Christmas pudding no doubt

I don't know what Christmas used to be like in America in the olden days, but from all I've heard, it wasn't much fun for a lot of people.  We have Washington Irving to thank for rescuing the American Christmas from its dour Puritan non-celebratory observance.

Washington Irving in his younger days

He wrote a series of sketches published in 1820 about an Old English Christmas and the proper way to celebrate it.  He's also the first to describe St Nicholas flying through the sky in a wagon, something Clement C Moore (or someone Moore plagiarized from, depending on who you believe) picked up on and transformed into a sleigh.  Irving also influenced Charles Dickens' views of what Christmas ought to be, as expressed in his famous stories, like A Christmas Carol.

And what's more, Irving was the first person to refer to New York City as Gotham (which means "Goat Town" in Anglo-Saxon), and if that doesn't put you in mind of Christmas, I don't know what will.

I've had Washington Irving on my mind the last week or so, partly because I've been reading "An Old English Christmas", and partly because it snowed ten inches yesterday but I can't find my sled so the snow is of no practical use to me.  But it looks pretty.

Last summer (talk about extremes of weather), one of the things I wanted to do most while in New York was visit Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, NY.  Irving is not an author I read on any regular basis, but I enjoy him when I do read him.  And he can be laugh-out-loud funny.  So we visited his house.

Sunnyside, on the banks of the Hudson

On the piazza - proof I was there
Irving's impressively book-lined study -- there was a nice little couch in there 
where he could take a nap.  I like that idea.  PS  No interior photography was allowed.

Irving never married (sadly, his fiancée of his younger years died, and later, another girl he loved turned down his marriage proposal -- oh, but by the way, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, had a big crush on Irving, but he did not reciprocate; I think that's really interesting), so he pretty much opened his house to his nieces and other relatives, who stayed on after he died, and so on and so forth.  In that way, the house remained in the Irving family's possession until the 1940s, when it was bought by John D Rockefeller as part of a historic preservation project.  The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and is now operated by the Historic Hudson Valley organization.  Because of the history of the house -- going right from family possession to museum -- things were left pretty much the way Irving had them, and it was easy to find his own possessions (clothing, books, furniture) and restore it.  There is therefore a great sense or spirit of the man in his own house, much stronger than what you find in Twain's house, for instance.  The tour guide was also very knowledgeable and entertaining, as a good tour guide should always be.

In addition to visiting the house, we also drove into Sleepy Hollow to visit the cemetery where Irving is buried.  This, of course, is the cemetery made famous in his story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".  It was rather exciting to see the famous bridge over the Pocantico.

 The original bridge was so old, they had to replace all the nails.  And all the wood.  
Please note the bridge is not a covered bridge, as it has erroneously been depicted in films.

Of course it's not the same, original bridge that Ichabod Crane never crossed over (never because he never existed), but it's supposed to be in the same style and not far from where the bridge would've been in Irving's time.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

It was a little solemn-making to see Irving's grave, as well as the memorials to those who died in or were veterans of the Revolutionary War and Civil War.  There were a lot of Van Tassels listed on the Revolutionary War memorial.

Sunnyside and the accompanying towns of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow (where the high school mascot is the Headless Horseman) made a very satisfying literary pilgrimage.  I'm glad we had the opportunity to visit.

Recommended reading:


Eighteen times the speed of Mark Twain

We paid a visit to Mark Twain's house, and I do mean paid.

Twain and his family lived there from 1874 to 1891.  The neighborhood looked quite different back then.  Apparently, back in Twain's day, one could see from the house's atrium window all the way down to the river.  Nowadays, the river has been directed underground just before it reaches Farmington Avenue and, if you could see through the trees, all you'd have a view of is some apartment buildings.  The property itself is quite the developed set-up, with a visitors' center that includes a museum and a gift shop and a room for special exhibits and an art gallery.  There's even a life-size statue of the man made out of Legos.  In the museum, we saw Mark Twain's Desk.  There was also a Desk in the actual house.  I suppose a famous writer can have more than one Desk.

The house itself was fascinating, partly because our tour guide was interestingly well-informed, and partly because Twain was rather eccentric when it came to achieving the effects with decor that he wanted.  When you're such a famous wit and you've written so many classic books, I guess you get to be eccentric.  I think people may even expect it of you.  At least he wasn't eccentric with his house the way Mrs Winchester was with hers.  There's nothing approaching that scale here.

There was a bit of an air of enterprise about the tour, perhaps because after Twain sold the house it went through phases, like Toby Miniver:  first it was a school, then an apartment building, then a library.  The trustees have made every effort to restore the house to its Twain-era appearance, and they brought back many of Twain's original possessions, such as his bed and billiards table, and the enormous fireplace mantel.  I was most impressed with the upstairs schoolroom for the children and with the library.  I asked the docent who guided our group if those were Twain's original books, and he replied that the titles and editions were the same ones that Twain owned, but that his original books (with his name and any marginalia in them) were kept elsewhere, to keep sticky fingers from being tempted to purloin them.

In spite of the trustees' successful efforts at restoring the house to its former state, I felt like there was just that hint of commercialism and just that lack of the spirit of the man about the place.  They may have his stuff, but I don't think they have him.  Nevertheless, the house is well-worth visiting, especially if you have a knowledgeable and entertaining docent who will swoop you about the place.

Mark Twain's house all done up in 4th of July finery

The library, complete with enormous mantelpiece acquired from a Scottish castle.  
(No indoor photography was allowed; this is a postcard I bought.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door to the Twains.  
You can visit two famous author houses for the price of two!

Recommended reading:

Not that I have anything against Cooper; I just think this is dang funny.


The library is in your mind

I think libraries have lost some of their magic.  Or maybe it's just that I'm older and find magic harder to come by, but there was a mystique I used to feel when I went into a well-established (ie, old) library, even when it was just the dimly lit bookmobile that used to stop at the corner near our house when I was a child.  Now libraries are all about technology.  No more card catalogues, no more scouring the reference section for some arcana when you can go check out computer time and look it up online.  Not that that's a bad thing.  It saves a lot of time.  And maybe what I feel when I think about my library experiences of yore is just useless nostalgia.  Because isn't the real magic to be found when you're lost in a book?

Nevertheless, the New York Public Library has been an epitome of Librariness for me since I was a youngster, so I had to stop by there while we were in the City. 

The lions on the steps leading to the library have been there since 1911, and have had 
several names over the years.  Currently, they are known as Patience and Fortitude, 
names given them by Mayor LaGuardia during the Depression.  But I call them 
Fred and George, after my favorite literary twins.

Lots of people were in the library the day we visited.  I wonder how many were 
tourists, like me, or how many had just come inside to escape the 100º weather.

Part of the reference section.  No one's there because 
everyone is looking up stuff on the Internet.

Shannon looks up a word in the dictionary so she can say she actually 
used the library.  (I did, too, but there's no picture.  My word was "alabaster".)


You might as well live

I've been a fan of Dorothy Parker since I first read "Resumé" in high school -- on my own in the library.  (It seems I discovered most of my favorite books and authors on my own or through friends and family, rather than being formally introduced in a classroom or a textbook.  I wonder why that is?  The few exceptions I can think of are Beowulf, Chaucer, the British Romantic poets, and The Phantom Tollbooth.) 

So it was a pleasant surprise to pass by the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street.  I had somehow forgot to add it to our itinerary, but there it was.  I wanted to go inside and look around a bit, but we were a little pressed for time since we had 170 other places to go that day.

The Algonquin Hotel, as you should know, was where the Round Table (a group of writers, critics, and actors) met for long lunches almost daily for about ten years, starting in 1919.   They were witty and entertaining.  If I could time travel, I'd go back and spend a few lunch hours with them, especially when Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were in attendance.  But I have to say, when my extended family gets together at the holidays around our Long Rectangular Table, no one can beat us for wit and entertainment.

Recommended reading:


Eyes open, eyes closed

When you think of literary connections to Washington Square, you generally think of Henry James.  At least, I do.  I can't help it, since he went and named one of his books Washington Square.  But that's not why I wanted to see the place for myself.  Once again, Edna St Vincent Millay was my inspiration.  Her poem "English Sparrows" is another favorite of mine (you can read it here), and that was the main reason I had the desire to go to Washington Square while we were in New York City.

As we walked along, and as I was telling Shannon the plot of James' book, we saw an evil-looking squirrel staring at us from under a tree just off the path.  I wonder what Millay would have made of that.  There is poetic inspiration everywhere.


We were very tired, we were very merry

We were very hot.

Last summer, Gary and I made a trip to Connecticut and New York to visit Shannon and her in-laws and to see the sights.  I was determined to check out all the places that I'd missed the last time I was there (40 years ago) and to see a few other places I'd become interested in since then.  But it turned out we went during a heat wave, and both days we were in New York City it was nearly 100º.  I didn't let that stop me.

Back when I was in college, there was this PBS program I occasionally watched called Anyone for Tennyson?  The program featured different actors performing the weekly poet's selected work.  I particularly remember the episode focusing on Edna St Vincent Millay.  I hadn't read anything of hers before, but I was hooked by the poems recited in that episode.  I can still remember how powerfully I was struck by the performance of "There at Dusk I Found You".  I don't remember who did it, but I was in awe.  I also really liked "Recuerdo", not just because of what it says, but because it reminds me of times when I've been with friends, not doing anything special -- and, simply because of who I was with and how I felt at the time, it became a favorite memory.

Soon after watching that show, I went to the library on campus and found the collected works of Edna St Vincent Millay.  She's been a favorite poet of mine ever since.  So, naturally, I had to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. I was happy to see that, at the ferry terminal, there is a phrase from "Recuerdo" painted in large letters on one of the walls.

I was very merry

by Edna St Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.


I'm glad I ain't scared to be lazy

I had so many plans to write during the last two months, but nothing came of it.  November 13 was Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday -- not much happened around here in way of celebration.  December 1 was Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.  I didn't.

But I've vowed to turn over a new leaf.  (Book pun intended.)  I'm so ambitious that I'm making my New Year's resolutions almost a month in advance!  That way, I can also get a head start on not keeping them.  But before the goal-oriented lassitude overtakes me, I hope to accomplish a few things.

First, here's a review of the different authors I met and got books signed by during 2012.  (I think this might be showing off, but I'm too lazy to care.)

 Brandon Mull

 Brandon Sanderson

 Christopher Paolini

 Dan Wells

 Gail Carriger

 George R R Martin

 Jim Butcher

 Kate DiCamillo

 Kevin Henkes

 Lisa See

 Lois Lowry

 Max Brooks

 Orson Scott Card

 Raymond Feist

 Robin Hobb

 Scott Westerfeld

T Jefferson Parker

I also got a book signed by Mark Danielewski, but for some reason I didn't get a photo.

Next time:  Something else!


The rest of the story has been censored

It's Banned Books Week!  I was reminded of it when I went to the library because they have a display with books behind yellow caution tape.  Well, I've said before what I think about banning books.

I've been thinking about it more lately, partly because of what this Week is, and partly because I read an interesting post by author John Brown.  I really like the idea of an independent source for information about what to expect from books and movies and stuff like that.  I really appreciate the people who take the time to see the movies and read the books (some of which must be real stinkers or exceedingly boring) and then to let others know what's involved content-wise so they can make an informed decision.  Someone on Brown's site mentioned The Literate Mother, so I checked it out and I think it's very useful.  I recommend it.

As part of my personal celebration of Banned Books Week, I decided to make a list of all the challenged or banned books (that I know of) that I've read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Animal Farm
The Bible
Black Beauty
Book of Bunny Suicides
Bridge to Terabithia
The Canterbury Tales
Cat's Cradle
The Crucible
Eloise in Paris
The Golden Compass
Gone with the Wind
The Great Gatsby
Green Eggs and Ham
The Gulag Archipelago
Harry Potter (series)
Heart of Darkness
The Hobbit
In the Night Kitchen
The Kite Runner
A Light in the Attic
Little Black Sambo
The Lord of the Rings
The Lottery
A Midsummer Night's Dream
My Brother Sam Is Dead
Patriot Games
Romeo and Juliet
A Separate Peace
The Stupids
The Subtle Knife
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Westing Game
A Wrinkle in Time

A pretty tame list, but if these books can be challenged, what does that say about the challengers?


I can provide character references

Some characters should really have guest appearances in other books:



 There must be other, similar opportunities.


You've raised my expectations and dashed them quite expertly

I just saw a clip from the new Great Expectations film.  This  is about the kajillionth film adaptation of Charles Dickens' book that has been made.  The plot, in case you never went to high school, is about a silly lad who A) suddenly (after she smacks him in the face) and foolishly falls in love with a girl programmed to destroy his happiness, and B) is mysteriously given a fortune, which he promptly squanders.  I can't help thinking it's a Stupid Book.

Still, I will admit there are a couple of interesting moments in this book, things I have mentioned previously so I won't belabor them here.  But are they enough to merit the continued torture of young American teenagers?  It's my belief that assigning Great Expectations to a 14-year-old is a sure way to undermine any interest that individual may have in reading.

It's also my belief that filmmakers are perfectly aware of the effect reading Great Expectations has on young minds (i.e., it curdles them).  And I am therefore led to the related conclusion that, for the past 80 years at least, there has been a sort of conspiracy between filmmakers and English departments:  it takes a lot of trouble to teach literature well, and lots of teachers (many who haven't even read the works they're supposed to be teaching) have been persuaded by filmmakers (quietly working through educational media distributors) that it would be much easier and just as effective to show a film to their students.  So these teachers pay exorbitant amounts for films of classic novels (sometimes the district comes through with some money, and sometimes teachers get grants, but I think maybe there is also some serious misuse of PTA funds going on), so they can show the movie and sit back and do crossword puzzles or read the newspaper or play games on their phones or whatever during their free time.

Think about it:  how many of you experienced "supplemental" viewings of the classics -- like Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre and, of course, Great Expectations -- in your literature classes?  And isn't it time to put a stop to this practice?


We can catch the same flight out tomorrow night

Our visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum engendered a bit of nostalgic feeling in me as the various manned space capsules on the main floor brought to mind my youthful interest in NASA's Gemini and Apollo programs.*  But it was washed away when I went upstairs and saw Tingmissartoq, the plane in which Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh flew the Great Circle Route to China in 1931.

Tingmissartoq is the name given the Lindberghs' plane by an Eskimo boy when
they landed in Greenland; it means "One who flies like a big bird".

Anne Lindbergh wrote about the experience in her book, North to the Orient, which I think is one of the best books ever in the travel by flight genre.  In fact, it got me started reading a number of other books about pioneering flight experiences.  And that made me realize how many people died in plane crashes, and that made me promise myself I'd never ever ever go up in a small plane, not even if you promised me a chocolate soda afterwards.  Not even if the chocolate soda was made of solid gold, because then I couldn't even drink it.

When I was in college, everybody and their grandmother was reading Bring Me a Unicorn, Lindbergh's first volume of her journals, covering her early college years.  I tried to read it a couple of times and kept falling asleep.  But North to the Orient is a beautiful and honestly written account by a skilled writer of a fascinating and adventurous flight in the early days of aviation.  So it was a bit of a thrill to see the actual plane that the Lindberghs flew in.

I will say that, because of North to the Orient, I went back and tried Bring Me a Unicorn one more time and enjoyed it enough to finish it.  I also read several other volumes of Lindbergh's journals, including my favorite, War Within and Without, which covers the years before and during World War II, and which, along with North to the Orient, is one of my all-time favorite books.  I recommend both.

I also saw The Spirit of St Louis at the museum, which was cool.  (And I also read the book, hereby recommended as well.)

*As I was writing this, I learned that Neil Armstrong died today.  That made me a little sad.


What a jaunt have I had

I think I might have talked about this before, but I wish there was a good word to describe someone who loves Shakespeare, at least a better word than the term "Bardolater".  First of all, I don't like it when people call Shakespeare "the Bard".  It's annoying.  Newspaper and magazine article writers are always saying annoying things like, "With Cymbeline, the Bard had apparently run out of ideas so the Bard went to the Bard's other plays and cherry-picked ideas from what the Bard had previously written."  Isn't that annoying?  And then to make it sound like people idolize the Bard, well, that's just silly.  Some people have used "Shakesfan", but I see problems with that one, too.

So, like any fan, if you're a Shakespeare lover (but you don't worship him even though you make pilgrimages to his birthplace and his grave, and you have a goal to see all his plays performed on stage), you tend to collect things related to your topic of interest, like mugs and t-shirts and dolls.

Ideally, and if one were fabulously wealthy, one would collect enough Shakespeare paraphernalia to fill a house, or even a large building.  But hardly anyone is that comfortably well off.  Among the few who are were Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger.  Not only did they make trips to Europe to buy all the Shakespeare stuff they could get their hands on (and I'm not talking about mugs or t-shirts), they employed a book dealer named A S W (Acquire Shakespeare's Works?  Amass Shakespearean Writings?) Rosenbach to buy First Folios for them whenever they popped up on the rare book scene.  This was obviously back in the day when there was still a lot of Shakespeareana floating around in old, private libraries.  Pretty soon the Folgers' collection got so big, they decided to have a separate library built for it.  One thing led to another, and they acquired some land on which to build a library to house their collection across the street from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, but Henry Folger died just after construction began in 1928.  Then the Great Depression came and his estate could no longer afford the total cost.  Emily Folger pitched in a few of her own millions, and her time and effort, and the Folger Shakespeare Library finally opened in 1932.

There are 228 known extant copies (out of about 750 originally printed) of the First Folio, and 82 of them are in the Folger Library.  That's like 36% of the extant copies.  (And there are 36 plays contained in the First Folio.  Make of that what you will.)  But 82 copies of the First Folio!  Not to mention all the quartos.  And all the other pre-1641 English literature.  And all the other thousands and thousands of books and manuscripts from other eras.  That's quite a collection the Folgers put together.  Naturally, if one is a Shakespeare lover, one counts the Folger Shakespeare Library as one of The Places to Go, at least if one happens to be in the vicinity of Washington, DC.  So, after our visit to the Library of Congress, and at my instigation (although Gary and Adrien were perfectly willing), we went to the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Of course, we had no library cards, so we couldn't go into the actual library.  Instead, we went into the exhibition hall, or Great Hall, as they call it.  There was a pretty fascinating exhibit there called "Fame, Fortune, & Theft:  The Shakespeare First Folio", about the history of the First Folio and public response to it, including how some copies have been rebound or otherwise abused (and thereby almost destroyed).  One previous owner even bleached his copy.  Don't ask me why.  Part of the display contained information about a Folio that was stolen from Durham University in 1998 and then sent to the Folger Library in 2008 to be appraised, and about how the Folio scholars who examined it figured out that it was the stolen copy.  As we examined the displays, Adrien and I thought it would be interesting to write a mystery story about an extremely valuable manuscript that people were being killed for.  The biggest mystery was how to make it not sound anything like a Dan Brown novel.

The Grand Hall itself was rather impressive, having been built in the Tudor style with "oak-paneled walls", according to the pamphlet I picked up, "terra cotta floor, and strapwork plaster ceiling."  We were duly impressed, even though we had no idea what strapwork was.

After touring the hall, we went into the adjacent theatre to wait for a tour of the hall.  (I guess we did things a little bit backwards.)

The tour, I'm sorry to say, wasn't very good.  The tour guide didn't have her notes because, as she told us about three times in as many minutes, she had just got back from overseas.  What does that have to do with it, I wondered?  Did she leave her notes in Europe or something?  Or maybe she meant she had just got back from Europe and had come rushing over to the library from the airport.  She also mentioned a number of times that the Shakespeare coat of arms was carved into or painted on the ceiling of the Great Hall.  She said that William Shakespeare got the coat of arms because his father had tried to, but the right to have it was taken away from him.  So this guy in the group asked why or how the right could be taken away, and she said she didn't know (her answer was apparently still in her luggage) but asked if anyone else did.  So I (uncharacteristically) piped up to explain the situation with the Shakespeare coat of arms as best I could to a group of people who didn't want any details unless they came with music and juggling clowns.  Which means they lost interest after about 10 seconds, partly because someone suddenly opined that the Shakespeares were secret Catholics, which seemed to open the door to several conspiracy theories, none of which cast light on the question of the Shakespeares' coat of arms.  Having been a substitute teacher, I could tell by the look in people's eyes (sort of like how a fish looks at you while lying on its side on a bed of ice in the meat department at the grocery store) that I ought to wrap up the coat of arms explanation in an expedient manner, and I managed to do so quite handily, having spoken for all of about 30 seconds.*  Such was the inquiry into the facts of Shakespeare's life in the Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Anyway, we continued our tour and saw the displays for the second time around.  We also got a peek (through a curtained glass window) at the famous Reading room, where Scholars go to do Research amongst the Books and Manuscripts so they can write about their Theories of Shakespeare's Life and Works.  When we moved on, Gary lagged behind and started taking video of the Reading Room.  A guard materialized out of air, out of thin air, and told him photography was not allowed.  Gary pointed out that there was no signage to that effect.  The guard apologized for the lack of public instruction and reiterated, kindly but firmly, that "no photography was allowed".  Gary put his camera away and caught up with us.

The last item of interest was Emily Folger's own office, located down a hallway off the Great Hall.  Everything is kept pretty much as she left it (she passed away in 1936).  I think it's interesting to note that (as far as I have been able to determine) Emily Folger became interested in Shakespeare through her husband, but furthered that interest herself and received an MA from Vassar in 1896 for her thesis on "The True Text of Shakespeare".  She also received an honorary doctorate from Amherst after the Library opened.

We soon left the library behind us, and I was content to have seen so many First Folios in one place.  We walked for a while I knew not where, and I was lost in thoughts of what a cool job it would be to be paid by someone to buy rare books for them, when I suddenly saw a sight that jolted me out of my reverie.  It was the Shakespeare Theatre Company!

As a Shakespeare lover, I had subscribed to the Shakespeare Newsletter (back when it was interesting, before one of the editors passed away and the other one quit) and had read reviews of many interesting productions put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  I wished that I could have seen a play there, but alas, it was not to be.  Still, it was a nice way to conclude our excursion to one of the most important Shakespeare-related sites in the US.

[*Basically, it wasn't an issue of the right being given and then taken away; it was more a question of whether the Shakespeares had the right to begin with.  Shakespeare's father was trying to improve the family socially and enquired into the coat of arms when things were going well, but then he fell on hard times and nothing came of it.  Oh!  They fell on hard times because everyone found out he was a secret Catholic!  And so on.  Back on track:  William Shakespeare later finished the process and the coat of arms was granted, but then someone challenged it because he didn't think they deserveditbutthechallengedidn't holdupsotheygottokeepit!

At the end there, I felt sort of like Bugs Bunny talking to the greyhound hare.]

Next stop:  the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum!