Dawn Reader

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Study Photographs, 3b

Continued from two days ago.

Okay, so these two framed objects hanging from my study wall date back to the era of my Jack London Obsession (1982-1997 or so). I'll tell you what the two objects are in just a moment.

I mentioned last time that I had been out to Glen Ellen, Calif. (north of San Francisco a bit), several times to visit the Jack London Ranch State Historical Park. It was the ranch where he was living when he died at age 40 in 1916. Well, one of my favorite side trips on that visit was in Glen Ellen itself, a tiny town that featured the Jack London Bookstore (RIP), operated by the wonderful husband and wife (both now gone), Russ and Winnie Kingman. Here's a picture I took--I think in the summer of 1990.

It was not just a bookstore, though. Russ and Winnie had for many years been Jack London Freaks of the first order, and their store, which sold a variety of used books, focused on Jack London material, and I spent a bit of our son's inheritance there. More than a bit--including a first printing of The Call of the Wild (with rare dust jacket). I will not tell you how much it cost--or how long it took me to pay it off (yes, it's now paid for). (In a post quite awhile ago I wrote about how, for a while, Jack London's daughter Becky, 1902-92, lived in an apartment in their store--and I got to meet her.)

The Kingmans were also avid collectors and had all sorts of goodies hanging on the walls--and for sale. Among them--the larger of the two items I framed. It's the November 4, 1906, issue of the Boston Sunday Post's Sunday Magazine, and on the cover is featured a recent Jack London story, "The White Man's Way,"one of his Northland stories; it would later appear in his collection Love of Life (1907). It seems that London originally sold the story to the Sunday Magazine of the New York Tribune (appearing also in Nov. 1906), and the Boston Post seems to have piggybacked. As did a paper in St. Louis. Probably others. He got $530 for it. (Link to the story.)

The other item in the frame, below the magazine, is JL's calling card, signed on the back (which is the side you can see). I don't remember where I got it. From Russ and Winnie?

We had the items framed in Kent, Ohio (near where we were living), at Jacobs, now long gone. He was a great guy, Mr. Jacobs, and carefully framed many of the objects that hang on our walls.

As I said the other day, I see this item every day, and I cannot look at it without thinking of Russ and Winnie Kingman, of London scholars like Earle Labor and Clarice Stasz, of Becky London, of I. Milo Shepard (who was London's executor at the time I was doing all my work), of all my teaching colleagues who spent some glorious weeks in the summer of 1990 reading and talking about London in a seminar out at Sonoma State, of all the hundreds (thousands?) of students with whom I read The Call of the Wild at Harmon Middle School, of all those adventures I had, none of which rivaled London's, but all of which changed me in ways I continue to discover.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 171

Trelawny staged the cremations almost like a theatrical production. He constructed a sort of makeshift furnace in which he burned the remains of Edward Williams on August 13; the next day was for Shelley.
There are three very famous images of the death of Shelley. One is a statue, housed at University College, Oxford (where Bysshe had had a brief sojourn as a student—as we’ve seen). Created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford in 1892, it shows Bysshe dead, lying on his side, as nude as Nature had wrought him.

On April 16, 1999, I arrived in Oxford and could not wait to see the sculpture. I went to the University College gate, where I learned that the Shelley Memorial was closed for the nonce and would not be open again soon. I muttered a blasphemy, the sort of thing that would have gotten me expelled with Bysshe back in the day. (I didn’t get to see it.)
There is another sculpture in Christchurch Priory, Dorset. It’s a lovely thing in white marble, showing Mary cradling in her arms the limp body of her lost husband. Fashioned by Henry Weekes (at the request of Percy Florence Shelley, Mary’s son), it was ready in 1854, three years after Mary’s death. (I didn’t get to see it.)

The third is a painting, The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Edouard Fournier in 1889. It shows a group gathered around the pyre (Bysshe is lying on a pile of firewood—not in a furnace), and kneeling at the far left is the grieving Mary. You can see it in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. (I didn’t get to see it.)

All three works have tremendous emotional power—and all three are fraught with error. The Oxford sculpture shows an idealized corpse—lovely and untouched by the time Bysshe spent with some hungry fish in the Gulf of Spezia—and in quicklime. Both the statue of Mary holding her husband and the painting of the cremation on the beach at Viareggio have the same problem: Mary was not present. She did not hold his body in her arms; she did not attend his cremation.
Oh well. Ars langa, vita brevis (a saying I learned in Latin I, Hiram High School, fall of 1958).
But Mary did have a problem following the cremation. It involved her late husband’s heart. No metaphor: his actual heart.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Study Photographs, 3a

Another in a very infrequent series of pieces about the objects hanging on the wall of my study ...

I have a few Jack London-y things hanging around the house. This one I see every day because it's just to my left, high on the wall facing me, next to the front window out of which I stare when I can't think of what to write next. (I do a lot of staring.)

Some of you know that I had a Jack London obsession that ran from, oh, 1982 to about 1997. In 1982, I returned to Harmon Middle School to teach (I'd been gone for four years--had taught in the interim at Lake Forest College, 1978-79; Western Reserve Academy (1979-81), and Kent State University (frosh English, part-time, 1981-82).

When I returned, I learned that the Language Arts Department had adopted a new literature anthology for the 8th graders--Exploring Literature--a volume that contained, at the end, Jack London's 1903 novella, The Call of the Wild. I'd never read it. I had only a vague memory of the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of the story that I'd read in boyhood (quite a few times). I'd read London's autobiographical novel Martin Eden in high school study hall and The Sea-Wolf at Hiram College. That was it.

But The Call of the Wild got to me--in a variety of ways. One was personal. In 1898, my own great-grandfather (Addison Clark Dyer) had gone to the Yukon during the very gold rush that forms the historical core of Wild (the unknown Jack London was there, too, looking for gold; I hope they met). A. C, Dyer had kept a diary (no, he doesn't mention anyone named London), and I eventually acquired it from my uncle, and it now sits on a shelf not far from these framed items.

Well, soon, I was a fanatic. I read all of Jack London's fifty books (written between 1901-16); I visited his former ranch out near Glen Ellen, Calif.; I corresponded (and met) the principal London scholars; I attended, in the summer of 1990, a six-week seminar on London's work, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, out at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., an experience that led to my researching and publishing (Univ. of Okla. Press, 1995) a fully annotated and illustrated edition of The Call of the Wild. Later, I would write and publish (Scholastic Press, 1997) Jack London: A Biography, a book for YA readers.

Oh, and I went to Alaska and the Yukon twice, once with our son (summer of 1986; he'd just finished taking my 8th grade English class), once (summer of 1993) by myself, hiking over the Chilkoot Trail (which figures prominently in the novel) from the former site of Dyea, Alaska, to the shores of Lake Bennett in the Canadian Yukon. (I've posted a long account of that on this site, in several installments.)

I also started collecting. First editions. Etc. (My plastic cards became smooth with use.) Among my purchases is the item you see above. And since I'm running off at the mouth a bit here, I'll pause and tell that story in Saturday's post. (Annoying, I know.)

To be continued ...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 170

When Bysshe and the others didn’t return when they should have, Mary and Jane Williams grew ever more frantic. They went to Livorno, where they found that Ariel had indeed sailed that day. It wasn’t until July 18 that Trelawny learned that bodies had washed ashore at Viareggio, about thirty miles south of Casa Magni, about eighty miles north of Livorno.
No one’s entirely certain what happened. There was a sudden storm that sent experienced sailors to the nearest port. Bysshe and the others were not experienced—and Bysshe could not swim (as I’ve said). The boat capsized—and there would be questions about the stability of its design, then and now—and no one survived. That’s about all we know. Later, the boat was discovered, raised, sailed again by others.
Trelawny had the horrible task of telling Mary and Jane that their husbands were dead. There’s really no information about the family of the boy Charles Vivian who’d died, as well. Trelawny escorted the widows to Pisa, where they stayed with Byron while Trelawny sorted things out.
Local laws mandated a cremation on the beach, and Trelawny arranged it all. It occurred on August 15, a week after the discovery of the bodies, bodies that were badly damaged by their time in the Gulf of Spezia. Biographer Richard Holmes is graphic: The exposed flesh of Shelley’s’ arms and face had been entirely eaten away ….[1] According to local law, again, the bodies were buried in quicklime in the sand until such time as the survivors could arrange a cremation.
Bysshe’s identity was confirmed by his clothing—and by a book they found in his pocket—a copy of Keats’ poems.

On Saturday, April 24, 1999, I took a train from Pisa to Viareggio, a short ride of about fourteen miles north along the coast. Here’s a bit from my journal about my beach visit:
Viareggio is very developed, a resort town w/ all that’s associated. There is a nice, long promenade, all of which I walked in a vain search for beach Il Bambo. Oh well, I got some good shots of the waterfront, where I saw fishermen selling their catch, & the beach—which was the whole point, I guess. 
So, I didn’t find the exact spot where the bodies washed up. Then, just recently, I checked the Web, where, of course, I found that there’s a monument to Shelley near the beach. It’s been there since 1894. From what I can tell from the map, I was very near it. But didn’t see. And obviously didn’t even know it was there! (Hmmm, anyone see a metaphor here?)

Pictures from that 1999 visit to Viareggio ...

Internet photo

[1] Shelley: The Pursuit, 730.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Geography Lessons

I threw up in geography class.

Fall of 1956. Seventh grade. Hiram Local Schools (Hiram, Ohio).

We had a class called "geography" that year. Our teacher was Mrs. Esther Nichols, who'd lived for a time in South America and loved that continent. In ninth grade she also taught Algebra I (which I vaguely understood), and, some years later, was teaching at Aurora High School (eleven miles west) when I began my middle school teaching career in Aurora in the fall of 1966. There was no way I could call her "Esther"; it remained "Mrs. Nichols."

Anyway, throwing up ...

There were some ... complications. I was new to the school. We had moved to Hiram in August of that year from Enid, Oklahoma. So I was a "different" new kid--I dressed differently, sounded different. Oh, and my voice was changing, too. So this dirty constellation of differences made me uncomfortable at first. Below is our (entire) seventh grade class that year. I'm amused to see our class advisor, Mr. Sechrist, apparently flipping off anyone looking at the picture--something I'd not noticed until a few years ago (enlarge the photo--you'll see). I'm the kid in the cowboy shirt, 2nd from the left, front row. Mr. Sechrist's flip-off finger is on the back of my chair (hmmmm, maybe he was flipping me off; I wouldn't blame him).

Hiram Schools, Fall of 1956, 7th grade (all of us!)
I had a crush on a girl at the time; she is in the picture, but I ain't telling you who it is. But she is a factor in this story.

Okay, so one morning in geography class I was not feeling too well. But I was ... holding it in. In Mrs. Nichols' room that day we were sitting in a circle--was someone doing a report? Whenever we studied a continent, we would each have do do a report on a country (I remember doing Ecuador and Honduras), and I always copied mine directly from the World Book Encyclopedia, a routine that did not seem to bother Mrs. Nichols.

The Love of My Life was seated near me. Which may be another reason I did not want to leave class. This was special.

But then ... out it came. There was no opportunity to sprint from the room, to raise my hand and ask permission. It was just out. Most of it landed in the center of the circle so that all could see and evaluate. Some, unfortunately, landed on the Love of My Life.

And the possibility for Love died ... rather, drowned.

As I was leaving, the custodian, Sherm Leach, came into the room with a can of that greenish-bluish powdery stuff that he would sprinkle on the pile. I would see this other times--as a student and, later, as a teacher.

Anyway, I got to go home for the rest of the day. The only good thing about the experience.

So ... why am I writing about this episode today?

This morning, I was reading the New York Times and saw some little short pieces about Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. And I realized that if I were to take a world geography quiz today, I would fail.

I was once pretty good at it, geography. The US was easy: Because my dad's family was from Oregon, we drove throughout the Western states, and I knew them very well. (I did get confused about which New England little-thingy was whatever state.)

And Mrs. Nichols (and other teachers) had maps that she would pull down like a movie screen, often leaving them in view. I stared at them (better than algebra).

Things were fairly static then, too. We still had Gold Coast and Ivory Coast. And post-WW II Europe was making sense.

(Just checked: Ivory Coast still has its name ... see what I mean?)

But since seventh grade, the world has re-arranged itself, re-named itself myriads of times, and (Honesty Is the Best Policy) I have not always ... kept up.

And I have decided: This is going to change. I'm going to carry around some little maps of geographical areas, learn (again) the names of the countries (if not the capitals?), maybe some major rivers and mountain ranges.

And somewhere--maybe?--Mrs. Nichols will smile. But the Love of My Life will still wrinkle her nose at the thought of Danny, who decorated her shoes with some substances from his fetid core.

My 7th grade self

PS--I just checked my transcript: B for the year in 7th grade geography. Bet I woulda had an A if not for ... you know ...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 169

The summer of death ... 1822 ...

So now we’re back to the part of the story I’ve been kind of avoiding—the drowning deaths in the summer of 1822 of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his friend Edward Williams, their teenage deckhand Edward Vivian. A quick set of reminders …
For the summer the Shelleys and Williamses had rented a place called Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia, on the western coast of Italy in the tiny fishing village of Lerici, a couple of miles from San Terenzo. It was remote, lonely, crowded.
Mary was profoundly depressed, their Italian dream now the grimmest of nightmares. She had buried two little children—one (Clara Everina, age 1, on September 24, 1818, in Venice), another (William, age 3 ½, on June 7, 1819, in Rome). In Casa Magni she suffered a near-fatal miscarriage on June 16. Her son Percy Florence—not yet three years old—was her only living child.
Mary was unhappy at Bysshe’s shifting affections for young women. Jane Williams (Edward’s wife) was his latest infatuation. Compounding Mary’s despair—the enduring presence of Claire Clairmont, again living with them for the summer.
Relieving her grief and anger, at times, was Edward John Trelawny, the roving adventurer full of stories (some true) of his escapades.[1] It was Trelawny who introduced Bysshe to Daniel Roberts, a sometime shipbuilder, the man who would construct Ariel (Byron had liked another name, Don Juan), the vessel that would capsize that summer’s day in 1822.
Lord Byron was in the area, too, summering in Livorno (the English called it Leghorn), about a hundred miles down the coast from Lerici.  Byron and the Shelleys had decided to start a journal, The Liberal, and had convinced their mutual friend (and experienced journalist), Leigh Hunt, to join them in Italy to be the editor. Hunt had a large, raucous family. And Mary dreaded their arrival at Casa Magni. She would have no peace.
The Hunts arrived in Livorno on July 3 and moved in with Byron, who was alarmed at the behavior of their children—he thought they were out of control. In anticipation of the Hunts’ arrival, Bysshe, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian sailed for Livorno on July 3 to meet Bysshe’s friends from England.
They arrived safely. Visited for a few days. Then pointed Ariel/Don Juan for Lerici on July 8, 1822.

[1] Richard Holmes called him “the incorrigible, myth-making Edward John Trelawny.” In “Death and Destiny,” The Guardian, 23 January 2004. Online: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jan/24/featuresreviews.guardianreview1

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 72

1. AOTW: I continue to be dazzled by two traffic maneuvers (executed by all the AsOTW out there):
  • Failing to use the turn signal (it's that little lever attached to the left side of the steering wheel--lets people know, via flashing lights on front and back, that you're about to turn).
  • Making left turns by following the hypotenuse instead of the other two legs of the right triangle. 
2. I finished three books this week--a thriller, a work of journalism and history, a collection of short stories.

- Agent 6 (2012) by Tom Rob Smith is the third novel in Smith's fine trilogy of novels about Leo Demidov, a member of the Soviet secret police, and in the three novels we see his rise, fall, redemption (sort of). I read the first two novels (Child 44 and The Secret Speech) when they were originally published (2008 and 2009, respectively) and was impressed with his knowledge of Cold War intensities and with his ability to weave a story. There was a recent film (Child 44, 2015), with a screenplay by another favorite of mine, Richard Price, that combined some elements from the first two novels. Loved the film (link to trailer).

In this third novel, Demidov has fallen from favor, is in Afghanistan, drugged on opium most of the time. But he longs to get to the United States, where he can figure out what happened to his wife and daughter, framed for the murder of a Paul-Robeson figure on a visit there. We weave our way around the war zones, then arrive in New York for the exciting resolution. There's more afterwards, but I ain't tellin'.

- In The Teacher Wars (2014) journalist Dana Goldstein takes us back to the dawn of the United States and steadily moves forward, giving us the background on the issues that continue to perplex us today--teachers' unions, tenure, testing, curriculum development, etc. I took some history of American education courses in grad school--and read a lot, too--so not a lot here was new for me, but it was compelling to see it arranged in ways to illuminate our current debates about public education. She keeps a balanced perspective for the most part--looking at the principal "sides" of the issues--and at the end she offers some conclusions and suggestions, which, of course, we will ignore. Examples: Teacher Pay Matters (duh: make the job attractive in financial and other ways, and young people will consider it); Focus on the Principal as Much as the Teacher (yep: I had two great ones, and they made all the difference--for the kids, the community, the faculty); Return Tests to Their Rightful Role as Diagnostic Tools (yep).

- Joy Williams' short-story collection The Visiting Privilege (2015) brings together some previously collected and published stories with some newer ones. And they are terrific. Often featuring people who are clinging to the cliff's edge, they are sharp, focused, generally brief, and help us understand the survival of those who are not the fittest. She is great with dialogue, the ambiguous ending, and the surprise, among which are allusions to surprising names from literary history--surprising because of the contexts (the lower reaches of our socio-economic classes). Williams is one of our best writers--nonfiction, novel, short story. Check her out.

3. As some of you know, I subscribe to some words-of-the-day on various Internet dictionary sites, and there were some words this week I liked (mostly because I didn't know their origins).

- dog-and-pony show dates back to the late 19th century; some more from the OEDOriginally: a small circus or travelling show, esp. (in early use) one featuring only dogs and ponies. In extended use: a small-scale or poor quality entertainment or service.’

- scuttlebutt (from dictionary.com): 1. Informal. rumor or gossip.
2. Nautical. a. an open cask of drinking water. b. a drinking fountain for use by the crew of a vessel.

The site adds this: Scuttlebutt entered English in the late 1700s from the word scuttle, referring to a hatch in the deck of a ship, and butt in the sense of a cask or barrel. The informal sense arose in the early 1900s.

- obmurmuration (one I just flat did not know), from OEDThe action or an instance of complaining or criticizing. It dates to 1604, just before the arrival at Jamestown of you-know-who. Not used very often these days (I would guess!).

4. Finally--The leaves are all over the yard; I put our outdoor grill away for the winter; I probably won't be riding my bike much longer this fall; the storm doors and windows are on; I am, on some days, wearing socks made of SmartWool; we're having cornmeal mush for suppers on Saturdays again (our cold-weather custom)--mixed with local honey and walnuts; the snow shovels, hanging in the garage, are vibrating with excitement and anticipation.

I'm not.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Friday Night with Poetry

Not the most exciting title I've ever put on a blog post, I know. Still ...

I've written here before about memorizing poems. Bear with me ...

(I seem to like ellipses, don't I ...?)

Last night I was one of the judges for the 2nd annual competition up at Western Reserve Academy (a ten-minute walk from our house), part of the national Poetry Out Loud program (funded, I think, by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts)--link to their website.

Competing high school students memorize two poems (from a long list posted by Poetry Out Loud, a list featuring the familiar--"The Road Not Taken"--and the unfamiliar); they range in length, subject matter, difficulty. The winner moves on to state and then to national competitions.

Anyway, I was a judge last year and enjoyed it, so I responded quickly and positively this time when WRA's teacher/organizer, Matt Peterson, invited me again.

We judges sat in the balcony in WRA's historic Chapel (Emerson spoke there, Frederick Douglass just outside; I've spoken there, too--finally, in a list with Emerson and Douglass!), and the kids stood in front of a microphone about as far away as they could get from us.

Each competitor steps to the microphone, announces the title and poet, begins. When words flee a contestant's memory, a prompter, seated directly in front, supplies some help. A few kids needed assistance last night but nothing too extensive.

I can't imagine myself competing in such a program when I was in high school. I was too busy preparing for a double career in the NBA and MLB--point guard for the Celtics (hey, Cousy had to retire sometime!), catcher for the Tribe. I also seemed to be preparing for a career as a Professional Sleeper. I loved to sleep, would always choose it over, say, homework. Or chores.

Our teachers did ask us to memorize poems now and then. I remember Mrs. Davis (senior year) requiring Housman's "When I Was One-and-Twenty" (link). And back in elementary school I memorized (and publicly recited!) "A Visit from St. Nicholas" at a school Christmas program.

When I began teaching in the mid-1960s, asking kids to memorize had fallen from favor ("learning by rote" was a no-no), but as the years went along, I started having kids do it--and by the time I retired from middle school teaching (Jan. 1997) my students were memorizing a dozen pieces a year, and when I went to WRA in 2001, I continued the practice (a dozen a year).

I would memorize the poems, too, and then, the following year, would generally memorize something else by the poet (I was bored). And soon I was memorizing like a madman. Shortly before I retired from WRA (spring 2011), I gave a talk at the school about how I'd just reached 100 memorized poems.

And now, today, I'm working on #160, a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson that was featured on Writer's Almanac the other day: "As Imperceptibly as Grief" (link).

A couple of the poems the kids recited last night are among those I've memorized--Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers" and Frost's "The Road Not Taken"--but for the most part they were pieces I'd not read before--or had forgotten.

As I told Matt afterwards, I was incredibly moved, sitting up there, watching those young people deliver those lines, working to find the right gesture, inflection, pause--increasing, decreasing volume for effect.

Oh, sure, some of the students were better than others; some had memory lapses. Nonetheless, there they stood, alone in front of a microphone, allowing their voices, their bodies, their hearts to connect those poets with the rest of us. A gift I won't forget.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 168

A visit to Dachau ... April 30, 1999.

Since I was in the vicinity, I thought I’d take a look at Dachau.
I’d learned not long before that my father had been among the U. S. troops that had liberated the Nazi death camp on April 29, 1945. I just this moment realized the coincidence that it was April 30, 1999, when I visited. And here—lightly edited—is what I wrote in my journal about my visit:
Dachau was not all that easy to find (what community would want to advertise itself as the home of a Nazi death camp?), but it was worth the effort. Only 3 DM to park, and then a vast area, paved with gravel. Only two barracks have been reconstructed, but the foundations of the others remain—as does the crematorium, with ovens in place. There were not many people there—a few couples, and a school group featuring the usual assortment of bored adolescents. I found a plaque that said the camp was liberated by the 20th Armored Div., Seventh Army, on 29 April 1945. Such a stark, banal place, where there was nowhere for screams to echo. Dachau, the village, has a McDonald’s.
That really stunned me at the time, the Mickey D’s.
And I think how inconceivable it would have been to Mary Shelley, traveling through Germany in 1814, then again in 1842–43, that one day a century later, near where she traveled, the government of a “civilized” country would be murdering millions of people.

Photos from that 1999 visit.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thursday Things

1. The other day I wrote here about the shrinking Cleveland Plain Dealer--and about the paper's recent decision to use book reviews by writers on wire services rather than by local writers. (Link to that post.)

Yesterday, I got a message from a local journalist, Sam Allard (who'd also done some reviewing for the PD), who was working on a story about the situation for Cleveland Scene Magazine (link to their website). He wanted some more information, and he also let me know that he had talked to some folks at the PD, including my two most recent editors, Joanna Connors and John Kappes, both of whom I greatly admire and respect.

And I found out I'd been wrong--and, oh, am I glad I was! I'd said that the PD would not review books by local writers. Not true, it seems, and I am wonderfully happy about that. (Don't think I've ever been so glad to be wrong!)

I need to hasten to add as well: No one at the PD told me that these moves came to save expenses. Although (as I wrote the other day) I spoke with Joanna about the paper's decision to cease using freelancers (for the most part), the "saving money" part was my inference entirely.

But all PD regular readers (like me) know that the books coverage is a translucent shadow of its previous self: In the couple of years (or so?) the paper cut its Sunday space for book reviews from two pages to one (from six reviews to three). There is no full-time books editor (and no clerical assistant), and now the paper's publishing (mostly) reviews that have appeared elsewhere. I continue to think all of this is a shame--a loss for Cleveland. And always will.

But thanks to Sam for setting me straight. And--again--thanks to the PD for allowing me in its pages since 1980. It was a privilege I never took lightly.

(Link to Allard's piece.)

2. Yesterday, I called my mom (age 96), who now resides in an assisted living facility in Lenox, Mass. As some of you know, she was a secondary school English teacher for years, then returned to grad school in the late 1950s, eventually earning her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, moving with my father to Drake University, where they both would retire in the late 70s, early 80s. (Dad was six years older than she.)

Anyway, my mom was very verbal--read all the time, published articles in professional journals, and the like.

So it's especially sad that her language is now betraying her.

Until late in 2010 we were regular email correspondents--and I would always get from her a handwritten card on holidays, sometimes letters she'd written on her computer.

But she gradually lost the ability to use her computer, and I have not received a card or letter (or phone call) from her in a long time. She just can't do it.

So I call and write letters every week.

In our call yesterday, I was telling her about her great-grandsons (6 and 10), who were already in the grips of Halloween-mania.

She said, "Well, that's to be ex...ef...exf ..." And on and on. I knew she was trying to say "expected," but it never really came out. After listening to about ten tries, I said, "Mom, it's all of those things."

And she laughed.

It's one of her most astonishing traits now, her ability to laugh at herself. I don't know how she does it. If I live long enough to lose the ability to do just about everything I once loved to do (as Mom has), they will have to medicate me--heavily. Otherwise, Dr. Jekyll being dead, I will be only my Mr. Hyde self. And he's a jerk.

But not Mom. She remains genial, self-deprecating, amused at her body's--and now mind's (and tongue's!)--betrayal. And once again, I stand in wonder in the presence of my mother.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 167

I visit the town where Victor Frankenstein created his creature.

Karlsruhe I loved. The city fathers and mothers had done something I saw elsewhere in Germany, too—closed off downtown blocks to automobile traffic, thereby converting the center of the city into a sort of mall. Just streetcars. The evening I was there (late April 1999) I commented in my journal that I saw many people out and about chowing on street food. I liked it so much, I altered my plans a bit and made it sort of my “base” for a few days. I loved my small hotel, commenting that I felt as if I’d been released from prison and asked to the Waldorf.
The next day I was on the road to Ingolstadt. As I said, Mary Shelley had never been there (though she’d been in the region a couple of times), but she didn’t write a lot about the city in the 1818 (first) edition of Frankenstein. We learn at the beginning of Chapter II that Victor, age 17, went to the university at Ingolstadt at his parents’ insistence.
[M]y father thought it necessary for the completion of my education, Victor says, that I should be made acquainted with other customs than those of my native country.[1]
But the only real physical description is this:
I had sufficient leisure for these and many other reflections during my journey to Ingolstadt, which was long and fatiguing. At length the high white steeple of the town met my eyes. I alighted, and was conducted to my solitary apartment, to spend the evening as I pleased.[2]
My main mission in Ingolstadt: to find the university building that housed the anatomy school--the place where Victor attended the lectures that led to his creation of the creature. Wandering around the university environs, I found, first, a street sign: Anatomiestr. Anatomy street! Could it be? I took some pictures, wandered around, focusing on the oldest buildings, then returned to the car.
Since I was in the vicinity, I thought I’d take a look at Dachau.

Photos from that 1999 visit:

Anatomy Building

[1] The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley (London: William Pickering, 1996), 29.
[2] Ibid., 31.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Sad Times for the Cleveland Plain Dealer

If I were in college now, I'm not sure what I'd do. When I graduated from Hiram College in 1966, there were several roads diverging in my not-so-yellow wood: teaching (which I did), journalism (which I've been doing, freelance, for decades), grad school (which I did). And others.

Nowadays, public school teaching is in the grip of another wave of Accountability Madness (these fits come and go), once more observing Dyer's Law #1243: Those who know the least have the most to say. In this case, we have to listen to politicians and corporations and pompous entrepreneurs who wouldn't last ten minutes in a middle school classroom. We bore the hell out of our students with our fixation on test preparation ...  But this is grain for another mill. Moving on ...

Grad school? Well, I don't really want to go back again (hey, I'm old), and many English Departments have decided to make literature a science rather than an art and have abandoned focusing on those things that make people love poems and stories and novels and plays. But this is grain for ...

And journalism? I've written here before about the fall of the American newspaper. As I've said before, the Cleveland Plain Dealer became part of my life when our family moved to Hiram, Ohio, in August 1956. I was a few months away from being 12. The paper came every day, and on Sunday it was so heavy (and weighty--two different things) that it took two hands to carry it in from outside. We spent Sunday afternoon with its pages spread out all over the living room.

In those days, the only section I really cared about was Sports. But slowly that changed (I confess: I barely look at it now). As I slowly returned to being a Reader (after a hiatus during adolescence), I began to read the Sunday book review with lots of interest--especially later when my favorite Hiram College professor, Dr. Abe C. Ravitz, began reviewing for the paper. I never dreamed--then, in the early and mid-1960s--that I would one day write freelance op-ed pieces and book reviews for the PD.

But I did. My first op-ed piece appeared in August 15, 1980: "The Gruesome Indignities of the 11:00 p.m. News." A couple of years later, the paper chose me to be one of their "Board of Contributors," local writers from varied backgrounds and professions, who would contribute about once a month to the op-ed page. My first piece--"They Shouldn't Tear Down Your Hiram High School"--appeared on May 10, 1983, and I would eventually write more than 100 op-ed pieces for the paper.

But then the op-ed pages shrank; new editors came along, new ways. The end--although I did publish an occasional piece now and again.

But by then I'd begun writing book reviews for the paper, the first on November 12, 2000, a review of the second volume of Ian Kershaw's masterful biography of Adolf Hitler. The last was on August 16, 2015, a review of Michael Dirda's memoir Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. I'd placed well over 100 reviews in the PD pages.

So why is it over? My final editor at the paper--the wonderful Joanna Connors--had warned me: The paper was no longer going to pay local freelancers to write for the paper; instead, to save a little money, they were going to publish reviews taken from their wire services. (By the way, my pay for reviews never changed--from first in 1980 to last in 2015 it was $150, except for the occasional lead review that paid $200.)

So, over the last months virtually all the reviews have come from other sources: the Los Angeles Times, etc. So--if you want to know what the LA Times reviewers think, you can either check immediately on the Internet, or you can wait till Sunday and buy the Plain Dealer.

Local residents know that the PD is but a shadow of its former self. The paper is thinner (much thinner), contains fewer stories written by staff members, and (from my view) seems mostly to be a sports publication with a few other sections for everyone else..

No longer occupying its editorial building on Superior Ave., the paper now has a small suite of offices in Tower City (production remains at the plant on the west side, which you can see from I-480 on the way to the airport). Subscribers (I remain one, despite all) get a "hard copy" only on Wed-Fri-Sat-Sun; the other days it's online--or available for purchase at newsstands, mini-marts, etc.


Of course, I believe that removing reviews by local writers just gives some PD readers/subscribers yet another reason to drop the paper, but I feel bad about the local novelists, poets, and writers of nonfiction who now have no "hometown paper" to review their work. Instead, they must hope that someone in LA or Dallas or wherever will do it.

And for me, it's a grievous personal loss. I loved reviewing for the paper--and learned so much by doing so. When I had to take a health-related hiatus last year, I was in actual mourning. When I started feeling better, and Joanna welcomed me back, I felt the thrill of the phoenix, once more in air, once more having the unexpected gift of flight.

I don't know what's going to happen to the paper. I'm guessing they're saving only thousands annually by cutting off local freelancers. That's not a good sign.

I do wish the paper well. I've loved it since 1956. I still love it now, but with that sense of terror and horror that we all have when a dear one is dying. And we see them diminish before our eyes.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 166

April 28, 1999
In Germany. After a restless, uncomfortable, endless train ride from Naples. About 700 miles. A scheduled twelve-hour journey. Took about thirteen. At night. In a crowded compartment. With functional restrooms only in other cars. Not the most fun I had on my journeys.
At the Munich airport, after screwing up my train connections from the city to the airport, I rented a Volkswagen Golf (stick shift—so glad I’d always owned such devices) and drove to Karlsruhe, about 190 miles northwest, a trip that took me only about three hours on the Autobahn, an experience I wrote about in my journal a little later that day.
The speed limits on the Autobahn are 120K [about 75 mph], but the only vehicles which move more slowly than that are vehicles which simply can’t go 100 mph.
Oh yes, the Autobahn. Here’s a duh-comment: Things happen swiftly at 100 mph. There’s no looking in your outside mirror, say, seeing behind you a car at what ought to be a safe distance, pulling out to pass or change lanes. That approaching car is by you while you’re making your mental calculations.
Oh, and when I was there, the Germans did not seem to have (or to be enforcing) emission standards. Trucks and buses stank, reminding me of the long car trips I took in boyhood with my family, inhaling rank (and cancerous) exhaust from trucks or a Greyhound ahead of us on an upgrade.
Anyway, I arrived safely in Karlsruhe. And why was I there? My journal says: The weather looks decent for the next couple of days, so I planned out some leisurely activities along the Rhine.
Among those activities: A drive to Ingolstadt, home of the university attended by Victor Frankenstein—and where he created his creature. Mary had been in Germany twice—once on the return portion of her elopement misadventure with Bysshe in 1814, a second time, with her son Percy Florence Shelley, in 1842. On neither journey did she visit Ingolstadt.
I also planned a Rhine boat cruise. And, of course, a visit to Gernsheim and its nearby castle once occupied by the family Frankenstein.

Munich (lower right) and Karlsruhe (upper left)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 71

1. AOTW: In a coffee shop--not ten feet away from me--a group of young people are talking loudly about "old people" and how clueless they are about smart phones. They brag about the latest versions of phones they have, laugh some more about "old-guy phones." A wee message for these AsOTW: Some old guys have ears that still work.

2. This week I finished Michael Harvey's most recent detective novel, The Governor's Wife, a 2015 novel, once again featuring Chicago PI Michael Kelly. I can't really remember when I first started reading Harvey--he's not, I don't think, a name widely known, except among detective-fiction fans. But once I read one of his novels, that was it. I quickly read them all--and now wait (impatiently) for each new one to arrive.

The first was The Chicago Way (2007), and that was the one that hooked me. I just checked my journal for 2010 and saw this little Harvey-related entry for July 23, 2010:

... finished novel on Kindle (Harvey’s The Fifth Floor; I’d read his The Chicago Way earlier)

So--a clue! (Michael Kelly would be proud.) I checked my Amazon Kindle purchases and saw that I bought The Chicago Way on June 18, 2010. And on the 19th I wrote in my journal

read some of new novel in Kindle

I know why I didn't name it: When I was writing the entry, I couldn't remember, and I was too lazy to look it up on my Kindle. There you go. (The next day, I did mention the title!)

Anyway, the new one ...  An anonymous client hires Kelly to find out what really happened to the former Illinois governor, who mysteriously (and impossibly) disappeared on his way out of a Chicago court house after being convicted and sentenced for corruption. Vanished somehow. The client says he/she will deposit $100K in an account for him. (Not a bad rate.)

Anyway, Kelly dives in, finds some unpleasant submarine creatures, employs a little violence, endures a little pain, etc. Good contemporary example of the tough-guy PI novels from an earlier era.

3. A weird word-coincidence this week. A few days ago, the word-of-the-day from The Oxford English Dictionary was pogonic (of, or relating to, a beard). Okay. I got a laugh out of that one. Then, yesterday, came some spam in my email using the word pognophobiac (one who fears beards), part of an ad for razors on what the site called No Beard Day.

4. This weekend Joyce and I saw the new Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies (link to the trailer), a film based on the Gary Powers U-2 spy plane incident from May 1, 1960 (near the end of Eisenhower's 2nd term; I was a sophomore at Hiram High School--and remember the incident well). The film had Spielberg's usual superb story-telling with his usual sentimentality. An amazing performance by Mark Rylance, the much-honored English Shakespearean actor, who played Soviet spy (in America) Rudolf Abel, whom we traded to the Soviets for Powers.(Link to historical info about the incident.) Photo shows Rylance with Tom Hanks, Our Hero in the film (a lawyer who negotiated the exchange). Film brought back a lot of the paranoia (some of which was justified) about imminent nuclear war in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

5. But the Big Excitement this week came on Thursday evening: seeing Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet in a live Fathom event (streamed from a production at the Barbican Theatre in London) at the new Cinemark Theater in Cuyahoga Falls (lovely facility; one definition of a "lovely facility" for a 70-something guy: lots of big public restrooms ... just saying). (Link to the play's website.)

As I mentioned on Facebook on Friday, Cumberbatch was outstanding--the best Hamlet I've ever seen. By far. (And I've seen lots of them. Well, maybe one was better: my former Aurora Middle School student John Mlinek, who played the melancholy Dane at KSU in the early 1970s!)

He found all the humor, all the distress, all the anger and pain and madness in the role. Every line emerged from his mouth with an invisible Post-It note: I know exactly what this means, and because I do, you will too. And so we did.

I was also very surprised by his vigor and physical grace--and not just where you'd expect (in the fencing match with Laertes): He was all over that stage--running up and down stairs, hopping on tables. I'd never seen him in Full-Athletic Mode, but he was something.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the production. The worst Horatio I've ever seen (I don't know what the director was thinking), the worst Ophelia (couldn't wait for her to drown), a very weak Claudius, only a decent Gertrude. Laertes was awful. And I hate it when they make Polonius a total buffoon (as they did in this production). He cares for his children, worries about them. As a parent, I can say: That is not buffoonery; that is love. I wished the Ghost had stayed away.

Speaking of which: This production did not begin with the guards seeing the ghost. Instead, we see Hamlet listening to a record on a turntable, like some kind of 50s teen whose prom date just dumped him. I hated that, too. I want the guards, the Ghost, the bitter air, etc.

I will credit director Lyndsay Turner with some deft handling of some ... problems ... in the script. In the standard version of the play, Hamlet greets the players as they arrive at Elsinore, asks them if they can play The Murder of Gonzago, if they can insert a few lines for him in the script. Then, later, in his "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" monologue, he seems to first get the idea to "catch" the King by performing a play. Turner did some switching around to make the two bits fit more sensibly together.

One other example: In most productions, the Queen comes in to tell Claudius and Laertes, Ophelia's brother, that the poor young woman has drowned. And we wonder: Where did she get all the detail about it? And why didn't someone who had the time to see the branch break, to see Ophelia floating in the stream, her dress spreading out, getting too heavy, pulling her down--why didn't that person rescue her?

In this production, the Queen follows Ophelia--even runs after her--when she leaves at the end of her final mad scene. (But the question remains, of course: If Gertrude saw all that, why didn't she rescue the girl?) I still think Gertrude probably made up all those details--soft details to calm Laertes--after someone brought her what was surely a more grim and grisly report of what had happened.

There were some others.

The director gave lines to surprising people (Osric has no part here; one of the courtiers we met earlier says Osric's lines at the end); they seem to have cut the line "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"--a notable line because of the Tom Stoppard play with that title; numerous other lines were cut or moved around (almost always done with Hamlet).

The setting was 20th century (we see handguns), and after the intermission, we see they have strewn the stage with rubble inside Elsinore--a sign of implosion and decay and collapse, I guess, but I found it superfluous. Even annoying.

But Cumberbatch? A Hamlet for our time, that's for sure. Intelligent, emotional, witty, mercurial, athletic--Cumberbatch displayed all of these traits and more with supreme control and artistry.