Some Thoughts On Turkey Day

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, oil painting by William Halsall, from Wikipedia

Thanksgiving Day

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Fe, NM, when I overheard two men discussing the upcoming holiday in Spanish. To them it was a secular “Anglo” holiday, which could be enjoyed by anybody, who appreciated a well-cooked turkey and a day off. In fact, a little research into the popular national day of rest revealed that Thanksgiving is only widely celebrated in the United States and Canada with the Canadian holiday coming in early October instead of late November. Fixings are about the  same for both nations, but in Canada, Thanksgiving is a three-day (Sat., Sun., Mon.) holiday instead of the normal four in the U.S. Furthermore, in Canada, the popular feast is not tied to any narrative history, like it is in the United States.

Thanksgiving grace in Pennsylvania
Thanksgiving prayer before the meal, Pennsylvania 1942, photo from Farm Security Administration

The Spanish Main
Some historians and cultural commentators are quick to point out that similar feasts or expressions of thanksgiving exist in other parts of North America that predate the 1621 celebration in Massachusetts. Harvest type celebration are cited as having occurred in Florida, Virginia and Texas, years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Despite these observations, the New England meeting of European colonists and Massachusetts Native still remains the common told tale of Thanksgiving and thus serves as the philosophical background for the holiday.

Roast Turkey
Roast turkey is the most common meat served at a Thanksgiving dinner, Photo by M. Rehemtulla, from Wikipedia

About the Food
Though the original feast is reportedly to have had many types of wild game (i.e. fish, lobster, eels, goose and deer), the turkey has become the dominant meat symbol for the November get-together. Although wild turkeys were found in many parts of North America, they were quite abundant in Colonial New England, and so became an important part of the diet for the new arrivals from the Old World. Also important to the American colonists were the Native grown foods of corn, squash, beans and pumpkins. Originally developed in Mexico and Central America over several thousand years ago, these agricultural staples were readily adopted by the early explorers and those who followed after them.

Squanto teaching
Squanto (Tisquantum in the Native tongue) was one of the local Indians, who taught the Pilgrims how to survive, from Wikipedia

The Mayflower and the Massachusetts Indians

The travelers aboard the Mayflower were headed for Virginia, but forced to land at Cape Cod because of bad weather. Many of those on board were enraged at having to spend the winter in snowy Massachusetts. Between the November landing and March, when the local Indians first visited the outpost about half of the Pilgrims died. However, because of contact with previous explorers some of the local Indians could understand English and were glad to teach the new colonists how to survive. This was an event that was always repeated in other parts of the New World.

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Happy Earth Day

Tadoussac, Canada
Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada

Happy Earth Day everybody. Though I don’t know how happy a day it is, especially if one considers the damage that has been unleashed on the water in the Gulf of Mexico and just off the west coat of Japan. In fact, this annual event might have us staring at the fact that environment degradation could be on the increase. Maybe an “earth week” or “earth month” is needed.

Along a similar note over 100 right whales have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay near eastern Massachusetts. This is a very large sighting of a species of whale that is very much endangered. Since estimates of the world population actually run less than 1,000, the numbers of whales seen is very encouraging. Maybe they know it’s earth day.

The Joy of Reading

The Reading Room of the Boston Public Library
The Reading Room of the Boston Public Library

You don’t need a big room like this to enjoy reading, yet there is something very conducive, perhaps even seductive, about an airy library space that entices the book browser to sit down and enjoy an extended period of quiet and intellectual stimulation. Quiet reading places can be usually be found at home, but use of a public place to sit down and absorb an engaging piece of literature is also very rewarding.

Both Boston and New York have excellent public library systems, each with their own late 19th century edifice that is worth a visit just to admire the exquisite architecture and interior design of each place. When in New York be sure to check out the Rose Room on the second floor of the library at Bryant Park. With an elaborate wood decor and heavenly murals placed across the ceiling, this vast space is like the Sistine Chapel of US libraries.

Besides the exquisite Reading Room the Boston Public Library has a pair of lions and and several gallery spaces are worth checking out, plus a fancy restaurant called Sebastian’s. All in all, it is a great space to spend a few minutes or the whole day.

Bookstores, although not as ornate, still can provide a rich experience for those who like the idea of having a printed word or image that has been printed on paper and bound within a soft or hard cover. Of course, the idea is to purchase a book and take the reading material home. How these institutions will survive the growing phenomena of  the e-books is beyond me, but I do enjoy visiting the brick-and-mortar merchants and bringing home a new book.

New York Library as seen through the trees at Bryant Park.
New York Library as seen through the trees at Bryant Park.

In retrospect, anyone visiting NYC or Boston ought to check out these institutions along with the adjoining plazas and park areas. In the process you will learn much the creation of both interior and exterior public space in two of the Northeast’s most important cities.

Channeling Jack Kerouac

Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts
Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts

This has been a summer on the road for me, for I have abandoned my Portland (Maine) apartment, stored everything of value in a storage locker, gave away my desktop computer and headed for the open roads, fields and forests on my bicycle. It’s been quite a learning experience, but more about that later, for after spending two weeks enjoying the June hostel scene in Boston I quietly left Beantown one night on a 11 0’clock train bound with a one way ticket for Fitchburg.

Actually, I got off the train near Acton and spent the remainder of the night underneath an interstate bridge trying to get some sleep. Sleep did not come easy thanks to the hum of overhead traffic and my stony bed. By some quirk of chance I found myself nestled near a deer trail, for I glimpsed several of the creatures during the course of the night. In the glare of the streetlights they appeared like strange silhouettes.

Sunrise had me up and on the road and around 6 A.M. to see what I could learn about the great writer of the road from a visit to his hometown. But first things first – I had to stop at the Lowell McDonald’s for a large coffee and two Egg McMuffins. I imagine the Beats might have done the same thing – but that is merely speculation on my part.

Then came the bike tour of the city. No pretty tour guides to leave a group of tourists around, just me on my bike with a knapsack full of personal items on a summer Sunday morning that was about to turn into a scorcher.

A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts
A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts

Next came the big factory buildings. I have scene a few of the old New England factory buildings in my day but this one takes the cake. The sheer size of these brick structures was mindboggling. If I was looking for an explanation of why Jack had left town – but the truth was I just wanted to visit the place. I spent the next hour or so cruising beside the giant structures, like I was a shadow in a DeChico painting.

Finally, I discovered the canals and the Merrimack River. That added a little humanity and natural scenery to the picture but not much. Still, the canals were the nicest part of the whole visit  – not including the Egg McMuffins – I enjoyed riding past and stopping to look at the waterways that once powered this industrial dynamo.

And when I finally departed Lowell, I think I understood a little bit better the process the put Kerouac in motion and launched his writing career.

Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.
Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad E-book

a glass of beer
a glass of beer

Last week I had the privilege of attending a Mediabistro function in downtown Boston. The get-together was held at a popular watering hole. right in the center of Boston’s financial district. It was the first time I’ve ever attended such an event, but I have taken several classes through the organization, and so for a good hour or so, I got to hob nob with some of the professional writers, who make their living around the great city of Boston. No great superstars here, just some entertaining and hardworking people , who seemed to know what they were doing and were fun to talk to.

New York City Skyline, credit; NOAA.gov
New York City Skyline, credit; NOAA.gov

Now Mediabistro is a national organization, for they are also active in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a handful of other major American cities. In fact, other places around the country had a seasonal party that occurred about the same time that the Boston party happened. Their website is fun and informative, especially their award winning  blog called GalleyCat.  Also check out their other blog, eBook Newser, which is entirely devoted to the up and coming e-book.

And just this week in New York, Mediabistro sponsored an e-book summit, an event which drew speakers and participants from all over the country and beyond. Anybody who wants to know how the conference went can find a very nice twitter transcript here, but this is really not necessary because the subject of e-books is all over the internet, especially if you follow the blogs of some of the more popular literary agents.

For example, Nathan Bransford recently undertook a survey among his readers to see how the e-book was faring. And guess what! The new format is gaining popularity. You can see the poll results for the last three years here . Also from Nathan is this post on November 23 of this year entitled, “The Top Ten Myths About E-books”.

Here’s another agent blogger, Agent Sydney, discussing e-book deals on the very informative agent blog, “Call My Agent”. Basically, this agent is saying that if you have already published an e-book, it might be more difficult to find a literary agent, because you have taken away the possibility of allowing the agency to handle e-book rights. And finally here is some advice from Jessica Faust at Bookends on the subject of something called e-publishing.

But the question of the day remains; is the e-book going anywhere with its limited commercial success and increased popularity? I am of the opinion that it is not, but I will be the first to admit that this assumption is anywhere from an educated hunch to a wild guess. Best of luck and good searching.

Truly, Everett Autumn.

Boston Public Library
Thinking of Escher, photo of Boston Public Library by E. Autumn

The House Of Seven Gables

House of Seven Gables
The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Mass is a genuine 17th century sea captain’s mansion and by some streak of good fortune cannot considered to be one of the many Mardi Gras-Halloween tourist traps that have come to dominate this once-notorious American city. Every October this seaside Boston suburb goes all out to celebrate All Hallows Eve. In fact, a sure sign that Halloween season  is quickly approaching are the numerous brightly-colored outhouses plastic outhouses that line the street to accommodate the large street crowds that find Salen a nice place to spend the last day of October.

Meanwhile over on the north shoreline quietly stands the House of Seven Gables with an intriguing silhouette that mildly suggests some of the mysteries that Nathanial Hawthorne penned to the building. This famous house has been a non-profit venture, since 1910 when Caroline Emmerton took over the place and started the House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, which has restored the unusual house to somewhat resemble its original condition with a few amusing exceptions that were put in place to match the storyline of Hawthorne’s popular novel.

Four out of seven gables
Four of the gables rendered in a somewhat ominous light

For all you architectural purists, a one-cent shop was added on the first floor, as was a secret staircase. Visitors today can climb the secret staircase (it is quite believable, but alas not part of the original design) from its hidden entrance in the wood closet in the living room and arrive in the second floor hallway of the very interesting colonial domicile. In fact the entire house is an architecture treasure and worth viewing for that reason alone.

Nearby at the harbor,  is the Friendship, a realistic replica of the actual ship that plied the four seas until it was seized during the war of 1812. Today it spends much of its time in the Salem port, but in the golden years of sail, these watercraft ventured around the world, trading as they went.  These ships made small fortunes for sea captains like John Turner, who built the house in 1668 (OK, that’s a little bit early for such a big ship, but you get the idea).

The Friendship, a real ship,
a modern-day replica of the original Friendship

Nathanial Hawthorne was born just around the corner from the House of Seven gables in 1804. His father was a sea captain, who died at sea when Nathaniel was 4 years old, and his grandfather was Judge Hathorne (Nathanial changed the family name slightly supposedly to avoid direct association with the infamous ancestor)who presided at the Salem Witch Trials and reportedly was one of the few involved who never regretted his participation or showed any remorse. So you it is easy to see that when Nathanial graduated from Bowdoin college in Maine and returned to his native Salem as a young man aged in his early twenties, he most likely had a lot on his mind.

The House of Seven Gables was Hawthorne’s second popular novel, following close on the heels of The Scarlet Letter, a literary effort that is probably more popular today. The Seven Gables  is a story about family shame and redemption, a topic that Nathanial understood very well because of his grandfather the judge. Readers should realize that the story that Hawthorne placed on the seven-gabled house does not parallel the real-life events that its actual residents experienced. Instead it is a colorful look at the inner world of Nathaniel Hawthorne  in the early 19th century.

Birthplace of Nathanial Hawthorne
The birthplace of Nathanial Hawthorne, which has been moved a few blocks and now sits next to the House of 7 Gables

Orhan Pamuk’s Speech

Orhan_pamuk_u02_72_lg-edit
Orhan Pamuk

The audience packed the house of the old historic church on Copley Square to hear the words of Orhan Pamuk, the keynote speaker for the first annual Boston Book Festival. He was introduced by a medium-sized blond woman with a slight British accent, who made a reference to Mr. Pamuk’s home town of Istanbul, Turkey with the short descriptive statement that read: Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world.

So began the speech which ended the first annual book festival. Just by the size of the audience that came to hear the Nobel Prize Winner, the inaugural festival was quite the success. Maybe the dreary weather had something to do with this fact, for book lovers and literary readers collected in droves to hear all the speakers and listen to the many poets.

By the sound of things, Mr. Pamuk may be somewhat of an exile from his native Turkey, but he saw no lack of enthusiasm from this attentive crowd that filled the main knave of the Old South Church.

His troubles with the Turkish government that resulted in a trial in Istanbul in 2005, where he was charged with insulting the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly. However, the charges were dropped on a technicality that they were not approved by the Ministry of Justice.

However, Mr. Pamuk’s trial has raised eyebrows around the world and especially with the EU, who is planning to admit Turkey to its ranks in the near future. In fact, so important are good relations between the Turkish government and the European Union that at a recent Frankfurt Book Fair (2008), where Pamuk was speaking, none other than a Mr. Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey, sat in the audience listening to Orhan’s speech.

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey

Over the past years Mr. Pamuk has sometimes criticized the past deeds of his native country, especially in regards to conflicts with the Turds and Armenians, both past and present. The presence of the president of Turkey in the audience of one of Mr. Pamuk’s speeches pays  mute testimony to the power of the written word.