alexandra alger


Archive for the month “April, 2016”

Stories from the Past


This book was sitting on a stool outside of a second-hand store calling to me. It was published in 1932 (there were four copyrights, and ’32 was the most recent). The name of a onetime owner—the last?—is Eulalia M. Cunningham. (I’ve heard of Eulalie but not Eulalia—lovely name. Lilting.) Her name is written on the copyright page, along with the words “Christmas 1944.” On the front page, in a more childish script, Eulalia herself (I’m guessing) wrote, “E. Cunningham, and then, having realized she forgot something, “E.M. Cunningham.” She added a Christmas sticker to the page, just the way a child would—it’s randomly placed on the left side of the page, toward the bottom—just where it happened to come off her fingers. A man and a woman in a sleigh, with a Christmas tree sticking out the back. Just think—a seventy-two year-old sticker!

The title page says the stories are selected from John Martin’s Book, which was a popular children’s magazine, aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, published from 1912 to 1933. (Thank you, Google.) John Martin was a pseudonym of founder Morgan Shepard. I couldn’t find any info on why it folded, but far bigger enterprises than this failed during the Great Depression. John Martin’s Book must’ve continued to resonate with readers if this book was available for purchase in 1944. (It’s not easy to find a ten-year-old book these days—not unless it’s an enduring classic.)

This is one dense book, with marvelous black-and-white drawings on nearly ever page. There are not just stories but poems, biographies, riddles and even pictograms.

Check this out:


I can’t figure out the meaning of the line with the feather and the flat iron. A feather sail an iron for a ship?

Riddles! These are kind of complicated. And a bit weird. Hats off to the five- to eight-year-olds who are getting these:IMG_2926

There’s always something about stories from past eras that startles or even shocks. In a few of the stories here, people get hurt, and good. “Tommy Elephant Discovers the Railroad,” a monkey named Fibber-Jibber convinces Tommy that a strange creature running along a new jungle trail wouldn’t dare hurt as large an animal as Tommy. So Tommy stands on the train tracks, in front of an oncoming train. Yikes!  He gets hit, naturally. There’s an illustration showing the elephant, head over heels, while the train rushes past. He’s not killed, which he surely would be in real life, but he’s badly bruised—-much to Fibber-Jibber’s amusement. It’s hard to imagine this was ever funny to anyone, but it must’ve been. Americans of the early 20th century clearly didn’t think of animals as stand-ins for boys and girls, the way we do today. At least not wild animals. (Perhaps that changed with Babar, published in 1931?) Fibber-Jibber gets a punishment of sorts. Using his trunk, Tommy hoses him repeatedly, until he’s a “very wet, but much wiser” monkey, who doesn’t play any more tricks on Tommy for a  “long, long, long” time.

There’s a tale called “Catskin,” which reads much like Cinderella except there’s no glass shoe and no stepsisters, and the heroine is, yes, wearing an outfit made out of—catskin! No wonder this story has slid into obscurity. Oh, and also, the cook beats the poor girl like nobody’s business. She’s forever breaking a ladle or a skimmer over Catskin’s head. Incredibly—thankfully—Catskin is always “none the worse.” She sneaks off to go to balls, where she meets a squire (not a prince, but quite good enough). Before long she marries him and lives happily ever after. With brain damage, no doubt.

There are Grimm-like stories like this one, but many others. The variety is pretty astonishing. Origin stories, such as how corn got its ear and how the woodpecker came to be. Christian stories—St. Francis convinces robbers to change their ways. A story about Mozart as a young boy. A tale about St. George and the dragon.

I can’t say the poetry impressed me, but I am impressed with the presence of the poetry. It’s so tough to get kids to read poetry today–to give it a chance!  Shepard, writing as John Martin, contributed a poem that I wouldn’t mind reading to little ones:

A Magic

One day I saw a rule hand
Rise up to strike a heartless blow,
It did not stop to count the cost,
It did not care to know.

And then I heard some gentle words;
They worked a magic, sweet and calm,
Their gentle power held that hand
So it could do no harm.

One day I heard an angry voice,
Its words would neither think no spare,
How deep they cut another’s heart
It did not know nor care.

And then your gentle words were said.
The angry voice to softness fell.
Repentance quivered in that voice
Beneath your magic spell.

Oh, it is strong, and fine, and good
To find what gentle words will do.
I’m sure that they are always best,
And bravest too—aren’t you?


I Feel Bad About My Eyebrows

Have you read Nora Ephron’s funny lament on necks? Her dermatologist told her the neck started to go around age forty-three, and sure enough, as she approached forty-three her neck started to go. She wrote, “One of my biggest regrets—bigger even than not buying the apartment on East Seventy-fifth Street, bigger even than my worst romantic catastrophe—is that I didn’t spend my youth staring lovingly at my neck. It never crossed my mind to be grateful for it.”

That’s how I feel about my eyebrows. For years they existed in a zone of my face, the above-the-eyes-area, that I never paid a whit of attention to. The forehead section. Who thinks about her forehead when she’s young and unlined? They were nothing special; regular, light-brown eyebrows that made sense with my reddish hair. I didn’t even pluck them, that’s how little I cared about them. Around forty, I started plucking them. I have to admit, I saw how eyebrows could give a bit of definition to the face. My eyebrows and I discovered one another. I took care of them, and how do they thank me? They disappear on me, like guests who slip out of a party without saying goodbye to the host.

It’s my right brow in particular. There’s a piece of it that’s gone missing, right smack in the middle. If an eyebrow is something like a comma, I’m talking about the mid-point of my comma’s tail. I use a pencil to make the bridge, but I can’t believe I’m at this point: penciling in an eyebrow! I used to think I wasn’t going to have to do that until I was eighty.

Here’s something interesting: My twin sister Hilary doesn’t have this problem. Her eyebrows are fine, How is that even possible, since we’re genetically identical? Environment must be to blame—living in New York instead of Philly, where Hilary is. Her hair—on her head—is thicker, too. Twin researchers: Does where you live determine how much hair you lose as you age? Get on this!

All things considered, I’m lucky. I know that. I’m not facing baldness, like so many men I know. My teeth aren’t falling out (yet). I won’t even go into the countless other more serious conditions that an aging human faces. Then there’s the sagging flesh issue. Oh, let’s not go there.

The Lure of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch


This is my 21-year-old son Davison, reading during spring break from college.

Reading! Proof that college students still read books when they’re not in school. And he happened to be reading a book I gave him, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I can’t even express how happy this makes me. I gave it to him for Christmas, thinking, He has to read this book—everyone has to read this book, even as I doubted whether he’d get to it anytime soon. It’s 771 pages long, after all, and he was about to embark on another term of challenging classes. But he took it back to school with him, and lo and behold, he was in the thick of it by the time I saw him in March. I asked him what he thought, and he said he wanted to see Theo, Tartt’s protagonist, catch a break, just one. I knew exactly what he meant. Tartt sucks you into a world that is so vividly rendered and so painful for Theo that you feel like you are suffering alongside him, an invisible companion who can’t do anything but watch and worry and hope that happiness is just around the bend. Then Tartt turns around and challenges our assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful life. At the end, Theo tells us, “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.” It’s not an uplifting book, but it’s an unforgettable one.

I feel lucky that Davison’s formative years came before technology seeped into every crevice of of everyday life. When he was six or eight, computer games were new, and we had maybe one or two. (I remember the Freddy the Fish game—pretty cute, as I recall. Freddy helps you on a deep-sea treasure hunt.) He didn’t have a cell phone until he was thirteen—one of those flip phones. There was no texting or apps. I can’t make any statements of fact here, but I believe that he read more in his free time than he might’ve had he had access to social media, the Internet and the vast array of computer-based games that exist today.

Studies on kids and reading are troubling. Only about half of kids ages six to eight are reading daily; that number falls to a quarter by age fifteen. According to one study, the percentage of seventeen-year-olds who never or hardly ever read has gone from 7% to 27% in the last thirty years. (I’m assuming the study is referring to reading for fun. Schools may have eliminated art, music and physical activity—at least in New York City—but they’ve hung onto the three Rs. For now.) How do we keep reading books a part of the picture? It’s up to parents. We need to read to our kids when they’re young—from the time they are babies for as long as they’ll let us. It’s the only way to instill a love of reading and stories (which I can’t believe aren’t innate in kids). And then we have to encourage them as they learn how to read. We need to help them choose books and bring them books and make reading a family activity.

This is pretty obvious stuff, I know. Also, it doesn’t always work. My sister says her two boys, 10 and 12, are off books. Period. Nothing to be done. If it were me, I’d keep trying. Just like you don’t give up trying to get your kids to eat vegetables, you have to keep trying with books.

The sound of E.B. White


Do you know that word? I’m reading about Shakespeare’s ability to summon “plangent feeling,” as well as “robust comedy” and “penetrating psychology” in the four history plays currently being put on by the Royal Shakespeare Co. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The admiring words come from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, whose reviews (quite good) don’t usually cause me to pause and think, “What was that?” I was sure there was a typo of some kind—could he have meant “urgent”?—but no, plangent’s a word. It means a loud, reverberating, often melancholy sound.

The plangent sound of bells. That’s the example dictionaries like to give. How about the plangent moo of a cow? The plangent drone of a garbage truck at 4 am? (That sound might be more grating than melancholy.)

The noun is plangency. That doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Doing a bit of online research, I found that Newsweek once described E.B. White’s audio-book reading of Charlotte’s Web as having “a plangency that will make you weep.”

Oh, leave it to a journalist to use a fancy, un-child-like word in a story about a children’s book! I’m allowed to complain; I was a journalist once. Still I have to admit it’s an interesting use of plangency, and if anyone could summon that kind of sound, maybe it would be E.B. White.

I like saying “plangent.” It’s not onomatopoeia, but it’s a nice meaty word. Or as Isherwood might say, muscular. I’m not picking on him, just noticing his review includes a word that seems to be in vogue as an alternative to robust, powerful, dynamic. He calls some of the scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV “muscularly staged”. When I read that, I honestly think of men with bulging calf muscles, which you might well see in a Shakespeare play involving kings and courts. I myself use “muscular” in the old way, to refer to someone’s physical state. (I’m all for bulging biceps.)

I see I’ve fallen into the habit of writing about words I don’t plan on using, instead of the ones I do. Get with the program, Alex!

P.S. David Tennant, the Scottish actor, is starring in Richard II at BAM right now. Only standing-room only tickets right now. (I’m mulling whether I could stand for two-plus hours). If you haven’t seen Tennant in the 2013 TV series Broadchurch, and if you have Netflix, and if you like murder mysteries set in small seaside English towns (and who doesn’t like those, I ask you?)—I urge you to download! There are two gripping seasons to watch, and another one being filmed this summer. He’s also incredibly good and creepy in the 2015 TV series about superheroes, Jessica Jones. “I don’t watch that much TV, I swear,” she cried plangently.

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