Friday, August 29, 2008


I've stepped away from Literary Conceits today to take a seat on the dais over at Book Roast, where they're giving me a Sinatra-esque basting, but without tuxedos or the drinks. So bring your own.

The rules are simple: I've selected a short excerpt from the book (and given that two of the books featured this week were The Debs and Tan Lines, I decided to go with a bit of Irvingesque romance), which you will read, and then answer three questions, provided by my host and roastmaster Stephen Parrish.

I'll be punching in from time to time to see what you've got to say, and to take an occassional poke back. And if I think you're the funniest, cleverest, or smartest person in Puppetland, you'll win an inscribed copy of Washington Irving: An American Original. I have a copy here on my desk, all ready to go, and I reeeeeally hope the winner's name is Mike Tibbits, because that's the name that's already inscribed in the front of the book.*

What are you waiting for? Click here to join in on the fun.

A special thanks to Stephen Parrish for serving as my host and roastmaster. Stephen's a good chap, not to mention a funny guy, so I won't mention it. Stephen's top-notch blog is right here.

* No, not really. It's a brand new book, I promise.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sleestak! Pakuni!

The latest from the Hollywood Messes With Another Childhood Memory Department: the Land of the Lost remake is officially underway, with Will Ferrell in the lead role of Will Marshall. In this new version, the Will and Holly rounding out the Marshall, Will and Holly triumvirate will be adult companions of Will Marshall, and not his children. Way to blow the initial conceit, Hollywood. Yeesh.

As a kid, Land of the Lost was one of those shows I adored. What's that you say? The dinosaur was clearly a puppet? The waterfall was Tidy Bowl blue? The Sleestaks had seams at the necks? The acting was Shatneresque? None of it mattered; we accepted it all without question, and my brother and I tuned in dutifully every Saturday morning, that magical day of the week when television was just for us. We shuddered when the Marshalls tiptoed up to the Sleestak temple (or, better yet, battled Sleestaks in a pit filled with dry-ice-fog), scratched our heads at the Three Stooges-type antics of Chaka and his Pakuni brothers, and cheered when Will and Holly finally figured out how to get Dopey the Brontosaurus to tow a cart. And we couldn't wait for that moment in every episode when the Marshalls would ram the "flyswatter" -- a gigantic shaved tree trunk -- down the throat of Grumpy, a raging T. Rex, knowing full well that he would be back next week for the same abuse. Brain the size of a walnut, indeed.

In the afternoons, my friend John and I would play Land of the Lost in his enormous sandbox (I always insisted on being Will), and the neighborhood kids would debate the question of why the Marshalls didn't simply look for the waterfall and climb back to the top.

Still, while Land of the Lost was great, there was always something somewhat creepy about it. With its lost cities, shimmering pylons (where there was a foggy doorway leading back to our world, if you could juuuust figure out how to make the crystals work), and vaguely threatening music, there was always this sort of sinister undercurrent running through the whole thing, as if something dangerous were about to happen at any moment.

I had the opportunity to watch the first few episodes of the first season on DVD a while back, and, to my surprise, not only does the show still hold up (for what it is), but that same sense of creepiness is there -- only now I understand what they were up to a bit better than I did at seven years old. With science fiction writers like David Gerrold, Ben Bova, Larry Niven, and Ted Sturgeon contributing scripts, the show had a surprisingly sophisticated mythology (remember Enik's backstory?) and a weird internal logic. Basically, the Land was an alternate, closed universe that doubled back on itself -- in other words, keep walking in one direction long enough, and you'll end up back where you started. Truly bizarre.

Land of the Lost lasted only three seasons (from 1974 to 1976). Every kid on my block watched every episode with a religious-like devotion, though we all grudgingly agreed the show jumped the shark with the departure of Rick Marshall at the end of season two (we never saw him go) and the introduction of lame-o Uncle Jack for season three.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Demise of Student Reading: Who's To Blame?

Over the weekend, in a column in the Washington Post, high school English teacher Nancy Schnog pondered the disturbing finding -- which we discussed in this very blog several months ago -- that a vast majority of high school students don't read anything for pleasure. In fact, as she points out (citing a report from the National Endowment for the Arts), the percentage of 17-year olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled in the past 20 years. (Schnog's column, "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up," can be seen here. Registration may be needed.)

What happened? Is it the usual boogeymen of video games, the Internet, and other electronic media? Nope. Schnog lays much of the blame for this backslide squarely on the shoulders of those who share her profession:'s time to acknowledge that the lure of visual media isn't the only thing pushing our kids away from the page and toward the screen. We've shied away from discussing a most unfortunate culprit in the saga of diminishing teen reading: the high-school English classroom. As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it's English teachers like me -- as able and well-intentioned as we may be -- who close down teen interest in reading.
Part of the problem, Schnog continues, is that the books selected for the reading curriculum are, to your average teenager, inaccessible, unrelatable, or just plain lame:

I watched this play out last year when the junior reading list at my school, consisting mainly of major American authors, was fortified with readings in Shakespeare, Ibsen and the British Romantic poets. When I handed my students two weeks of readings by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge after a month-long study of American transcendentalists, it became clear that they had overdosed on verse packed with nature description and emotional reflection. "When will we read something with a plot?" asked one agitated boy, obviously yearning for afternoon lacrosse to begin.
Schnog doesn't cop out by blaming the requirements of No Child Left Behind; rather, it's teachers, principals, and school administrators who are out of touch with teens' tastes and interests. It's not that teens aren't interested in reading, or even in reading the classics; what they want to read, for example, is works by Issac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, or Stephen King -- the kind of stuff that has traditionally (though unfairly) been poo-pooed by stifflips, but that teens consume faster than toaster streudel.

Think back to your own experience. Even if you considered yourself a hardcore reader in high school, chances are good that many of the books on the Required Reading list left you cold or actively disinterested. I was annoyed by the heavyhanded symbolism of Lord of the Flies, for example, but loved Stephen King's The Stand. Other classmates of mine, who teachers had written off as hopeless because they refused to read Shakespeare, had no problems soaking up multiple volumes by writers like Stephen R. Donaldson or Piers Anthony.

Schnog concludes like so:

But if we really want to recruit teen readers, we're going to have to be strenuous advocates for fresh and innovative reading incentives. If that means an end to business as usual -- abolishing dry-bones literature tests, cutting back on fact-based quizzes, adding works of science fiction or popular nonfiction to the reading list -- so be it. We can continue to alienate teen readers, or we can hear them, acknowledge their tastes, engage directly with their resistance to serious reading and move gradually, with sensitivity to what's age-appropriate, toward the realm of great literature.
I think she's right. She's not proposing scrapping the classics altogether, but balancing them against more modern -- and yes, popular -- fare. There's nothing wrong with providing teens with a bit of dessert with the spinach, especially if the dessert is actually good for you.

(Need proof that teenagers can read for pleasure when properly inspired? Go to your local Borders or Barnes & Noble and look at the number of teens -- many of them girls -- sprawled on the floor in front of the anime and graphic novels sections, poring through volumes the size of small phone books. What's that? Only illiterates read comics? No, illiterates don't read anything.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

What A Mess!

We're entering the homestretch of our HVAC retrofit here at Chestnut Hill, as we continue the work to install a modern geothermal heating and cooling system in our decidedly stubborn 70-year-old house.

Most of the major ductwork has been completed, but ensuring that air could move between the top and bottom floors of an old house meant sacrificing the closet in the downstairs bedroom, which is actually one of the few closets we have in the entire house. As you can see in the picture just above, the return duct is on the left, and the supply is on the right. That leaves about two feet of closet between the ducts and the door -- which, I suppose, isn't all that bad by closet standards. Look closely, and you can see where the shelves lining the walls were ripped out to make way for the ductwork.

The main unit will sit in the basement directly below this closet. We've been assured the system we're installing is whisper quiet. We'll see. They're still working this week, finishing up the ductwork in the basement -- including in the area where my new air conditioned and heated office will be -- and, to our delight, disassembling the old boiler-based system we have squatting in a back room in our basement. I swear, after burning 70 years of fuel oil back there, it's gotta be a Superfund site. I'll be thrilled to get the huge 250-gallon holding tank out of there.

But the current mess in the house is nothing compared to the disarray seen to your left. That, my friends, is the well-drilling machinery that will drill two 300-foot wells in our backyard, which will supply the rock-steady temperatures that make a geothermal system work. The thing sits about thirty feet high (you can measure it against the two huge chestnut trees you can see in our backyard just behind it), and the 20-foot lengths of drill bit rotate in, revolver-style, to be screwed onto the end of each bit as it drills itself further into the ground. Yeah, it's noisy.

As the drill moves into the ground, shale, bedrock and gunk come gushing out -- which are then blown through the flexhose you see in the photo into an enormous bin for removal. While the system works well, our yard is already a mess of dust, clay, and mud. Fortunately, the lack of rain here has kept everything dry, so the yard's not turning into a pigpen. There's rain in the forecast for later this week, but the drilling is supposed to be completed by Tuesday. Let's hope.

Messy? You bet. But worth it, if only to get off of the annual 1,100 Gallons of Heating Fuel addiction this house had. Feeling like the junkie who calls his dealer to announce he's going cold turkey, I called our local fuel company this past weekend to tell them we wouldn't be needing their services anymore.

"Right," the woman on the phone said. "That's what they all say. You'll be back, you hear me? YOU'LL BE BA--"

I hung up on her, and went outside to look at my wells again, quivering.*

* Dramatization. Actual event may not have happened.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shameless Plug Alert!

August is passing by so quickly I forgot to mention that I'll be one of the five authors featured during next week's Book Roast. (Is it really the last week of the month already?) I'm the only non-fiction writer on the skewer for the week, so drop by and give me a grilling that would make Joel and the 'Bots proud. It's all in fun, so have a good time. I promise to take it all in stride.

And while you're there, think about supporting the Reach Out and Read program, to help promote early literacy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How'd You Find Me?

One of the more unusual pleasures of running a blog or website is that you can pull down all sorts of interesting and oddball statistics on how readers are finding you. Sure, you can see where your visitors are coming from (hello there, My Regular But Shy Reader in Berlin!), and even what browsers they're using to read you -- but that's the easy stuff. More fascinating is the ability to see what search words are being typed into search engines and steering folks your way.

Just for fun, then, let's look at some of the more interesting search terms that have driven people here over the past four weeks.

Damnboo: Oddly, this is one of the most frequent search terms, guiding readers toward this entry from May. I can only imagine it's typed into a Google search box with the same pounding keystrokes that I used years ago when I started searching for ways to get rid of the stuff.

Thwip!: The Sound-Effects Savvy are obviously searching for their favorite webslinger -- but only manage to make it to this entry on the Library of Congress' acquisition of the original Lee/Ditko pages from Amazing Fantasy 15. Dare I say . . . SNIKT!? (and let's see how many Wolverine fans that particular term pulls to this page in the coming weeks...)

Crows of Pearblossom: This one's a sleeper that continues to draw numerous hits each week. I like to imagine there are Aldous Huxley completists out there, searching for this obscure children's book to fill the one remaining gap in their Huxley collection.

Jack Kamen: The early August death of the EC Comics' artist drove more than a few casual browswers this way.

And finally, my two favorites, straight from the Stream-of-Consciousness Department:

English murderers Jay Jones and Roger: Type it into Google and see what shows up. I don't know what they might have been looking for, either.

Is Sir Walter Gilbert remembered today?: Answer: Doubtful.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Monday Afternoon Musings

Whoops, sorry once again to have been away so long. We were in Austin for several days, to pick up Madi, who was coming in from Phoenix so we could whoosh her back to Maryland.

For my airplane reading, I picked up Eric Clapton's autobiography, which turned out to be a surprisingly good read. I mean, where else are you going to see someone so casually toss off a line like, "Backstage, John [Lennon] and I did so much blow that he threw up, and I had to lie down for a while." Killer.

Hammers are still flying here at home as our Trusty HVAC Team continues its work to bring modrun conveniences to our Old School home. Next up is running water and flushing toilets. Ha ha! I keed! But only slightly.

Know what bugs me? Professionals in the Olympics. I saw a photo in the Washington Post of the Williams sisters celebrating their gold medal in women's tennis, and my heart failed to swell with cries of USA! USA! Instead, I just thought, "meh." They're professionals, after all -- of course they're beating everyone. Same goes for the men's and women's basketball teams. I know, I know -- being competitive and all that. But I still don't like it.

Lately I've been corresponding with Michael Black, one of our premiere Irving scholars, and having a a generally terrific time. We've got our differences of opinion on Irving, his works, and biographies in general, but what a pleasure it is to converse with a true giant in the field of Irvingiana. We've each extended mutual invitations for dinner and discussion, and I'm truly hoping we'll have an opportunity continue our conversations either in New York or Maryland one of these days.

Back tomorrow, I promise.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday Afternoon

Sorry to miss you here yesterday, but I was at the library. And not just the library, but the library -- the Library of Congress. I spent most of yesterday hunkered down in the Periodicals Reading Room of the Madison Building doing some research on my current work in progress -- which is still in a way too scattered state for me to announce anything yet, sorry. At the moment, I'm just poking.

I love the Madison Building. With its stone pillared facade and drab interiors, it doesn't have the old world charm or glamour of the Jefferson Building, but it makes up in substance what it lacks it style. You can wander the halls and the reading rooms freely -- provided you have your library card, of course -- and lots of books and reference materials are readily available without having to submit a formal request that can sometimes take a while to process before the book hits your desk.

The Periodicals Reading Room is an efficient, businesslike space. One end is crammed with row after row of shelves lined with hardcover indexes to more major metropolitan newspapers than you can imagine, as well as guides to public documents, Presidential letters and papers, and the Congressional Record. Tucked up just behind these shelves are tables for reading and research, and some angled desks where you can spread out older documents or manuscripts.

Dividing the room up the middle are several rows of cubicles with computers. Signs at each cubicle warn readers that these computers are Strictly for Browsing the Library's Electronic Catalog, but most readers were quietly checking e-mail or watching YouTube videos -- but with headphones on, I noticed, so as not to disturb those around them. (One patron was even playing what appeared to be a online version of Donkey Kong.) There's also a small area for making photocopies -- and you'll need to purchase one of the library's copy cards to do so.

On the other end of the room are tidy columns of filing cabinets full of microfiche versions of major newspapers like The Washington Post, New York Times, the London Times and Wall Street Journal, some dating as far back as 200 years. In fact, the files for the New York Times date all the way back to September 18, 1851, starting with volume 1, number 1, when it was the four-page New-York Daily Times. This is where I spent most of my day, shuttling armfuls of microfiche boxes from the cabinets back to my microfiche reader back in the far corner.

A microfiche reader is one of those really interesting old-school pieces of equipment that still works just as well today as it did a generation ago: simply load the film onto an overhead spool, flick on the light switch, and the image is projected onto the white surface below. Need to advance a page? Turn the crank on the side, and the image spins past. When you're done, handcrank with all your might to reload the film on the spool. Efficient? Not really. But it works.

The only real problem I have with microfiche is that, even as I whiz the pages past, my eyes tend to try to follow each page. So I spend hours with my eyes quickly flicking back and forth, which makes me feel somewhat seasick by the end of the day. Suffice it to say, I staggered out of the library at 4:00 looking like I'd just stepped off the Pequod.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Famous Writers and Their Workspaces

Several readers have sent me a heads up on this feature in The New York Times, on artist Elena Climenta's mural for New York University’s Languages and Literature building. Even casual readers know this (work spaces) is one of my favorite topics -- and in this case, it's particularly appropriate, given that Washington Irving's study at Sunnyside is featured in one of the mural's panels.

You can view a slide show on the piece right here. Sunnyside is the first slide featured.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Jack Kamen (1920-2008)

EC Comics artist Jack Kamen -- best known for his horror stories featuring saucy, plotting women and wide-eyed "widdle kids" -- died this week of cancer. He was 88 years old.

Like all EC artists, Kamen's style was one-of-a-kind. But where artists like Jack Davis or Graham Ingels made everything look heavy and inky and creepy, Kamen -- due to his pre-EC background in romance comics -- had a pin-up style that gave everything an air of veracity that made it seem just realistic enough -- provided, of course, that you lived in a world where everyone was handsome, beautiful, and smoked cigarettes with a cool charm. No one could make wives casually planning their husbands' gruesome deaths look so beautiful (see above), or make nebbishes plotting revenge quite so nerdily angry. As EC editor Al Feldstein once put it, "We gave Kamen those stories where the All-American girl and guy are married, and then chop each other to pieces."

Due to his non-shocking style, EC readers usually ranked his stories near the bottom of each issue (he was regularly shoved aside in favor of the more graphically gory Ingels story, or Davis' comic relief), but no one could ever argue that his work wasn't first rate. And after EC, Kamen had a long career in commercial art.

What you may not know about Kamen, however, is that his legacy extends beyond the comics page. His son, Dean, is the entrepreneur and inventor who brought us the Segway and iBot mobility system. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean about ten years ago at the FIRST robotics competition down at EPCOT*, and after I congratulated him on the iBot (which he had only recently unveiled), I mentioned to him that I was a fan of his father's work. There was a slight flicker of delighted surprise, then he smiled, shook my hand warmly, and told me how proud he was to have Jack as his dad.

Condolences to Jack Kamen's family and friends. We'll miss him too, folks.

* No, I didn't have a robot in the competition -- I was there as a representative of the Arizona State Department of Education to root on four crafty teams from Arizona high schools.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Random Abstract

It's a beautiful day here in Maryland this morning -- 70 degrees, lightly overcast, and one of those days where you'd really like to spend the morning in bed with the window open, enjoying the breeze and listening to the birds chatter.

But I can't.

Some random bits today:

The HVAC crew is back at it again today, working hard to bring us into the 20th century, and maybe even a bit into the 21st.

I read this piece over on WendyC's Writes in the City blog -- providing some pointers she learned at the Southampton Writer's Conference on how to present your work -- and thought they were all dead on. For my part, speed is my enemy. I can talk at about 30 words per second, and slowing down takes a conscious effort on my part. I was on a radio show in Santa Fe earlier this year, and after asking me the first question, the deejay looked up at the clock in the studio to check the time. As soon as I saw that glance at the clock and became aware of the time, I was finished -- I talked a mile a minute for the next 26 minutes (that would be 26 miles, if you do the math -- a verbal marathon on my part). When we were finished and the deejay went to commercial, he flicked the red light off, looked up at me over the top of his glasses, and said simply, "Wow."

Oh, and I started poking at a proposal for book two this week, too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

This morning I had the pleasure of going to the post office to send an inscribed copy of Washington Irving to a former U.S. Ambassador to Spain, who was thrilled to learn I had written about his illustrious predecessor. I'm always pleased when Irving gets recognition beyond his literary accomplishments, and it's an honor to send my book to the ambassador.

Even closer to the home front, we're in the process of having a geothermal heating and cooling system installed here at Chestnut Hill. Our house was built back in the late 1930s, well before the days of air conditioning, so we've spent our last few summers improvising ways to keep the house cool. We settled on window units for the bedrooms, which works well enough for sleeping at night, but the rest of the time . . . well, let's just say we have an understanding of what life was like in the 19th century.

Heating was another matter. Our house was built for steam heat, meaning we have hot water running through radiators throughout the house, all heated by a boiler in the basement that burns heating fuel. When we moved in five years ago, the boiler in the basement was the original, a half-ton monstrosity that looked like it could power the Titanic. Since then, we've replaced the boiler with a new, more efficient model, and it all works well enough . . . but with fuel prices going through the ceiling, we've been working hard to get the heating fuel monkey off our backs.

We decided on a geothermal system, as opposed to a traditional heat pump, because we wanted to get a system that was not only more efficient, but better for the planet. Unlike a traditional heating/cooling system -- which sucks in hot air which it then cools down to blow as air conditioning in your house during the summer, and cold air, which it then heats up to blow as heat in the winter -- a geothermal system takes air from the rock-steady 60-degreeish temperature of the earth and converts it into air conditioning or heat.

So this week, the hammers are flying, saws are rasping, and drills are, er, drilling as our crew of HVAC fellows retrofit our 1930s stone farmhouse with ducts, vents, blowers and returns, squeezing ducts into tight corners of our crawl space, and fitting vents into thick horsehair-plaster walls. Next week, the drilling crew comes to drill two 350-foot wells in our back yard, from which a pipe will run, carrying a water/alcohol solution over to the AC/heating unit, which will then be blown into the house to provide the correct amount of heating or cooling.

I know. I don't understand how it works either.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Life Writing Done to Death (And All Because of Amanda Foreman!)

In this month's installment of The Biographer's Craft, editor Jamie McGrath points readers toward an ongoing debate in the British press on the health of and general outlook for biographies. And it's well worth a look.

Leading the pack is Kathryn Hughes -- biographer of George Eliot -- who argues in The Guardian that biographies are teetering on the edge of irrelevance, thanks largely to . . . well, any number of factors, ranging from an obsession with celebrity bios (and, among British readers, royal mistress bios in particular) to shoddy research and unreasonable deadlines and advances. Oh, and she also unloads on Amanda Foreman (of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire fame) for being a lightweight who singlehandedly brought biography down into the gutter. I'm not certain I agree with everything Hughes has to say -- she seems a little too downbeat and testy -- but Hughes is always a good read. Click here to go get it.

Firing back in the pages of The Independent, columnist John Walsh defends Amanda Foreman and accuses Kathryn Hughes of sour grapes. But all in a very polite British manner, of course. You can read Walsh's column here.

Finally, in London's Times -- under a headline only the British could get away with ("Bitchiness Breaks Out In World of Biography") -- Maurice Chittenden argues that more ladies need to borrow a page from Amanda Foreman and pose in the raw as part of their promotional tours. Or at least something like that. You can read it here.

Why aren't we having debates like this on this side of the pond?