Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I like words, and I like stories.  Ergo, it makes sense that I like stories about words.

I fancy myself an amateur etymologist (even though I’m not sure what it takes to be a professional etymologist).  I get a charge out of finding out where words come from, trying to connect the dots between the origin of a word and its meaning.

Here’s one of my favorites examples of etymology:  apparently, there once was a fairy tale about three princes from modern-day Sri Lanka; in this story, the heroes were always discovering fortunate things they were not seeking.  Upon reading the story, English author Horace Walpole coined a term that means, basically, the experience of finding something wonderful completely by accident.

Now, I left out one critical piece of information: the former name of Sri Lanka is “Serendip.”  And thus was born the word… “serendipity.”  How cool is that?

(Incidentally, the etymology of “etymology” is also illuminating: it derives from the Greek words “etymos” meaning “true” and “logos” meaning “word.” So etymology helps one understand the “true sense” of a word.)

And now I present the etymologies of words related to school (and thank the Online Etymology Dictionary for its assistance):

  • Cafeteria: from the Spanish “café,” meaning “coffee,” and “teria,” meaning “a place where something is done.”  (“Pizzeria” probably uses the same ending; the “t” fell away over time.
  • Education: From the Latin “e,” meaning “out,” and “ducare,” meaning “to lead.”  Thus, “education” literally means to “lead out”—an empowering concept for teachers and students. As teachers, we are not shoving information in; we are leading out what they already know.
  • Encyclopedia:  The term comes from two Greek words for “circular” (“cyc”) and “education” (“pedia” ).  Although “circular education” seems strange, replace “circular” with “well-rounded” and it makes more sense; studying the varied entries in the encyclopedia makes you a well-rounded student. (The root “cyc” is also found in “cycle,” “cyclone” and even “Cyclops,” while “pedia,” which has the connotation of educating children, is also found in the word pediatrician.)
  • Essay: From the French word “essai,” meaning “a try, an attempt.”  So an essay is an attempt to figure something out, to work through an idea.
  • Gymnasium: For ancient Greeks and for modern English speakers, a gymnasium was a place to train or exercise, but the word comes from the Greek “gymnos,” which means “naked.” So, a “gymnasium” was a place for Greek men to train naked.
  • Library: The Latin word “liber” (“book” or “parchment”) came from a word that meant “to peel off the bark of a tree.”  The earliest books were created from the inner bark of trees.  (The word “leprosy” also comes from the same original root.)
  • Pedagogue:  Although now the word means “teacher” or “schoolmaster,” the word originally referred to a person, usually a slave, who escorted the male children to school. The word “pedagogue” comes from the Greek words “ped,” meaning “child” (see “encyclopedia”), and “agogos,” meaning “to lead.”
  • Wikipedia—This an example of a portmanteau, a word made by combining parts of other words. The “pedia” part is obviously borrowed from “encyclopedia” (see above).  “Wiki,” on the other hand, was first used in 1994 by a man named Ward Cunningham, who heard the term while visiting the Honolulu International Airport.  In Hawaiian, the word “wiki” means “quick”; in the airport, the “Wiki” shuttle bus brought travelers to the various terminals.  Cunningham liked the sound of it, so he called his website, the first website that could be edited by anyone who accesses it, “WikiWikiWeb”; this was a forerunner to everyone’s favorite resource, Wikipedia.

Hope you learned something,   If not… well, it was a good essai!

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So, the new film version of The Great Gatsby just opened.  And Mark is currently teaching Fitzgerald’s novel in his AP class.  And this is a blog devoted to fiction. Sounds like a readymade excuse for a Great Gatsby post!  (Or two!  Or three!)  And what better place to start than the title?

Now, we mentioned this in a previous post (but don’t click back just yet!  We’re having a quiz in a moment!), but it bears repeating:  Fitzgerald was no fan of the title The Great Gatsby. “The title is only fair,” he is credited with saying, “rather bad than good.”  Instead, Fitzgerald has a bunch of other titles he was considering.  Try to guess which of the following were actual possible titles for The Great Gatsby:Gatsby Logo 1

  1. On the Road to West Egg
  2. First Impressions
  3. Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night
  4. The High-Bouncing Lover
  5. Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
  6. They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
  7.  Under the Red, White, and Blue
  8. They Who Got Shot

Of those winners listed above, only 1, 4, 5, and 7 were actual titles Fitzgerald considered for Gatsby.  As for the others: First Impressions was a possible title for Pride and Prejudice; though it would fit Fitzgerlad’s Manhattan, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night was title of the article upon which the film Saturday Night Fever was based;  They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (also fitting for Gatsby) was a working title for Valley of the Dolls; and They Who Got Shot was a possible title for (wait for it) Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Incidentally, as a title for Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald was especially partial to either Trimalchio or Trimalchio in West Egg– with “Trimalchio” being the name of a character in the Roman novel The Satyricon. Now, Trimalchio is a wealthy man who throws extravagant parties, so the name does fit the character Gatsby.  The problem, of course, is that maybe 3.7% of the populace knows that.

(I’m reminded of that anecdote Nabokov wrote in the foreword to his memoir Speak, Memory; apparently, Nabokov wanted to call it Speak, Mnemosyne, after the Greek goddess of memory, but his editor warned him that “little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.”  Good advice, there.)

And why didn’t Fitzgerald like The Great Gatsby as a title?  Apparently, he had a problem with the “great” part.  As he explpained to his editor, Max Perkins: “There is no emphasis, even ironically, on his greatness or lack of it.”  (Ummm… really, F. Scott?  “No emphasis” on Gatsby’s greatness?  Did you actually read your novel?)

Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, along with his editor, talked Fitzgerald into The Great Gatsby. And for that, I feel I can speak on behalf of millions of readers when I say, “*Whew!*”  Honestly, do you think ANYONE in 2013 would be dressing up in flapper costunes to see the premier of a movie called Trimalchio?  Or On the Road to West Egg?

Just goes to show that sometimes artists really don’t know what’s best for their own works of art.  I mean… High-Bouncing Lover?  For real???

While we’re on the subject, here are some other great stories about titles…

  • In addition to the bizarre They Who Got Shot, Ernest Hemingway had at least thirty other working titles for A Farewell to Arms, including the following: The World’s Room; World Enough and Time; The Italian Journey; The Italian Prodigal; Love Is a Fervent Fire, Kindled without Desire; Disorder and Early Sorrow; Death Once Dead; If You Must Love; A World to See; A Patriot’s Progress; The Carnal Education; The Grand Tour; The Sentimental Education of Frederic Henry and (the most curious of all) I Have Committed Fornication But That Was in Another Country, and Besides the Wench Is Dead.
  • Great story about the movie Field of Dreams: the film, which features former baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, was based on W. P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe.  Test audiences, however, thought the title was misleading; they thought the film was going to be a movie about a homeless person.  The studio suggested Field of Dreams.  Luckily, author Kinsella didn’t mind, since his publisher originally came up with Shoeless Joe.  The title Kinsella had wanted: Dream Field.
  • Many artists have mined the works of Shakespeare for titles. Macbeth inspired William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Kurt Vonnegut (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) and Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes). Aldous Huxley found a Brave New World in The Tempest.  Sting named his second solo album Nothing Like The Sun after Sonnet 130. And one of Leo Tolstoy’s working titles for War and Peace was All’s Well That Ends Well.
  • On a related note, Star Trek writers really seem to love the Bard: Star Trek VI was subtitled The Undiscovered Country (from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech); “Dagger of the Mind” and “All Our Yesterdays” (Macbeth) and “Thine Own Self” (Hamlet) are all names of Star Trek episodes.
  • Any frustrated Sporcle enthusiast now knows that, in Britain, the first Harry Potter book is entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone— which author J.K. Rowling prefers to the Americanized Sorcerer’s Stone. But did you know the sixth book was supposed to be called Harry Potter and the High-Bouncing Wizard?    Kidding!

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Top o’ the morning, Erin go bragh, and may the road rise to meet you!  For our 50th post, we prepared a special St. Patrick’s Day Literary Quiz, celebrating Irish (or Irish-American) writers and their works.  We came up with seventeen questions (in honor of March 17th), and just so you know:  some are tougher than the blarney stone, and leave just as bad a taste in your mouth!  Answers follow…

irish writers

  1. What is the last story in James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners?
  2. From which William Butler Yeats poem did Chinua Achebe borrow the title Things Fall Apart?
  3. Which Irish-born writer is famous for classic “chick-lit” novels such as Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Watermelon, Sushi for Beginners, and This Charming Man?
  4. What is the name of Jonathan Swift’s well-known satirical essay, in which he advises the Irish to sell their children for food in order to relieve the problems of famine and poverty in Ireland?
  5. He may not have won an EGOT (and for all non-30 Rock fans out there, that stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), but Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature AND an Oscar.  For what film did Shaw win the Oscar?
  6. In Samuel Becket’s famous play, who are the two main characters who are waiting for Godot?
  7. How many Pulitzer prizes did Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill win?
  8. Which Seamus Heaney poem begins, “Late August, given heavy rain and sun/ For a full week, the blackberries would ripen”?
  9. Which best-selling Irish writer, whose sixteen novels include Glass Lake, Tara Road, and Circle of Friends, died last summer, on July 30, 2012?
  10. What is the title of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel?
  11. Stephanie Meyer owes a blood debt to this nineteenth-century Irish-born writer, whose Dracula is the prototypical vampire novel. Who is this author?
  12. Which Irish writer was famous for his short stories, including “The Majesty of the Law,” “The Drunkard” and “My Oedipus Complex”?
  13.  I am an importance voice in the literature of the American South.    My stories (including “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) have influenced rock-and-roll demigods Bruce Springsteen (who allegedly read my stories while writing the album Nebraska) and Bono, of the Irish supergroup U2; in fact, Bono alludes to my story “The Enduring Chill” in the lyrics of the song “One Tree Hill.”  And while I was not born in Ireland, I do have Irish ancestry and an Irish last-name. Who am I?
  14.  The “S” in “C.S. Lewis” stands for “Staples.”  What does the “C” stand for?  (And yes, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia was born in Belfast, Ireland.)
  15.  Which Irish college houses the Book of Kells, an ornately decorated rendering of the Four Gospels, dating back to the Middle Ages?
  16. What is Gulliver’s first name in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels?
  17. Who is Angela in Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes?


What is “Bloomsday”—the date on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set?  (a) July 2, 1902 (b) June 12, 1903 (c) June 16, 1904, or (d) July 16, 1905


  1. “The Dead”
  2. “The Second Coming” (The line is, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”)
  3. Marian Keyes
  4. “A Modest Proposal”
  5. Pygmalion (1938).  Shaw also wrote the play on which the film is based.
  6. Vladimir and Estragon
  7. Four, for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957).
  8. “Blackberry Picking”
  9. Maeve Binchy
  10. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  11. Bram Stoker (Incidentally, his actually first name is “Abraham.”)
  12. Frank O’Connor
  13. Flannery O’Connor
  14. Clive
  15. Trinity College
  16. Lemuel
  17. Angela is the author’s mother, who is a native of Limerick, Ireland.  Frank McCourt himself was born in New York, but eventually his family moved to Limerick.

Tie-Breaker:  (c) June 16, 1904

How’d You Do?

15-17 Correct: Pot o’ Gold!

11-14 Correct: Shamrock-star!

6-10 Correct: Lucky Guesser

2-5 Correct: Green around the Gills

0-1 Correct: Potato Famine

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Wizard of OzMake no mistake: he—or she—had a brain, all right.

Unlike a certain singing scarecrow, whoever initially found the parallels between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz definitely did not have a head full o’ stuffing.  Only an intellectual wizard, after all, could notice that “The Great Gig in the Sky” plays when Dorothy’s house flies in the tornado.  Or that the cash register sound at the start of “Money” is synchronized to the exact moment the movie turns from black-and-white to Technicolor.  Or that Dorothy’s listening for the Tin Man’s heart coincides with the sound of a heartbeat on the album.

It’s all very fascinating.  Provocative.  And completely impossible.  I mean, come on: are we really supposed to believe the guys from Pink Floyd were watching Wizard of Oz while recording the album? Not likely.

This isn’t a knock on the anonymous wizard (or wizards) who originally noticed the similarities.  Far from it: making these connections is a creative act in itself.  And does it matter whether or not Pink Floyd intended to connect its album to Wizard of Oz?  I don’t see why it should.  When an author puts something out into the world, he or she gives up a degree of control.   The audience takes it from there.

Of course, I can’t give props to the folks interpreting the text without acknowledging the greatness of the text itself.  If The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so rich, so paradoxical, so chock full of themes and iconic characters, could those anonymous folks have made so many connections?

That’s not to take anything away from Dark Side of the Moon, which is a trippily complicated text in itself.  I’m just saying that if you take a text as complex as Wizard of Oz and juxtapose it with an equally complex text (such as Dark Side of the Moon, or hundreds of other texts), you’re bound to find some connections.

I actually have an example of my own, regarding the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  In case you never read The Sound and the Fury (or, as in my case, you read it but had pretty much had no earthly idea what was going on), the novel focuses on a promiscuous Southern woman named Caddy Compson and her three brothers: Benjy, who is mentally handicapped; Quentin, whose incestuous obsession with Caddy contributes to his suicide; and Jason, who is… just mean.  (There is also a plot in there, apparently… but I don’t think I was ever smart enough to figure it out.)

I took a Faulkner seminar in college, and in one of my papers, I made the case (only half-jokingly) that Faulkner borrowed liberally from L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz novel (published in 1900) for The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929). Caddy, Faulkner’s centerpiece character, is obviously Dorothy; Benjy matches up the brainless Scarecrow; Quentin—or Quen-Tin—is Tin Man; and Jason, the gruff yet easily frightened “king” of the Compson household, is the Cowardly Lion.

I went on to talk about how both texts involve the idea of dreams vs. reality, with Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness narration being particularly dream-like, in that he tends to collapse past and present events into one.  Admiitedly, a bit of a stretch.

Years later, as a high school teacher, I came up with a better Oz-connection; this time, I didn’t connect Oz to a text but to American history.  On some level, I was inspired by Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,” which spelled out the allegorical aspects of Baum’s novel: The Scarecrow is the supposedly ignorant American farmer; the Tin-Man is the industrial worker who toils so hard for so long, he actually becomes a machine himself; the Cowardly Lion is (believe it or not) William Jennings Bryan; the Wizard is any president who doesn’t have the power to give the people what they need; and Dorothy is Everyman (or Everywoman), trying to muddle his/ her way through.

Now… did Baum intend any of this?  Henry Littlefield seems to think so, and he makes an extremely compelling case why. But again, does Baum’s intention even matter?  Littlefield’s reading is an interesting intellectual exercise, one that gives us a new way of looking at a classic text.  That’s enough for me. (I should note: Littlefield was also a high school teacher… just saying.)

My interpretation goes in a different direction than Littlefield’s.   Most significantly, I’m interpreting the 1939 film version, not the novel.  I start with the song “Over the Rainbow,” the lyrics of which were written by a gentleman named Yip Harberg.  A businessman who lost everything in the Great Depression, Harberg went to Hollywood and became a songwriter.   His work on Wizard of Oz won him an Academy Award.  Talk about an American success story (which is sort of curious to say, since he was a committed socialist).

Now, two things you need to know about “Over the Rainbow.”  First: the rainbow symbol does not appear in Baum’s novel; it was used in the film to help reinforce the innovative use of Technicolor.  (That’s why they changed Dorothy’s magic slippers, silver in the book, to ruby red.)  Secondly: Yip Harberg is the son of Russian immigrants, who emigrated to the United States before Harberg was born.

Though not an immigrant himself, is it possible that Harberg was telling the story of his immigrant parents in the song “Over the Rainbow”?  Check out some of the lyrics:

* “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”…
* “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”…
* “Where troubles melt like lemondrops”…

Aren’t those exactly—I mean, EXACTLY—the kinds of things that someone a hundred years ago, living in Eastern Europe, would say about America?

With that as a foundation, I suggest that the entire 1939 Wizard of Oz film can be seen as an allegory for the American immigrant experience of the early 20th century.   The black-and-white Kansas portion represents their life back home, where they wistfully think about this mythical new world, America—a place where the streets are literally paved with gold. (That’s the yellow brick road.)  Filled with this hope that their daring dreams really will come true, they arrive at the new country, draped in their new home’s colors. (Dorothy, remembers, wears a blue and white dress and ruby-red shoes.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for many of these immigrants to realize that this wonderful new place is not what it’s cracked up to be; like the Wizard itself, the new world is an illusion.  And soon, these same wide-eyed immigrants, who risked everything to come to America, face a hard truth: “There’s no place like home.”

Granted, the interpretation needs some work.  I admittedly have some holes to fill. (Who’s the Scarecrow?  What about the Flying Monkeys?)   But it does offer a new perspective, doesn’t it, on a century-old tale?

To me, it all comes back to the text, L. Frank Baum’s original vision.  What started in 1900 as merely America’s greatest fairy tale has had so many lives, so many incarnations—from the 1939 film to The Wiz in the 1970s to Wicked in the 2000s and now to the new film, Oz, The Great and Powerful.  Why has it had such a long shelf-life?

Answer: because Baum is not like his wizard.  He’s the real deal.  He had brains and heart and courage. His vision was rich and deep, great and powerful.  And the lesson all writers can learn from him, I think, is this: the more you put into a text, the more someone else can get out of it.

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642 things to write aboutOne of our favorite gifts this Christmas was a book called 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto (2011).  Given to us by a dear friend, the book is a collection of prompts (642 of them, we’re guessing), such as “Write ten sayings for fortune cookies” or “Write a story that ends with the line, ‘And this is the room where it happened.’”

For our New Year’s Resolution, we’d like to “do” this book, to use it to fire up our somewhat-soggy-from-the-holidays creative embers.  Much like the NaBloPoMo Challenge, we’re hopeful that this endeavor will bear fruit in several ways: new and interesting blog posts, a “stretched” or enhanced creative energy in our writing, and a renewed dedication to our next big writing project—a sequel to our first (as of yet unpublished) young adult novel.

We have some individual resolutions, too—ones that don’t have anything to do with writing. And what are they? Well…


All best plans seem to come in three’s, so I’ve come up with three resolutions for 2013.

I resolve to spend more time outdoors. January in New England may not be the best time to start this one, but I read a statistic from the Gale Encyclopedia of Public Health that the average North American spends 90 percent of the time indoors, 5 percent in cars, and only 5 percent outdoors.  And I know I fit into that category.  When you’re a writer, a reader, a mom, and a pop culture fanatic, you tend to be more of an indoor person.  So 2013 will find me putting on my warmest coat and getting outside to let the sun shine upon my face, the snowflakes coat my eyelashes, and the gentle breezes carry me away.

I resolve to eat more vegetables.  This may seem like an odd one for a woman in my 40s, but if I’m being honest… I hate vegetables.  I envy those people who can serve up a plate of roasted eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, (fill-in-the-blank with your vegetable of choice) and devour it with the kind of ecstasy I only reserve for Ben & Jerry’s.  In the words of Corey Flood from the movie Say Anything: “that’ll never be me, that’ll never be me!”  However, I do resolve to eat more vegetables, even if I never grow to love them.

I resolve to act on benevolent impulses.  Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that humans possess a “natural benevolent impulse” that moves us to love others and to perform kind, charitable acts.  I would say this is definitely true for me with one slight difference: my benevolent impulses lead me to want to perform kind, charitable acts.  It’s the doing where I tend to fall off the rails.  Oftentimes because I’m too busy (or too lazy), and other times my introverted nature stops me from putting myself out there.  But not in 2013!  Every time I have an impulse to do something nice for someone, I resolve to do it.


I, too, have three specific goals… as well as one less quantifiable, infinitely goofier one. First, the specific ones:

  • I’d like to lose twelve pounds (at least) before April.  In January 2003, I lost twenty-three pounds as part of a New Year’s diet; ten years later, the pounds have slowly but oh-so-surely crept back. I figure I’ll try to lose half of that original amount (twelve is half of twenty-three, kind of) this time around.
  • I’m going to make a project on iMovie. We bought an iMac almost two years ago now, and I don’t think I have used iMovie even once.
  • I want to improve my ping pong game.  We have a table in our house, and I want to get better at it. (Probably the first step would be to call it by its proper, snootier name: table tennis.).

Now, here’s the goofier goal: I want to be more “up” on things. Not necessarily political things or big-ticket news items. I just want to know things that everyone else seems to know about.

Let me give an example:  with the end of the year comes lists—the most popular songs of the past year, the biggest news stories of the year, the top ten Sporcle games that chewed up the most potentially productive hours. (OK, that last one might just apply to me…)  But my favorite year-end list has to be the “Dead Celebrities” review—the one that provides a final farewell the famous folks who died over the past twelve months.

The individuals on this list often fall into different categories: the “Fond Remembrances” group (e.g. Dick Clark, Adam Yauch, Maurice Sendak); the “Such a Shame/ Cautionary Tale” group (Whitney Houston); the “Wait, You Mean This Person Didn’t Die, Like, Ten Years Ago?” group (Ernest Borgnine).

Then we get to the most frustrating category of them all: “Yes, This Celebrity Died Months Ago and Somehow You’re Just Finding Out Now.”  Every year, I learn about one celebrity death that somehow passed me by. In 2011, it was Dobie Gray. In 2004, it was Rick James.  And in 2012, it was none other than… Donna Summer.

Apparently, the Queen of Disco died of lung cancer last May…. so how did I not know about this until a few weeks ago?  Hey, I wasn’t her biggest fan, but… it’s Donna Summer!  Why wasn’t there more hubbub about this?

I’m not saying no one knew about Donna Summer’s death; in fact, everyone I talked to about this has said, “Oh, yeah, I knew.” So I guess I’m not so much sad she died but more frustrated that I didn’t know.  I hate being left out!

So maybe next year I will either try to be more aware of what’s going on, or else enlist a massive team of pop culture watchdogs who will send me an alert whenever a famous person dies.  (Then again, maybe I’ll just stick to the ping pong.)

To hold ourselves accountable to our joint and individual resolutions, we promise future blog posts with updates on how we’re doing.  But now we’d love to hear from you!  Use the comments section to share your resolutions for 2013.

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Just under the wire (and perhaps the mistletoe)… a literary Christmas quiz, one that will require you to use your (egg)-noggin!  Happy holidays to everyone!

  1. In O. Henry’s short story “Gift of the Magi,” what is the name of the woman who sold her hair to get a Christmas gift for her husband?
  2. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, during his Harry’s first Christmas at Hogwarts, what gift—a Potter family heirloom—does Harry receive via an anonymous Dumbledore?
  3. What Shakespeare play is named after the Feast of the Epiphany, which takes place on January 6th (the day, according to some scholars, when the play was first performed)?
  4. What is the name of Scrooge’s former employer, the proprietor of a warehouse who would host Christmas balls?
  5. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator describes how Owen Meany, during one holiday season, played a role in a Christmas pageant and a role in a  version of A Christmas Carol. What were these two roles?
  6. I am an American poet who wrote a poem called “Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter),” but you probably know me better for that other wintry poem, the one about keeping promises on the darkest evening of the year. Who am I?
  7. I am a classic American novel which ends with the line, “So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.”  This Christmas, I was supposed to get 3D movie treatment (thanks to director Baz Luhrman), but the studios decided to postpone the film’s release until the summer.  I am who?
  8. In The Catcher in the Rye, which historical figure is Phoebe Caulfield reportedly playing in her school’s Christmas pageant?
  9. John Milton, author of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” is better known for what other religious poem, about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?
  10. Chris Van Allsburg, the author of children’s books such as Jumanji and Zathura, is also the author of which Christmas classic?
  11. Which now-classic Christmas movie—about a boy and his BB gun—is based on a book of short stories called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd?
  12. Joe Christmas is the main protagonist of what William Faulkner novel with a decidedly non-Christmas-y title?
  13. And what non-Christmas-y Yeats’  poem ends with the line, “Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born”?
  14. The song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”—recorded by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Maclachlan, and Bette Midler—is based on the poem “Christmas Bells,”  written by which American poet (famous for “Paul Revere’s Ride”)?
  15. According to the Foreword of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which character reportedly dies on Christmas Day 1952?
  16. What is the name of the young boy who is one of the two main characters in Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”?  (Hint: he shares his name of a famous Christmas elf.)
  17. In what C.S. Lewis novel does Santa Claus give children named Peter, Susan and Lucy “tools, not  toys”—including a sword and a red shield emblazoned with the picture of a lion?
  18. What is the official title of  Clement C. Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”?
  19. I am an American poet whose poem “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman”—which notes how Jesus was born in Bethlehem on ”so cold a Day”—has two of my trademarks:  it’s brief (40 words) and full of dashes!
  20. Boris Karloff, who narrated the animated special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” famously played what famous movie monster, originally created by Mary Shelley?
  21. What Scottish poet wrote the poem “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788?
  22. What Christmas ballet is based on an 1816 short story by M. T. A. Hoffman about a toy that comes to life?
  23. What Irish poet, famous for “Don’t Go Gently into That Good Night,” also wrote “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”?
  24. I am the author of the one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner, but you probably know me better by my Pulitzer-prize winning play Our Town. I am who?
  25. Which Christmas carol began as a poem, written by Father Joseph Mohr in 1816, which was then set to music by his friend Franz Gruber?


1. Della

2. Invisibility Cloak

3. Twelfth Night

4. Fezziwig

5. Baby Jesus, Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

6. Robert Frost

7. The Great Gatsby

8. Benedict Arnold

9. Paradise Lost

10. The Polar Express

11. A Christmas Story

12. Light in August

13. “The Second Coming”

14. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

15. Lolita herself (Mrs. Richard Schiller). She died while giving birth to a stillborn child.

16. Buddy

17. The Lion,The Witch, and The Wardrobe

18. “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

19. Emily Dickinson

20. Frankenstein’s monster

21. Robert Burns

22. The Nutcracker

23. Dylan Thomas

24. Thorton Wilder

25. “Silent Night”

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Dickens 1

A five-member Salvation Army band playing in front of a green gazebo. Two sledders careening down a frozen waterfall. A poulterer, a pair of dead fowl hanging limply in each hand, standing behind a trio of Christmas carolers. Two horse-and-buggies charging at one another while traveling headlong down a one-lane cobblestone street– their collision inevitable and yet impossible.

Just a day in the life of the Dickens’ Village.

For those who have no idea what I’m taking about: the “Dickens’ Village” is a series of holiday collectibles– everything from buildings to figurines to various “olde towne” accessories– put out by the Department 56 company. Introduced in 1984, the series was originally based on the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” but the company eventually expanded their scope by introducing new pieces—some inspired by other Dickens novels, others depicting life in Victorian London in general.

The Dickens’ Village pieces, especially the buildings, are beautifully ornate, shockingly expensive, and not particularly practical. Apart from a few with moving parts (skaters that glide around a frozen pond, for example, or dancers that waltz around in a living room window), most pieces don’t really do anything—nor are they supposed to. Really, all these pieces are meant to do is sit on a tabletop or under the Christmas tree and, in all their illuminated glory, usher in the holiday mood.

Of course, the Dickens’ series isn’t the only “holiday collectible” in town. (Uh… in village?)   There’s the New England edition, the “Christmas in the City” edition (complete with an 50s-style “American Diner” building), and even a Charlie Brown-themed edition.

And who can overlook the series based on the beloved film A Christmas Story?   Every classic scene is recreated with pieces such as “Triple Dog Dare” (depicting the scene where Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen pole) and “Isn’t It Beautiful?” (which shows the Old Man unveiling his prized leg-lamp).

But my favorite series of all has to be the Dickens’ Village, if only because it’s the one with which I have the most experience. No, we don’t own any pieces ourselves, but my mother-in-law has an extremely extensive collection.  How extensive?  Well… let me put it this way: a few years ago, my brother-in-law John actually conducted a census of the citizens.

I was first introduced to the Dickens’ Village phenomenon seventeen years ago, and I was immediately enchanted.  Over the years, my wife and I have taken on more ownership over the whole “Assembling the Dickens’ Village” project, to the point that we’re now the primary city-planners. (This has earned us a big round of applause from my mother-in-law’s knees.)

Each year, we try to add a different element to the village: this year, we inserted a Christmas tree farm, while in years past, we’ve included a hedge maze, a waterfall, and a town green complete with a stage.  (The theater company was actually putting on a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” which we thought was a nice “meta” touch.)

Over the past two years, my wife and I have recruited our twin sons to help assemble the town, and they also got the bug.  I guess you could say we’re all “Village People.”  (Can you tell I have been waiting this whole post to make that joke?)

Now what does any of this have to do with this blog?  Simple: the Dickens’ Village both requires and inspires storytelling.

Over the past seventeen years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between city-planning and story-telling.   Often, a story—or at least, a kernel of a story—can dictate the placement of the key pieces.  So, in the past, we’ve created a “rich side of town” vs. “poor side of town” dynamic.  Or right next to the theater we put the coffeehouse, where folks can hang out right after they watched the show.

The placement of Scrooge’s house tells a different story.  Do you place it in isolation, which he would undoubtedly prefer, or do you place it in the middle of everything, which would drive poor Ebenezer crazy?  (Sometimes, we even put some carolers right in front of his door.  Oh, he loves that!)

But then there are a multitude of other stories that can’t be mapped out, stories that happen organically, by the chance placement of, say, a paperboy by a constable in front of a bakery.   Maybe that’s the start of a new Christmas classic, waiting to be told.

Just recently, a student was telling me about J. R. R. Tolkein and how he created this fascinating world of Middle-Earth and then tried to figure out a story that he could tell in that world. The Dickens’ Village is the same sort of thing… only not so much Gollum.

The pieces in the Dickens’ Village, while beautiful and ornate, are essentially dead-as-doornails.  The stories bring the village to life.

And here are some pictures of the 2012 Dickens Village…

Dickens 2

Dickens 3

Dickens 4

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