plague is running wild. Athenians, she writes, "fell like ripe corn before the merciless sickle of the adversary. ... America had also received the taint ... the hunter died in the woods, the peasant in the corn-fields, and the fisher on his native waters" (223). The world is in panic.

But not--not yet--in England, which, so far, seems to have escaped. But the country swells with refugees, who, of course, bring the disease with them. Lionel comes across a victim in a small cottage: "He lay on a heap of straw ... cold and stiff; while a pernicious effluvia filled the room, and various stains and marks served to show the virulence of the disorder" (259).

The English try to carry on. The theaters stay open. Adrian goes to see Macbeth at the Drury Lane Theater, but, overcome with sorrow, he leaves early.

Lawlessness now is the issue. "They swept the country like a conquering army, burning--laying waste--murdering." (Sounds like London's The Scarlet Plague, eh? Read earlier post.)

London's population plummets to about 1000 residents. Lionel, near despair, bids farewell to the accomplishments of man (science, the arts).

Autumn, 2096. Survivors meet in London and agree to emigrate. But events intervene; time passes. The winter arrives. They decide to head for Switzerland. They find France ... empty. Switzerland, too. They make it to Venice, where the city is beautiful--but dead. Animals are living in the palaces.

Lionel endures the deaths of of loved ones. He, alone, goes to museums, tries to study, to forget. He spends a year writing the book we're reading. He decides he will set sail to see if he can find others. He loads his boat, including a friendly dog--and with books, Homer and Shakespeare among them. And the novel ends with these words from Lionel--

Neither hope nor joy are my pilots--restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. ... thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with ... the LAST MAN (470).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 66

In mid-August I wrote some news to Betty about a few things I’d found out about the death of Mary Shelley’s unnamed infant on March 6, 1815; the child, as we’ve seen, was premature by a couple of months and had lived only about two weeks. My daughter-in-law—a pediatric nurse at the time—told me, I wrote, that the lungs would not have finished development and would not have inflated properly, making breathing (and sucking) difficult—explaining, probably, the infant’s death—perhaps a combination of starvation, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
That got Betty’s interest—in a hurry. I have spent a number of hours on the subject—as of now, am still not satisfied with all the various pieces. She wondered what sources Melissa was consulting. I said I’d get back to her.
Then … a series of exchanges about quotidian events—Betty was experiencing orientation for new students; the book store had messed up her order for her classes; she was revising her syllabus. And I’ve been working on trying to clear up some of the mess in this study. … Still, I am in 1827, she wrote. In her book Mary Shelley was now thirty years old. She had twenty-four years to go.
I told her I was heading down to the University of Cincinnati to read an old pamphlet about sea-water therapy. Teenager Mary had experienced some skin outbreaks, and physicians in her day recommended sea-water treatments—whatever they were. I would go to Cincinnati to find out.
I complained as well about all the reading I was doing for Kirkus (little did I know!)—but I was somehow finding time to read some Sir Walter Scott because of his relationships with the various principals in Mary’s life. I feel DUMB, I wrote, complaining about his vast vocabulary—and use of dialect. People who don’t sympathize with kids with reading problems should be required to read about 100 pages of a Scott novel and then take a pop quiz.
Betty replied with her opinion that Mary’s skin rashes had not, in her view, been psychological but perhaps related to a strep infection. Once again I was touched that she shared an insight with me, an insight she trusted I would not publish before she did (I didn’t). As I sit here in 2014, more than fourteen years after this exchange, I marvel at that trust. We’d met only once; we had only an electronic friendship. And yet she felt safe enough to confide an idea that went counter to all the other major Mary Shelley biographies.
Betty also (mildly) complained about all the checking and double-checking she was doing in her research. There is that inevitable chase down the rabbit hole to find nothing at all. All biographers and researchers have been on those chases down those rabbit holes. That’s quite a feeling, standing in the dark, in an empty space, and asking yourself, What am I doing here?
I replied that I was going to ask my dermatologist about those skin rashes, and then I confided something else to her—the acquisitiveness I’d come to associate with this research. I needed to own some things, it seems—not just read about them. And that acquisitiveness, eventually, would be one of the reasons that our correspondence would eventually evanesce.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

End of the World News, Part III

Last time, I wrote a bit about the background of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man, a novel that she began to write while she was still experiencing the despair of the loss of her husband (1822 drowning) and children (three little ones had died) and friends (among them, Lord Byron).

As I've said, too, the novel deals with an infection that sweeping through humanity, killing virtually all in its wake. Shelley created a frame story for the tale: She begins with an 1818 visit to a cave near Naples (by the way, she and her husband had climbed Vesuvius during the same trip). She says that she found, wandering around in the cave, the remains of a long-ago tale, which she reassembled for her story.

The shepherd boy (Lionel) narrates; he has a sister, Perdita, three years younger (who looks, by the way, a lot like Mary Shelley herself). Soon, we learn that we're in the year 2073 (when, I guess, we still have shepherd boys) and that England now is a republic. The mother of a young man named Adrian, who would have been king had England remained a monarchy, educates the boy as if he will be the king. (Mary's physical description of Adrian reminds us of the appearance of her late husband.)

Adrian brings Lionel and Perdita into his circle. Lord Raymond arrives in the story now--a character based on Byron. He is "supremely handsome; every one admired him; of women he was the idol. He was courteous, honey-tongued--and adept in fascinating arts" (Oxford World's Classics, 40). Lord Raymond, unlike Byron, however, survived wars in Greece, where he became a hero. Anyway, Perdita, seeing Lord Raymond, is smitten.

More smiting comes soon: Adrian has a sister, Idris, whom Lionel promptly falls for. And soon Perdita marries Lord Raymond, and Lionel, desperately poor, is too proud to ask for $$, so, he says "my sole companions were my books and my loving thoughts" (77)--words very similar to the words Mary had written in her journal in the aftermath of her husband's drowning.

And--after much parental objection--Lionel marries Idris. Soon the bunch of them are living in Windsor Castle. Children arrive. Lord Raymond finds another attraction (as Byron often did, as Bysshe Shelley often did), but keeps the news from Perdita. She finds out; he vows to give up the other woman; he fails to do so.

Lionel decides to try writing and is soon cranking out books. Perdita wishes that she had a career, too. Meanwhile, Raymond, who has gone off to Greece, is reported dead. Lionel and Perdita will go there to look for him--or for his body.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 65

Early in August 2000, I wrote to tell Betty about my trip to the University of Rochester—which had gone well. But I’d learned, on return, that the pamphlet on vegetarianism I’d driven all that way to read was available both at Kent State and at the Cleveland Public Library. I’d not known because both those places had catalogued the item differently. Oh well.
I also told her, facetiously, that I was working on the ass market part of the biography. When Bysshe and Mary eloped in 1814, taking with them Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, they’d fled England to France, where, in Paris, they’d visited the ass market, where, in fact, they’d purchased one of the critters to help them on their journey on to Switzerland. (Where, as we’ll see, they did not stay long: Money problems sent them back to England—and disgrace.)
In that same email I proudly told Betty that I’d just filed my 100th book review for Kirkus. I asked my editor, I wrote, if I could count on a gold watch or rocking chair. He replied: “How about 100 more books?” I told her, too, that I was soon going to start writing reviews for the Plain Dealer.
As I read this now—in late October 2014—I realize how early in my book-reviewing career the year 2000 was. I’ve now done well over 1200 reviews for Kirkus, a couple of hundred for the Plain Dealer. I remember feeling that 100 reviews was a lot; it wasn’t.

A few days later, I told Betty that Kirkus had just published a very positive review of Janet Todd’s book. She was glad to hear that, then told me about a visit from her recently widowed brother—a good visit. They’d gone to museums, a play. She noted how very much he is suffering from his loss.
In mid-August, as the 2000 Presidential race was heating up, Betty wrote to ask me about politics—we have never talked about that area, she said. It was the summer of the political conventions. I was a little wary about a reply at first—Surely politics will not divide us? I said. And then I figured what-the-hell and leapt right into it, telling her I was (still am) a lifelong Democrat. Of the Democratic Convention, I said, But, of course, all is pageantry. Still … I like to watch people who skewer the folks I’d love to skewer.
Then I changed the subject—back to Mary Shelley, et al. I told her that in the winter of 1814 she’d attended a lecture by a Professor Garnerin—and I wondered if this was the same guy who’d parachuted over her house in 1802 when she was a little girl; I wondered, too, if she had made that connection.
Betty wrote back with some animation: Our politics could not be more the same! Should be no surprise, given our taste in a biographical subject! And especially this subject!

In mid-August I wrote some news to Betty about a few things I’d found out about the death of Mary Shelley’s unnamed infant on March 6, 1815; the child, as we’ve seen, was only about two weeks old. My daughter-in-law—a pediatric nurse at the time—told me, I wrote, that the lungs would not have finished development and would not have inflated properly, making breathing (and sucking) difficult—explaining, probably, the infant’s death—perhaps a combination of starvation, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
That got Betty’s interest—in a hurry.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 21

1. The other day, Patty Medhurst Fedor, a seventh grade student from many, many years ago (very early in my career--just my third year, 1968-69), posted on Facebook a list of her classmates who were no longer alive. It was a shocking and stunning list--twenty-one people, all of whom I'd taught in seventh grade at the old Aurora Middle School. I would guess they're in the mid-to-late fifties now, the survivors in that class, and so many of those names take me back to moments wonderful and humbling and regrettable and inspiring and enraging and humorous and ... Well, just about every emotion of which a human is capable, for, as teachers know, you experience just about every emotion you have in the course of a single day--especially with middle schoolers! (Sometimes every period.)

I was grateful that Patty posted that list, but I grieved, as well. I don't know that I'd seen any of them in more than forty years, but the names brought them back--I could see them sitting at their desks (or not sitting, as the case may be); I could see myself--young, ignorant, desperately trying to figure out this profession of teaching I'd gotten myself into. And I could not have imagined--or hoped or dreamed in any way--that I would survive so many of them. It's not the way it should be. And I wish their families and friends the best as they adjust to life's grimmest reality.

2. Last week I watched--via Netflix DVD--the John Wayne flick Hondo, the 1953 film based on a Louis L'Amour story. (I'd read a book recently about Wayne and had no memory of having seen Hondo, so ....). I was surprised to see Geraldine Page in the cast: She's not the sort of actress you associate with a John Wayne shoot-em-up, but there she was, an abandoned mother (guess whom her young son ends up idolizing?), alive only because she's allowed the Apache to water their horses (hmmm ... how could she have stopped them from watering?). The Apache leader admires her son--says he will be a warrior--but needs a father. Hmmm ... who could that be?

Anyway, the exteriors were stunning. I see on IMDB that they shot on location in Utah and Mexico, and it was beautiful. The story--not so much. There was some sympathy for the Apache (and Wayne, in the film, had spent some years living with them), but it ended about where you'd expect: lots of people (mostly Apache) getting shot. Manifest Destiny, that sort of thing. Glad I saw it, though. Wayne looked young and fit, though he didn't ever seem to find an occasion to change his clothes.

Here's a link to a trailer for the film.

3. We also streamed via Netflix a fine documentary about historian Howard Zinn. I've read some of his books over the years and have--Lefty that I am--always sympathized with his positions. But what a fearless man, a man who, after all these years of struggle for human rights, for peace, still (how?) keeps a smile on his face.  Link to trailer for the film.

4. The big event last week, though, was the luncheon on Friday to honor our daughter-in-law, Melissa McGowan Dyer, who had won one of the Outstanding Teaching Awards at Kent State University. It was a family affair--that luncheon. She and Steve were there, their two remarkable sons (Logan, 9, and Carson, 5), Melissa's enormously proud parents, Joyce and I.

Melissa teaches at the nursing school, and the testimonials from her students and supervisors were amazing--the sorts of things you would sit down and write about yourself, if you dared. They praised her for her knowledge, her devotion to the profession, to her students, to the life that so many of them want to pursue--and to perform with a portion of the skill and affection Melissa does.

I'll end with some words from the brochure for the event--some words about Melissa:

Dyer's background is in obstetrics. She lobbies and advocates for healthcare policy issues and led nurses as a hospital administrator [UH]. She eagerly shares her passions for nursing, leadership and professionalism with her students. ... Dyer is an innovator. She was the first College of Nursing faculty to employ a blended-learning environment. Dyer uses active teaching methods to engage students and promote critical thinking, including high-fidelity simulation and case studies. ... [She] is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the College of Public Health at Kent State. Dyer is a College of Nursing leader, having served as an American delegate to China to study that country's education and healthcare systems. She currently is an education Leadership Policy Fellow and received the Barbara Donaho Distinguished Leadership in Learning Award.

Melissa is a talented, loving young woman--a wonderful wife and mother--and we are so proud to have her in our family.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

End of the World News, Part II

Motivated by the recent Ebola news, I posted recently about Jack London's 1912 novella, The Scarlet Plague (about an infection that quickly destroys the majority of humanity--in the year 2013!), and I promised a later post about Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (published on January 23, 1826), a novel with a similar--but, of course, earlier--theme.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, born in 1797, had already experienced so much with Death that it's no real surprise that she would feel that He was coming for everyone--and soon. Here's a partial list of those close to her who had died by the time the novel appeared:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (her mother), 1797--the mother she never knew but whose books she read repeatedly.
  • An unnamed daughter--dead on March 6, 1815, only a few weeks old. (If she and Percy Bysshe Shelley named their child, no one has ever discovered it.)
  • Fanny Godwin, half-sister, committed suicide on October 9, 1816.
  • Harriet Shelley (Bysshe's first wife), committed suicide around December 10, 1816 (her body was discovered in the Serpentine).
  • Clara Shelley, daughter, on September 24, 1818. She was about a year and a half.
  • William Shelley, son, on June 7, 1819. He was about three and a half.
  • Allegra Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (Mary's step-sister), April 19, 1821. She was about four and a half.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and Edward Williams (friend)--both drowned on July 8, 1822, off the Italian coast.
  • Lord Byron, friend (it was his summer place in Geneva where she had conceived the idea for Frankenstein), April 19, 1824. Later, when friends brought Byron's body back to England for burial, Mary viewed his remains. He'd been stored in preservative wine for the transport and was now purple.
There were others--but these are people close to her circle--including, of course, her husband and three of her children. Her remaining son, Percy Florence Shelley (his middle name was for the Italian city of his birth), would outlive her, but Percy--this last possessor of the Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft genes--had no real intellectual interests and spent his adult years (childless) enjoying his substantial inheritance from the Shelley estate. He loved his yacht, loved putting on amateur theatricals at the impressive home in Bournemouth, England, the seaside city where he and his family now lie: Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Percy Florence and his wife. (Percy Bysshe Shelley lies in Rome--not far from Keats' grave.)

Mary, feeling alone, isolated, deeply depressed, had begun work on The Last Man over the winter of 1823-24. In her journal entry for May 14, 1824, she wrote: The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feeling, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me--" (The Journals of Mary Shelley, 476-77).


Friday, October 24, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 64

On July 18, I wrote to tell Betty that I’d just finished reading Janet Todd’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I said that I remained impressed with it, but I had a few small complaints—not enough footnotes (where could I find some of the things she mentioned?), not enough reminders of dates in her text (what year was this?).
I added that I was about to head off to the University of Rochester to read a pamphlet on vegetarianism by John Frank Newton, a person and a publication with quite an influence on Bysshe Shelley for a while. (I’ll write a bit later about that journey—about what I discovered there.) Within four days, though (July 22), I wrote exultantly to Betty: I finished the draft of the PBS chapter! I did not tell her how long it was, but I just consulted my digital copy of that early draft, and I can report that it was forty-eight pages—a bit much for just the youth of the man who would become Mary’s husband. (By contrast, the final draft—now on Kindle Direct—is only fifteen pages. Oh, the pain of slicing!)
Betty sent her congratulations (and said I was about to catch up with her in the story: I am mid-1825.). She also told me that her son had visited her recently and had coaxed her out onto the tennis court for the first time in four years.
In my answer on July 23 I told her that I’d been a varsity tennis player at Hiram College for four years—and I was fairly honest, too, noting that I was on a very bad team. I also noted that I’d just helped my son and daughter-in-law move and doing so had renewed my appreciation for the women in PBS’ life who had to be ready to pick up and go on virtually a moment’s notice. What an impulsive lad!
I also wrote about how—as a father of a young man—I understood more clearly the feelings (and rage!) of Timothy Shelley, Bysshe’s father. Sir Timothy (he was a baronet) did not cover himself with glory during all of this, but what father—especially one in the early 19th century—would handle well what PBS hurled his way? Expelled from college, eloped with a sixteen-year-old [Harriet Westbrook], borrowed money against his estate, rejected religion, and on and on.

As older parents know, parenthood does not ever end; it just changes—and often in ways that are painful to experience. There’s something so impossibly sweet about a young child, grasping your hand as you cross the street, admiring you so entirely that he dresses like you, reading books that you love, throwing himself into activities that you prefer, and on and on. And then, gradually, allegiances shift, new interests emerge, independence arrives—often noisily, and no one but a ghost grabs your hand in the crosswalk.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

End of the World News, Part I

Regular visitors to this site know that I've done a lot of research and publishing about both Jack London (1876-1916) and Mary Shelley (1797-1851). And in these days of our Ebola-frenzy, I think about two novels written by these two writers--Jack London's The Scarlet Plague and Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Neither novel is nearly so well known as these two writers' other works (The Call of the Wild, Frankenstein), but it interests me that both of them wrote tales about a disease that threatens to wipe out all of humanity.

In the next couple of posts, I'm going to tell you a bit about these two books, beginning with The Scarlet Plague, 1912. (Here's a link to the electronic text of his short novel.)

It first appeared in June 1912, published in full in (coincidentally!) London Magazine. At that time, London and his wife, Charmian, were aboard the Dirigo on a sail around Cape Horn from Baltimore to Seattle. From Charmian's diary--and from letters and other writing--we know more than a bit about that voyage--about her hives, his writing (he's at work on his novel The Valley of the Moon and a variety of short stories), their activity (they liked to box--spar!), the weather (gales), the ship's difficulties rounding the Horn, the captain's serious illness (not good news), their arrival in Seattle, where they learn the captain has stomach cancer and has only days remaining in his life.

The Scarlet Plague appeared in book form (Macmillan) in May 1915. I see in my notes that I read the novel in November 1986, a year I was on sabbatical leave from Harmon Middle School. Among my sabbatical projects? Read all of Jack London--which I did (all fifty of his books). Here--word for word--is the summary I wrote when I finished the book:

Futuristic, short novel in which a great plague, in 2013 [!!!], destroys nearly all of humankind. Sixty years later the story begins as three savage boys (Edwin, Hoo Hoo, and Hare-Lip) accompany an old man they now call "Granser," who had been Professor James Howard Smith, professor of English Literature at Berkeley.

The boys, who frequently taunt Granser and show him little respect and who speak like savages and have no learning at all ("What's education?" one asks; "What's money?" from another), convince Granser to tell them the story of the Plague--which he does, consuming most of the rest of the book.

The Scarlet Plague, caused by microorganisms, killed quickly (from 15 minutes to 2 hours), symptoms being the scarlet color and progressive numbness from toes to heart. Millions died all over the world, and the world quickly became brutal and wild as groups called Prowlers (from the slums) shot, plundered, and burned.

Granser was immune and wandered for years alone before he encountered a brute, Bill the Chauffeur, who was keeping and terrorizing Vesta Van Warden, the billionaire's wife Bill had once worked for. Granser can't defeat him, so he leaves and discovers other survivors near ... Glen Ellen [where London lived his last years]. He joins them, sires children, etc. Keeps books in a dry cave in case they're needed. Edwin, perhaps the most gentle, may one day want them.

Here is one of the final paragraphs of the novel; Granser is speaking to the boys:

“The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state. It were just as well that I destroyed those cave-stored books—whether they remain or perish, all their old truths will be discovered, their old lies lived and handed down. What is the profit—” 

Rather dark, eh?

The Scarlet Plague is not one of London's better novels--and, in general, his novels are not as good as his stories--but it is an eerie commentary on our worries now--and published almost exactly 100 years ago.

Next time: Mary Shelley's The Last Man

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 63

I notice now, too, that Betty and I had at some point commenced a tradition of closing our email with “Fondly.” I smile in wonder. Who started that? And when?

And so I look back … when did we start closing like that? And who started it?
Early in our correspondence, we sometimes just put our names—or something like All best or Yours ever and obliged (that was one of Betty’s). But as I look back through the emails, I see that the first Fondly came from me—on January 5, 2000, at the end of a long note about my father’s death. But Fondly did not immediately catch on. I used it now and then; so did she. But by the summer of 2000, we were both using it routinely. It was an accurate word. I did feel “fondness” for Betty—and enormous gratitude for how she was helping me. Think of it: a premier Shelley scholar pausing in her busy days to reply to earnest emails from a retired middle school English teacher who was working on a YA biography of Mary. As I sit here now, I am still amazed by what she did. And even more ashamed that—later—I allowed the correspondence to dwindle. And then disappear.
But I’m going to delay talking about that. I want to think well of myself for just a bit longer.

In early July we were writing back and forth about Janet Todd’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a book I was in the process of reading. Betty was bothered by some of the negative comments in the reviews of Todd’s book. On July 7, I wrote a longish message about book reviewing and about how I go about it. I reiterated one of my fundamental questions that I ask about a book (a question that, many reviews later, I still ask): Has this writer done the work? (You’d be surprised how often the answer to that question is, “No.”) And if the writer has done the work, well, I am much more generous in the rest of the review—especially if he or she has a sense of humor, a graceful style, some fresh insights.
Betty replied with a kind note and said, I am back to the answer that rears itself every time I become impatient: take the time it takes. And that advice, it seems to me, is about the most basic and sensible principle any writer could embrace. A writer who hurries is a writer who will have regrets.*
I wrote back and thanked her, again, for all her help, telling her that I really enjoyed our exchanges but regret the one-sidedness of them: You are the principal MWS scholar in the world; I, in some sense, the Cowardly Lion & the Tin Man & the Scarecrow all in one.
I realize now—reading that comparison—that it seems to suggest that she is the Wizard of Oz. That’s not good, is it?

*Relevant. In a recent previous post in this series, I said that I'd resolved in 2000 not to move again--then said that seven years later we did move, from Aurora to Hudson. Oops. We moved in 1997, not 2007. Seems I'd forgotten Betty's dictum!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Never Invite an Old Guy to Speak

The text for my remarks at WRA on Oct. 20, 2014 ...

Fall Academic Awards
Western Reserve Academy
20 October 2014

Never Invite an Old Guy to Speak

I know what some of you are thinking—Hey, that’s the Old Guy who hangs out at Open Door Coffee! Yep, ‘tis I. And now I’m going to demonstrate why you should never invite an Old Guy to speak.
I’d like to thank Mrs. Chlysta for inviting me here today—I’m so grateful for the opportunity to wear a necktie again after two-and-a-half years!
Okay, let’s be more mature … here goes: I’ve spoken from this podium many times—and it’s never ceased being an honor. It’s nice, too, to see some of my former colleagues—and students. I taught Mrs. Borrmann in English I, Mr. Ong in English III; they both still owe me homework. And Mr. Burner was a senior when I first taught here in 1979–80. But I won’t tell you what I know about him … Well, maybe for money.
And, as I said, I sort of know some of you from Open Door, where I hang out in the morning. As a former teacher, it makes me feel good—hopeful—to see students studying. Caring. (Makes me feel even better to realize I don’t have to grade any of it!)
A quick story. Just last month my mom turned 95, and I was telling her that I’d agreed to speak here today, but for various reasons I wasn’t sure that I could go through with it. She looked at me sadly, perhaps remembering I was her idiot child, and said, “Danny, the day will come when no one will ask you to speak, so you probably ought to do it.”
Mom—still wise at 95. Still annoyingly wise. So here I am.
I need to apologize to Mrs. Chlysta, too, because in a minute I’m going to talk about math—and that could get embarrassing. You see, I never exactly excelled at it. I sort of bumbled and stumbled and grumbled through high school math, but when—a college freshman—I took calculus, I was lost from Day One. I was Bilbo in Mirkwood. And huge spiders were everywhere. On one of my miserable tests, my  professor actually wrote this: “Can I help you cry?”
That was nice. But, actually, no—you can not help me cry! Crying is not a team sport. Yes, there is no i in team, but there is one in crying!
When I was teaching English III here, the word evanescent always appeared on my vocabulary list—yes, I was one of those. Vocab lists and quizzes! What a jerk of a teacher! Anyway … evanescent … vanishing, fading away.
In one way, evanescence is the nature of all life, isn’t it? Creatures come into the world, they mature (well, most of us do—my mom’s not so sure about me!), they weaken, they die. A day passes, a month, a year. Many years. Centuries. Millennia. And, today, relatively few folks from centuries ago manage even to elbow their way out onto the tiny stage of our common memory. Homer. Alexander. Cleopatra. Henry VIII. Shakespeare.
Speaking of whom: Have you been following the stories about the bones of King Richard III, recently discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England? They’d lain there, forgotten, since 1485. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, about fourteen miles away, he’d been slain by his successors, the Tudors, whose spectacular queen, Elizabeth I, about 100 years later, would be on the throne when Shakespeare’s play Richard III premiered in 1592, a play that features, near the end, Bosworth Field with Richard, surrounded by enemies, crying out, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Didn’t work out. He ended up underneath a lot constructed for—ironically—horseless carriages. And soon—playing Richard III—Benedict Cumberbatch!
Anyway, you may ask, “How do we know those parking lot bones are Richard’s?” By the DNA of a living descendent—that’s how.  
So … let’s think a moment about our own DNA, our own family histories. We can name our two parents. Our four grandparents. But pretty soon things get tricky, don’t they? Can we name all eight of our great-grandparents … sixteen great-great grandparents … thirty-two great-great-great grandparents … sixty-four …  one hundred twenty-eight … two hundred fifty-six … five hundred twelve … (See, I can multiply!) But things quickly get unmanageable after a few generations, so even though those people were directly responsible for our being here, right now, we probably don’t know a single thing about any of them—not even their names. (To make a selfie, your very-long-ago ancestors would have needed to chisel a rock!) But we do know one thing about these ancestors, though—their evanescence. And—their anonymous permanence. We don’t know who they were, but pearls of them—both perfect and flawed—are strung along our chromosomes, helping make us who we are.  
So, let’s think about this for a moment: At Shakespeare’s time (1564–1616) each of you would have had approximately a thousand direct ancestors. Five hundred specific men and 500 specific women would have had to find one another and hook up—successfully—for you to be sitting in this chapel 400 years later. And then, of course, all subsequent (and relevant) children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren from those Shakespearean-era ancestors would have had to have survived war, famine, illness, injury, accident, folly. Senior pranks. If a single one of them had failed to survive before he or she reproduced … well, let’s just say that it’s virtually impossible that you’re sitting out there.
Are you feeling depressed yet? (This is another of the reasons you must never invite an Old Guy to speak!) Knowledge can do that, you know—knock the wind out of you. Depress you. Terrify you.
But … good news … it can also inspire you. Animate you to make some graceful and unique moves in your dance to the music of Time.
So let’s move on to this. The late Cornell astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” …  I like that: We’re all starstuff—actually, not just metaphorically.
We are gathered here today to celebrate some varieties of that starstuff. To commend those among you, who—consciously or unconsciously—have realized that time is short, precious, precarious, unpredictable … evanescent. And you have decided that—while starlight is flooding through your window—you will make sure that soft glow illuminates something wonderful and wondrous—your potential, your fragile, unpredictable, miraculous lives.
So many of you are doing that—in myriads of ways. Making your time matter. And so today we congratulate you, and I wish for you—for all of you—that starlight will continue to gleam upon your lovely, improbable lives for a long, long, long time.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 62

In late June 2000, I wrote to Betty about something that had often bothered me—about biographies in particular but about human discourse in general. The question of motive(s). We are quick to explain the behavior of others (maybe even of ourselves), but can we ever really know why someone does something—and is why even a sensible question?
Here’s what I wrote in my email: I have much trouble—in the books I read, the films I see—with the whole question of motive. I think, for example, that everything I do arises from an awfully complex series of causes, some proximate, some distant, some ineffable? In many instances I simply can’t tell you “why” I did something. Yet writers/filmmakers don’t hesitate to identify motives of characters/subjects, sometimes in the most simple-minded fashion. I think psychology resembles calculus more than arithmetic, but so often I read/see accounts of people whose acts the writer/filmmaker attributes to a single cause. Psychology reduced to a single sum: x + y = z.  I just don’t agree. I don’t think that the behavior of you or me or anyone else with a brain can be easily explained. And this, of course, makes the writing of biography all the more difficult.
I went on to use the example of William Godwin’s accepting the friendship of Bysshe Shelley (before the latter eloped with the former’s daughter Mary). And I suggested a number of “reasons”—but how can we know? This enterprise, I concluded, is difficult, horrendously difficult, teeth-grindingly difficult. But—[was I feeling optimistic now?]—also more fun than just about anything else.
In early July I wrote to tell Betty I had just returned from five days in Massachusetts, helping my mother move from the assisted living unit where she and Dad had been (in Pittsfield) to an independent apartment in Lenox. Now that Dad was gone, Mom no longer needed to be there—and she was eager (too pale a word) to escape. Packing, unpacking, setting up things … we all know the drudgery. Betty wrote to say I know the kind of work you did for your mom’s move is very draining—on different levels. And, yes, it was.
Oh yes. I also vowed at the time that I would never again help out in a move—someone else’s or my own. Seven years later, of course, Joyce and I packed up and moved from Aurora to Hudson, Ohio (about twenty minutes’ distance). So go resolutions.
I notice now, too, that Betty and I had at some point commenced a tradition of closing our email with “Fondly.” I smile in wonder. Who started that? And when?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 20

1. A wonderful ceremony on Friday to install some former Aurora teachers and students in various halls of fame that the Aurora Alumni Association sponsors. It was great to see Tia Hodge-Jones, who was in our son's classes at Harmon School (1982-86) and who appeared with him in some play productions there, has gone on to do wonderful things on the New York stages--and to write a book for young actors--and to teach and inspire yet another generation. (Here's a link to her book on Amazon.) I've not seen her in about 30 years, and it was wonderful to be with her for a while.

And it was a terrific thrill to witness the installation of two former colleagues at Harmon School--Andy Kmetz and Eileen Kutinsky--into the Honored Educators' Hall of Fame. Both were outstanding teachers (Andy in art, Eileen in science), and both were major influences in my own career. Eileen had already taught a few years when I arrived to begin my career in Aurora (fall of 1966), and I immediately recognized what a rare talent she is--and promptly began to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from her. And, believe me, she had an endless supply. She was extraordinarily generous to me--and, later, to Joyce and Steve--throughout her remaining years at Harmon School. In fact, Eileen was one of the principal reasons we withdrew Steve from Hudson Middle School when he was in sixth grade and moved him to Harmon. We knew that he would learn more about the world just from looking at her walls and displays that he would in someone else's room.

I was happy, by the way, when Eileen, in her remarks, acknowledged her late sister, Vivian LoPresti, who'd taught for years at Lake School (elementary) in Aurora. She was one of the two best teachers I ever saw (I once spent a week in her first-grade classroom when I was in grad school--observing, being dazzled). Guess who the other best-I-ever-saw was? All in the family ...

And what can I say about Andy Kmetz? Supremely talented, absolutely devoted to the kids. He helped me on many play productions (choreography, scenery, et al.), and I just could not have done those productions without him. Everyone knew--and no one knew better than I--that the most beautiful moments in those shows came from Kmetz. And I was so grateful. Joyce and I visit with him still--about once a week. And although he is in his 80s now, he is still in so many ways ... Kmetz. You just never know what's going to come out of his mouth ...

2. I want to add that the folks involved in the Aurora Alumni Association are spectacular human beings. The effort and the heart that have gone into their programs are humbling. Good people doing good things. Oh, that this weary world had a few more billion like them ...!

3. I came across the word bugbear this week--a word I've seen many times, of course. But this time I stopped, wondered, did some checking. (See the bottom of this page for info from the Oxford English Dictionary about the word--which has a long history.) I learned, too, that the term is now part of the gaming world. I'd not known that ...

old engraving of a bugbear
4. We finally got around to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy last week. I liked the interplay among the characters a lot more than the boom-booms and the destruction. (Which shows what a wuss I am.) Some funny and some touching moments mixed with some (to me) boring violence.

5. And finally ... I liked a poem by E. E. Cummings that found its way into Writer's Almanac this week--liked it so much I memorized it. Memorizing Cummings presents some issues--mostly because his language is so unconventional. On the other hand, I've discovered that once I do learn a Cummings poem, it stays with me pretty easily. My brain doesn't have too many other things like it in storage--except, of course, for a few other Cummings poems!

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

bugbear, n.
Pronunciation:  /ˈbʌɡbɛə(r)/
Forms:  15–16 buggebeare, 16– bugbear.
Etymology:  Apparently < bug n.1 + bear n.1
1. A sort of hobgoblin (presumably in the shape of a bear) supposed to devour naughty children; hence, generally, any imaginary being invoked by nurses to frighten children. Obs.
1581   J. Bell tr. W. Haddon & J. Foxe Against Jerome Osorius 10 b,   Hobgoblines and Buggebeares, with whom we were never acquaynted.
1592   T. Nashe Pierce Penilesse (Brit. Libr. copy) sig. I4v,   Meere bugge-beares to scare boyes.
1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 453   Certaine Lamiæ..which like Bug-beares would eat vp crying boies.
1651   T. Hobbes Leviathan i. xii. 55.  
1758   Johnson Idler 24 June 89   To tell children of Bugbears and Goblings.
1840   R. H. Barham Look at Clock in Ingoldsby Legends 1st Ser. 61   The bugbear behind him is after him still.

 a. transf. An object of dread, esp. of needless dread; an imaginary terror. In weakened senses: an annoyance, bane, thorn in the flesh.
a1586   Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) iii. xxvi. sig. Yy6,   At the worst it is but a bug-beare.
1642   D. Rogers Naaman To Rdr. sig. Bv,   All you that thinke originall sinne a bugbeare.
1717   Kennett in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. ii. 430 IV. 306   The king of Sweden is every day a less bugbear to us.
1841   Dickens Old Curiosity Shop i. iii. 86   What have I done to be made a bugbear of?
1871   E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest (1876) IV. xvii. 51   Confiscation, a word which is so frightful a bugbear to most modern ears.
1880   ‘G. Eliot’ Let. 14 Sept. (1956) VII. 322   Our only bugbear—it is a very little one—is the having to make preliminary arrangements towards settling ourselves in the new house.
1955   Sci. Amer. Jan. 90/1   Richness of context was their bugbear.
1966   Observer 10 Apr. 12/3   The great bugbear of economic management is the near impossibility of devising policies with a particular objective in view without..making it harder to attain other..desirable ends.

 b. attrib. or as adj.
c1600   Timon (1980) i. ii. 6   Thou shalt not fright me with thye bugbeare wordes.
a1734   R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. 25. 601   The most horrible & bug-bear Denunciations.
1853   E. C. Gaskell Cranford xii. 223   Indiscretion was my bugbear fault.
1930   E. Sitwell Coll. Poems 252   A bugbear bone that bellows white.

  ˈbugˌbeardom n. bugbears collectively, needless fears.
1862   Mrs. J. B. Speid Our Last Years in India 150   The assaults and tyrannies of bugbeardom.

  ˈbugˌbearish adj.
1800   Southey in J. W. Robberds Mem. W. Taylor (1843) I. 35/2   Bonaparte..a name now growing more bugbearish than ever.
This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1888).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

John O'Hara--The Home Stretch

John O'Hara in his study
Visitors to this site know that for the past few years I've been chasing the story of writer John O'Hara (1905-1970), who wrote short stories, novels, journalism, plays--and who also did some duty in Hollywood as a screenwriter. I'd seen all the films that O'Hara worked on--and all the ones based on his novels (BUtterfield 8, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick, Pal Joey--a musical he co-wrote with Rodgers and Hart for Broadway, later transformed to a film).

Here's a link to O'Hara's film work.

I'd managed to find and watch all the films associated with him--all but one: I Was an Adventuress (1940),  I recently found a DVD available on Amazon's site; I bought it; it arrived a few days ago; I watched in Thursday evening.

It's actually a pretty good caper film staring (Vera) Zorina (1970-2003), a ballerina who starred in a handful of films. (We get to see her perform a chunk of Swan Lake near the end of the film.) She's part of a trio of con artists (the other two are Peter Lorre and Erich von Stroheim--both are very good in the film) who use a switch-the-jewels con to great success. (The film opens with them in operation.) But then--they pull the con on Richard Greene (who would later play Robin Hood in one of my favorite TV shows in the 50s and 60s), and Zorina falls for him. Complications ensue.

The production values are very 1940: elaborate interiors, fakey looking exteriors with filmed backgrounds in front of live action--there's an amusing car chase near the end that's patently using film speed to increase the speed of the vehicles.

Still ... I got involved with the characters and was fooled a couple of times by something that looked real but turned out to be yet another con. I like that!

In a week or so I'm going to upload to Kindle Direct a long biographical essay about O'Hara--about my adventures chasing his story--and now I have finally seen I Was an Adventuress and can include a bit about it.  I'll keep you posted ...

PS--Here's a link to a YouTube clip from the film ...

Friday, October 17, 2014

And Then I'd Done 1000 ...

I looked up to discover that this will be DawnReader post #1000. How can that be? Didn't I begin this series just yesterday?

Well, no. I just looked. Post #1 came on January 6, 2012 (link to that initial post). I had no real idea what I was doing at the time (do I now? not so sure), but I'd been retired from teaching for about half a year, and I was missing, I guess, an audience. I'd had one--a captive one--since the fall of 1966 when, terrified, I'd first walked into my seventh grade classroom at the old Aurora Middle School (Aurora, Ohio) and saw 40 (that's right--forty!) 12-year-olds staring at me as if I knew what I was doing. I didn't. But I figured it out--after a few decades or so. (By the way, that first year I had five groups of 40--every day. I thought that was just, you know, normal, so I went with it. Showing you in yet another way how dumb I am.)

But once I walked out of my final classroom at Western Reserve Academy (June 2011), I was sans audience--except, of course, for Joyce, who is a wonderful listener but who also has A Life of Her Own and has more purposes on this earth than to listen to me bloviate. So I began to blogiate (a word I just invented; I like it). And have done so pretty much every day since that initial post.

I've also been posting retrospectively at each 100 posts--and I also look (each 100 posts) to see how many "hits" I've had. Here I go: I've not looked since #900 ... back from checking ... 199,552. So, doing my arithmetic, I see that that's 199.552 hits/day. Not bad for a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma. (This site's spell-checker, by the way, just tried to change nebbish to snobbish. Interesting.)

The number of hits/day varies widely, of course. When I write about education or political issues (which I do much less often than I'd thought I would), more people tend to read/share it. When I serialize my book about chasing Mary Shelley (as I'm doing now on MWF--except for today), fewer people tend to tune it. That's all right. As I tell people (including myself), I'm doing this really for myself. If people are reading it, that's fine. If they're not, that's fine, too. To me, it's the writing that matters.

Each day I print out DawnReader and stuff the page(s) in a notebook, of which there are now several. Much of my doing so, of course, is for "posterity" (i.e., my son and grandsons), who will find in these pages many family stories and much about their Dad and Silly Papa (my grandsons' name for me--wonder why?)--and about Joyce ("Gommy" to the grandsons)--stories that otherwise would have Gone to the Grave with me. And for that I'm glad.

All the pressure to do this every day comes from me--and/or from that Puritan Conscience I learned in my boyhood home. The world will not stop if I fail to post one day, of course. Still ... I know I will go around all day (maybe all week) feeling guilty if I don't do it.

And so--right now, as I type this little conclusion--I'm already wondering: What will I write about tomorrow?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Vidal on Video

The other night--responding to one of Netflix's if-you-liked-X-then-you-should-try-Y suggestions--Joyce and I started streaming the 2013 documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (link to the trailer for the film). I posted here earlier when Vidal died in 2012 (link to earlier post), and in that post I talked about my long history with Vidal. I'd never met him, but I'd read him for decades--always with admiration--and I'd taught his stories "The No-Talent Kid" and "Harrison Bergeron" for years. I'd also, for a time, showed his film The Left Handed Gun (it was his story) about Billy the Kid, and some classes had read his fine play Visit to a Small Planet, about a weird alien who arrives and proceeds to foment war wherever he can; war, we find out later, was his hobby. By the way, he did another Billy the Kid film in 1989 with Val Kilmer as the Kid. Link to trailer.

I didn't realize until right now that there's a film of that play (Visit to a Small Planet)--with Jerry Lewis as the alien. I'm going to have to go find that film somewhere ... ah! Just checked: I can stream it on AmazonPrime--and will do so ASAP (and, thus, have another post!).

Anyway, the 2013 documentary. It's a wonderful piece of work (check out the details on IMDB)--especially if you agree with Vidal's Lefty, skeptical politics--which I do. You see footage of him as a boy--and as an older man near the end of his life. And throughout Joyce and I were dazzled by his ... dazzle. His was so witty, so caustic, so right so much of the time, and we realized, watching, that there is no one remotely like him on the political stage today.

Jay Parini
By the way--students who were at Western Reserve Academy in April 2012 will be happy to see the important presence in the film of Jay Parini, the writer who visited WRA for a day--talked in the Chapel--visited classes. Parini is Vidal's literary executor, is writing his biography, and has many interesting things to say about Vidal throughout the documentary. It was from Parini, by the way, that I learned in 2012 that Vidal was dying.

The film deals also with Christopher Hitchens, who'd once been a potential heir/successor to Vidal. But Vidal disinherited and disavowed him when Hitchens came out in support of the Iraq War--and then, of course, Hitchens died in 2011. Before he died, though, Hitchens attacked Vidal in the pages of Vanity Fair (see link later on). Their falling out was big (and bitter) news in the literary/political world. Here's a link to a YouTube video of Vidal commenting on Hitchens. And--to be fair--here's Hitchens on Vidal.

Joyce and I both ended up being very moved by the film--the sad scenes near the end (his necessary move from his beloved home in Italy) are wrenching.

As I've written here before, we're sorting our books, getting ready to dispose of/sell/donate many of them. But not the Vidals. They're all staying right where they belong. Right where we can get to them.

AND ... here's a link to a list of all his books on Amazon. And to his New York Times obituary.
Vidal, the young rebel at 21

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 61

I was beginning to realize that I’d spent all this time—years of time—reading and learning about things and people who would never be able to have much a presence in the book. It sometimes worked out to something like this: From five books I’d read on some related subject I’d sometimes be able to use only enough to supply a dependent clause in a single sentence.
If that.

Betty and I got into an interesting exchange in mid-June 2000 when I heard news about a new fat biography about to appear—by Miranda Seymour: Mary Shelley, which did not in fact arrive until early September 2001. Betty was skeptical about its value and had some other things to say about it that made me feel she was a bit concerned. She noted that an early review of Janet Todd’s recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (released in September 2000), was not enthusiastic to say the least. Betty was disappointed because she deeply respected Todd’s scholarship; they were friends. And what would the critics say about her own book once it appeared?
Betty changed the subject about a week later, writing to tell me that her father had fallen, possibly breaking his hip. She was heading off that day to go see him. I sent my condolences, then sort of griped—again—about all the reading I was doing and about how I really wasn’t going to be able to use most of it. Over the years, I said, I’ve learned a horrible truth about writing: You have to know a lot to reduce to a few sentences something complex …. Indeed.
Betty replied later with mostly good news about her father—no need for a hip replacement. She wrote, as well, about a memory of seeing—years before—a production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. She noted how it is a reminder of how complicated people can be—flawed and hurt, and complicated and wonderful—and with brilliant thrown in, we have the Shelleys …. She asked me for recommendations of biographies I’d liked, and I, of course, spouted off like a pompous ass. (Why is it asses that are always pompous? They have so little to be pompous about.)
I told her that I’d liked Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens and Duberman’s biography of Paul Robeson. It was then that I went off, telling her that I preferred works that go heavy on factual detail and light on theory … [I] am not much interested in forcing the facts … into a theoretical sausage-casing of some kind—at least not into a procrustean one (talk about mixed metaphors! A procrustean sausage-casing! And on and on I went, puffing away as if I were an authority on something. I’m surprised Betty replied. She must have been wondering what sort of correspondent she’d gotten involved with
But she did reply—and, thoughtfully, did not react to my pomposities and ass-ery (I know: not a word—but it fits).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Sorting 101

As I've announced here before, Joyce and I are sorting our thousands of books--making decisions (some easy, some horrible) about them. For more than a year (I do not exaggerate) we had so many piled in the living room in the front of our house that we could not use the room at all. Every chair, the small sofas, every end-tabletop--covered with piles of books that we had removed earlier from the room we call the "family room" (though, to be honest, I don't know what that room really is!?!?) because we were having some painting done in there. These were not books we'd shelved; there was no more room. No, these were books that we'd stacked on the floor, the stacks growing ever more Babel-y with every passing week.

Because my energy has not been too great the past year (thank you, Lupron), I've been loath to do anything about the living room. This was my reasoning: I have X amount of energy; I would rather spend it on things I want to do than on things I should do.

Joyce, ever patient (it's no coincidence that Joyce and Job share initial letters), did not once hassle me about that front room--did not ever do more than say something like "We ought to work on those books one of these days"--did not with the semi-passive aggressiveness I would have employed simply begin doing it herself. She waited. And I came around.

And so--a couple of weeks ago--we began. Fifteen minutes after supper. That was our deal. Right away, we determined that we needed to make categories, and here's what we came up with:

  • signed-keep: signed and/or inscribed books that we want to keep for the nonce
  • signed-sell: guess! We're going to open a "store" on Advanced Book Exchange soon--D. J. Doodlebug Books--and begin selling from our collection
  • unsigned-keep
  • unsigned-sell
  • donate to library or give as gifts
Joyce bought some temporary shelving to accommodate our smaller categories, and just last night (Monday)--after an hour's marathon (let's just finish this!) we completed sorting and re-shelving all the hundreds of books that had been piled in our front room, which, as this picture shows, is still full of books--but mostly in appropriate places. The stack of books on the table at the left is a complete set of the James Bond novels written by John Gardner; we're going to sell them as a set--and I just need to carry them into the other room when more shelving arrives, courtesy of Joyce. Meanwhile, we will now be able to use a room that just a couple of weeks ago was a bibliophile's equivalent of a cat person's/hoarder's place.

Next comes an even more tedious part: typing information about each book we want to sell, uploading it to ABE. And, of course, decisions: Do we really want to sell that? And: Do we really want to keep that?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Too Busy?

My grandmother, gently chiding her three young grandsons for failing to write to her very often,  would tell us, “If you're too busy to write, then you're too busy.” Of course, we weren’t too busy to write; we were too lazy. Which, of course, she most certainly knew. But Grandma was nice—far nicer than we deserved—and would not have uttered such a harsh truth to us.

I begin with this because, earlier today, I was Too Busy to Blog. On MWF I've been serializing my memoir Frankenstein Sundae, a book about my 10-year pursuit of Mary Shelley. Pursuit is a softer word than obsession, which, in this case, is a more accurate word.

But another, more recent … pursuit … latched onto me this morning. A couple of years ago—as regular visitors to this site know—I was reading my way through the complete works of John O’Hara (1905-1970), was reading all his biographies, visiting his hometown of Pottsville, Pa., visiting his final home—and grave—in Princeton, N.J., etc.  I'd given a couple of talks about him at a couple of local venues.

But then—like all of my other pursuits—this one cooled, and I was moving on. But what about all that work?  Shouldn't I try to publish something?

Well, sure, but as regular visitors to this site also know, I resolved a couple of years ago to bid buh-bye to traditional publishers (well, most of them; I still write regularly for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and for Kirkus Reviews). As I've aged—and as my health has begun to fail me--I've started publishing directly to Kindle—by-passing agents and editors and the like. On my Amazon.com author page you can see my entire list of publications—Kindle and traditional. And, of course, I'm blogging regularly.

Anyway, time’s winged chariot is hurrying near (thank you for that image, Andrew Marvell), and I do not have the time to do a biography of O’Hara. But I have adapted the speeches about him I'd delivered and will soon upload the document to Kindle as a longish essay I'm calling a “biographical memoir.”

And this morning I was furiously entering endnotes in the document, checking and double-checking sources. Hours flew. I looked at the clock. Lunchtime. The entire morning had swirled by without my noticing.

Oops. No Shelley post today. “I was too busy, Grandma …”

And I can hear the skepticism add an edge to her reply: “Then you're too busy.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 19

1. We saw Gone Girl last week. I'd not read the book, though I heard some folks near us in the theater talking about how they had read it--so I began the viewing by feeling inferior. That's okay; I'm used to that. I found myself, for the most part, not really caring about anyone in the film--maybe Ben Affleck's sister, who seemed to have some sort of moral core. I liked Ben, though he seemed, for an English teacher, a bit buff (I know: Batman is coming). I also never saw him grading any papers, so I knew this was fiction! The best thing about it (well, maybe not the best but something I could relate to): the film's portrayal of our obsessive media and how they fill our airwaves with crap, 24/7. News channels look around to see what the most degraded and depraved people in the area are doing--and put them on TV. Great.

2. Stoddard's Frozen Custard (in nearby Kent, Ohio) closes for the season today (I think), so we went for the final time earlier this week. I was hoping for white chocolate-macadamia nut, but ... no luck. Had to go with a vanilla waffle cone (large). We ate our cones outside at one of the tables--not inside the car: The last time we'd done that (cones-in-the-car) I'd had an "accident," one that required an interior car wash, which, as you no doubt know (especially if you've been to Stoddard's) is not cheap. I will not tell you what Joyce had--I learned in Adams Elementary School not to "squeal" (that was our word) on a friend, and Joyce, of course, is my finest friend ... Back in our foolish youth we used to go there almost every night in the summer (how did we afford that?)--and my waistline expanded impressively. We went only three times this season--felt guilty each time ... afterwards. During the Consumption ... just moans of pleasure.

3. In March 1990, I directed Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) at Aurora High School (Aurora, Ohio)--getting great help from all kinds of people along the way, especially Andy Kmetz and Gary Brookhart, talented colleagues who added so much to the show--music, dancing, scenery. Anyway, for that reason alone--my having done the show with a wonderful cast--Merry Wives has become a special show for me. At the time we did it, I'd never seen a production, but, a few years afterwards, some parents and I drove many of the cast members to Washington, D.C., where we watched a great version at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Joyce and I saw another at Stratford, Ont., a couple of years ago--and didn't like it. And just this past Friday we saw another at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, and we did something we have only very rarely done in our theater-going years: We left at intermission.


Well, they had modernized the setting--which does not bother me--at all. I like how directors offer new insights on the Bard's plays by putting them in different places and times. We saw a great Midsummer Night's Dream some years ago at Stratford--set in a Brazilian rain forest.  And on and on. Also, directors virtually always cut dialogue from the Bard's plays. In our own Merry Wives we cut a scene about a Latin lesson and numerous other lines.

But this production of Merry Wives did not just change the setting or cut lines; it changed the language; it added dialogue--lots of it. We heard lines about Ava Gardner; Falstaff was a filmmaker (based on Orson Welles); Ann Page (the young lover) led a group of Girl Scouts. There were all sorts of contemporary allusions and language added to the text. Mrs. Page ran a dance school. Mistress Quickly had an eye patch and spoke in a thick German accent. Dr. Caius spoke in an unintelligible French accent--unintelligible even though I knew what he was saying.

I guess what bothered me was that I didn't know it was coming. I thought I was going to see a Shakespeare play, and instead I saw a Shakespeare smoothie--his text blended with empty-calorie pop culture references and language. And I hated it. I had told Joyce before we went that I would probably cry all the way through it. (I loved that cast I'd worked with in 1990.) Well, I felt like crying--but for a much different reason. And I'd also thought about rounding up any cast members in the area and going to see it as a group. Glad I didn't do that.

I was thinking afterwards: You know, the popular culture has invaded and pervaded just about every aspect of our lives ... can't we at least keep Shakespeare? Please ...?

4. Today's Panera poem (after seeing The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall on Saturday night):

A father and a son collide—
It seems that’s what they do—
But on a boat they reconcile …
A kind of dark roast brew.