Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

Brief Comments About the Oscars

First, a disclaimer. I did not listen to every word of the Oscar broadcast and may have missed some small mention of the authors of the books that served as the basis for the Best Picture nominees. As Mr. Stacked-NYC correctly points out, the publishing industry has its own awards to recognize the accomplishments of authors. However, since the original ideas for many films first come to life in novels and non-fiction, I’d like to think that those in the film industry would take a moment to recognize the contribution of the following writers:
Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants
Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help
Michael Morpurgo author of War Horse
Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Artist, The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris were based on original screenplays.

*    *    *    *

And congratulations to the winners of the Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film, William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is described as "a story of people who devote their lives to books and books who return the favor."

I Cannot Tell A Lie

Like generations of American school children before me, one of the first things I learned about George Washington was the story about the cherry tree. Invented by Washington biographer, Mason Locke Weems, the tale describes little George’s inability to lie to his father after cutting down a small cherry tree.*  “I can’t tell a lie, Pa.” the boy is said to have responded when confronted with this act, and so, the suggestion goes, the child was father to the man, and our first president was an honest man whose word could be trusted. Would that it were so with all our politicians.

With the recent observation of President’s Day I started thinking more about how children now learn about our two most famous presidents. Happily, there are plenty of books around on both Washington and Lincoln. While the POV in books for the youngest children appears to remain largely one of unadulterated admiration, some interesting presentations can be found. George vs. George, for example, by Rosalyn Schanzer, is subtitled The American Revolution as seen from Both Sides. In it Schanzer not only describes the life and times of George Washington, but the vanquished King George III.
George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer

Schanzer shows that these adversaries were similar in many ways, including in their physical appearance, love of horse back riding and hunting and (originally) their political alliances. Washington had fought alongside the British during the French and Indian Wars.

Rather than depicting George III simply as a tyrant, Schanzer explains the King’s belief in his divine right and duty to take care of his people including those in the colonies. She includes a section entitled “What Ever Happened to King George III?” which tells the reader of a meeting between John Adams and the King in 1785 in which the King is quoted “I was the last to consent to the separation; but…I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” Despite being known by adults as the mad King George in later years, the King did much to cultivate the sciences and the arts in England and, according to Schanzer “freely opened his excellent library to scholars, gave an enormous amount of his own money to charities and the needy, and improved education for the poor.” 

George Washington by Brendan January.

In a more traditional biography, George Washington-Encyclopedia of Presidents, Brendan January gives a chronological account of Washington’s life, the important battles he engaged in and includes a chapter entitled called “Home at Last” in which considerable discussion is devoted to Washington’s role as a slave owner. At one time, the man who led the country to a victory in a war for independence owned more than 300 slaves. Later in life he seems to have had doubts about being a slave owner. However, he did not free his slaves, but instead made a provision in his will that his slaves would be freed after his death and that of his wife. As January points out, “Nine later presidents would be slave-owners, and none of them freed all their slaves.”

*   *   *   *

With his colorful background and eccentric personality, his leadership in the war that “pitted brother against brother”, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and his tragic assassination, I think that Abraham Lincoln's life and times must be compelling even to those otherwise uninterested in American history. Our enduring fascination with Lincoln is reflected in an impressive statistic—this   courageous, brilliant, fascinating, and imperfect man has been the subject of more than 15,000 book. Inspired by this fact, curators at the recently opened Center for Education and Leadership (part of the museum complex  in Washington D.C. that also includes Ford's theater) commissioned a 34-foot high tower that appears to be made up of 7,000 books about Lincoln. The tower is actually made of aluminum.

The tower of "books" about Lincoln at the
Center for Education and Leadership.
With this overwhelming number of volumes available, it may be hard for adults to know where to begin (though Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals seems like an excellent start.) However, for very young readers, my choice would be Maira Kalman’s  Looking at Lincoln.  In colorful and striking drawings and just enough text, Kalman tells some of the important stories of Lincoln’s life and encourages the reader to make his or her own connection to this remarkable man.

A first look at Lincoln, the man and the leader.

Kalman reminds the reader of the roles of  Sojourner Truth and
Frederick Douglass, both of whom met with Lincoln to discuss an end to slavery.

*    *   *   *

Monday in Manhattan with George
On Monday, February 21, President’s Day, I paid my respects to George Washington with a visit to Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, a restored building on the site where the President said goodbye to his officers at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.   Today the building houses a restaurant and museum.

After immersing yourself in history at  the museum,
it's slightly startling upon leaving to see how the building is
dwarfed by the towers of the financial district
One of the many depictions of Washington on view
in the Fraunces Tavern dining room.

If you want to learn more about Washington’s time in New York City, downtown Manhattan is a wonderful place to tour and sites well worth visiting including Federal Hall (the site of the original building where Washington was inaugurated), Bowling Green—which once contained a statue of King George III, and Trinity and St. Paul’s churches. The National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy has created a number of publications covering the history of the area. To download their well-written self-guided tour of George Washington's New York, go here.

* Weems’ actual story of George and the cherry tree is not for the faint-of heart. In it, the father tells the boy:  "But, Oh! how different, George, is the case with the boy who is so given to lying, that nobody can believe a word he says! He is looked at with aversion wherever he goes, and parents dread to see him come among their children. Oh, George! my son! rather than see you come to this pass, dear as you are to my heart, gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave. Hard, indeed, would it be to me to give up my son, whose little feet are always so ready to run about with me, and whose fondly looking eyes and sweet prattle make so large a part of my happiness: but still I would give him up, rather than see him a common liar.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Bookshop of My Dreams

Thanks to a recommendation from the very-well-read Laura, I’ve just downloaded Fifty Essays by George Orwell.  As I was looking for his essay on Dickens, I stopped to read Bookshop Memories, his 1936 piece on working at a second-hand bookshop.  If you love reading books and talking/writing about them, you may at some point dream of owning a bookshop. I do. Mine would be a second-hand store staffed by people whose company I enjoy, shelves filled with far-ranging subject matter, interesting customers, authors dropping by for a chat, comfy chairs, and of course, a resident cat. (Did I mention it would also be profitable?)

Orwell’s comments show another side of the experience:

“When I worked in a second-hand bookshop—so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios—the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people.”

He goes on to describe, with some irritation, customers looking for “a book for an invalid (a common demand)”, those who order books then never return for them, as well as the “not quite certifiable lunatics” drawn to the shop because it was a place they could “hang about for along time without spending any money.”

A plaque at the site of Booklovers' Corner,
the London shop where Orwell worked in the 1930s.

The shop where Orwell worked also ran a lending library, where customers were able to borrow a book for two pence.  Orwell was disappointed to find that popular authors included Ethel M. Dell, Warwick Deeping and Jeff Farnol*, rather than Priestly, Hemingway, Walpole, or Wodehouse. He also notes that
 “In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel, people say, ‘Oh, but that’s OLD!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to SELL Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the bible, he is widely known at second hand..”
I’d like to think Orwell would be heartened by the resurgence of interest in the 19th-century novel, at least for Austen and Dickens. But I wonder if some of the same generalities apply today, that is, are there still marked differences between what people buy, what they borrow from the library, and what they actually read?

While Orwell concludes that the book trade was definitely not for him, in fact, it temporarily caused him to lose his “love of books”, I think I’ll hold on to my fantasy shop. It gives me all of the imaginary pleasure, with none of the hardship.

* Respectively, Ethel M. Dell, a successful author of romance novels, considered quite racy for their time; Warwick Deeping, a prolific and popular novelist (and doctor) who’s most well-known work, Sorrell and Son, was called a “wish-fulfilling dream of perfect filial love” by Kingsley Amis (according to; and Jeffrey Farnol who wrote a number of romances and swashbucklers, including Waif of the River and The Geste of Duke Jocelyn!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Endless Love

In many books and movies, romantic love—that mysterious mix of sexual attraction, infatuation and genuine affection—is the territory of the very young. I’m not sure if that's because of the large element of vulnerability (or the risk of appearing foolish) that goes along with swept-away, romantic, lustful love, that people over a certain age are loathe to succumb to, or the general ageism of our culture. But I think the evidence bears me out.

Of course, there is something irresistibly compelling about young lovers, their physical beauty and their emotional innocence--even if they are sexually experienced, in books or on the screen. (Although I’m very fond of Mr. Bates and Anna—Downton Abbey viewers, you know who I mean—and I’m glad they finally got to spend the night together)   

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (1889)

For a long time, the love stories that appealed to me most were obsessive ones: Endless Love by Scott Spencer, for example. I still find the final pages haunting, in which David, now “recovered” from the destructive passion that led him to set his beloved’s house on fire, imagines himself on a stage in an auditorium. When he looks out at the imaginary crowd, the seats are all filled and every face is hers.  I was also enamored by Of Human Bondage by the wonderful Somerset Maugham, and fascinated by the appeal crude and cruel Mildred had for Philip, the earnest medical student. Whether it’s by virtue of age and experience, motherhood or marriage, I’m less drawn to stories of this kind, though I suspect I would still enjoy Of Human Bondage.

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee (1884)

In a more classical vein, of course, Romeo and Juliet, never loses its appeal. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, are all wonderful novels with romantic plots and clever repartee, but the passion is deferred, I believe, until after the books have ended. Although they are sometimes dismissed for their romanticism, I think the novels of the Brontes actual depict a more realistic mix of  love and physical longing. There definitely seems to be a sexual charge between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and even Jane Eyre, who describes herself as little and plain, seems to harbor great passion for the brooding Rochester. There is still something so satisfying to me in the simple lines at the end of the book—when the two are reunited, “Reader, I married him.” Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, with its tragic twist, is another favorite of mine.

What is a good love story? One in which you can relate to the characters? Does the love have to be thwarted and then consummated to be satisfying? In movies, I’m moved by love that overcomes adversity, by devotion, and to those in it for the long haul. This may not sound romantic to younger readers, but I think there can be a kind of sexiness here, too, one borne of deep, compassionate knowledge of the other.

In the film, Love Actually, which I know some will dismiss as a piece of fluff, or worse, there is a storyline I particularly like. Alan Rickman, who is married to clever, loving (but middle-aged) Emma Thompson, has a fling with a pretty young woman in his office who makes it extremely easy for him to commit adultery--basically all he has to do is show up. Ms. Thompson’s pain on discovering the infidelity is extraordinarily well-portrayed. The movie is full of happy endings and theirs is one of them. She forgives him, though you feel the marriage will never be quite the same, and in the hands of less skilful actors, the storyline might not have worked. But, with Rickman and Thompson in the roles, it does.  All of which is not to say that more transgressive love stories don’t appeal as well—but perhaps that is a topic for another day. 

Among the books I’ve read recently, I would have to say the love story I enjoyed most is Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?, in which she recounts her relationship with playwright Harold Pinter. Fraser and Pinter seemed to have found in each other an intellectual and romantic soulmate. Together, they enjoyed a life filled with literary successes, brilliant and interesting friends, and enduring devotion Although not dwelt on in the book, their love came at the expense of Pinter’s first wife, who eventually drank herself to death, and seems to have had a devastating effect on at least one of their children. (Pinter’s only son changed his last name and did not speak to his father for many years before his death. Fraser’s six children seem to have fared better.)

Ultimately, I believe that with the exception of the first euphoric months of a new relationship--especially if you are somewhere between the ages of 16 and 20—romantic love is a bit like happiness: that is, not the steady state in life, but rather made up of lovely and often unexpected moments. (The love and friendship of long-term relationships is another matter.) But that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling fiction.

By way of example, very early this morning, right on cue, I saw a boy of 17 or so standing outside an apartment building on our block. He was holding a large bouquet wrapped in cellophane. He was not dressed warmly enough for the weather, wearing only what appeared to be a school uniform, and shifted from foot to foot, from the cold or nerves or both.  On my way back from my brief errand he was still waiting.  I hope his sweetheart showed up.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Island Reading

Travellers to beautiful Virgin Gorda, the third largest island in the group that makes up the British Virgin Islands—and a favorite destination for sailors, divers and snorkelers, may not have a visit to a bookstore or a library at the top of their sightseeing list. But should you find yourself in this part of the world, after playing in the beautiful turquoise water, soaking up the warm sun, and hiking to the peak of the island, relaxing with a good book may be just want you want to do.

Virgin Gorda from a height.

A bay on the northeast side of the island.

At sea level.

Part of the charm of Virgin Gorda is its size and the friendliness and courtesy of the people one meets there. A greeting (good morning, or good afternoon, etc.) is given—and expected--before business is conducted and a tourist’s errant suitcase is not only returned when left behind at the ferry dock, but brought to her apartment door; a proffered tip is refused. 

The first person I asked about libraries and bookstores, Casey McNutt of Dive BVI (highly recommended by Mr. and Miss. Stacked-NYC for snorkeling and diving expeditions), told me that she and many of her friends use the make-shift library of books that line the shelves of the Mad Dog restaurant. In this informal arrangement patrons can drop off a book or contribute to the collection whenever they're so inclined. The honor system prevails.  Mad Dog is operated by ex-New Yorker Inge Judd and Rose Giacinto* (who also owns the Bath and Turtle, a pub located in the yacht harbor and Chez Bamboo, a nearby restaurant that features more sophisticated fare and live music.)

Mad Dog is situated at the southern end of the island, not far from the paths that descend to one of the island’s famous beaches, the Baths, where you can swim and play among giant boulders. Make your way through the cave that they form  to the next beach over, Devil’s Bay.

One of the pools at the Baths.

 During our visit to Mad Dog we ate simple but delicious sandwiches, shared some pina coladas, and enjoyed chatting with both Inge and Rose, whose friendliness and enthusiasm for life in Virgin Gorda is infectious. I also had the chance to look over the selections on the restaurant bookshelves most of which offered traditional vacation fare, but I did spot a copy of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus, which, like so much of his work, unsettled and fascinated me when I read it some years ago.

The Mad Dog sign -- with a nod to Noel Coward.

Some scenes of the Mad Dog "library"...

....even the books look relaxed.

Thinking of Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows,
I had to find out more about this property just steps away from Mad Dog.
As it turns out, the villa, presently for sale at $7,000,000,  has been a popular
 rental property on the island for some time. Perhaps, like Graham's Toad,
 the future owner will be an eccentric recipient of inherited wealth!

  Ms. Giacinto appears in the cookbook Morgan Freeman and Friends authored by Wndy Wilkinson and Donna Lee., with an intro by the actor. Mr. Freeman's proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to the Grenada Relief Fund.

*    *   *   *

I also found plenty of books in the apartment we had rented, left behind by the owners or other travellers. Interestingly, there seemed to be a dog theme at work here. The blurb on one jacket cover described the author as “A dog who writes his memoirs,” another featured a “dog with a devastating secret”, and a third, a dog who helps a wounded marine recover!

I was to learn later that the attractive complex where we were staying had an interesting history for library lovers. Back in the 1980s, the Olde Yard Inn, an 11-room hotel, run by a Canadian expatriate couple, had stood on this site. According to an article on Virgin Gorda written by Ralph Blumenthal for the New York Times in 1983,  Joseph and Ellen Devine were book lovers who had built:
 “[a] twin octagonal redwood and mahogany library to house their collection of rare books. At the least encouragement, Mrs. Devine will guide guests through such esoteric volumes as ‘Pictures of New York on Blue Staffordshire Pottery’ published in 1899 on silk pages.”

One can only imagine the care that must have gone into protecting the books from the heat, humidity and salty breezes that blow night and day on the island. As far as I can tell, the library building was demolished, along with the rest of the hotel in 2004, but I’m hoping to learn more and would love to find out the fate of their collection and to find a photo of the library.  Any Virgin Gorda lovers out there with some older vacation snapshots?

But while I was a visitor myself, I wondered where else books could be found and what resources full-time residents and students on the island have. Happily, I was directed to the Virgin Gorda Community Library. To find it, you have to drive south, down Crabbe Hill Road, which runs roughly parallel to the main road that leads to the marina, the ferry, restaurants and shops frequented by tourists.  Watch carefully on your left for a clinic, the library will be on your right with only a modest sign to guide you.

Housed in a small building, painted a cheerful yellow
outside and in, the library is a welcome haven
from the hot sun and a peaceful and inviting place to read. 

The week I was in Virgin Gorda the library was closed for Christmas and Boxing Day, but I was fortunate to find it open on the last day of our stay and to have the opportunity to speak with head librarian Tahryn Baptiste. The day we visited, Ms. Baptiste was working alone, but graciously made herself available to describe the library, telling us that it is primarily used by young people.

Along with the focus on providing local children with good books (clearly a mission of Ms. Baptiste's), the library houses an interesting selection of books about the Caribbean, including volumes about the problematic relationship bewteen the West Indies and Christopher Columbus and a volume on Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean!  (Those with a special interest in books on the Caribbean can find more at Caribbean studies unit at the branch in Road Town, Tortola.)


Artwork by some library patrons.

Spanish language materials are available as are classics of English literature and the ubiquitous Harry Potter novels. Presently, the card catalog is not computerized. I have to confess a fondness for this system that I remember from my Chicago childhood, with the stamping and insertion of cards in their little pockets rendering the library transaction more personal.

*    *   *

Before heading back to New York City, I had hoped to spend some time at the Enid M. Baa Library in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands). In advance of my trip I had learned a bit about the library, including the fact that
“In 1943, the collection consisted of 20,000 volumes and the latest media was a Victrola for records and a silent 16 mm projector. The ‘charge desk’, locally made in 1935, was dedicated to Edna St. Vncent Millay, then in St. Thomas, to whom the first book was charged. That desk is still in use today.”
Unfortunately, the library was closed owing to a shortage of fresh water that was affecting many businesses and residences on St. Thomas that week. But I did get the chance to admire the lovely yellow building with its green shutters and to glimpse into the building’s courtyard. Sitting regally on the corner of Dronningens Gade and Bjerge Gade (the street names reflect the island's history as a Danish colony) in a business district where aggressive shopkeepers or their employees attempt to lure you in with promises of bargain jewelry, the building appeal as a quiet and dignified oasis.  More  on the Virgin Islands Public Library System, it’s Carribean collection, and branch libraries, can be found here.  

The library's namesake, Enid M. Baa, was a Virgin Islander who served as the first
head of the Department of Public Libraries and was the first woman
to hold a cabinet level office in the Virgin Islands.

The absence of people in this photo is misleading. The
bustling shopping area lies just out of sight.

*    *    *    *

If, like me, you’ve read very little literature by West Indian-born authors, you may want to explore these links*:
The University of the Virgin Islands (in St. Thomas) also publishes, The Caribbean Writer, an annual anthology showcasing the work of established and emerging Caribbean writers.  

* Clearly just a tiny sampling. If you have a recommendation for this list, please leave a comment or email me at!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Please Sir

Like little Oliver Twist who was denied his second bowl of gruel in the workhouse—it seems that Charles Dickens’ public always wanted more.  Happily, for many years, Dickens was willing and able to give it to them. In fact, it worked well all around. Dickens was often in need of money to support his extended family and writing prolifically to please the masses helped him care for his relatives. It’s hard to imagine any literary writer today being in a similar position. That is, able to replenish his bank account, almost at will, by turning out another popular novel, short story, or  travel book.  Yes, there’s Stephen King who has his literary moments and the machine that is James Patterson —who I haven’t read and have no immediate plans to, but it seems unlikely that generations of children will read these books in school or that their stories will be made and remade into amateur and professional productions the world over. Of course, not every work Dickens wrote was a masterpiece (or a gold mine) but the combined quality and quantity of his work leaves me awestruck indeed. As for the fortunate readers who can enjoy his stories in a wide range of formats, including as free ebooksGod bless us everyone.

Charles Dickens
7 February 1812
9 June 1870