Hurrah for Cosmos

Cosmos: A Personal VoyageBack in 1980, Dr. Carl Sagan wrote a book called Cosmos as a companion to a TV series named Cosmos: A Personal Voyage which he co-wrote and “starred” in. I watched the series and read (and still have) the book. Sagan was a smart guy and a darned good communicator. In the book and the program, he set out to share the scientific community’s knowledge of the universe — the cosmos — with the masses. It’s generally accepted that he did a pretty good job. Until Ken Burns came along with The Civil War series in 1990, Cosmos ranked as the most watched PBS series ever.

Cosmos: A Spacetime OdysseyNow another smart guy and good communicator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is trying it again. We, the residents of Earth, have learned quite a bit in thirty-four years. The first episode of a new series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, aired last Sunday, March 9, on the Fox Network and Monday, March 10, on National Geographic TV. Additional episodes will be shown on subsequent Sundays and Mondays until thirteen episodes — same as the original — have been broadcast.

The chances are good that nothing I’ve said so far is news. The original Cosmos is legendary and the new one has been getting a lot of press. That first episode was even preceded by an introduction from President Obama. But there is at least a small chance that, like me, you missed the premier and that’s my excuse for making this post. Here’s my Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode one story.

It was the first TV show I’ve really wanted to watch in years. I got home from Bockfest in plenty of time and was parked in front of the properly dialed in TV as showtime approached. At this point, the accomplishment of a timely return home was nullified by the thing I returned home from. Last week’s post was on the Bockfest Parade which I had attended on Friday evening. I was back at the festival on Sunday and sampled some of the namesake product. With the odyssey start just minutes away, I dozed off.

For many, that would not be a problem. They would have had their DVRs all programmed and the show would have been recorded for viewing later. I have no DVR nor do I have access to National Geographic TV so watching the Monday night broadcast was out. Thankfully, Fox has provided a Cosmos On TV website. where I was able to watch the first episode, “Standing Up In the Milky Way”, as well as the President’s introduction and other related videos. It looks like future episodes will also be available there which I certainly appreciate since I’m guessing I might miss another broadcast showing or two.

It is clearly too early to know if “Cosmos II” will equal “Cosmos I”. There are plenty of connections between the two including the fact that Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, was a co-writer of the first and an executive producer of the second. And there is a Tyson-Sagan connection, too. They first met when the seventeen year old Tyson was researching schools and the world famous scientist gave the aspiring one a personal tour of Cornell. Near the end of his first Cosmos episode, Tyson talks about that day. “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become”, he says. Tyson also spoke of that day in an interview with Bill Moyers where he recalls thinking “If I’m ever in a position of influence the way he is, then I will surely interact with students the way he has interacted with me, as a priority.” That excellent interview, spread over three shows, is here, here, and here.

The new Cosmos has already received some attention and generated some discussion. I’m confident there will be more and I have hope that it will also have some impact. I don’t believe in miracles but having something on commercial TV that I actually want to watch is mighty close.

CosmosThis picture is of a TV series nearly thirty years older than the first Cosmos. That series was a comedy and about as far from scientific as it is possible to get. Its title character was a straitlaced bank president named Cosmo Topper. There was only one of him but, had there been more, they would have been called…

Book Review
The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili
Dann Woellert

History of Cincinnati Chili coverThere is definitely a lot of information in this book. That’s why it’s here. I’ve often said that all my reviews are positive not because I like everything I read but because I see no reason to spend time reviewing something I don’t like. The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili had me wavering. The subject matter is clearly in my strike zone. History? Check. Cincinnati? Check. Chili? Are you kidding? This looks like a book that could have been written specifically for me, right? Digging into it, however, was not quite as tasty as I thought it would be.

As I read, I noticed some repeats and the occasional oddly formed or slightly out of place sentence. There were many tiny details, like the address of a parlor owner’s home or the what movies played in nearby theaters, that pushed the too-much-information boundary. I was about halfway through the book when I had an epiphany. I’m not sure it was a real epiphany in which truth was revealed or a pseudo-epiphany in which i concocted a theory that made things make sense to me but it suddenly struck me that I was reading somebody’s notes. Not completely raw notes but notes that had been jotted down to record every bit of information that an interview or newspaper article provided then wrapped in enough conjunctions, adverbs, adjectives, and punctuation to turn bulleted lists into paragraphs. There are exceptions. The introduction and a chapter called “Unlocking the Flavor Secrets”, perhaps because they are overviews of multiple chili operations and recipes, manage to avoid the just-the-facts but all-the-facts style of most of the book.

All-the-facts is a lot. Woellert obviously did extensive research and interviewed several members of Cincinnati Chili’s founding families. Founding family members also supplied several photos from the early days of Cincinnati chili for inclusion in the book. There is a family tree type chart showing how it all goes back to Empress. If you have a question about the history of chili in the Queen City, chances are the answer is in this book; maybe more than once.

I did not have a question but I did have a suspicion that was validated by this book. Tradition has it that Skyline Chili’s name came from the view of downtown Cincinnati from the chain’s original restaurant. Some versions of the story claim it was the view from the kitchen. I readily accepted that until I visited the site on Glenway Avenue last year. The original building is gone but I couldn’t imagine how anyone could see down town from the ground floor of any building at that location. Bill Lambrinides, one of the founders, tells a different story which, since it’s one of the few “revelations” in The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, I won’t retell beyond saying that Bill confirmed that the view was not from the restaurant.

There are some errors in the book but I’ve a feeling that all the dates and addresses associated with actual chili parlors are not among them. In my most recent book review, I used the phrase “well researched and well written”. I can’t use it here. One out of two it is. I found myself scratching my head or chuckling at some of of the writing but still ended up believing the collection of information made this book worth keeping around.

The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, Dann Woellert, The History Press (April 16, 2013), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 176 pages, ISBN  978-1609499921

Drinking the Bocks Outside

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014When I attended my first Cincinnati Bockfest in 2010, I bemoaned the fact that I’d missed the previous eighteen which implied I intended to be a more regular attendee in the future. I have not done well. I made it back and had a blast in 2011. In 2012, I was out of town for a Missouri road trip. Last year I was actually downtown with good intentions but turned back home when moisture and the temperature both kept falling. I remember thinking “I’m too old for this” as I made my decision. That could be be a sign that I’ve grown wise but is more likely a sign I’ve grown wimpy.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Clear skies and 59 degrees — up 21 from the previous Friday — made attending this year’s event a no-brainer. Schnitzel the goat leads things off with the ceremonial first keg then it’s the Lady with the Whip (a personal favorite) and the Goat with the Glowing Eyes (a.k.a. the Trojan Goat). Cincy legend Jim Tarbell is usually one of the parade’s leaders but apparently missed his cue this year. He hurried toward the front occasionally breaking into a jog and high-fiving fans all the way. Among other claims to fame, Jim was the owner of Arnold’s, Cincinnati’s oldest bar and parade starting point, when Bockfest was born. The self-propelled bathtub is a reminder of the claw-foot tub that still sits on the bar’s second floor and may or may not have been used to produce gin during prohibition.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014A somewhat sad fact about the life of a Sausage Queen is that her biggest moment, waving to cheering subjects while riding an eight foot sausage, takes place just one day before a new queen is selected. Queen Emily Berger handled her parade obligations splendidly during this last full day of her reign.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014There is just one requirement for parade entries but it is rigidly enforced. You absolutely must be present to participate. No exceptions.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Musical offerings included polkas from the Zinzinnati Beirband (“The more you drink, the better we sound.”), excellent Dixieland from an unknown-to-me band, and the gentle sound of aluminum on asphalt. It’s only rolling bock but I like it.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Here’s a better look at the dragon/goat behind the barrel walker in the previous photo plus a picture of the only parade casualty I am aware of. That motorized bathtub from Arnold’s lost a front wheel but was rescued when Triple Digit Brewing’s van came along. Paraders and spectators, which are essentially the same thing, stepped up to hoist the tub into the back of the van for a ride home. I passed by Arnold’s later in the evening and saw the tub back in its normal parking spot. I’m confident it will be mobile in no time.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014Cincinnati Bockfest 2014The first picture is of people, at parade’s end, attempting to get inside a packed Bockfest Hall (a.k.a. Christian Moerlein Taproom). I took one look and didn’t even try. A large tent had been set up across the street and that’s where I headed. It looked to me as if most, if not all, local breweries were represented. I had just one beer, a Hudepohl Festival Bock, in the tent.

Cincinnati Bockfest 2014When I stepped out of the tent, the crush at the entrance to Bock Hall had only worsened and the area between Hall and tent was now pretty much full. I ran into a couple of friends and we talked about the crowd and the growth of Bockfest. One of them, unlike me, had been to every previous parade but barely caught the end of this one due to the crowd and parking complications throwing his timing way off. I decided not to even work my way back into the tent but headed back towards the car. Many other bars and restaurants participated in Bockfest this year and those I passed on Main were full with lines outside a couple. This event, helped by spring-like temperatures, was obviously a good thing for area businesses.

It didn’t bother me at all that I never got inside Bock Hall. I saw the parade, which is the main event as far as I’m concerned, and I drank a little beer. I had my beer in a tent where melted snow and maybe some spilled brew made a few spots into reminders that I was outdoors but being outdoors was cool. It’s what led to this post’s frightfully clever title.

Concert Review
Lake Street Dive
20th Century Theater

Lake Street Dive at 20th CenturyHot on the heels of my first ever concert review, comes another. Not only another review but another first. This is the first time I’ve ever posted two reviews of any kind in the same day.

By the time I left the theater last night, I really wanted to post something about the show. I had a book review queued up for this morning and, even though I briefly considered rescheduling it, I knew I could not put a post together in time and still get some sleep. Besides, I really wanted to run the book review and I didn’t want to get even further behind in that department. Like that other concert review (Willie Nile) I didn’t plan a post and took no camera. Unlike at that concert, I did break down and snapped a couple of shots with my phone. The best (If you want a picture really bad, I’ve got a really bad picture.) is above.

I first heard of Lake Street Dive less than a year ago in a friend’s blog post. I was extremely impressed and, as I said I’d do in a comment on that post, I’ve been “keeping my ears open”. In January, when I heard of this Cincinnati show, I wasted only a little time before grabbing a ticket.

Midnight Moxie, an all girl trio with fantastic voices and adequate instrumental skills, did a nice job opening the show. It seemed like Lake Street Dive, as their career moves to a new level, are willing to help others do the same. I like that.

Frontwoman Rachael Price’s powerful voice is usually what grabs people’s attention when they hear Lake Street Dive for the first time but most soon realize that it is just one piece of the skills and talents making up the band. The other three members also sing and the harmonies are incredible. Each of them – Mike Olson guitar & trumpet, Bridget Kearney bass, and Mike Calabrese drums — is a master of their instrument. A video, of course, is worth all the words I could ever write. There are plenty on YouTube but I’ll point out two for starters. Here is the first video I saw via that blog post. Apparently it was the first look for a lot of other people, too, and is getting some credit for the recent popularity upswing. Here is a more recent four song clip of a radio station studio performance.

Saying that last night’s concert sounded just like the videos is definitely accurate and I could sum things up with that but there are a couple of specific moments worth reporting.

The place was full. I’ve seen it packed tighter and, although a sellout may have been announced, that’s probably not true in practical terms. But it was full. The audience was shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage. It seems the band simply had not expected this. Rachel actually used the word “surprised” when talking about the crowd. And it soon became apparent that it was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd. It wouldn’t be fair to say that we impressed them as much as they impressed us but there is no doubt that Lake Street Dive appreciated their Cincinnati welcome. A few songs from concert’s end, as loud applause and cheers were fading, Rachel looked over the crowd, sort of shook her head, and stepped back to the mic. “Excuse my language”, she began, “but I don’t know what the f— we’ve been doing driving across Ohio.” A little later, when they returned to the stage for an encore, the first thing she did was try to make sure everyone knew what she meant. Someone up front assured her that we understood that she meant they should have been stopping in Ohio and not that they should have been avoiding it. That’s cute. That’s endearing.

They’re stopping in Ohio again tonight. In Columbus. The website says sold out but if you have a buddy at Skully’s who owes you a favor, this would be a good time to collect.

Book Review
Thus Fell Tecumseh
Frank E. Kuron

Thus Fell Tecumseh coverOne of the few undisputed facts of Tecumseh’s life is the date of his death. The date of his birth is only known approximately and there are multiple possibilities for its location. He was born about March 1768 somewhere in the Ohio territory. It’s pretty much accepted that he met his end at the Battle of the Thames but that statement isn’t quite as precise as it might appear. While it is generally believed, as most reports indicate, that he died as a combatant in the battle, reports do exist that describe his death as an accidental shooting some distance away from the actual fighting. What no one questions is that Tecumseh was alive on the morning of October 5, 1813, and dead at the end of the day.

Use Grammarly’s grammar check because smart words should be presented smartly.

A little more than half of Thus Fell Tecumseh involves that day which means that nearly half of it doesn’t. Kuron spends that other half providing a well researched and well written description of the early part of the War of 1812 and the circumstances that led to it. He also manages to fit a pretty good biography of Tecumseh in there. By the time the Battle of the Thames begins, the reader has a more than decent idea of what those British, Canadian, American, and Indian forces are doing there.

Kuron also provides a good summary of the battle before starting to present the various accounts of Tecunseh’s death. There are accounts from eye witnesses with details that, if there were no other reports, would make them readily accepted as absolute truth. But there are other reports. Lots of them. Some name different individuals as the slayer and some name the same man but differ in other significant details. Even more problematic are the differing reports that one witness might give over time. Like testimony in a trial, the reports are presented unmodified. Kuron never urges the reader to accept one report or another. He does point out the discrepancies in each. If this was a real trial where the killer would be punished rather than glorified, every suspect named would almost certainly be acquitted thanks to mounds of reasonable doubt.

Of course, the killing of Tecumseh was no crime. The Shawnee chief was almost universally admired and respected by friend and foe but another of those rare undisputed facts about him is that he was a very active and effective enemy of the young United States. There was fame to be gained from his killing and the man most often named as the killer, Colonel Richard Johnson, was boosted to the Vice Presidency by that fame. Of the three most popular candidates for the honor, one (David King) shied away from any publicity and another (William Whitley) died on the battlefield. Johnson himself never quite claimed to have slain Tecumseh but supporters did make the claim for him and his political career clearly benefited.

Part of the difficulty in identifying the slayer is in identifying the slain. At least two of the bodies left on the field of battle were identified as Tecumseh plus there are claims that the body was carried away by companions and even that it was never there.

Kuron does not offer an answer to the question of who killed Tecumseh. He does supply a terrific amount of testimony, from participants in both sides of the battle as well as others, that suggests several possibilities. Interest in the War of 1812 has certainly increased during its bicentennial but has been overshadowed even in that by the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. As the final use of the British military against the United States and nearly the last, and possibly the largest, organized resistance by Native Americans to advances of the new country, the War of 1812 is extremely important in this country’s development. Thus Fell Tecumseh is a very well done look at the war, the Battle of the Thames, and the many ways in which Tecumseh might have fallen.

Thus Fell Tecumseh, Frank E Kuron, Kuron Publishing (January 14, 2011), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0615415222

Trip Pic Peek #16
Trip #99
North from the Crossroads

Mackinac BridgeThis picture is from the my 2011 North from the Crossroads road trip. This was a long anticipated spontaneous trip. I started to say “long planned” but that would not quite be true. It was almost entirely on the Dixie Highway which I essentially already had plotted but I certainly did not have much of a plan in place when I left home and had not considered heading north from anywhere until about a day before I did it. What I did have in place was a plan for an entirely different trip. I had a trip to the east coast all laid out when it became apparent that hurricane Irene was targeting some of the same places I was and at just about the same time, too. So I scrapped the idea of driving east and headed north instead. Taking a trip was not spontaneous but taking this trip was.

As it worked out, I covered the Dixie Highway Eastern Mainline from its intersection with the National Road in Vandalia, Ohio, to its northern terminus in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. I even slipped across the border into Canada for a few hours. Returning south, I followed the Dixie Highway Northern Connector between Mackinaw City, Michigan, and Indianapolis, Indiana. The picture is of the Mackinac Bridge heading into Michigan’s upper peninsula. I also visited Mackinac Island for the first time.

Trip Pic Peeks are short articles published when my world is too busy or too boring for a current events piece to be completed in time for the Sunday posting. In addition to a photo thumbnail from a completed road trip, each Peek includes a brief description of that photo plus links to the full sized photo and the trip journal it is from.

Book Review
The House on Hathaway Road
The Henkalines

The House on Hathaway Road coverNot only did I graduate from high school smack dab in in the middle of the ’60s, it was smack dab in the middle of the Henkalines, too. There were four of them; a girl and three boys. The girl was a few years older than the boys. The oldest boy graduated a year before me and the next a year after. Though I was most familiar with the two boys closest to me in age, I knew them all. It was a small school in a small town in rural Ohio. Everybody knew everybody.

All four siblings contributed to the book. Jack, the guy just a year behind me, got things started in the 1990s by recording remembered stories on his laptop during idle time on business trips. The idea was to provide some personal history to his own children. This was a low priority and sometimes forgotten task until the death of a friend gave Jack a nudge. The friend had long maintained a journal and his widow told Jack how much that helped her and the children deal with the loss. It prompted Jack to return to his recording. In time, the brothers and sister became involved in filling in some blanks and recording their own stories and ultimately producing The House on Hathaway Road.

After introducing their parents and the house they grew up in, each of the four “kids” provides a chapter. Chapters on the final days of the parents and on the next generation follow. A member of that next generation died in an automobile accident in 2007 and there is a chapter dedicated to her. A Henkaline family tree concludes the book.

Jack’s original goal, to pass on some history to the next generation, is clearly accomplished and then some. There are certainly items in the book that will be of little interest for non-Henkalines but there are many more that provide glimpses of the 1950s and ’60s that almost anyone can enjoy. There are some truly universal memories like 24 cent gas and gathering in front of the TV to watch whatever Dad wanted to watch. The Henkalines even include a chapter titled “Nostalgia” with pictures of things that most people of a certain age will remember. Things like skate keys, TV test patterns, and Burma Shave signs. Other memories might not be exactly universal unless you lived in “the country” in the Midwest. In that case, things like chicks in the mail, laundry day with a wringer washer and “on line” drying, party line telephones, and all-purpose aprons might sound familiar.

One of the stories that Jerry (the guy a year ahead of me) tells might be simply entertaining to most readers but for anyone attending Ansonia High School in 1963 it’s a major highlight on the memory reel. Jerry was a starting tackle on the team that broke a 38 game losing streak. I recall a story that newscasters Huntley and Brinkley, who ended most programs with something lighthearted, used our first victory since 1958 as that night’s closer. I’ve never found any documentation for that but Jerry’s reporting of an uncle in Oregon who first heard the news on radio indicates there was some national coverage and that the Huntley-Brinkley story could possibly be true. I’ve always considered my time at AHS to have been excellent preparation for being a Bengals’ fan.

The book’s dust cover speculates that readers might find themselves saying, “That story reminds me of what happened to me growing up.” That’s likely true of almost any member of my generation regardless of where that growing up occurred and absolutely true for those of us who grew up within a few miles of Hathaway Road. Those in other generations will still enjoy the book but they might get jealous.

The House on Hathaway Road: Where Memories Began, The Henkalines, Aventine Press, February 18, 2013, hardcover, 9 x 6 inches, 286 pages, ISBN 978-1593308124

Also available on eBay.

We Have Ways of Making You Talk

Ohio Lincoln Highway League West meetingWhen the Lincoln Highway Association was reborn in 1992, Ohio’s organization took the form of three chapters operating as a “league”. However, until late last year, that was on paper only. In October, a West chapter was formed to join the existing East and Central chapters and Larry Webb was elected its first president. Larry knows my cousin who lives in Van Wert and one day she mentioned my recently published book to him as something he might be interested in. He ordered his own copy and gave me a call after he’d looked it over a bit. He asked if I was making presentations related to the book and I answered, “No, but I probably should be.” He then offered up the recently formed chapter as “guinea pigs” at their next meeting on February 18. Although I put him off for a bit, I eventually agreed and found myself asking, in a conversation with myself, “Just what have you gotten us into now, Bunkie?”

During my working days, I had spoken to a few small groups but was never very comfortable with it and it was a long time ago. The book in question is By Mopar to the Golden Gate which tells of a cross country drive on the Lincoln Highway which is why a Lincoln Highway Association group was interested. It contains a lot of photos and I had taken many more on the trip so that’s where my planning headed. A few pictures would help a bunch. Not only would each one reduce my speaking requirement by a thousand words and give the audience something to look at, they could be my notes. With a little time to refresh myself on dates and such, I could rattle on about some pictures I’d taken without a teleprompter or learning a lot of new stuff.

I started browsing through my pictures and, at the same time, started looking for a way to present them. Larry had told me a projector and screen would be available that I could (hopefully) run from my laptop. I looked at a few slide show programs and ended up settling on OpenOffice Impress, a free PowerPoint-like application. It allowed me to add information (reminders) to photos as well as create non-photo slides to provide other information.

I made a pass through the photos picking out candidates. I reduced this rather large list to about 125 photos that I thought might be good for some presentation then to about 50 that I thought would be good for this presentation. I recorded myself going through things a couple of times to get a handle on the length and to determine where my memory was going to need more help than a photograph provided. I made up a couple of slides with some general statistics and other items. I decided I was as ready as I was going to get.

When I’m on the road, leaving a motel is often a slapdash sort of thing. Half the time I’m packing up the power supply while my computer is doing its shutdown on batteries. As I got ready to leave home on the day of the presentation, I took no short cuts and made sure everything shutdown in the right sequence. I drove to Van Wert and, as soon as Larry arrived, carried my computer in and turned it on. “Gotcha!”, it said. Or something along those lines that meant things are not right and I’m going to run a disk check. It ran the check, it fixed a thing or two, and it completed powering up. All was well and any risk of me becoming too relaxed during the evening was effectively eliminated.

Main Street Van Wert adAll really was well. Not only did the computer function properly, so too, within limits, did I. The audience of approximately twenty-five was just about perfect. They knew enough about the Lincoln Highway to be interested but not enough to be bored. There was even applause, which is something I’m not at all familiar with, at the end and their interest was further demonstrated through several very good questions. It remains to be seen whether I do any more presentation of this sort but I survived this one and even enjoyed it. For me, the primary purpose was to get some experience and not to sell books but I did sell some. Four copies were sold and a few more placed on consignment with the canal museum in Delphos. Add to that the fact that I arrived in Van Wert early enough to take advantage of a $1 pie sale at Balyeats (apple) and that I spent the night and chattered away the next morning with friends who came to the presentation and I count this as a darned good trip.

Book Review
Twelve Years a Slave
Solomon Northup

Twelve Years a Slave coverLike most of the world, I had no idea this book even existed before the movie about the New Yorker kidnapped into slavery came out. When I saw the movie, I was moderately less impressed than some but I left the theater with two basic questions: was the book an actual memoir and how close did the movie track it? As I poked around the internet, I encountered no suspicion that either Solomon Northup or the story he told were fiction which made the answer to the first question “yes”. I then located a free PDF copy of the book and set out to answer the second question myself. I had my doubts as I read the book’s early pages but it became apparent before too long that that answer was “very close”.

The real Solomon Northup did not have quite the wealth and social rank that the movie Solomon Northup seems to have. My guess is that’s to make his enslavement more shocking and I have no problem with that. Quite a few pages of print are used to establish that Northup had little reason to fear for his safety. On film, fancy clothes and strolls in the park do that more quickly. There are a few cases of the movie combining multiple incidents into a single event or more than one person into a single character but that’s a fairly common practice and does no damage to the gist of the story. I might not be crazy about the too long shots of unmoving faces or moss draped trees but I have to say the movie is fairly well done and more than fairly accurate.

But, just as the book didn’t become a movie without compromise, neither did Northup’s story get to the page completely pure. The book is one of those “as told to” things. In this case, the printed story is as told to and edited by David Wilson. The prose at times becomes more flowery and stilted than how I imagine Northup actually communicated his tale but there is nothing at all wrong with that. That’s why professional writers are employed in situations such as this. Wilson’s job was to make the story readable and attractive. Did he also alter or embellish things? I can’t really say, of course, but my sense is that he did little or none of the former but did slip in some amount of the latter. I suppose that’s to be expected since his job also involved making the book successful. That it was; selling 30,000 copies and being considered a best-seller in its day.

About halfway through the book, I thought of posting a review of it. Nothing too serious, as the book was 161 years old, but something as sort of a novelty in the midst of all the bustle around the movie. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, I decided there was something else I needed to do first.

Twelve Years a Slave was published less than a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally a serial, was published as a book. Northup dedicated it to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thinking that I had not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since high-school, I decided that reading it now was a good idea so that I might compare the two. So I found a free PDF of Stowe’s book and soon after I started reading it came to the realization that I had not just gone since high-school without reading the book. I may have read some chopped down “Cliff’s Notes” style version and I’ve seen skits and other portrayals but it was soon obvious to me that I had never read the full original novel. I found myself very impressed with Stowe’s writing as well as her story. I found her story quite similar to Northup’s or at least to Wilson’s recording of it. By the time I finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin and got ready to do this review, I was starting to think that Wilson might have taken nearly as much from Stowe as he did from Northup. I was, however, very wrong.

I saw the movie in early December and searched out the free PDF shortly thereafter. Then as now, the search phrase “12 years a slave” yields a list of hits that almost all reference the 2013 movie one way or another. It takes adding “book”  or some other qualifier to get much else. I must have done something like that in December — I did find that PDF somehow — but now there seems to be more. I’m sure there are things that I simply didn’t notice before but it’s also true that there are new things. One example is a USA Today article that is just a few days old and talks about the recent growth of interest in the original writing that I felt but could not quantify.

One of the things I became aware of only after reading both Twelve Years a Slave and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the work that Dr. Sue Eakin and Dr Joseph Logsdon did in verifying events in Northup’s narrative. I shelled out 99 cents for an electronic version of the recently published “enhanced” version of Twelve Years a Slave that includes some of their findings and more. I did not reread Northup’s story or even all of the notes but just skimming over them made it evident that the story was firmly anchored in reality. Another real world connection popped up in the search list. An article here tells of the diary of a Union captain who reached the plantation from which Northup was rescued some ten years after that event.

Even with the help of a professional, Twelve Years a Slave is not as well written or easy to read as Uncle Tom’s Cabin but the stories they tell are frighteningly similiar. Maybe the totally factual basis of the one compensates for the skill of the other (and neither is poorly written). I’m actually somewhat glad that I was mistaken in believing I had read Stowe’s novel decades ago because reading these two back to back made quite an impression on me. The movie is really good and deserving of awards and praise. I’ll even offer my own praise for it being a whole lot truer to the book than many I’ve seen. But, as is very often the case for some of us, the book is better.

Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup through David Wilson, Derby & Miller, 1853, hardcover, 5 x 7.5 inches, 336 pages

My Wheels – Chapter 9
Honda 65

Honda 65The Honda 65 occupied, but didn’t really fill, the space between the ultra-popular 50 and the more powerful 90. It just wasn’t as cool as either of those other “groovy little motor bikes” which meant it wasn’t as desirable or pricey. And that, of course, is the reason I could own one. I don’t recall how I came by the Honda or how much I paid but it couldn’t have been much. I didn’t have much. I acquired it at roughly the same time as the Austin-Healey and had it for a short while after the Healey was gone. While my wife drove the car to work, the two-wheeler was my transportation to and from campus.

This was not a vehicle for long distance travel and I don’t believe I ever had the bike out of the Clifton area. It was involved in no big adventures and the only mildly interesting incident I can recall was the one time I laid it down.

I was heading west on Ludlow in a light rain. As I approached Clifton Avenue, the light changed and I tapped the rear brake. The 65 was much closer to a Schwinn than a Harley so a little slide was not a big thing at all. With the bike leaned to the left, I no doubt had visions of a smooth sideways stop at the intersection when the rear wheel reached the manhole cover. The surface of the cover was kept dry by whatever source of heat was below it and the difference in traction between wet pavement and dry steel is significant. The slide stopped and the Honda immediately went from leaning slightly to its left to laying completely flat on its right. The two of us slid together to the curb. At higher speed, the curb might have made a real impression on my un-helmeted head but there was no damage at all that day. I stopped at the feet of two men standing by the street. I’ve always thought they must have been waiting for a bus but I don’t really know that. They didn’t move but merely leaned forward with their umbrellas and asked if I was alright.

At the time, I’m sure intense embarrassment kept me from laughing but the memory of those faces calmly chatting with the kid who had washed up at their feet will always bring on a smile these days.

My Wheels – Chapter 8 — 1957 Austin Healey