Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chris' Top 10 Favorite Reads of 2009

Another year gone, another stack of books read and shared.  The books listed below are a good cross-section of titles on my reading list.  A few of them were provided by Carole and Kathy, two of my most trusted book critics, and a few titles I stumbled upon on my own.  Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — A compelling story that also serves as a history lesson.  I knew people suffered, did without during World War II, but I never stopped to think of what exactly that meant.  This book tells that story with heart, wit and engagement — and a few interesting voices.

Drood — Long, but oh so good.  I loved every page of this tale of Charles Dickens' last years of life, told by his friend Wilkie Collins (himself an author of great repute: The Woman in White, anyone?).  I was absolutely smitten by the second chapter. 

Beginner's Greek — I re-told lovely, charming and breathtaking tale of star-crossed love over and over this past summer to Judy, Leigh and anyone else who would listen as I read the tale of Peter and Holly.  I was sorry to finish this one.

The Geography of Bliss — I am thrilled to have discovered Eric Weiner on a top 100 list and will continue to read him as he continues to report and publish. His assessment of these locations is fair and lively, and I felt as though I was there with him through his rich descriptions and humorous observations.

The Graveyard Book — Neil Gaiman never fails to entertain and enlighten.  Apparently he thought up this story a couple of decades ago when his child would play in the graveyard next to his home.  How, exactly, does one raise a child in a graveyard — especially if one is a ghost?  You'd be amazed.  I know I was.

A Reliable Wife — Twists, turns and unexpected beauty in this sleeper novel of a mail order bride who isn't what she appears to be.  Nor is her new husband — or anyone else in the story.  Robert Goolrick illustrates turn-of-the-century poverty in America.

The Strain —David describes this as vampires meet CSI.  How easy would it be for vampires to infiltrate New York City? Written by movie director Guillermo del Torro and horror writer Chuck Hogan, the book is the first of a planned trilogy.  I'm anxious for the second installment in 2010.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer — If all scary books and horror tales could be this clever and enjoyable, I'd read even more of them. The debut novelist Jonathan L. Howard offers a unique and interesting tale of Hell, redemption, traveling circuses and decomposition.  (Not in that order.)

The Twilight Saga — An old-fashioned love story between a lovely young girl and her vampire boyfriend takes a few unexpected turns as we find out whether love can conquer all.  After you finish these hefty tomes, you will understand, finally, the meaning behind "Team Jacob" and "Team Edward."  Twilight: it's not just for teenage girls anymore.

Astrid and Veronika — Two women's lives intertwine in this well-written modest novel.  The character-driven story is rich and full, and readers will appreciate friendships even more as they read this thin but robust novel.

Bonus favorite: A Christmas Carol.  After watching every film adaptation on earth of this classic ghost tale, I decided to take a page from Carole's book and read Dickens' tale.  When I say the book always is better than the movie, I usually mean it — but with this book, I am as emphatic as I can be.  If you have yet to read this book, do so.  Don't wait until Christmas: this book of redemption is good any day of the year. 

The book I enjoyed least this year was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  It was too lurid for me, like the close-up shots of gooey corpses in the television crime shows.  I don't mind graphic descriptions, but I do mind gratuitous descriptions of awful experiences.  This book had both.

What are your favorites?  What terrible books have you read (and lived to tell the tale)?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can You Recall Your Favorite Books of the Year?

This has been a great year for books, and I'm sure it's easy for you to identify your favorite books.  Get those lists ready to compare with my "best of" list to be published on From One Book Lover at the end of the year, and see how our lists compare.

Can you guess my faves? Check out the books reviewed in 2009 on From One Book Lover and Book Lovers, Get Your English On!, two book blogs on which I worked this calendar year.  See if you can guess my top 10.

If you have a blog, e-mail me your URL and I'll try to guess your favorites of 2009 in return. Maybe we read the same books.... you never know.

When I publish my "best of" list, be sure to chime in and share your ideas and opinions. I'm always looking for a new great book to read!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

DC Poetry Slam Winning Poem

From The Washington Post's Answer Sheet: the winning poem of this year's DC SCORES Poetry Slam! contest.  Congrats to the 9-year-old fourth grader Jasia Smith, and enjoy her poem.

Let’s All Save The World Together

Do you like nature?
Do you like playing outside?
Do you like hiking or watching the beach tides?

So Let’s Save the World Together!

It’s getting warmer nowadays
So don’t let the hot weather carry you away.
Reuse, Recycle, Reduce and don’t litter.
So tell this to relatives, friends and baby sitters!

So let’s save the world Together!

Go green, plant gardens, plant bushes or even a rose
And bring back that fresh natural smell to your nose.
Save electricity and cut off the lights and bring back those peaceful and cooler nights.
Don’t waste the water we need to drink
So please don’t let those precious drops go down the sink!

So Let’s Save the World Together!

by Jasia Smith
Burrville Elementary School, Washington, DC

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Hope I'm Not There Yet — But Still, Good Ideas


The second half of my life will be black 
to the white rind of the old and fading moon. 
The second half of my life will be water 
over the cracked floor of these desert years. 
I will land on my feet this time, 
knowing at least two languages and who 
my friends are. I will dress for the 
occasion, and my hair shall be 
whatever color I please.
Everyone will go on celebrating the old 
birthday, counting the years as usual, 
but I will count myself new from this 
inception, this imprint of my own desire. 

The second half of my life will be swift, 
past leaning fenceposts, a gravel shoulder, 
asphalt tickets, the beckon of open road. 
The second half of my life will be wide-eyed, 
fingers shifting through fine sands, 
arms loose at my sides, wandering feet. 
There will be new dreams every night, 
and the drapes will never be closed. 
I will toss my string of keys into a deep 
well and old letters into the grate. 

The second half of my life will be ice
breaking up on the river,
rain soaking the fields, a hand
held out, a fire,
and smoke going
upward, always up.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

On My Father's Birthday, a Lovely Poem


Today is my daughter's fourteenth birthday
So I bought her roses—five red, nine pink—
To commemorate impending womanhood. She liked
Them I think better than the balloons her mother
& I would sneak into her room while she slept
To celebrate birthdays one through thirteen.
Or maybe she was just humoring me
Who had just turned fifty & looked ridiculous
Standing there in her doorway, holding them
Like a torch. "Soon enough," the Fates were
Whispering, but I doubt she heard them,
Soon enough she would. Still she left off
The internet, cradled & squeezed the thorny blooms
& gave me an authentic look not what I usually get.

from The Unexamined Life. © Custom Words, 2007.

courtesy The Writer's Almanac

Monday, December 7, 2009

Taken In by the Villains of Literature

When asked why someone reads a classic story, the answer often is that the characters are memorable.  Often, characters are redemptive, loving, loveable, attractive.

But what if they're not?

Listverse intrigued me with a recent list of the 10 Vilest Villains in Literature.  I now am revising my classics reading list to include one or two of the more interesting villains.

I am already familiar with more than half of the villains on the Listverse list.  (I'm not sure if I should be pleased or concerned.)  I have met the Wicked Witch of the West courtesy of two different authors.  I'm also intimately familiar with Sauron, thanks to my recent obsession with The Lord of the Rings (thank you, Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien!).  I know I read Beowulf in college, but I claim no ability to retain anything I was scheduled to discuss in excruciating detail at 8 a.m. on a Monday.  I also know Satan, though not on a first-name basis.

However, I have yet to meet the Transylvanian count, and I look forward to our introduction in Dracula.  I've seen him at a glance, but we never had a chance to get acquainted.

I also have added Bill Sykes (of Oliver Twist) to my list.  I remember the revulsion I felt when seeing him on stage in the musical Oliver!; even as a 10-year-old, I knew evil when it crossed my path.  I also suspect Charles Dickens can scare the, forgive me, dickens out of me with a good bad guy.  Right now David and I are becoming acquainted with the soon-to-be-redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, and I am mesmerized by Dickens' prose in A Christmas Carol.  I believe I have learned the trick to novelist: read him out loud, and you literally can't put down his tale.

Can you recommend some villains you have met?  What repelled you?  More importantly, what attracted you?  (I promise I won't tell.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Genesis Secret, a Review

People get so excited about novels that venture into the world of religion.  The uproar over The DaVinci Code was immense (though one could gauge its success by the number of books published as a "response" or "rebuttal").  People forget that "fiction" can be translated to mean "making it all up, no matter how many real elements one injects into the story, like in Fargo, the Coen brothers movie."

So, should anyone get excited about The Genesis Secret?

If so, it's entirely unnecessary.  The fact that it's a novel rather than a news story never escapes the reader at any time.  At the beginning of the book, debut novelist Tom Knox states two true elements of the story: the existence of an archeological site and a religious group.  The foundation of the story is realistic  — tension, politics, religious issues, public safety responses — but the character-based story never enters the realm of realism for me.  And that makes me glad.

Two storylines of two main characters weave through this novel, creating a strong cord to tie it all together.  Journalist Robert Luttrell is recovering from a terrible experience in Iraq and his boss sends him on a plum assignment extended as a sort of vacation: go to Kurdistan to report on a famous archeological dig, the Gobekli Tepe.  Scotland Yard's Mark Forrester finds himself investigating bizarre murders and murder attempts in the U.K. that appear to be sacrifices — but to whom, and why?

Franz Breitner heads the Gobekli Tepe dig, which is unearthing a huge temple-like area that was deliberately and laboriously buried (and carbon-dated) thousands of years before the "first civilizations" in the Fertile Crescent.  If tools and agriculture at Gobekli Tepe pre-date known history, what does that mean for the timeline of human development?  Even more pressing, what prompted a people to laboriously bury this indicator of advanced civilization?

The site and its workers appear to be threatened, or is it simply paranoia of Europeans traveling in the Middle East?  Then an accident at the dig site prompts Rob to work with Christine, an osteoarchaeologist who has no bones to study at the site, to determine if someone is behind this — and if so, who and why.

There's enough evidence to suggest there are secrets being guarded in one part of the world, while someone else on the other side of the globe is trying to unearth the very same information.  Who will win, and who will lose more than just a little information?

Other interesting characters flesh out the story: Boijer the Finnish Scotland Yard officer, Isobel with an incredible Turkish home, Franz and his cryptic notes, Hugo and his intelligence and lungs, Karwan and his helpfulness, Steven and his Cockney accent, Kiribali's menacing presence.

There were some characters I could have done without, and a couple of details that were unessential to the story.  Rob and Forrester's mutual connection was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story or characters; in fact, Forrester's situation was gratuitous.

Finally, Knox reveals too much too soon, leaving readers to wonder exactly why they need to keep reading.  We think we see the Genesis Secret halfway through the book, though I can tell you there's more, thank heavens.  Frankly, the direction the story took after the Big Reveal was narrowly focused on a single character (maybe two),which was too restrictive for this expansive of a story.  I nearly stopped with nearly a quarter of the novel left because it seemed the most important part of the story had been told.

However, the second-to-last chapter saved the entire book, and I'm grateful for journalists who know how to tie together the elements of a story.  Alas, Rob made leaps with facts that weren't revealed to readers, and I hate having characters hiding information until the author writes their "big epiphany."

Finally, readers who don't like blood and gore should absolutely pass on this book.  There are scenes that describe cruelty beyond measure, and though it's essential to this story, it is very very difficult to read.

Having said that, it's suspenseful, original and interesting, and I can recommend it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful for An Extra Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving Letter from Harry

I guess I have to begin by admitting
I'm thankful today I don't reside in a country
My country has chosen to liberate,
That Bridgeport's my home, not Baghdad.
Thankful my chances are good, when I leave
For the Super Duper, that I'll be returning.
And I'm thankful my TV set is still broken.
No point in wasting energy feeling shame
For the havoc inflicted on others in my name
When I need all the strength I can muster
To teach my eighth-grade class in the low-rent district.
There, at least, I don't feel powerless.
There my choices can make some difference. 

This month I'd like to believe I've widened
My students' choice of vocation, though the odds
My history lessons on working the land
Will inspire any of them to farm
Are almost as small as the odds
One will become a monk or nun
Trained in the Buddhist practice
We studied last month in the unit on India.
The point is to get them suspecting the world
They know first hand isn't the only world. 

As for the calling of soldier, if it comes up in class,
It's not because I feel obliged to include it,
As you, as a writer, may feel obliged.
A student may happen to introduce it,
As a girl did yesterday when she read her essay
About her older brother, Ramon,
Listed as "missing in action" three years ago,
And about her dad, who won't agree with her mom
And the social worker on how small the odds are
That Ramon's alive, a prisoner in the mountains. 

I didn't allow the discussion that followed
More time than I allowed for the other essays.
And I wouldn't take sides: not with the group
That thought the father, having grieved enough,
Ought to move on to the life still left him;
Not with the group that was glad he hadn't made do
With the next-to-nothing the world's provided,
That instead he's invested his trust in a story
That saves the world from shameful failure. 

Let me know of any recent attempts on your part
To save our fellow-citizens from themselves.
In the meantime, if you want to borrow Ramon
For a narrative of your own, remember that any scene
Where he appears under guard in a mountain village
Should be confined to the realm of longing. There
His captors may leave him when they move on.
There his wounds may be healed,
His health restored. A total recovery
Except for a lingering fog of forgetfulness
A father dreams he can burn away.

By Carl Dennis

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for the Little Things


Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans:
for the infinite,
intricate shapes
of submicroscopic
living things. 

For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their
inseparable lives
from equator to pole. 

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
 for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankful for the Life We Have


This is what life does. It lets you walk up to  
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a  
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have  
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman  
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,  
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder, 
is this a message, finally, or just another day?  
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the 
pond, where whole generations of biological  
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds 
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper, 
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old  
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old? 
There is movement beneath the water, but it  
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.  
And then life suggests that you remember the  
years you ran around, the years you developed 
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon, 
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are 
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have 
become. And then life lets you go home to think 
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.  
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one 
who never had any conditions, the one who waited 
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that 
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave, 
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you  
were born at a good time. Because you were able  
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you 
stopped when you should have and started again.  
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your 
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And  
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,  
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,  
with smiles on their starry faces as they head 
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Be Thankful: A "Squeeeeee!" Moment

You're welcome.

And thanks to Cute Overload (and sender-inner Beatriz) for such a great image! Truly a resource and sense of humor for which to be thankful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Honor of New Moon: A List

The Top 5 Worst Vampire Novels
of All Time

5. The Stakes of Wrath

4. Pale 'Un: Going Rouge

3. Fine Italian Cooking -- Without Garlic!

2. Van Helsing Is a Big Fat Idiot

and's Number 1 Worst Vampire Novel of All Time...
1. The Bridgework of Madison County

[ Copyright 2009 by Chris White/ ]

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Electronic Books: Would I Go There?

Electronic book machines are coming out of the woodwork these days, surprisingly enough, in time for Christmas. As a lifelong reader, the question arises: would I go there?

Well, I already have, in my own way: I read my news on the computer.

I read the Washington Post, New York Times, AP News and BBC News on my computer daily. Those sources are in my browser toolbars, and I click on them before I open any other pages. I peruse the headlines and scan the pages to see what the media think I need to know. I regret to admit that I do not subscribe to any print news sources or newspapers (though I would be glad to support the Web sites I use with a subscription).

I do receive sales papers on my doorstep — and, when my neighbor Kathy is home on a Sunday, her copy of the Sunday WaPo. (That's Washington Post, for those of you outside of the metro D.C. area.)

As a former newspaper reporter, I should be ashamed. I should have ink flowing through my veins. I don't. I hate newsprint ink on my fingers, hands, arms and clothing after reading the paper. (No, I don't roll around in the paper to get that dirty. Try carrying newspapers in your arms and see how much ink winds up on your clothes. Smarty.) However, I love the news. Good heavens, I just realized: I'm a news junkie!

But back to the topic. I like the neatness of e-newspapers. I can read news stories on the computer all day. Well, let me clarify: I can read news articles for short bursts on and off all day. I do not stare at the screen for hours absorbing the news, not even on the weekends.

News articles have shortened to the point that Jeff Goldblum's character noted in The Big Chill: you can read the articles while on the toilet. (You're welcome for the paraphrasing.) I still read, and love, longer articles — but I rarely find them, and often wind up having to read them in installments, especially those from The New Yorker magazine. (The cartoons, thankfully, I still can read in one shot.)

But books — would I go "e"? No, books for me are not meant for the monitor or LCD, even when it's small and pocket-sized.

Some multi-feature cellular telephones have book-reading applications, but I don't want to use my cellular telephone to read a book. I'd go blind. The 3-inch screen is not meant to do more than show me what the phone is doing at that very moment.

I don't want a machine I carry in my purse, briefcase or backpack. I've tried viewing my digital camera's LCD screen in the sunlight, and I don't want to have to fight the sun, which is supposed to make reading easier because of its helpful light. I don't want to worry about dropping it and having to shell out a few hundred dollars more to replace it. I don't want to have to worry about it falling in a pool or getting splashed at the beach. My family kills electronics in water or finds their phones wiped clean of all information, and I don't want to follow suit with something I can't afford to replace regularly.

Would a machine make it easier to carry around my library? Would it reduce my pathological hoarding of books? (I have regaled my friends time and again with stories of the 25¢ copy of The Phantom Tollbooth for the home library, so I can lend out multiple copies at a time, or a dime for Franklin's autobiography.) Could I get some classics for free online and carry them with me to read at any time? Absolutely.

And yet....

I enjoy the heft of a book in my hand. I take pleasure in reading in direct sunlight (or by flashlight, even). I feel at home surrounded by stack of books on my nightstand and thousands of books piled on every flat surface in my home. I like perusing the spines to see what looks good, both at home and in commercial settings. I am gleeful to find Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth in the thrift store bookshelves.

If I drop it in the tub, a book will dry, ultimately (though it never will be the smooth volume it once was). I can (and have) dropped my books down the stairs, lost a grip on an entire box of them and watched them crash to the ground or come to a stop on the landing. The cats have knocked over stacks, curled up on whatever I set down on the bed or table and chewed the corner or two of whatever distracted me from them.

My favorite place on the planet was Acres of Books, the now-defunct used bookstore in Long Beach, Calif., whose name was a literal description of the store and its inventory, with row upon row of towering bookshelves only shoulder-width apart. (Vicky would spend short bursts of time with me in there, bless her claustrophobic heart.)

In short: I love books. I do not plan to surrender them for anything "e."

Someday, I may change my mind. I suspect my love affair with the printed word will strain next year when David and I pack what most likely will be about a hundred boxes of books when we move. Someday my eyes may need assistance that only a future device can provide.

But it is not this day. I appreciate reading in any form, but I intend to continue my love affair with the printed page.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrating Water on the Moon with Google and Dad

I join NASA and Google in celebrating the discovery of water on the moon — technically, the discovery of water molecules on the Moon's surface — but water nonetheless.

My dad is one of the reasons NASA could make this discovery.  He spent a huge part of his life — and mine — sending machinery and people to the moon.  He also was instrumental in getting them home (see Apollo 13: my dad was one of their "go-to" geeks in times of trouble).  He also worked on the space shuttle.  As an electrical and mechanical engineer, he was the thruster guy.

I took my dad to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when he visited me ages ago.  We stood in front of the lunar module as he explained how he designed the reverse thrusters to provide — well, if I was a rocket scientist, I could explain it.  He could, and people started shuffling closer to us to listen and watch as dad gestured, described and pointed.  A woman asked him a few questions about the module, and he answered them.  When we walked away, the small crowd dissipated.

"You know," he said, "I was at Cape Canaveral with my brother Bob and was telling him about [insert mechanical terminology regarding the spacecraft here].  A young woman with a small child stood there and listened.  When I finished, she turned to her child and said, 'Son, you don't have to believe everything you hear.'" He chuckled at the memory.

Dad possessed a great sense of humor and was smarter than should be allowed — and was very humble despite it all.

Thanks, Google, for the fun artwork I posted above.  And thanks, Dad, for helping make the discovery possible.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rebecca, a Review

Some people cannot keep the secrets of some classics, as though they expire after a certain period of time.  Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in 1982, I was asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?"  I responded, "Well, I do now."

So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be).  No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so  I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.

Thank heavens.  There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.

The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate  Manderley.  There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter.  The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.

The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life.  After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.

Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye.  Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.

Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca.  The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.

The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history.  It is new to her, so it's new to us.  Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers.  We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this.  What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing?  Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach?  What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?

The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful.  Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.

And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.

Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie.  Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.

And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait.  You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Drunk Hedgehog Taken to Hospital to Sober Up

(Click here for the article complete with a hedgehog photo! Drunk Hedgehog Taken to Hospital to Sober Up)

A hedgehog was found sloshed out of its mind and "squealing loudly" in an apple orchard in England this week -- not to be confused with your college roommate, who often got drunk while playing Sonic the Hedgehog.

The feisty hedgehog, nicknamed Tipsy by animal rescuers, was seen rolling around haphazardly after consuming one too many fermented apples at a farm in Devon. As luck would have it, the Prickly Ball Hedgehog Hospital -- an actual place -- was just a few miles away in a nearby town.

"This is definitely the first drunk hedgehog I have found," said Ann McCormack, who drove Tipsy to the hospital. The animal was given ample dosages of antibiotics and painkillers but McCormack guessed that Tipsy would have a "big headache" the next morning.

Rescuers said they were just lucky they got to the hedgehog before it started leaving sobbing voicemails for its ex-girlfriend.

Er, thanks to

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Hallowe'en Staple

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

by Edgar Allen Poe
(courtesy Famous Poets and Poems)
Listen to James Earl Jones read it aloud.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Little Rosetti to Set the Mood

MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries--
All ripe together
In summer weather--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bowed her head to hear,
Lizzie veiled her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger-tips.
"Lie close," Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
"Come buy," call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.
"O! cried Lizzie, Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men."
Lizzie covered up her eyes
Covered close lest they should look;
Laura reared her glossy head,
And whispered like the restless brook:
"Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds' weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes."
"No," said Lizzie, "no, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us."
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.

Backwards up the mossy glen
Turned and trooped the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
"Come buy, come buy."
When they reached where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
One set his basket down,
One reared his plate;
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town);
One heaved the golden weight
Of dish and fruit to offer her:
"Come buy, come buy," was still their cry.
Laura stared but did not stir,
Longed but had no money:
The whisk-tailed merchant bade her taste
In tones as smooth as honey,
The cat-faced purr'd,
The rat-paced spoke a word
Of welcome, and the snail-paced even was heard;
One parrot-voiced and jolly
Cried "Pretty Goblin" still for "Pretty Polly";
One whistled like a bird.

But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
"Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather."
"You have much gold upon your head,"
They answered altogether:
"Buy from us with a golden curl."
She clipped a precious golden lock,
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore,
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away,
But gathered up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turned home alone.

Lizzie met her at the gate
Full of wise upbraidings:
"Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the moonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew gray;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low:
I planted daisies there a year ago
That never blow.
You should not loiter so."
"Nay hush," said Laura.
"Nay hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more," and kissed her.
"Have done with sorrow;
I'll bring you plums to-morrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons, icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink,
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap."

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down, in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fallen snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars beamed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest.

Early in the morning
When the first cock crowed his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetched in honey, milked the cows,
Aired and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churned butter, whipped up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sewed;
Talked as modest maidens should
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day's delight,
One longing for the night.

At length slow evening came--
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
They drew the gurgling water from its deep
Lizzie plucked purple and rich golden flags,
Then turning homeward said: "The sunset flushes
Those furthest loftiest crags;
Come, Laura, not another maiden lags,
No wilful squirrel wags,
The beasts and birds are fast asleep."
But Laura loitered still among the rushes
And said the bank was steep.

And said the hour was early still,
The dew not fallen, the wind not chill:
Listening ever, but not catching
The customary cry,
"Come buy, come buy,"
With its iterated jingle
Of sugar-baited words:
Not for all her watching
Once discerning even one goblin
Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling;
Let alone the herds
That used to tramp along the glen,
In groups or single,
Of brisk fruit-merchant men.

Till Lizzie urged, "O Laura, come,
I hear the fruit-call, but I dare not look:
You should not loiter longer at this brook:
Come with me home.
The stars rise, the moon bends her arc,
Each glow-worm winks her spark,
Let us get home before the night grows dark;
For clouds may gather even
Though this is summer weather,
Put out the lights and drench us through;
Then if we lost our way what should we do?"

Laura turned cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
"Come buy our fruits, come buy."
Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?
Must she no more such succous pasture find,
Gone deaf and blind?
Her tree of life drooped from the root:
She said not one word in her heart's sore ache;
But peering thro' the dimness, naught discerning,
Trudged home, her pitcher dripping all the way;
So crept to bed, and lay
Silent 'til Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnashed her teeth for balked desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain,
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry:
"Come buy, come buy,"
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon waxed bright
Her hair grew thin and gray;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay, and burn
Her fire away.

One day remembering her kernel-stone
She set it by a wall that faced the south;
Dewed it with tears, hoped for a root,
Watched for a waxing shoot,
But there came none;
It never saw the sun,
It never felt the trickling moisture run:
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dreamed of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crowned trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.

She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.

Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister's cankerous care,
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins' cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy."
Beside the brook, along the glen
She heard the tramp of goblin men,
The voice and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Longed to buy fruit to comfort her,
But feared to pay too dear.

She thought of Jeanie in her grave,
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest winter-time,
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter-time.

Till Laura, dwindling,
Seemed knocking at Death's door:
Then Lizzie weighed no more
Better and worse,
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kissed Laura, crossed the heath with clumps of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook,
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

Laughed every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter-skelter, hurry-skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes, --
Hugged her and kissed her;
Squeezed and caressed her;
Stretched up their dishes,
Panniers and plates:
"Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
Pomegranates, figs."

"Good folk," said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie,
"Give me much and many"; --
Held out her apron,
Tossed them her penny.
"Nay, take a seat with us,
Honor and eat with us,"
They answered grinning;
"Our feast is but beginning.
Night yet is early,
Warm and dew-pearly,
Wakeful and starry:
Such fruits as these
No man can carry;
Half their bloom would fly,
Half their dew would dry,
Half their flavor would pass by.
Sit down and feast with us,
Be welcome guest with us,
Cheer you and rest with us."
"Thank you," said Lizzie; "but one waits
At home alone for me:
So, without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I tossed you for a fee."
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One called her proud,
Cross-grained, uncivil;
Their tones waxed loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously, --
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire, --
Like a fruit-crowned orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee, --
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tear her standard down.

One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,
Coaxed and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,
Kicked and knocked her,
Mauled and mocked her,
Lizzie uttered not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in;
But laughed in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syruped all her face,
And lodged in dimples of her chin,
And streaked her neck which quaked like curd.
At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit
Along whichever road they took,
Not leaving root or stone or shoot.
Some writhed into the ground,
Some dived into the brook
With ring and ripple.
Some scudded on the gale without a sound,
Some vanished in the distance.

In a smart, ache, tingle,
Lizzie went her way;
Knew not was it night or day;
Sprang up the bank, tore through the furze,
Threaded copse and dingle,
And heard her penny jingle
Bouncing in her purse, --
Its bounce was music to her ear.
She ran and ran
As if she feared some goblin man
Dogged her with gibe or curse
Or something worse:
But not one goblin skurried after,
Nor was she pricked by fear;
The kind heart made her windy-paced
That urged her home quite out of breath with haste
And inward laughter.

She cried "Laura," up the garden,
"Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men."

Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutched her hair:
"Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing,
And ruined in my ruin;
Thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden?"
She clung about her sister,
Kissed and kissed and kissed her:
Tears once again
Refreshed her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.

Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loathed the feast:
Writhing as one possessed she leaped and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
Her locks streamed like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.

Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame,
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense failed in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about,
Like a foam-topped water-spout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life ?

Life out of death.
That night long Lizzie watched by her,
Counted her pulse's flagging stir,
Felt for her breath,
Held water to her lips, and cooled her face
With tears and fanning leaves:
But when the first birds chirped about their eaves,
And early reapers plodded to the place
Of golden sheaves,
And dew-wet grass
Bowed in the morning winds so brisk to pass,
And new buds with new day
Opened of cup-like lilies on the stream,
Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laughed in the innocent old way,
Hugged Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of gray,
Her breath was sweet as May,
And light danced in her eyes.

Days, weeks, months,years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat,
But poison in the blood;
(Men sell not such in any town;)
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
"For there is no friend like a sister,
In calm or stormy weather,
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands."

by Christina Rosetti

(courtesy The Victorian Web)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Texas Cowboy's Troubled Dream

Talk about a sobering dream....

The Hell Bound Train

A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain
To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.

The engine with murderous blood was damp
And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp;
An imp, for fuel, was shoveling bones,
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.

The boiler was filled with lager beer
And the devil himself was the engineer;
The passengers were a most motley crew-
Church member, atheist, Gentile, and Jew,

Rich men in broad cloth, beggars in rags,
Handsome young ladies, and withered old hags,
Yellow and black men, red, brown, and white,
All chained together-O God, what a sight!

While the train rushed on at an awful pace-
The sulphurous fumes scorched their hands and face;
Wider and wider the country grew,
As faster and faster the engine flew.
Louder and louder the thunder crashed
And brighter and brighter the lightning flashed;
Hotter and hotter the air became
Till the clothes were burned from each quivering frame.

And out of the distance there arose a yell,
"Ha, ha," said the devil, "we're nearing hell"
Then oh, how the passengers all shrieked with pain
And begged the devil to stop the train.
But he capered about and danced for glee,
And laughed and joked at their misery.
"My faithful friends, you have done the work
And the devil never can a payday shirk.

"You've bullied the weak, you've robbed the poor,
The starving brother you've turned from the door;
You've laid up gold where the canker rust,
And have given free vent to your beastly lust.
"You've justice scorned, and corruption sown,
And trampled the laws of nature down.
You have drunk, rioted, cheated, plundered, and lied,
And mocked at God in your hell-born pride.

"You have paid full fare, so I'll carry you through,
For it's only right you should have your due.
Why, the laborer always expects his hire,
So I'll land you safe in the lake of fire,

"Where your flesh will waste in the flames that roar,
And my imps torment you forevermore."
Then the cowboy awoke with an anguished cry,
His clothes wet with sweat and his hair standing high.

Then he prayed as he never had prayed till that hour
To be saved from his sin and the demon's power;
And his prayers and his vows were not in vain,
For he never rode the hell-bound train.


(courtesy Vintage Halloween Poetry)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Which Poet Will You Be for Hallowe'en?

If you're anything like me, right about now you're poking through your closet trying to figure out exactly what or who in the world you can dress up like for that Hallowe'en party or to accompany your family trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en night.

Well, look no further! The Academy of American Poets has costume ideas galore for the poetry lover. A white nightgown, a collection of folded papers and flies will transform you into Emily Dickenson. A lyre will make you Sappho. Gather up butterflies and a beard and violá! Walt Whitman is walking down your staircase.

Okay, maybe a ribbon will help, or perhaps a wheelbarrow or a stethoscope may be needed for a more complete transformation (or if you've changed your mind to become William Carlos Williams).

At any rate, consider your options. I'm sure you'd make a lovely Emily or Edgar, and the opportunity to share poetry will just guild the lily. (Visit the Academy of American Poets Web site for your favorites.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gearing Up for Hallowe'en With A Ghost Poem

How else would you get ready for Hallowe'en but with a ghost poem? (Okay, and some candy, too.) What's your favorite scary poem?

The Poor Ghost

"Oh whence do you come, my dear friend, to me,
With your golden hair all fallen below your knee,
And your face as white as snowdrops on the lea,
And your voice as hollow as the hollow sea?"

"From the other world I come back to you,
My locks are uncurled with dripping drenching dew.
You know the old, whilst I know the new:
But tomorrow you shall know this too."

"Oh not tomorrow into the dark, I pray;
Oh not tomorrow, too soon to go away:
Here I feel warm and well-content and gay:
Give me another year, another day."

"Am I so changed in a day and a night
That mine own only love shrinks from me with fright,
Is fain to turn away to left or right
And cover up his eyes from the sight?"

"Indeed I loved you, my chosen friend,
I loved you for life, but life has an end;
Thro' sickness I was ready to tend:
But death mars all, which we cannot mend.

"Indeed I loved you; I love you yet
If you will stay where your bed is set,
Where I have planted a violet
Which the wind waves, which the dew makes wet."

"Life is gone, then love too is gone,
It was a reed that I leant upon:
Never doubt 1 will leave you alone
And not wake you rattling bone with bone.

"I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.

"But why did your tears soak thro' the clay,
And why did your sobs wake me where I lay?
I was away, far enough away:
Let me sleep now till the Judgment Day."

by Christina Rosetti

courtesy Classic Literature

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Funeral Poe Never Had — Until Now

Baltimore celebrated its favorite son this year on his bicentennial year by not only celebrating his life, but also giving him the sendoff from this mortal coil he did not get 160 years ago.

Only one man could write the stuff that scares the stuffing out of even the most seasoned horror writer and still spurs men to wear bright purple. Credit for that alone goes to Edgar Allen Poe, with whom a single word — Nevermore! — can create images that capture the essence of Gothic fiction, as well as inspire the name of a profitable football franchise.

The funeral event began at 11:40 a.m. Sunday, October 11, with a processional from the Poe House to Westminster Hall. The Loch Raven Pipes and Drums led a horse-drawn hearse, the curtains on the glass sides pulled up so the casket was visible. The bagpipes were haunting.

The hearse was followed by dozens of mourners in period clothing, including the speakers slated for the funeral service. My embarrassingly limited Poe knowledge prevented me from recognizing some of the bearded faces, and I was glad to see a few women in the processional. A few people were easy to detect with my untrained eye: Walt Whitman in his full gray beard, beige hat and light suit; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his garb perfect for the wild moor; and Sir Alfred Hitchcock with an unmistakable profile and very English hat. Not all in the entourage were in 19th century garb, and I was intrigued. (The Poe bicentennial Web site had warned that the list of speakers might change due to their being dead themselves, so I wasn't sure how death had affected the program.)

As the processional came to a halt in front of Westminster Hall, the crowd pushed closer, cameras clicking. (My camera, regrettably, was in my car, forgotten in the haste to see the processional and remembered blocks from where David and I parked.) I am not sure if I would have been as forward as some of the photographers; to me, it was a funeral more than a performance, and there was something macabre and disrespectful about shoving a camera in Whitman's face.

A handful of the men stepped forward to serve as pallbearers, and the casket was slid from the hearse into their waiting hands. They solemnly walked along the front of the hall, cautiously maneuvering their way past the crowd lining in the street. (They did not walk up the steep stairs in front of which the hearse stopped.)

As the hour of the first service drew near, those attending the first service filed into the hall after them.

Many of my fellow spectators/mourners were in period mourning costume, or a close approximation of such. I am not an expert, and some costumes were elaborate and interesting, like the men in full black topcoats, top hats and capes, or the women in long black crepe dresses and hats with black lace covering their faces. Some people were dressed in contemporary clothing apropos to mourning and funerals. Other spectators used this as an opportunity to air out their Halloween costumes a couple of weeks early, and many had clothing with depictions of skulls, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Poe himself. There was a fair smattering of Raven purple. (I myself was in blue jeans and a black blouse, which served me well in the quarter-mile sprint from the car to the processional).

Before the second service, people milled around Poe's grave, placing pennies and flowers on his monument. A clutch of men in the Baltimore City Men's Chorus warmed up in the narrow walkway amidst the gravestones in the yard beyond the spectators. People took photos of the grave, others took photos of their friends and family at the grave. A tall Asian man performed mournful classical music as he stood next to the monument, and the crowd clapped with appreciation. The crowed ebbed and flowed, Goth teens and 19th century mourners mixing with surprised pedestrians passing through the crowd. A long black hearse with a silver skull as its hood ornament blasted what sounded like Vincent Price giving a dramatic reading (presumably of Poe's works), though the distortion prevented me from understanding a word from where I stood. I took photos of tombstones, some of which were under the hall, behind locked gates.

Inside the hall was a replica of Poe's original tombstone, which was destroyed in a freak train derailment accident before it was even placed on his grave. The stone was surrounded by beautiful flowers (presumably from the event's official florist, who accepted phone orders with free delivery for the service). At the front of the hall were the organ's tall pipes that reached to the arched ceiling. Hundreds of chairs filled slowly as the mourners took their seats.

The speakers were unknown to me by sight, for the most part. The Reverend Rufus Griswold was soundly hissed as he took the stage. Both Poe's former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman and his close friend George Lippard countered the reverend's previously published slights. Both were animated and engaging. In fact, Lippard was so overwrought he needed a glass of water to continue his eulogy — then, as he left the lectern, threw the rest in Griswold's face. Poe's nurse, editor, attending physician at his death all were present to pretty much set the record straight to the author's life and final days.

The second half of the service was more entertaining to the casual Poe aficionado. That was when those who were most influenced by him, authors and movie directors, illustrators and actors alike, took the stage. Whitman had little to say, but spoke with affection for the man who welcomed him to the office building in New York they both occupied. Charles Baudelaire was effusive and dignified. H.P. Lovecraft was brilliant with his nervous gestures and reading aloud what sounded like gibberish from a large book (I'm sure his fans will explain that to me). Hitchcock offered his profile and some of his familiar catchphrases.

When we came to the living, their tributes were touching and spoke deeply to my own sensibilities. Ellen Datlow, in her black dress and wild hair, was humble and appreciative. Gris Grimly was funny, self-deprecating and irreverent (and dressed in a t-shirt with a bare rib cage on the front and a dress jacket); only a geek can articulate what it's like to be a geek and have a roomful of fellow geeks get it. Mark Renfield brought Baltimore and D.C. of today into the mix with references to pop culture of the time and place. John Astin spoke briefly but with heartfelt appreciation, and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome's words spoke to this bureaucrat's heart.

In the end, the casket passed through the hall and we paid our final respects. More than 700 people attended the services, and many more stood in the cool autumn sunshine, blocking traffic and wandering about the cemetery. The event allowed all to celebrate the life and works of a man who might have been impoverished at his death but left a legacy beyond all measure. It was a great event, and I am glad David and I could be a part of it.

If a person's wealth can be measured by influence, Poe died a rich man who, I hope, will continue to be remembered and continue to influence generations of readers, writers and movie directors (and whatever media follows). May the events of 2009 in Baltimore encourage more people to read and learn more about him, his time, his work and his homes — including the Poe Museum in Richmond, another great Poe resource and enjoyable destination (and the town he felt was his true home).

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Marital Exchange on a Cold Morning

Me: I'm getting out of bed.
David: I'll miss you.
Me: I'm taking the covers with me.
David: I'll really miss you.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Cost of Payment

There's been a lot of discussion lately about whether to pay for purchases with credit cards, debit cards or layaway. It's a great conversation to have, and one that is truly long overdue.

Back in the day, credit was given sparingly. One went into debt for a house, and maybe for a car. Of course, back in the day, most everything was purchased with cash. If you didn't have the entire purchase price, many stores would allow you to buy with cash over time. That quaint practice, central to my family's back-to-school clothing purchases, was called "layaway."

Nowadays, I have heard many people remark that they rarely carry or use cash.

I rarely keep cash in my wallet, instead use my bank card attached to my checking account. I keep cash for those embarrassingly small transactions, when purchasing a snack shouldn't be a challenge. Frankly, this can go both ways: either I don't process a $2.65 purchase, saving some hard-earned money, or I find another $10 to tack on to make the purchase "worthwhile." (By the way, merchants may not require a minimum purchase for use of credit cards, as a rule; if they do, report them to your credit card company.)

Debit cards are a blessing — usually. My card is tied to my checking account and I make purchases on it all the livelong day. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not a spendthrift. I can't be: every penny in my checking account is banking on my wise purchases. If I don't have the money, I don't use the card. Period. Purchases on my debit card keep me honest. I'm not the only one, according to The Washington Post ("For Gun-Shy Consumers, Debit is Replacing Credit," October 7, 2009).

I also have to understand the system. My bank, for some unknown reason, charges a transaction fee for every debit purchase — but "credit" purchases are different. I could change my service, and one of these days I might. However, in the meantime, I know how to process a transaction that doesn't cost me and still pays for the purchase directly from available funds.

My husband David learned the hard way about how debit and credit card purchases differ. During a recent trip, he paid for a hotel room with his debit card — only to discover two charges on his card: a temporary charge to hold the room and the final, permanent charge to pay for the room. While it may be standard practice for credit/debit companies to reserve those funds for those kinds of "reservation" purchases, it's not always common knowledge to customers. Most people don't have an extra few hundred dollars in their checking accounts for this kind of temporary charge, so be sure to inquire when using a debit card.

This brings up a different angle to debit cards: the purchase and use of debit cards as a sort of "gift" card. Many traditional credit card companies offer gift cards, which are a lovely idea — but my attempt at using them last summer soured me to them. I was given hundreds of dollars on multiple Visa gift cards, but half the time the vendor could not process them, so the money was unavailable. Then there was the time the MTA told me the train ticket wasn't processed on the card, only the MTA received payment. Or did they? Visa wasn't sure. (My advice: just give cash. It spends easier.)

Some companies, however, are providing "debit" cards that can be purchased by the public. These will provide cash at ATMs as well as process as a traditional debit card at stores. While a convenience, the card is not without its costs. Apparently not only is there a cost to activate the card, but some merchants and banks charge per use of the card ("Prepaid — but Not Prepared for Debit Card Fees," New York Times, October 5, 2009).

Every convenience has its price and consumers are warned with a hearty caveat emptor. Always know the rules of the card: additional costs, transaction costs, expiration dates and the like. I have lost value on gift cards that have hidden expiration dates or whose merchants withdraw a fee per month when the card carries a balance after a certain period of time. Usually when I call the merchant, I receive credit (on the card) for these fees, or the expiration date is extended. As time continues, merchants are changing their policies. If not, we can shop with our feet and use only those vendors with reasonable policies.

There are times when credit cards are a necessary evil, so to speak. I use mine when purchasing items online, or when I travel (see hotel and car rental reference, above). If I have a particularly large expense (car repairs come to mind) that might stretch my checking account, I will put the transaction on the credit card until I can transfer sufficient funds into my checking account. I do not carry a balance on my credit card. I think we can agree: few purchases are worth paying (sometimes usurious) interest — and even then, lending institutions offer better repayment programs than "plastic."

In the end, the question remains: why not use cash? There's little advantage to the cards, and certainly the cost can outweigh the convenience. Anyway, the recipient can always spend them to purchase a card if they prefer. Sometimes cash seems, well, gauche — I've purchased gift cards rather than put cash in the last two baby shower cards I have given only because cash seemed artless, lazy. I am going to help change that attitude, starting — well, tomorrow, when I next plan to purchase gifts.

In the meantime, wish me luck with Visa. Maybe corporate America isn't completely soul-less yet.