Dawn Reader

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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 181

More about Mary Shelley's novella "Mathilda."

Mathilda grows up reading the few books available in her aunt’s thin but intellectually sturdy library (Shakespeare, Milton, Pope), and fantasizes about disguising herself as a boy, then running off to search for her father. But she doesn’t.
Then on her sixteenth birthday a letter from her father arrives. He is coming to see her. Their reunion is wondrously happy for her. Then—even better—her aunt dies after a couple of months, and Mathilda goes to London to live with her father. But there, her relationship with a young man collapses suddenly, mysteriously, and her father whisks her off to Yorkshire, where he previously lived. And Chapter Four ends with this: I gained his secret and we were both lost for ever.[1]
Hmmmm … his secret? Tell me more!
Nearly a year passes. Concerned about her father’s habitual moroseness, Mathilda convinces him to go for a walk with her in the woods on a lovely evening. She confronts him: What is wrong? Why are you sad all the time? He won’t speak at first. She presses the issue. And he blurts it out: Yes, you are the sole, the agonizing cause of all I suffer, of all I must suffer until I die. …[Y]ou are my light, my only one, my life … I love you.[2]
Oops. Bad Dad. Very Bad Dad.
Mathilda sprints away, collapses in her room, resolves never to see him again. She falls into a sleep, has a dream about her father on the edge of a cliff. Screaming, she awakens. A servant gives her a letter: Her father has left. Terrified because of her dream, she chases after him (in a violent thunderstorm, natch) but arrives too late at the cliff. She swoons.
Later, she decides she will fake her own death, then find a remote place to live, a place where she will not encounter people very often. She considers, then rejects, suicide: I believe that by suicide I should violate a divine law of nature ….[3]
Two years pass …

[1] Ibid., 16.
[2] Ibid., 201.
[3] Ibid., 221.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 77

1. AOTW--What I love: An AOTW roars around me on a double-yellow line (unable to stand my going only 5 mph over the speed limit). And then, down the road, I see him (always a him), waiting at the next stoplight. His impatience has put him a car-length in front of me. It's all I can do not to honk, to offer some simple but sharp sign language.

2. Okay, so I watched the Transporter films with Jason Statham. More than once. So sue me. And a few months ago, spinning around through the offerings on Netflix's streaming service, I discovered that there was a TV series based on the films (sans Statham). I started watching them. Not all that good. No matter. I watched them all--both seasons (trailer). I'll confess that I generally didn't watch them when Joyce was in the bedroom. I watched them between the time I'd stopped reading for the evening and was ready for some Brain Rot. But, anyway, I got sort of hooked. This week I watched the final episode (the series has been cancelled), and the terminal (?) moments show Frank (Our Hero) driving at high speed through an alley directly at a Bad Guy in another car; a game of Chicken. Just before we see what's going to happen--blackout.

3. This week I finally finished George Eliot's 1850 novel, Romola, which, as I've noted here before, I had to force myself to finish. In recent decades I've read the complete novels of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray--about to finish Smollett. And I started on Eliot. I've enjoyed the earlier novels--Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner--and I adored Middlemarch, which I "read" via a set of CDs. But I wanted to read the other ones, and Romola is the price I paid.

It's set in Renaissance Florence (that's Italy, not Florida), and involves (duh) Romola, the devoted daughter of a blind scholar. Enter Tito, an appealing and bright young newcomer (he's Greek), who becomes the father's assistant. Love breaks out. He marries Romola. But then ... Tito's Dark Side emerges. His most heinous act (in my eyes): He sells the scholar's great library! Then he gets involved in local (deadly) politics, has another family, and Gets His in a moment that ranks as high on the scale of Unlikely/Impossible as that moment in David Copperfield when Steerforth, David's old rival, washes up dead at David's feet on a beach near a shipwreck. But this coincidence in Romola is even more unlikely--and made me laugh aloud (not the response Eliot was hoping for, I would guess).

Anyway, I'm still going to read the rest of Eliot (hey, I started--now I have to finish), but I hope I have no more Romola-like experiences!

4. This week I also finished a novel I enjoyed as much as any I've read in a long, long time. Hogarth Press has planned a series of novels based on Shakespeare's plays (2016 is the 400th anniversary of his death)--novels written by various contemporary notables (link to Hogarth Shakespeare information). The first release is The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson, a novel based on one of my favorite of the Bard's plays--The Winter's Tale. (Oddly, tomorrow we're going to our local Cinemark to see the Branagh-Dench production of the same play.)

Winterson has enormous fun with the story--and extracts from it some powerful moments and scenes. Long Shakespeare story short: a king believes his best friend has had sex with the king's wife and impregnated her. He tries to kill the friend (who flees safely) but orders the newborn to be abandoned in the wilderness. The child (Perdita) is saved by a loving family, grows up not knowing who she is; the accused wife dies (so the king thinks). And then he finds out he'd been wrong. Eighteen years pass. Everyone gets back together, the most dramatic moment of which involves the king's witnessing the unveiling of a statue of his late wife--only it's not a statue. It's she. Who forgives!!!!! Winterson gives that statue-moment a great twist.

Winterson sets the story today (Internet, Facebook), makes the accused wife a popular singer, adds some layers of homoerotic attraction between the king and his friend, etc. etc. I have to tell you that I wept at the end.

There's some metafictional playfulness, too--one direct mention of Winter's Tale and some other allusions to Shakespeare--clear and cloudy. And Winterson herself steps into the story near the end.

I so greatly admired Winterson's mastery of the page. She whisks us here and there, alters some of the original plot so that it makes more sense in the contemporary world, has some downright fun--e.g., Autolycus, the conman, cut-purse in the original, deals with used cars (Auto ..) and cheats at cards. I laughed aloud in the coffee shop--just as, later, I wept like a little kid who just found his lost kitten, which, miraculously, has learned to talk, The reason? Winterson gives Perdita the final two pages--a soliloquy of sorts--and she nails it.

Wonderful writing. I wish I could read it again and still feel my sense of wonder, surprise, elation.

5. Words, Words, Words. Some recent words I liked (for various) reasons, words that popped up on my various online word-of-the-day sites:

  • sternutate = to sneeze
  • inconnu-= an unknown person, a stranger
  • slugabed = a lazy person; one who stays in bed far too late 
  • fastuous = haughty, arrogant
  • pandiculation = the act of stretching oneself

6. A dream on Friday night: I am standing outside. The wind is very strong. Above me, I see items floating in the air. I realize they must be debris from a disaster in the sky. Suitcases, a large cardboard box, and a grand piano. The fierce wind holds them in the air. I hope the piano will not land on me. One item falls into my hand: a clipboard containing some person's schedule for the day. 

I wake up.

7. I thought we had finished all the available-for-streaming episodes of Midsomer Murders, but I discovered one more, an episode that had more than a few similarities to Hamlet. Murder of a father (by a brother?). The Danish police are involved. A gloomy son. A distraught girlfriend. Etc. All involving a kingdom of sorts--a very popular and profitable biscuit business. As usual, it had some incredibly dumb aspects (the Head Baker is a caricature of a caricature), but now, at last, we have seen all the ones available.

8. Finally ... last night we ran some errands, then came home and watched (via Netflix DVD) the 2015 film Chappie, which, though made by the guy (Neill Blomkamp) who did the fine District 9, nonetheless bombed at the box office. Basically, it's about a sentient robot (the first), which must be taught like a child but who--sadly, sadly--falls into the hands of some Bad Guys (who don't somehow seem all that bad by the end). The script is ludicrous, and security at the robot factory is more lax than at Kohl's. (Hugh Jackman's the Very Bad Guy.) But I still found myself having kind of a good time watching it. Scary to think that your entire consciousness, brain, memory, etc. might one day fit on a flash drive (as it does in the film). Link to trailer.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fruitcake Time

There are lots of jokes about fruitcakes, most of which involve (a) how no one eats them but re-gifts them, (b) how they're so heavy they could serve as manhole covers. That sort of thing. I just checked Google and found a site that lists the "six funniest things ever said about fruitcake" (link to site). And (see above) there are all sorts of cartoons.

But there's a fruitcake in our family (no, not one of my brothers) that I've always loved. My grandmother made it; her daughter, my mother, made it; I've been making them for years (and my older brother has recently begun to do so, too). Last year I posted that recipe, though, as I said then, I'm not sure where Grandma got it--a magazine? a friend? It's more or less a "white" fruitcake (see photo at the end.)

Here's a link to last year's post--a post (I just discovered) that repeats some of what I've just said. So it goes in one's galloping dotage! Anyway, last year's post contains an image of the recipe, so--if you're interested, click away!

I'm writing today about the fruitcakes because today is the day I'm baking them. Mom always said you should bake them over Thanksgiving. And I always have done what my mom told me ... okay, not always ...

An hour or so ago I started the process: chopping dried apricots, setting aside cups of mixed candied fruit, walnuts, white raisins, maraschino cherries in their juice), milk, eggs (EggBeaters), a bit of baking powder, a bit of vanilla extract, some unbleached white flour. I begin by creaming the three sticks of (soy) butter with a cup each of light brown sugar and regular sugar. (I think that's all? I'm going on Traitor Memory right now.)

As I type these words, they are serving their hour's sentence in the 325 oven (though I've discovered it almost always takes longer than that, despite what the recipe says). I can smell them, right now, and that smell propels me back to my earliest boyhood. And I see my grandmother's wry smile, hear my grandfather's unique body-shaking laughter, see my mom bringing one to the table, see my dad's eyes light up (food! his favorite thing on earth--except for his second son, of course), see my brothers eyeing the choices (which piece is biggest?). I remember wishing for more and more and more.

Until recently, I've made ten little loaves in the little loaf pans I get at the grocery. We would give them to friends, take them to parties, mail them to family, consume some in a feeding frenzy that would make piranha and sharks feel ashamed for how timid they are.

But last year I made only five--and will probably do so this year, too. I baked just five today. Now that my brother's making them, I don't need to send any to Massachusetts (where he and my other brother live)--though I will probably send one to Mom. There's a neighbor here who gets one every year. We'll give one to our son's grandmother-in-law (who loves them). We'll keep a couple in case we get visitors--and to slice on Christmas Day.

Last year, I still had one in the freezer in September. So I took it out to Mass. for my mom's 96th birthday celebration. It didn't last long.

just out of the oven
28 Nov 2015

Friday, November 27, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 180

I began and finished reading Matilda on March 19, 1997, in the volume The Mary Shelley Reader, edited by Betty Bennett (whom I’d not yet met) and Charles Robinson (whom I’ve never met but with whom I have corresponded). It’s a novella, as I said, and consumes pp. 175–246 in the edition I read. As I look at that volume now, I see I underlined heavily, made my little customary marks: * and ! and a squiggly line alongside paragraphs/passages I think are important, a few little notes (power of the word, p. 200; redemptive value of study, p. 222, Bard (the narrator says if the world is a stage on p. 245); and so on.
The narrator is Matilda herself, a young woman who is dying and is writing the story of her life for her friend Woodville. In the first chapter she tells how her mother died a few days after my birth—a death which, of course, parallels the death of Mary’s own mother in 1797, just after delivering Mary. But unlike Godwin, who remarried and raised Mary, Matilda’s father, distraught, runs off and resolves not to see his daughter, whom he leaves in the care of his sister, a cold woman who takes her off to cold Scotland.
You can see already why Godwin would find the story disturbing. His own losses are there, right from the opening pages, and (as we saw earlier) his reputation had suffered grievously when he had published his memoir about his late wife in 1798, barely a year after she’d died. He had been frank in that volume, too frank for the puritanical reading public of his day.
And now here was his daughter—a daughter who had already humiliated him by running away with a married man—offering a story about a man who would immediately remind readers of Godwin himself. That could not have pleased him.
But wait—there is more, much more, that would distress him.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, 1952

Thanksgiving, 1952, 2015

This is one of my favorite family pictures--ever. I've posted it on Facebook now and then, but here it is again, in all its glory.

Amarillo Air Force Base. Amarillo, Texas. 1952. My dad had been called back to active duty because of the Korean War, but before he was shipped out, the Pentagon decided to re-open AAFB, and Dad, who was living with us in Enid, Okla., at 1709 East Broadway Ave., was only 268 miles away from 4242 West 13th St. in Amarillo, the little brick house where we would move in 1952. (Thank you, Google Maps.) Dad was a chaplain; the base needed one.

Time for a coincidence: Years later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Joyce and I were taking graduate English courses at Kent State University. One of our favorite professors was Dr. Sanford Marovitz. Years after that (we'd stayed in touch with him)--in the 2000s--we were having dinner with him and his wife when he told us that he'd served in the Air Force during the Korean War--and had been stationed at AAFB. He didn't remember Dad, but still ...

As a kid, I liked it that Dad was in the Air Force. It gave me street cred. He had stayed in the Reserves after WW II, and I liked seeing him in his summer khaki uniform, his winter dark blue uniform. I remember him as a Captain, then Major, then Lt. Col. (the rank at which he retired). And I really loved going out to the air base--it was Vance AFB in Enid. I remember thinking, We belong on this base as the sentries would wave us through.

Occasionally, we would go out to one of the bases to hear Dad preach (not my favorite thing to do, I'll confess--but we do have a 78 rpm recording of one of those sermons); occasionally--as the picture shows--we would go out to the base for a meal (couldn't beat the price).

Let's go L-R around the table: little brother, Davi, who had just turned 4; Mom, who had just turned 33; Dad, who was 39; older brother, Dickie, who would turn 11 in about a month; Danny, who had just turned 8. Dickie, by the way, hated sitting in the position where you see him--not because he didn't want to be next to Dad, whom he loved, but because he was left handed and wanted more ... room for his eating maneuvers. I'll have to admit that I liked jumping into the seat he craved before he got there. Ah, brothers!

Davi seems a little alarmed by the camera flash; Mom is smiling (another picture!); Dad looks ... professional, though focused on his food; Dickie seems to be eating with both hands; I, as usual, have my mouth full of bread. I now bake my own, as many of you know, and stuff myself with it all the time.

We look happy, don't we? We were. Mom would soon be starting back to school to get her teaching credential, a passport to what turned out to be a wonderful professional career for her. Dad was probably not thrilled to have been yanked back into the service (he'd been teaching at Phillips Univ. in Enid), but Dad believed deeply in service, in his country. I never heard him complain about it, and serving in the USAF was among the things he was most proud of. He wanted to make sure it was on his gravestone. It is. Dickie, already loving classical music, is probably somewhat annoyed about the Muzak that was surely playing in the background, but he also seems fixed on his food. I just noticed that he somehow got away without wearing a tie, an escape that I clearly did not manage to pull off. Davi is probably enjoying the thought that during the school year he is the only son still at home with Mommy. Dickie and I head off to Avondale Elementary every day.

I'm probably thinking about bread--and about the dessert that will soon arrive. I'm hoping for lots of whipped cream (as, I'm sure, were my dad and Dickie).

Four of us are still alive. We lost Dad right after Thanksgiving, 1999. November 30. He'd had a long, slow, agonizing decline. Cane, walker, wheelchair (he was deadly in his motorized one), bed. It took years. Mom just turned 96 in September and is fiercely hanging onto life, now residing in an assisted-living place in Lenox, Mass. Dickie lives in Dorchester, Mass., with Phil and is very happy. (I assume he gets to sit at the table where he chooses now!) He's been retired for awhile from the Boston Globe, where he was the music critic for decades. He still has many freelance gigs, though. Davi still works for the business he started many years ago--the Winthrop Group--an enterprise that writes corporate histories. He's all over the world, still. He tried university teaching after completing his Ph.D. at Harvard, but he didn't really like it. And moved on. He's married to Janice, who taught in the Harvard Business School for years, and they have twins, Rick and Bella, now in their mid-twenties.

And I? I retired from thirty years of teaching middle school in Aurora, Ohio. Then I retired again after ten more years at Western Reserve Academy. I loved teaching, first day to last. (I might still be doing it if I didn't have to grade papers--and if the standardized-test craze would dissipate!) Joyce and I married late in 1969 and will celebrate anniversary number 46 in a few weeks. She is finishing her amazing career teaching writing at Hiram College--and is nearing the end of her decade-long project, a book about John Brown. We have a son, Steve, born in July 1972. He teaches part-time at the University of Akron, works for Innovation Ohio (Education Policy Consultant), and in January will commence a four-year term on the city council in Green, Ohio, where they live. A wonderful daughter-in-law, Melissa, who teaches in the College of Nursing at KSU. And two grandsons, Logan (10) and Carson (6), who are two distinct varieties of spectacular.They'll all be over today at noon for turkey, et al.

I've been a fortunate man. A very fortunate man. I got to grow up in that family you see. Those parents, those brothers. I got to go to college, grad school. I met Joyce, fell in love immediately, somehow convinced her that being with me was a good idea. I had a career I adored. Since 1999 I've been publishing book reviews like mad (about 1500 of them in Kirkus Reviews and the Cleveland Plain Dealer)--although the PD gig is over because the paper recently decided to publish reviews only from the wire services. Yes, I have some health issues, but I can still do so many things I love--bake, read, write, go to movies and plays, work out a little bit, do whatever Joyce wants me to do.

And as for giving thanks? Well, I do that every day. Every single day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 179

Back in England

So much of the Shelleys’ time in Italy seems, as I read over these pages, so involved with travel, child care, marital strife, dealing with friends, and, of course death. But both Bysshe and Mary, somehow, found time to write—and to write some pretty impressive pieces. In this memoir, I’m not as concerned with Bysshe’s writing, but during his time in Italy he wrote some of his most celebrated works, including Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “A Defence of Poetry,” and numerous others. It’s still hard to comprehend that he was only twenty-nine when he drowned off the coast of Viareggio.
In 1819, by the way, he wrote a couple of short pieces to Mary, fragments, really, that reflect the tensions in their marriage at the time. Here’s one …
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed,—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down the dreary road,
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode;
Thou sittest on the heart of pale despair,
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee.

We need to remember, of course, that by the time he’d written these lines, they had buried two of their little children in Italy. And Mary was understandably despondent. Later, when Mary published her late husband’s works, she did not include these lines among them, not in the first edition.

Mary wrote a novella she began in August 1819 and finished in February 1820. She called in Matilda, and she sent it to her father in 1820 to see if he could make arrangements for publication. But Godwin put it in a drawer, where it stayed, and it was not published until 1959, the year I would turn fifteen. And therein lies a tale …

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day), 3

Okay, so we're back in the early 1970s. Harmon (Middle) School. Aurora, Ohio. I'm teaching seventh graders at the time. And I've been writing here about teaching about Westerns in my class.

As I've written in my two earlier posts on this subject, I'd loved Westerns since boyhood, and this class at Harmon allowed me to indulge my affections (vices?) like an addict. I showed Shane (kids wrote about it; we discussed it); kids read Western novels (of their choice--some read Shane; others, True Grit or The Cowboys or others); we talked about the whole idea of the Western in American popular culture.

This unit of study also re-ignited my interest in Billy the Kid, an interest that would effloresce so abundantly later on that some Harmon kids and I would write a musical comedy, Billy the Kid, which we twice performed at Harmon School, once in the spring of 1979 (when I was no longer at the school--I had taken a position at Lake Forest College; four years later I would return to Harmon and retire there in January 1997), another time in November 1984. I would go on to collect Billy-abilia, visit the "shrines" in New Mexico, and deliver at Western Reserve Academy a multi-media talk on the Kid in ... 1980? 1981?

At Harmon, my Billy-phase was in the early stages of its resurrection. I had the kids watch Arthur Penn's film about the Kid, The Left Handed Gun (1958), a film that featured the young Paul Newman as the Kid (link to trailer for the film).

this poster adorned my
classroom walls for years
The film was based on an earlier TV play by the young Gore Vidal--The Death of Billy the Kid, a script which I found in a Vidal collection and duplicated to read with my students. It had originally appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse, July 24, 1955, an era when TV regularly offered live dramatic productions. Paul Newman had played the Kid in that production, as well, and some of the other cast members would return for the film, too.

Vidal lost any voice in the film, though, when producer Fred Coe rejected his screenplay and replaced him with Leslie Stevens. (Vidal was not happy: It was he who had brought Newman into the project.) You can get some more details about this in Jay Parini's recent fine biography of Vidal--Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.

Director Arthur Penn would go on to do Bonnie and Clyde (1967), altering the face of American films (and putting his career into Skyrocket mode). Vidal would go on to write bestsellers. And then in 1989 appeared Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, a TV movie with Val Kilmer in the title role. (Link to trailer.) You can see the entire film on YouTube, by the way.

I should add that the films I showed were films--16mm prints that we ran on those big old reel-to-reel projectors that would occasionally lock up and melt a frame or two (occasioning, always, cheers from the students). No cheap VHS for us! No wimpy video computer files!

Well, my Western phase eventually slowed and died. Times changed. I got interested in The Call of the Wild and The Diary of Anne Frank and Shakespeare, and other writers and texts.

But while I was still lost in the sagebrush, I read another novel by Jack Schaefer (Cleveland-born author of Shane)--Monte Walsh (1963), a novel that begins with this: A boy and his horse. And there was a (not very good) film in 1970 with Lee Marvin ... and (once again!) Jack Palance.

Well, yes ...

my beat-up copy
from the 1970s

Monday, November 23, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 178

Yet another death in the Summer of Death, 1822

I see, going over my notes, that I neglected one key story in this Summer of Death, 1822. I’ve told about Mary’s miscarriage on June 16, about the drownings of Bysshe, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian early in July. I’ve told a little about the death of Byron in 1824.
But there’s another story, one that takes us back to the Frankenstein summer of 1816, the summer when Mary and Bysshe met Byron in Switzerland, where the turbulent weather (courtesy of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia a year earlier, an eruption that had global climate consequences) forced the friends indoors for much of the time, where—as we know—Byron proposed the ghost-story competition that gave birth to Frankenstein (and some other tales).
I’ve written, too, how one object of that visit to Geneva was to deal with a problem facing Claire Clairmont, daughter of William Godwin’s second wife. Mary’s stepsister. Only a few months younger than Mary, she had joined Bysshe and Mary when they’d eloped in 1814 and had been living with them, on and off, ever since. And would continue to do so for quite a while.
In the summer of 1816, Claire was pregnant. The father was Lord Byron. And “arrangements” had to be made, arrangements about which I’ve written earlier. On January 12, 1817, Claire delivered the child (Claire named her Alba; Byron insisted she change the name to Allegra; she did).
When the Shelleys and Claire went to Italy in the spring of 1818, they surrendered Allegra to her father (also in Italy), and Byron proceeded to pretty much ignore the little girl. He eventually placed her in a convent/convent school, where he never visited her, entrusting her instead to the care of his banker in Ravenna—a man who was also taking care of his animals.[1]
In mid-April, 1822, Byron got word that Allegra was ill. Doctors bled the five-year-old—several times. By April 19 she was dead. Byron, reportedly, was distraught—but not in public. Byron’s principal biographer, Leslie Marchand, believes there is little doubt that Byron was deeply affected by the event.[2] I don’t doubt that he was—and I’m sure much of it was due to a conscience that must have already been quite overtaxed.
He wrote a note to Bysshe on April 23. The blow was stunning and unexpected, he said. Time will do his usual work—Death has done his.[3]
But now … how to tell Claire that her daughter was gone?
Bysshe and others were discussing that very issue when Claire walked in the room at Casa Magni. On May 3, Bysshe wrote to Byron about that moment—a moment they had put off, as you can tell by the date, for a week and a half. I will not describe her grief to you, he said.[4] He told Byron that Claire had requested to see the coffin, to have a clipping of her hair and a little portrait of her daughter. And Byron complied.
Earlier, I wrote about Byron’s determination to bury the child at a church near Harrow School, his own boyhood school back in London. I described the marker I saw there in 1999.

But as I sit here today, I have difficulty imagining the horrors of Mary Shelley’s experiences in Italy. Yes, they saw Florence and Rome and Venice and Naples. They climbed Vesuvius. Viewed some of the world’s great art.
But Mary had to bury children and a husband. And to prepare to return to England, a country where she knew she would be greeted as a Fallen Woman. An outcast.

[1] Marchand, Biography, 3: 991–92.
[2] Ibid., 993.
[3] Letters, 9: 147–48.
[4] Letters, 2: 415.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 76

1. AOTW: Amazingly, no one really stood out this week. But Christmas is coming, and some people, I know, have very special ... gifts ... they save for the holiday season!

2. This week we finished streaming the 5th season of Portlandia, and the wackiness continued in this unique series featuring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who play a variety of characters (of varying genders) in each episode. It's fun to see some of Armisen's former SNL colleagues pop in for a cameo now and then (Seth Meyers was in a recent one), and other notables (Jeff Goldblum, Kyle MacLachlan, etc.), too. I can't "binge-watch" these shows--about one a week is all I can take ... I seem to have some sort of Wackometer that will not permit any more than that!

3. This week, I finished Station Eleven (2014), a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel that tells yet another story about what happens when a virus wipes out most of humanity. A couple of other writers I know about--Mary Shelley and Jack London--also employed this device, Shelley in her novel The Last Man (1826), and London in The Scarlet Plague (1912). And it's a popular plot device these days--screen and page.

What drew me to Mandel's work, I think, was a review that had mentioned a Shakespeare angle to the story, and, indeed, there is a traveling company of survivors that goes around mounting productions of Lear, Midsummer Night's Dream, and some others in the little communities that have gathered since the great destruction. We follow the stories of several characters, and Mandel moves artfully around in time, filling us in on the stories of her principals. There's also a Bad Guy, who calls himself The Prophet and has gathered around him a group of (murderous) True Believers. So there's a little violence here, as well.

What I liked best--the storytelling, the clever use of Shakespeare's plays, and the hope that infuses all. We fall, we start over, we try again ...

4. I also finished Rick Moody's latest, Hotels of North America (2015), which purports to be the
collected online reviews of a guy named Reginald Edward Morse. "Rick Moody" appears at the end in an Afterword, but he has just stepped into his own novel as a character, not as "himself." Most of the reviews are about the reviewer (generally the case in all kinds of reviews, even those written by someone I know about as well as my own image in the mirror), and so we learn all about Morse's failed loves, marriage, his daughter, and, incidentally, some amusing observations about America's motels and hotels.

I was struck because I've stayed in some of the places he mentioned--and others? Well, he has a review of a place in Cannon Beach, Ore., the beautiful little town where my parents first retired; he also has a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines. Well, there was a Tall Corn in Davenport, Iowa (not in Des Moines, as far as I know), and back before our son was born, Joyce, my brother (Dave), and I were driving out to Des Moines for a family visit, and my 1969 VW Fastback broke down near Davenport, and we spent a night in the Tall Corn. Quite an experience.

Cleveland makes the novel, too.

Anyway, Moody is the master of the l-o-n-g sentence, and the cumulative power of some of them is stunning--as is the final paragraph of this very unique, original novel by one of my favorite contemporary writers.

4. We started streaming yet another British mystery series, Vexed (link to trailer for Season 1), a very odd series about a couple of mismatched homicide detectives: a crude, barely competent, ethically challenged guy and a bright confused woman married to something of a creepo. The very first scene in the very first episode shows the two looking at a flat for her to rent, and it's a little while before we realize that this is a crime scene, and the bloody body is lying on the floor!

Again, I can't binge-watch this. Saving and savoring,

5. Finally--last night we watched (Netflix DVD) the 2009 Steven Soederbergh film (link to trailer), The Informant, which stars Matt Damon as a troubled executive with Archer Daniels Midland (corn products mega-corporation) who, at first, seems to be a stereotypical whistle-blower. But then the film gets interesting as the complexities of Damon's character emerge. Complexities is an understatement. Soederbergh is a masterful storyteller, and so the thing unwinds in surprising ways--and features some very odd characters--Damon's wife, a couple of FBI agents, who are, to see the least, not, uh, typical.

I don't know why we didn't see this when it was in theaters ... ? But loved watching it last night.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day), 2

Okay, Memory is not the most reliable friend you have.

Last time I wrote that I'd started doing an elective on Westerns in the mid-1970s at the newly opened Harmon Middle School (1974-75 academic year).

And after I uploaded the post, I went to look for some files. I, as many of you know, am a Pack Rat, and I knew that somewhere in this Mess That Is My Life must be a file (some files?) I used when I was teaching about Shane and his coevals. (I've always liked the sound of that word, by the way; it means just your contemporaries, but I like the evil sound that accompanies it!)

In my file on Shane, located (alphabetically!) under Schaefer, Jack in one of my many drawers devoted to books and writers, And I found a few items, items which told a slightly different story than the one I'd offered before. One was his obituary from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, an obit I'd clipped back in late January 1991, when he'd died. The obit clearly says that he was born in Cleveland and had graduated from Oberlin--both things I'd totally forgotten (as my post from Thursday can confirm).

I also found a New York Times obituary for actor Jack Palance, who first gained notice (in the Times' words) with "his serpentine portrayal of the nasty gunfighter Jack Wilson in the classic film 'Shane.'" Palance died on November 10, 2006, the day before my 62nd birthday. He was 87. (Link to the obit.)

I also found some kind of published handout about Shane from Films Incorporated. It notes that the film won some awards, including an Oscar for Cinematography.

But the best item I found? An old class handout--done on the old ditto machine at the Aurora Middle School (pre-Harmon)--which has at the top two dates: 1972-73; that date is crossed out in pencil, and 1973-74 is used. This shows that I used basically the same handout those two years. (And for those of you not fortunate enough to be alive in the pre-Xerox, pre-computer generation, this meant that I had to completely retype the handout for the second year.)

It's a handout dealing with the film. While they watched, students had to respond to a basic question at the top: From what the characters SAY and DO,what do you think they BELIEVE about the following issues:

And I have a list that includes four basic headings: Using Guns/Force, Using the Land, Bravery/Courage, Law and Order. I also have a couple of other questions at the bottom--

  • What was the role of women in the West (according to this film)?
  • Compare and contrast this film with the folk tales you've read. (How are they similar? Different?)
Apparently, we'd just finished a unit/topic on folk tales--which I also kind of remember.

As you can see from the (partial) image below, I scrawled some replies to those issues on my own copy. Example: Shane says to Marian (the homesteader's wife, who has just discovered he's adept with guns and has been showing them to her little boy): "A gun is a tool, Marian--no better or no worse than any other tool. A gun is as good or bad as the man using it." Sounds like a contemporary Facebook meme, doesn't it?


Friday, November 20, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 177

And then the Italian dream was over. Mary had endured horrible experiences since she’d left England with Bysshe and their children and such grand hopes back in March of 1818. As I’ve noted here before, in Italy she would bury two little children, suffer a miscarriage (not long before Bysshe drowned), watch her husband become enchanted by other women, see him (a non-swimmer) buy a boat and spend much of his time out on it with his buddies.
That fatal summer of 1822, she hated their isolated house near Lerici. She dreaded the thought of Leigh Hunt and his family arriving (there was no room). Claire Clairmont was around from time to time, and their relationship remained fraught with tension and personal history. And now Bysshe was dead, and she was alone with her son, Percy Florence Shelley, not yet three. What now?
Things fell apart.
The Hunts had come to Italy so that Leigh Hunt could edit the journal The Liberal, which Byron and Bysshe had planned. It lasted only four issues. (Mary wrote a couple of pieces for a couple of issues.) But the heart was gone from it; Byron was losing interest. And so it died.
Back in England, Mary knew, there would be no welcome for her and her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Bysshe’s father, had never forgiven her for what he viewed as the destruction of his son’s reputation. He refused to communicate directly with her, a refusal he steadfastly maintained until his death in April 1844 (at age 90!)—more than twenty years after his son’s drowning. Sir Timothy had insisted that all communications must come via intermediaries. And so it did.
Not long after the drowning, Byron wrote to him, asking for help for Mary (whom Byron himself had been assisting). Sir Timothy wrote back with a condition: If she would surrender his grandson to Sir Timothy himself, then  … maybe …
Byron suggested that Mary accept the offer. But she would have none of it—a decision that she knew would anger Sir Timothy and make her life even more difficult. She hoped it wouldn’t be for long, though. Sir Timothy was, well, old (born in 1753, he was 68 when his son died). Mary knew that her son was the legal heir to the Shelley fortune: He was born after Bysshe and Mary had finally married, so there was no question—despite Sir Timothy’s bitterness.
Meanwhile, as I said, Byron had taken up another cause—the Greek War for Independence. So he and Trelawny got some uniforms designed and set sail for Greece in July 1823, almost exactly a year after the drownings.
By then, Mary had decided to return to England. And a week after Bryon and Trelawny sailed toward Byron’s death, Mary and her son left for England, overland—with borrowed money. A month later they arrived in London—where some big surprises were awaiting her.
She was twenty-five years old.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day)

I always loved Westerns as a kid--and why not? I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1950s, and the nightly TV schedule in those days was chockablock with cowboys. In 1954-55, when I turned ten and eleven years old, the following shows were on every week during prime time: The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Gene Autry, Frontier, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Brave Eagle, Wanted, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Gunsmoke. There were others during the daytime. And I should add Disneyland, whose most popular segment was Frontierland.

Another factor: My dad's family all lived in Oregon, and every few years we drove out to see them--drove across some of the very terrain I was watching on TV. How could I not become an addict?

I also loved Western movies and saw all that I could at the theaters in Enid (there were four downtown and two drive-ins, as well). Many of the B-Westerns appeared on the weekends, and I watched them with an affection that bordered on the inappropriate.

As I grew older, the Western gradually disappeared from the Tube (as we used to call it in the days of tubes) and from the theaters. But I never forgot.

Let's zip forward to the mid-1970s. Aurora, Ohio. Harmon Middle School, which opened for business during the 1974-75 school year. In those days, the Language Arts Department (I was chair at the time) offered not only a "regular" English class at each grade level but also electives. Teachers were free to create courses (ranging in length from 4 to 12 weeks) they thought would appeal to kids. And for a couple (few?) years I offered an elective on The Western.

Let's zip forward to today. Writer's Almanac noted that today is the birthday of writer Jack Schaefer (1907-91). I don't think I knew until this morning that he was born in Cleveland and went to Oberlin. (See his picture at the top of the page--and here's a link to today's Writer's Almanac.)

Schaefer's most famous novel--all due, of course to the film that would ensue--was Shane (1949). My own copy is a paperback, a 35th printing, and the photo here shows the very copy I used with my students back at Harmon. I didn't write in the book the date when I first read it (grrrr), but there are quite a few underlinings, including this bit of wisdom from the narrator's father:

There are some things you don't ask a man. Not if you respect him (38).

I should stop here to tell you a little about Shane. It's the story of a gunfighter (see title) who's trying to escape his old fiery life. He becomes a hired man out in Wyoming for the family of the narrator, who was but a lad when the events he tells about occurred. But, of course, Shane gets drawn into a range war--cattlemen vs. homesteaders--and the novel culminates with what would become one of the most famous gunfights in cinema history. Oh, and there is more than a suggestion that there's some electricity crackling between Shane and the wife of the homesteader.

Link to trailer for the 1953 film.

I see, by the way, that the entire film is on YouTube, as well.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 176

As I wrote the other day, Byron, having enormous emotional difficulty with the cremations of his friends, Edward Williams and Bysshe, had gone for a long swim off the coast of Viareggio while the fire sputtered and blazed on the beach. Byron was an excellent swimmer—an activity that was not hindered—as walking and running were—by his club foot.
On May 3, 1810 (he was twenty-two years old), he swam the Dardanelles (aka Hellespont). A few weeks later he wrote to his mother about his accomplishment: my only notable exploit lately, has been swimming from Sestos to Abydos on the 3rd of this month, in humble imitation of Leander … though I had no Hero to receive me on the other shore of the Hellespont.[1]
But on that day off the coast of Viareggio, he lost track of the time and—as I mentioned—sustained a serious sunburn, so serious that, later, his entire back peeled in a continuous sheet of skin. What I’ve not mentioned till now is this. Byron died only about two years later—off in Greece, where he’d gone with Trelawny to join the Greek War of Independence (1821–32)—but it was illness that got him, not warfare. Later still, we learn that Teresa Guiccioli, his lover at the time, had kept some of that sheet of skin.[2]
As long as we’re being grim … when friends and family arranged for Byron’s body to return to England for burial, they packed it in wine for preservation’s sake. Mary, back in England now, was among the few allowed to view the poet’s remains (they were purple), and she also saw the throngs lining the route to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey near Nottingham. On July 28, 1824, she wrote to Trelawny: it went to my heart when the other day the hearse that contained his lifeless form, a form of beauty which in life I often delighted to behold, passed my window going up Highate Hill on his last journey …[3]
But something grimmer was about to occur. Byron’s friends—worried about the poet’s reputation (which was already scandalous, to say the least)—burned his unpublished memoirs. Mary had read them, and in the same letter to Trelawny said there was not much in them. Oh, but isn’t it fun to wonder?

[1] Byron’s Letters and Journals, vol. 1, 243-44.
[2] Ibid., vol. 9, 197n.
[3] 436–7.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mr. Bug and Friends

Yes, I've been AWOL from DawnReader for a bit. Here's what happened.

On Wednesday afternoon--while I was riding the exercise bike at the health club--Mr. Bug flew in my ear and made this announcement:

MR. BUG: I'm here. And I've brought some of my friends. You know them well: Congestion, Weariness, Sore Throat, Fever. Oh, and just for good measure, I've brought Imbalance, a new friend who will compound your little problems now with vertigo.

ME: Why?

MR. BUG: Oh, I don't know. It's just who we are--it's what we do.

ME: Nice.

MR. BUG: Thank you.

ME: I didn't mean it is a compliment.

MR. BUG: Compliment accepted. [Pause.] So ... here's the deal: You're not going to feel well for a week or so. You're going to cough, sniffle, swallow with difficulty. And--most of all--you're not going to be able to stay awake. You're not going to go anywhere; you're not going to want to go anywhere. You are going to wonder if you'll ever feel well again. Basically, we are taking over your Starship.


I must say that all Mr. Bug's predictions came true. On Wednesday evening--in the early stages (the maybe-this-is-just-a-minor-thing stages)--I went to a birthday dinner with my family at Dontino's, an Italian restaurant in North Akron--a place Joyce has loved since girlhood.  I felt pretty well, especially after a plate of pasta (homemade noodles) and after being frisky with my grandsons and their parents.

But later--at home--Mr. Bug asserted his dominance--and his veracity. I've felt pretty lousy since then, and one day (was it Sunday? all days blend ...) I did little but sleep. In the 24 hours I was awake for maybe two or three hours. (I did manage to have one dream weird enough that I'm working on some doggerel about it.)

Yesterday, I was feeling a bit better. I returned to the coffee shop. Made bread. And last night Joyce and I took a little drive. Then I had a lousy night--coughing, Sniffling. Cursing. (I heard Mr. Bug chortling somewhere.)

This morning I'm enduring some aches and pains, but feeling a little better once again. I will take it easy. And hope to be able to return to the exercise bike tomorrow ... assuming Mr. Bug has no further plans for me.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 75

1. AOTW--No one stood out this week, other than the usual traffic-wackos.

2. I've not been able to post much this week because some virus had settled in for an extended visit. (I did not even go out of the house yesterday but slept virtually all day.) I feel a bit better this morning, and Joyce and I went over to Open Door for coffee and the New York Times, a ritual I simply could not endure missing. Feeling a little woozy--but better. So ... here we go ...

3. The horrors in Paris do not need yet another voice. But sorrow dwells in this house.

4. This week, I finished the late novel by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), an epistolary novel about a journey around England and Scotland. (Smollett was a Scot.) Clinker himself appears to be a very minor character for much of the novel, but then ... things change. I felt--at times--that there was too much travelogue, but other times I saw the sharp satire of English ways, and the topic of class (so important to the English) arises in various--and sometimes disturbing--ways.

As I've posted before, I've been slowly working my way through all of Smollett and am now reading the final one--The History and Adventures of an Atom, which appeared a couple of years before Clinker.

5. This word-of-the-day from my tear-off calendar--bugbear--is one I think I've written about before, but I thought it would be interesting to post it again. It's not a word I hear very much--but it is one that I see in print now and again.

6. Joyce and I finished streaming the latest season of Death in Paradise, yet another British mystery series to which we've become addicted. The show, which takes place on a fictitious Caribbean island, is formulaic (at the end, the cops always gather all the suspects in a room and identify the murder), but rather than being annoyed by this, I find myself looking forward to it.

SPOILER ALERT: We were a little slow to start this new season because we knew that the quirky English detective (whom we really liked) was going to die in the initial episode, but we eventually succumbed to curiosity and started it up, END OF SPOILER ALERT. It took us a while to get used to the new quirky English detective, but we eventually did, and we've ended up liking him a lot, too.

It's a tricky show, racially. The White Guy is the brilliant one--you know? But I noticed this season (3rd) that the islanders who compose his investigative team are contributing more and more to the solutions. But ... it's always The White Guy who has the series of intuitive insights that solve the thing--just as it was in the previous seasons.

I see that there will soon be a season 4 available--and a season 5 is set to go. Good news for the Streaming Junkies here in Hudson, Ohio.

7. Plain Dealer watch: Where did this Sunday's book reviews come from? Three full reviews this week (the norm)--2 from the New York Times, 1 from Dayton Daily News.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Just Because ...

I don't think I'm alone in this: There are some (many?) things I do all the time just because I've always done them. And not all of them make sense. Let's look at an example: Midsomer Murders.

This British TV series has been on for a long time--since 1998--and they're still cranking out episodes, though with a much-altered cast. I can't remember when we started (it was not 1998), but since we've had the capacity to stream episodes via Netflix, well, let's just say that we've been watching them for a long time.

Joyce, I know, thinks it's too long and does not at all mind when I start (or finish) an episode without her. (Our customary TV watching is at night, in bed, shortly before z-z-z-z-z-z time, a time that, in Joyce's case, Midsomer Murders greatly accelerates.)

Midsomer is a fictitious county in England that apparently has a lot of murder going on. The stories have a comforting (or, depending on your point of view, boring) sameness about them. In the first few minutes someone gets offed--hardly ever with a firearm. (You know the Brits!) And then here comes CI Barnaby and his trusty companion to sort things out. It always takes an hour and a half to do the sorting.

The recent Barnaby is a cousin to the previous one. And the Barnabys have had a couple of subordinate partners in the series. We are now streaming Season 16 (2014), and there's a new young guy on board, DS Nelson, who's doing pretty well putting up with Barnaby's dour cynicism. Barnaby's wife (about to deliver) likes him and has been forcing her husband to be ... decent to him. (See photo below.)

(By the way, the kissing between Barnaby and his wife is about as chaste as I've seen since the 1950s--and invariably concludes with a smack. If I were to try that, Joyce would give me a different kind of smack. Not really ... but she would surely think about it.)

Anyway, the episodes virtually never engage me. I find myself not caring who did the murder. And I just want it to be over ... so I can see the next one.

My older brother started watching them but gave up fairly quickly. I understand. I should have, too. (Joyce agrees.) But I just can't. It's part of my temperament to keep going, I guess.

I've very rarely quit reading a book--even a book I hate. (Doing so--quitting--seems to indicate a character flaw--although I have plenty of those.)

I tend to buy the same brands of things, even when there have been some ... failures. I write letters to my mother the same days each week (Wed and Sun).

I have written here before about all my routines and habits, and I seem to be doing it again. Just a habit, I guess.

Anyway, I will stream through this season of Midsomer and wait for the next one to become available. And Joyce will continue to regard me with The Look but will silently allow the show to usher her into the arms of Morpheus.