Hello Toronto!

Just arrived in Toronto for a visit to the Yorkville neighborhood and the entertainment district courtesy of the Hazelton Hotel and the Soho Metropolitan. Flew in on Porter Airways.


Hello Toronto!

Yorkville is a friendly brick-lined neighborhood where high-rise buildings rub shoulders with old fashioned houses,


Hazelton Street in Yorkville


The Hazelton Hotel fits right in.


The Hazelton Hotel

There’s lots of great shopping here. We toured Holt Renfrew, which started in 1837 making fur hats for Queen Victoria and now has stores all over Canada,


Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street in Yorkville

We dined at the Hazelton’s restaurant, which is called One. The octopus was fantastic.


Octopus at One

Watch this space for more food and fun in the ultra-cool City of Toronto.

A Quick Tour of Amherst

I have a weekly Skype meeting with my friend Vince Walker in Huntington Beach (Surf City), California, but it was fun to meet in person with him and his wife Atsuko when they made a whirlwind trip to the East Coast this weekend.



We had brunch at the Cushman Cafe in Amherst, where we enjoyed the music of Masala Jazz.


From there we took a beautiful walk through the woods to Puffer’s Pond, where we enjoyed the year’s first snow flurry. The weather cleared up quickly, and we saw a great blue heron standing on the dam.


After taking the scenic walk around the pond, we still had a little time before they had to head to Boston to catch their flight home, so we went to the Emily Dickinson Museum, one of those great cultural assets that locals rarely visit.


All in all it was a great visit, especially considering we had only a few hours.

The Real Story of the Amistad


Josiah Willard Gibbs

So why was the theology professor walking up and down the New York waterfront counting to ten in the language of the Mendi?

The story of the slave ship Amistad is one that is often simplified to make Americans feel good about their country: a group of Africans enslaved in Spanish Cuba escape their chains, take over the ship, and force their captors to sail to America, the Land of the Free, hooray!

In fact it’s a bit more complicated than that, and if we dip into the complexities of the story, we can learn a lot more about the world at that time and about our country, which was not, at that time, the Land of the Free.

We can also see how individuals, doing the best they could, played a role in the outcome of the story, and in this way changed history.

“The Amistad Story,” published by The New Haven Colony Historical Society is a wonderful volume I picked up at a tag sale which tells the whole story in all its complexity, but also includes some simple facts, which are these:

The captain of the Coast Guard cutter which took possession of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island took the ship to Connecticut instead of New York.

Why? Because slavery was illegal in New York, but still legal in Connecticut, so he could get his salvage claim when the slaves were returned to their Spanish owners in Cuba.

Simple fact number two: the President of the United States (Martin van Buren) and his Secretary of State (John Forsythe) wanted the Africans aboard the Amistad returned to slavery in Cuba.

The Spanish government was demanding the return of the slaves under the terms of Pinckney’s Treaty and the Adams-Onis Treaty which applied to cargoes recovered from pirates.

It’s important to point out that the Amistad was not a transatlantic slave ship, but rather a ship which transported slaves from Havana 300 miles along the coast of Cuba to Guanaja.

The Amistad slaves had been kidnapped from the African nation of Mendi, but according to the Spanish government, they had been enslaved in Cuba since 1820.

Both Spain and Great Britain had banned the transatlantic slave trade, but it was thriving in Cuba, and the American consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, was “reaping tremendous financial benefits.”

Isn’t that the American way?

The only way to prove that the Africans on board the Amistad were not Cuban slaves was to take their testimony, to show they had been kidnapped in Africa, but nobody in Connecticut could understand them beyond a few basic words.

It was then that Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale University, showed what he was made of.

He learned to count to ten in the language of the Mendi, and then he walked up and down the waterfront in New York counting in Mendi until he found a British seaman who was familiar with the language and could take testimony from the liberators of the Amistad.

That wasn’t the end of the story, of course. They needed the help of a former president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, to plead their case, but JQA got the job done, and the rest, they say, is history. The slaves on board the Amistad were returned to their homes.

Brooklyn’s Chief Exports

In yet another attempt to throw some  stuff out, I tackled some old magazines I’d been saving, including a pile of old New Yorkers in a box with some of my mother’s things. I started reading through them, and “Nope. Can’t toss these, Too entertaining.”

Cast in point an article in the March 8, 2010 edition by Patricia Marx about shopping in Brooklyn.

“If Brooklyn were a country,” she writes, “its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap, and books written by men named Jonathan.”

Marx also shares an insight about what hipsters hate:

“According to the depressingly astute Web site stuffhipstershate.tumbler.com, among the many things that fill hipsters with loathing are: Starbucks, lip gloss, hard sciences, monogamy, standing up straight, flip-flops, condos, spiky hair, cell phone holsters, U2, biceps, the Kindle, Seth Rogen, knowing their bank balance, Manhattan, bras, running, oldsters, other hipsters, and You.”

“They also  hate staying in one place too long,” she continues, “so let’s follow them northward to Greenpoint, and not give a damn what they think.”

And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer


You know how it is when you make one of those giant beach books your own. It’s a bit of a pain to lug around, but you go to it for daily sustenance month after month after month.

You know, like Nicholas and Alexandra, or a Michener tome.

And then at last, it’s over, and you feel you’ve lost a friend. But if you flip that around, it really means you’ve found a friend. Whoever it was that wrote the book turns out to be a kindred spirit.

After more than six months, I’ve finally finished And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, (1433 pages in paperback) and not only have I made a good friend, I’ve made a dozen of them, and I’ve met their children and their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren.

I feel like I’m on the beach at the Sandy Beach Club in South Conway, New Hampshire, looking at the children frolicking in Conway Lake, and saying, “That’s got to be Lucy’s boy.”

Lucy’s brother Brad died tragically at a young age many years ago. He was a lot older than I was, but he took the time to make me and my brothers part of the gang when we were outsiders.

He introduced us to Lou Christie (Two Faces Have I) and the Beach Boys (If everybody had an ocean…) and then, we heard, he died in an accident hitchiking in Sweden.

Years later as I took a plunge into the water and came to the surface, here was his lookalike nephew.

“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re the spitting image of your uncle.”

Helen Hooven Santmyer with her companion of six decades, Mildred Sandoe.

Helen Hooven Santmyer with her companion of six decades, Mildred Sandoe.

In And Ladies of the Club, you make friends with families and follow them over generations, and gain real insights into daily life, and politics, and economics, and fashion and the social norms from 1868 to 1932.

The novel opens with a tableau of graduation ceremonies at the Waynesboro Female Academy in 1868, when Sally Cochrane first fixes her eye on Captain Ludwig Rausch, and Anne Alexander establishes her claim on his friend Captain (and Dr.) John Gordon. Both captains have been honored as heroes in the Civil War.

We learn all about Anne and Sally and their friends and their families, and their children’s families, and what it’s like to die of rheumatic fever, or tuberculosis, or diphtheria, and what it’s like to be a country doctor when there’s just not much that you can do.

Captain Rausch starts a rope company and becomes a tycoon, and a political mover and shaker, while Captain Gordon is haunted by his grim battles with his memories of death in the Civil War hospitals.

President Rutherford B. Hayes and William Tecumseh Sherman both make appearances, and not just cameos, either. Hayes expresses his concern over the power of money in politics, and General Sherman comiserates with Captain Gordon over the loss of Gordon’s young daughter. (Sherman lost a child during the war.)

Throughout the novel, we see many points of view, but the most central one is Anne Alexander, though we come to know her by her married name, Anne Gordon.

She’s really a heroic figure, but you don’t think of her that way. She’s just Anne. It wasn’t until after I had finished the book that I realized that Anne lost her mother at an early age, her brother in the Civil War, her father, her young daughter, her husband, and finally, her son, to heart disease in his forties.

Through all of this she soldiers on, hardly giving a thought to her own cares, providing love and support to those in need.

Even when she is near death herself, she befriends the granddaughter of a friend and shows her old magazines and newpapers and letters about the old days, and we get a glimpse of how this novel came about.

The relationship between the young writer and the octogenarian humanitarian is a real delight. The icing on the cake you might say.

This novel was published with little acclaim in 1982. Then, in 1983, Grace Sindell heard a library patron returning the book say it was the best she had ever read. Ms. Sindell read it in two days, agreed, and sent it to her son Gerald, a Hollywood promoter, who got Putnam to republish it. After it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went on to be a national bestseller.

Helen Santmyer, then in a nursing home, was amused more than anything else. “Ninety percent of the hoopla,” she said, “is because I’m such an old lady.”

I disagree. The hoopla was from readers like me, who found in this book the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Great American Novel.

Queed by Henry Sydnor Harrison


Henry Sydnor Harrison

I’m always curious about old books I find all by themselves at tag sales held by people who are manifestly not bookish.I once found a volume of Yeats in a driveway littered with things ordered from TV ads – vegetable dicers, sandwich makers and nordic traks. It was in a box with Babysitters Club books — obviously a bookish daughter had moved away.

I found a copy of Queed at a tag sale like that, and something about it caught my eye. What was it doing there? Must have belonged to Grandpa.

Queed was actually quite popular in its day, back in 1911. It tells the story of a young man of unknown parentage who is raised by the New York City policemen by the name of Queed. The young man becomes a brilliant, self-educated scholar, who achieves success as a writer and embarks on a grand work of evolutionary sociology.

He moves to an unspecified Southern city. I first guessed Baltimore, but then it became the site of a grand review of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the author mentioned it had battlements all over the place, so I concluded it had to be Richmond, rightly as it turns out.

Anyway Queed, at first devoted to intellectual pursuits, learns the value of, in no particular order, exercise, friendship, and public service. At first he grudgingly takes precious minutes away from his great work to help his landlady’s daughter Fifi with her homework. Fifi has a cough, so you know she’s going to die tragically.

H.L. Mencken called Harrison a “merchant of mush,” but I’m much more tolerant of sentimentality. Indeed, I opine that sentiment, and more specifically love, is the only thing worth writing about.

Anyway , Queed, the overly intellectual 98-pound weakling becomes a robust, compassionate guy with lots of friends, and I found the process edudicating. It would spoil everything to say he also finds his father and gets the girl, but I have the feeling that the chances of any of my readers actually reading it are slim to none.

If my grandfather had left me a book of this kind, I wouldn’t be selling it at a tag sale with veg-o-matics and craft supplies.

And Miss Charlotte Lee (Sharlee) Weyland, the girl he gets in the end, is really something, a trailblazing feminist character, who founds a reformatory for young women who have been led astray.

Summer Sisters By Judy Blume


Judy Blume

Driving my scooter home from my favorite pub, I saw a paperback in the road. It was a book by Judy Blume, and my daughter is a big fan of hers; and I saw from the blurb on the back that it’s set in Martha’s Vineyard, where I and my cousins used to visit my grandmother in the summer when we were kids.

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume is a great read. It’s about the friendship between two young girls in Santa Fe, one rich, one not.

The rich one, Caitlin, invites the poor one, Victoria, to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her and her father and stepmother. They become fast friends and go back every year.

We hear all about their adventures growing up, sometimes in great detail, which was interesting for me because I grew up in a family with three brothers, and girls and women were always a big mystery to me.

Vixen and Cassandra, as they are known, become known as “double trouble” and explore the world of teen romance with two islander brothers they meet at the Flying Horses, the famous carousel in Oak Bluffs.

The author introduces lots and lots of characters and paints them all very realistically, even the minor ones. We even shift into the point of view of each of them for short vignettes: the ancient countess that Victoria’s mother takes care of, the sour-faced aunt who’s waiting to inherit from Caitlin’s grandmother, the brother, the brother’s friend, the stepmother, etc. etc.

All in all, this is really a great read, a wonderful slice of life, by a real master of the art, with a lot of hot sex scenes thrown in for good measure.

I’m going to send it to my daughter, who wants to read it, but I hope I don’t get a visit from the postal inspectors for sending prurient materials through the US Mail.

Marmite Cowboy: A Ripping Good Read


John Allen in concert with the Big Bad Bollocks. Photo by Paul Shoul.

I’m having a rollicking good time reading John Allen’s autobiography: Marmite Cowboy. Or perhaps I should say a bollocking good time, since John is well-known hereabouts as the founder and lead singer of the Big Bad Bollocks, a wildly popular pub rock band that toured the US and the UK for 20 years and now performs occasionally.

Marmite Cowboy is a delightful picaresque (“the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero described in a series of humorous or satiric episodes”) that traces John’s travels from the small village in the North of England where he was born, to the Liverpool Art College (where Lennon met McCartney), to the good old USA, “a Land of Oz imagined from TV shows, movies, comic books and Camel cigarette packs.”

I’ve learned a lot about England, especially the divide between the grebos of the North and nobs of the South. John grew up in the shadow of Gibbet Rock, which was where the nobs dealt with anyone who refused to be the cannon-fodder of empire.

There was a lengthy procedure, prescribed by centuries of tradition, whereby they were hanged until nearly dead, then their entrails were extracted and burned before their eyes, and then they were suspended in a human-shaped cage and left to die as an example to others.

When we watch Prince William and Princess Kate and their offspring, we ought to remember what their way of life is based on.

We learn a lot about America, too. The slices of life we read about are not tourist destinations, but real ones — a country club in Ohio, a mafia bar in Michigan, a hippie farm in Georgia, and many others, where we meet a fascinating array of characters, from catamite clerics to paranoid gangsters.

In the early chapters of Marmite Cowboy, we also build our word power with terms like balbriggan, gobsmack, grebo and Shimmygog.

And we learn about John’s unique destiny. He shuttles back and forth between his native and adopted countries like Henry James, always wishing for the one when he’s in the other.

Finally he travels back to England with this funny hat with wings on it, and gets ridiculed at every stage of the journey, but most of all back in his home village, and it all becomes clear to him.

“By the standards of local troglodytes I did look like a twat in that hat, but I didn’t want anyone telling me that I couldn’t look like a twat if I felt like looking like one.

“My role in the village had always been ‘the nonconformist’. Just like Vicar, the Headmaster, the Butchers, the Builders, the Village Idiot, etc.

“I had a role, and part of my role was that one day I’d have to leave and turn my back on the place I was born — a bittersweet destiny to be sure.”

What makes this book a great read is its scathing honesty. There are parts that a lesser soul might have wanted to leave out, but the author decided to let us have it all, unedited, unexpurgated, in all its wild and crazy glory.

And its humility. There’s a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but not a trace of boasting or pretension, which would poison a work of this kind.

The truth has an unmistakable ring to it, and that’s what distinguishes a feel-good memoir from a real work of art, and a ripping good read.

Russell Banks Knows Everything Worth Knowing



For the last three weeks I’ve been lost in a feverish bout of flu, and what better companion could I ask for than Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

The protagonist is a registered sex offender known as the Kid who, we eventually learn, is a virgin. In fact he’s never even been kissed. His crime was making plans to have sex with a man posing as a 14-year-old girl in a sting operation like the ones you see on “To Catch a Predator.”

As a sex offender, the Kid wears an ankle bracelet location device and he is forbidden to live within 2500 feet of a school or playground or anywhere else that children congregate.

If you draw 2500-foot circles around all such places, there are only two places in Calusa County where he can legally live.

One is under a highway underpass with a colony of other sex offenders, and the other is in the corner of a state park in the Great Penzacola Swamp.

So if you’re drifting in and out of fever dreams, this is the book for you!

I was looking at the blurbs on the cover, all very complimentary, of course, when my eye settled on one from the Washington Post Book World:

“Russell Banks knows everything worth knowing… and much, much more.”

Is that overly effusive praise, or a subtle dig? Either way, it’s pretty funny. And how did it get on the cover? Did the publishers miss the irony, or did they notice it and include it as a wry twist on the usual blurb? My fevered brain could not decide.

In this wonderful book, Russell Banks tells you everything worth knowing about Felchers, teabaggers, obese professors, and the history and geology of southern Florida… and much, much more!

Russell even makes an appearance in person, as a character known as ‘the Writer’ who befriends the Kid and helps him sort out the issues raised by the apparent suicide of the obese professor.

At one point the Kid tells the Writer he doesn’t want him (the Writer) to tell his (the Kid’s) story.

Russell takes the opportunity to poke fun at his reputation as a writer of grim tales.

“Who’d want to read it,” the Writer replies, “Kiddie porn and child molestors, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus!”

“Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people.”

It is a fact that nothing good has ever happened to a character in a Russell Banks novel since Bob Dubois got a blowjob in Continental Drift, and even then he (Bob Dubois) wasn’t sure if he’d gotten laid or not.

In this (yet another) brilliant book, Banks invites us to remove the titillation factor from the justice system and to discriminate between the Kid, who has done nothing, and another character, the Shyster, who raped prepubescent girls with the connivance of their mothers.

In the interest of full disclosure, Russell Banks is my former father-in-law, who has doted on my fairy princess daughter and given her a vision of her potential as an actress and a writer.

I remember when he took her to a writers’ convention when she was 12 years old, and she told me she’d met a “nice lady” named Judy Blume.

So don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Margaret Atwood: “Russell Banks tackles hard subjects with verve and courage.”

Amen to that. Anyway, now I’m hucking up stuff, and that’s a good sign.

Sweet Child