Things you may not know about Winnie- the- Pooh

When I was young, I loved Winne-the-Pooh. There was a time when I carried my little volume – illustrated by Shephard, of course – everywhere. This fine article was posted on “The View from Sari’s World” on August 21, Christopher Robin Milne’s birthday. It’s filled with interesting facts about the historical Pooh and Christopher Robin, as well as the real Hundred Acre Wood and Poohsticks bridge. Enjoy!

The View From Sari's World

Christopher Robin Milne was born on August 21, 1920, so what better day to celebrate the world’s favorite bear!

Winnie-the-Pooh is unarguably one of the most recognizable characters in children’s literature, as are his friends: Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, and Owl. Generations of children (including my own) have loved Winnie-the-Pooh, the Best Bear in All the World.  To celebrate the birthday of the little boy Christopher Robin Miline and his favorite toy I give you:

Things you may not know about Winnie- the- Pooh

Winnie -the- Pooh was the name of the “Bear of little brain” in the stories created by A.A. Milne. A.A Milne’s son Christopher had a teddy bear who Winnie the Pooh was created after. He named his teddy Winnie after a Canadian black bear he saw at the Zoo in London. The real life bear was actually from the town of Winnipeg…

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Alex Cross, Run: an audiobook review

In the 15 years since Morgan Freeman starred in the first Alex Cross movie, Kiss the Girls, I’ve enjoyed quite a few James Patterson thrillers in films, books, and audiobooks.  He knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat, whatever the medium.  Alex Cross, Run, the 20th tale in the series, is no exception.

When I’m doing a lot of driving, I often choose Patterson audiobooks – they make the miles fly, but once I started this one, I kept the earbuds plugged in while fixing breakfast, walking the dogs, and even late at night.  It wasn’t exactly pleasure that kept me listening.  It often felt like drinking coffee when nervous.

There’s an amped up quality to Alex Cross, Run that couldn’t quite hide a formulaic quality, even though Patterson created much of the formula.  Throw in enough serial killers – Alex Cross Run had three – and an author like Patterson will create plenty of tension, but I often felt manipulated.  Every book tries to manipulate an audience; successful ones do it with subtlety.  Here, elements like bad guy motives and family interludes felt somewhat perfunctory, like I might do if I started with a list of plot points and checked them off one by one.

Alex Cross, Run is not a bad book by any means.  I’d give it three and a half stars out of five.  It’s a thriller by any measure, but it adds nothing new to the series or the genre.

Perhaps it simply felt rushed compared to books I’ve read in Patterson’s other signature series, the “Women’s Murder Club.”  I find Lindsay Boxer a more rounded character, with a richer circle of friends and environment than Alex Cross.

Any reader who likes thrillers and any writer who wants to learn about tension will be rewarded by reading James Patterson, but Alex Cross, Run is not where I would advise them to start.

The Psychology of Superheroes


Robin Rosenberg grew up with superhero comics. Later she shared them with her children, and after becoming a clinical psychologist, she studied them through the lens of psychology and discovered that “superhero stories are about morality and loyalty, about self-doubt and conviction of beliefs. I also saw that, like any good fiction, the sagas of superheroes bring us out of ourselves and connect us with something larger than ourselves, something more universal.”

Rosenberg published “We Need a Hero” in the current Smithsonian Magazine  The article inspired me to read The Psychology of Superheroes a collection of essays that Rosenberg edited in 2008 on what makes these caped crusaders tick.

Sometimes it seems that superheroes can’t get no satisfaction, but is that accurate?  Not according to the opening essay in the collection, “The Positive Psychology of Superheroes,” by Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park.  “One of the defining features of a superhero is an over-riding mission to serve the larger world and to defend it.  In this sense, superheroes have profoundly meaningful lives.”   

Peterson and Park assert that meaning is more important than pleasure in leading a satisfying life. That’s a good thing, because with a few exceptions, superheroes are challenged on the relationship front.  I’ve always thought it’s the flaws embodied in the secret identities of Clark Kent and Peter Parker that bonds us to these characters.  In one sense, they’re just like us, and their stories suggest that we too may choose the highroad.

Though superpowers isolate them from others, sometimes superheroes band together with superior results, according to the second essay in the collection, “The Benefits of a Group,” by Dr. Wind Goodfriend. This article may shed some light on why The Justice League of America functions more efficiently than your team at work or committees at church.

Another topic discussed in the book is the question of nurture vs. nature in the development of superhero psychology.  Superman may have his powers through genetics, how did he come to use them for altruistic rather than narrow and selfish ends?  Did he inherit those qualities too, or were they a result of his wholesome upbringing on a farm in America’s heartland?  What would have happened if his pod had landed in New York City?

Good and evil are usually clearly drawn in superhero stories, but not always. In “Anti-Heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil,” Dr. Michael Spivey and Steve Knowlton discuss the ambiguous, gray-zone nature of super anti-heroes and sympathetic villains (think of Darth Vader and Gollum).  Each of the 18 essays in The Psychology of Superheroes addresses some facet of the super-psyche that you may or may not have wondered about.

Humans have relished hero tales for millennia.  Superman joined the ranks 75 years ago, and if you’ve been to the cineplex lately, you know that his saga is going to continue this summer.  The trailer for Man of Steel 2013 zeroes in on Clark’s inner struggles to understand who he is and why he is here.  Earlier incarnations of Superman did not live in a world of such moral ambiguity and mistrust of the government, themes which place this telling squarely in the 21st century.

As The Psychology of Superheroes makes clear, what we really admire is not the superpowers but the hero, the one who overcomes their doubts and demons and then acts to make the world a better place. This book is a fascinating read in its own right and will whet your appetite for the new movie.  It will give you some new perspectives on movies you’ve seen in the past as well as the comic books that once inspired some of us to run around wearing capes made out of bedsheets.

The Annotated Wind in the Willows

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” So begins one of the great literary adventures of my life, The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame.

I’ve written about The Wind in the Willows before:  My parents read it aloud when I was little, and since then, it has been part of my life.  Now the annotated edition, which I got this month, reveals details about the text and the author that I never knew before.

The opening paragraph details the Mole’s spring cleaning.  Soon he has dust in his throat and eyes and splotches of whitewash on his fur.  Then the text says something rather strange:  “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

I’ve been known to put off spring cleaning for months, but from laziness not “divine discontent.”  As a younger reader, this phrase escaped me.  Only now do I realize how Mole’s spirit of longing belonged to the author.  I always imagined Kenneth Grahame as a country gentleman, strolling quietly by the river.  Notes in the annotated edition make clear that while this came later, for much of his life, Grahame lived with a frustrated dream of living like that.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912.  Public domain.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912. Public domain.

He knew and loved the country life, but economic necessity tied him to London.  He abandoned his dream of going to Oxford and took a post at the Bank of England.  He married late in life, and both he and his wife had health problems.  Their only son, Alastair, was born with a congenital vision defect.  One day in November, 1903, a respectably dressed man came into Grahame’s office, pulled out a revolver, and began shooting.  The man didn’t hit anyone and was later sent to an asylum, but Grahame was shaken.  Already a private man, he kept even more to himself, his home, and vacations near the sea.

Grahame was already a popular author of several books of essays, but he stopped writing entirely between the years of 1903 and 1908.  Because of his wife’s health problems, Kenneth was Alastair’s primary care giver.  In the evenings, he made up stories about a mole, a toad, and various other animals, who lived beside a river.  A governess would later recall hearing Alastair ask questions and make suggestions; the two of them worked the stories together.

Alastair Grahame, 1907

Father and son spent the summer of 1907 apart.  Kenneth sent Alastair  a series of 15 letters which continued the tales and became the seeds of chapters for the book he would write the following year.  The letters are included in the annotated edition.  Also in this edition is an introduction by Brian Jacques, contemporary author of the Redwall series of animal stories.  Jacques lets us know what he thinks of the editors and agents who hesitated in printing The Wind in the Willows.  He has nothing good to say about people so short of imagination that they could not imagine a toad disguised as a washerwoman.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

An enthusiastic recommendation from President Theodore Roosevelt helped Grahame’s publishing efforts and the book has been in print ever since.

Some have suggested that Wind in the Willows is two books in one.  The madcap adventures of toad seem geared to please children – they were Alastair’s favorites – while other sections explore deeper emotions like homesickness, fear, wanderlust, and of course the theme of divine discontent.  This takes center stage in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in which the animals, searching for a lost baby otter, encounter the ancient god Pan.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Frontispiece to a 1913 edition by Paul Bransom. Public domain.

Grahame first wrote about Pan in 1891 in an essay that appeared in his first book, The Pagan Papers 1893.  His longing for unspoiled nature on the eve of the 20th century was widespread in Victorian and Edwardian society.

As Mole and Rat approached the god, they were seized with the kind of awe and fear that scriptures around the world describe when people encounter angels.  When the vision ended, the animals “stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost.”

Then a little breeze “blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion.  For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping:  the gift of forgetfulness.  Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of the little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.”

Life brought less solace for Grahame. His son, Alastair, who inspired the stories, was a budding artist and creator of his own literary magazine, but he was plagued with emotional problems. He enrolled at Eton but had to leave for this reason. He went up to Oxford in 1918, but didn’t do well with exams. On top of this, numbers of WWI veterans were returning to college, bringing the focus and maturity they had learned in the trenches.

In May, 1920, Alastair Grahame asked for a glass of wine after dinner, then walked to Port Meadow, outside Oxford, where a number of railroad lines merged. During the night, he was hit by a train and died. His father wrote that his vision problems might have led to disorientation.  The autopsy report suggested he lay on the tracks and waited for a train.

The Grahames were devastated. They spent the next four years in Italy. When they returned to England, they moved to a town beside the Thames where they lived for the rest of their lives. Kenneth was able to spend his days by the river, as he had always dreamed of doing, but the joy he once had making stories for his son must have been absent.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Some biographers have suggested that Grahame, good at everything he tried, must have been disappointed with his son. Annie Gauger, editor of the Annotated edition says no.  She includes letters and other material to demonstrate that The Wind in the Willows was a joint creation of father and son.  Since the stories were first told out loud, I have to agree – from experience I know that oral storytelling is a complex dance between teller and audience.  Out of their limitations, their longings, and divine discontent, Kenneth and Alastair Grahame  gave readers over the last hundred years a world of peace and friendship, far from “the wide world” trials, where if you listen, you can sometimes make out the music of the gods of nature on the wind.

The Prophet by Michael Koryta: a book review

Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio.  Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return.  Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds.  Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.

The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken.  Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry.  Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.

A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town.  His passion is murder and something more:  “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless.  Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken.  Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.”  When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal.  Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.

Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16.  While still in high school he interned with a private detective.  His first  novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21.  He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House and The Ridge in 2011.

The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow.  The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories.  We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11.  That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.

In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do.  A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter.  As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.

There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out.  There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down.  Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint.  I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished.  You may well find yourself doing the same.

Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:

Copyrights and the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Since my July 24 post on copyrights generated significant interest, I want to direct you to another blog post discussing the probable copyright violations of Danny Boyle in his fanciful opening ceremony at the Olympics.

In her article “Reclaiming Mary Poppins and the Characters We Love,” Maggie O’Toole discusses way in which corporate interests have successfully lengthened and strengthened the rules in their own interest.  Maggie says:

“In this bit of public theater, director Danny Boyle reclaimed the British people’s ownership of their children’s literature, the rights to which have long since been sold off to various corporate interests…In doing so, he challenged the idea that these characters, or any characters, can belong to someone.”

Despite my recent musings on copyright, the idea never occurred to me.  Please read the full article.  If you love these characters, you will enjoy it!

Notes on Superman and The Superman Song

It doesn’t take much reflection on superheroes (see my previous Batman post) to remember Superman.  For me, he always brings to mind a strange, funny, and poignant song by The Crash Test Dummies from their 1991 debut album, “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.”

What the song underscores is an intuition that has shaped my approach to characters in fiction:  they need to be larger than life but flawed and human too.  Though the plot needs super-strength, without his kryptonite allergy, the guy in the cape would be pretty boring.  Besides, it’s Clark Kent who we bond with.  Holding tight to his geek persona, in the days before geeks were cool, Clark sacrificed his hopes for human happiness out of dedication to a public that could never be allowed to know who to thank.  If you like stories of unrequited love and hopeless triads, Superman, Lois, and alter-ego, Clark, had it going decades before Twilight.

Even more poignant than fiction was the life of Christopher Reeve (1952-2004), one many actors – and I think the best – who played the Man of Steel.

Reeve as Superman

Reeve became a paraplegic in 1995, after a spinal injury suffered when he was thrown from a horse. For the rest of his life, he lobbied on behalf of spinal-cord injury treatment and stem-cell research. In overcoming the kind of loss that is most people’s worst nightmare, Reeve found the steel of courage in the depths of his human misfortune.

Reeve after his injury

Just like Clark Kent, in the last years of his life, Christopher Reeve lived a selfless life, dedicated to other people’s good.

The Crash Test Dummies had a similar intuition about Superman several year’s before Reeve’s accident, one both deeper and richer than what the word, “superhero” generally implies:

Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going.

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

Holy Pathology, Batman!

Batman, originally Bat-man or The Batman, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, in May, 1939, the creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Popular from the start, Batman had his own comic by 1940.

The Caped Crusader joined the screen actor’s guild in the 60’s, with a campy TV show that altered some of my speech patterns forever (Observe the title of this post, Robin).

When the show ended, so did much of Batman’s popularity. In 1969,writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams tried to return Batman to his roots as  “grim avenger of the night.”  Beginning with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, several big budget movie series have portrayed Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego in a dark and dangerous world – it’s always night in Gotham City.

Batman Begins, 2005

As if this intrepid crime fighter didn’t have enough on his plate, some are raising questions about his mental health.  And when you think about it – what’s with the addiction to danger, the cape, the muscle suit, and probably lifts in the shoes? His car says size matters, but he can’t hang onto a girlfriend. His deepest relationship is with his butler.  He’s certainly stuck in black and white thinking – people are good or bad, nowhere a shade of gray.  Maybe he hasn’t worked through all of his childhood issues. Maybe he should ask his doctor about anti-depressants.  Or viagra.  Join an online dating service and settle down as a hedge-fund manager, like a respectable member of the 1%.

But no, says psychologist, Robin Rosenberg, author of What’s the Matter with Batman?  The boy’s all right.

In a recent NPR interview, Rosenberg, who blogs about superheroes for Psychology Today, said: “Bruce Wayne is a really clever man who has both high intelligence and high EQ, emotional quotient.”

Rosenberg turns the spotlight on us, asking why we assume there is something wrong with Batman.  “People who are truly selfless, who have given so much of themselves, are confusing to most of us. And I think some of us, in cynical moments, say, ‘There must be something the matter with someone who would do that.'”

I’d modify her words to say that nowadays, we think a selfless billionaire is weird.  Nothing new about this sentiment.  In 1939, the year Batman emerged, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Change “fountain pen” to “computer” and the statement rings as true as it did 73 years ago.  The biggest difference now, as the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, comes out this Friday, is that most of us probably find it even harder to believe a super-rich man could be our friend.

In a post on the Psychology Today superhero blog, Robin Rosenberg wrote:  “The stories of superheroes and heroes resonate with us because they tap into some essential truths about human nature, about our yearnings and aspirations, our demons and dilemmas, our fears and our frustrations.”

Superheroes are archetypes.  They’ve been present in our stories for millennia – only the outfits and details change.  Heracles didn’t need to change clothes in a phone booth, because he didn’t work at The Daily Planet.

Heroes and superheroes are a secular expression of something everyone knows when they wake at the hour of the wolf – without a Higher Power, or higher powers, we’re screwed.  There’s nothing accidental about the number of superhero movies so far this year.  And some of them are a lot of fun!

Enjoy this new incarnation of The Caped Crusader!