Monday, February 16, 2009

Assassination Vacation

Kevin Coolidge

The ballot is stronger than the bullet—Abraham Lincoln

Ahem, please allow me to state for the record, and for the Homeland Security agent assigned to read my column this week (can you double check my spelling and punctuation?) that though I am often obsessed with death, I am quite against it, especially my own. Like Lincoln, I want to believe that the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Of course, he did say that before that fatal night on April 14th, 1865. It takes an inflated ego to be a president, or a presidential assassin for that matter. Can any one man really make a difference? Can one man fix our poverty, our potholes and our public schools? Should one narcissistic man with a handgun decide any different? Just who do you think they are?

One woman passionate about death, US history and road trips dares to ask such questions. Meet Sarah Vowell, author of Assassination Vacation, published by Simon & Schuster. In this wacky travelogue, Sarah drags readers on a pilgrimage exploring the places associated with three presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Along the way, we get to visit such places as old cemeteries, plaques, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where fragments of Lincoln's skull are on display, and more obscure places such as the Mutter Museum which has specimens of John Wilkes Booth's thorax and Charles Guiteau's (Garfield's assassin) brain--relics of a past age, treasured, close to divine, and crucial in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of the macabre.

What can we learn from an examination of these three president assassinations? The more things change, the more they remain the same. Lincoln was a controversial politician blamed for the hardships of war and was hated by many. Booth thought he’d be a hero. Instead, he created a martyr.

Vowell draws interesting parallels between McKinley’s preemptive war against Cuba and the Philippines and the current war in Iraq (I guess God to McKinley to “annex” the Philippines), and to gain better understanding of Charles Guiteau, she takes us to the Oneida Community in upstate New York, a religious commune that preached a combination of free love and the second coming, He was the one guy in a free love commune who could not get lucky. No wonder he was regarded as insane by his own father. His father lacked the funds to seek proper treatment from mental health professionals. It could have allowed Garfield more time to devote to rearranging his library and enjoying German poetry. He loved Faust.

Don’t forget the “presidential angel of death”, Robert Todd Lincoln who was present when his father died, witnessed the shooting of President Garfield, and upon arriving in Buffalo in 1901, learned that President William McKinley had been assassinated minutes before his arrival. Robert Todd Lincoln also was ironically yanked to safety by Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ brother, when he fell off a train platform onto railroad tracks.
Assassination Vacation is the most entertaining book on presidential assassination I’ve read, an engaging ramble through the first three presidential murders. Vowell mixes history, personal experience and social commentary that brings new life to dry, dusty back roads of American history. Now on with the road trip, I call shotgun…

The ballot? Or the bullet? Email me at Miss a past column? Exercise your right to read. Visit the archive at Hobo wishes malice towards none, not even that plotting squirrel on the back porch. Be sure to read his children’s book “Hobo Finds A Home” Having a food dish didn’t make Hobo a diner, until he ate what was in that bowl…

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Finding our common roots deep in the vein, or A-coalin'

Kasey Cox

What do you get when you cross a German, a Pole, and a Czech? In many cases, you get a Pennsylvanian. If you’ve lived a good portion of your life in Pennsylvania, then names with lots of consonants back-to-back, or names ending in “-ski” have been part of your every day experience, or more likely, your family tree. My years in Pennsylvania have been peppered with teachers named Korenkiewicz, directors named Kolvalcik, colleagues named Gluszczak, and friends named Salitrynski. In some areas, people grow up with chile rellenos or cannollis, but in Scranton, or Blossburg, we’re more familiar with pierogi and rugelach.

Before I get too over my head into Polish jokes, I’d like to defer to Brian Ardan’s expertise. Ardan’s recent book, “The Anthracite Coal Region’s Slavic Community”, yet another great title from wonderful Arcadia Publishing, details Pennsylvania’s rich history of coal mines and close-knit communities. His introduction alone is a masterpiece, obviously condensing and summarizing decades worth of research. Ardan has a master’s degree in Slavic studies, as well as a master’s degree in Library Science, and is a faculty member in the Stevenson Library at Lock Haven University.

Another strength of Mr. Ardan’s introduction is the care he takes to clearly define what he means by “Slavic People”, listing the areas they come from and the ethnic/national groups from which they are descended. Ardan divides the Slavic people into three main groups, covering as far east as “Russia”, as far south as Macedonia, and as far west as the now-dissolved Czechoslovakia. The Slavic people of Pennsylvania, however, were mostly Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, or Slovak. Brian Ardan explains this focus with concise and lucid language, so that I feel in good hands and solid ground as I start to read his book.

After the must-read introduction, I find the book organized into helpful sections, including chapters on the Old World; scenes from life of the newly-arrived; later organizations of church, ethnic, and civil groups; and work life in the mines. In keeping with Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series, most of the book is a collection of fascinating black & white photos, with detailed captions, giving the reader a true sense of “a slice of life” at this time and place.

I have only one criticism of Mr. Ardan’s otherwise-excellent history: he is so careful to introduce the reader to both “Slavic people” in Pennsylvania and to the exact goal of his book, and yet there is no specific definition of “anthracite coal region”, nor any list of which counties of Pennsylvania this includes. I guess I should know where the anthracite coal was and is found in Pennsylvania, but upon first perusal of this book, I was confused as to why I found no mention of Blossburg, or Landrus, or coal towns in western PA. I had to satisfy my curiosity about the different coal mining regions in Pennsylvania by doing a bit more online research. Adding one or two sentences clarifying which parts of Pennsylvania would be highlighted is a simple way to educate the reader and edify the introduction.

Thus, my only criticism of “The Anthracite Region’s Slavic Community” issues a challenge to writers and historians of our area: Arcadia Publishing awaits you! A curious, willing, ready-made audience of people wants to hear more about the history of Tioga, Potter, Sullivan, and Bradford counties, and the Twin Tiers of northern PA and southern New York. I’d love to help you make a serious proposal to Arcadia about history that is just a little closer to home. In the meantime, I think Mr. Ardan’s book will transport your favorite history buff back in time, and get your mental wheels turning.

Hobo says the canaries are free to go down into those mines: he doesn’t like to hunt birds, and he’d rather read about mining than go a-coalin’. He thinks he’d like to be invited to the next Blossburg Coal Festival: bring on the Polka and the pierogi! Check out his recipe for a good book and a poppy seed pastry at

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hobo's Book Club: Hobo, on "Bad Dogs"

Kasey Cox

I promised you – my loyal fans, readers, and admirers – that I would declare a “Hobo’s Book Club” selection each month. Kasey reminded me that it’s been more than a month since I wrote about “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World”. I guess it’s not enough that I work two or three days a month at the bookstore. A cat’s life is hard, but a famous cat’s life is even harder. Though I love you all (even the littlest ones who swoop down on me, shrieking, when I visit the store!), I’d rather sleep on the couch or spy on the neighbors than work.

It is in this spirit that I chose the second book for my club: “Bad Dogs Have More Fun: Selected Writings on Family, Animals, and Life, from The Philadelphia Inquirer”. This is a cross-section of some of the columns that John Grogan wrote for the Philly newspaper from 2003 to 2006. During this time, Grogan was working on his best-selling book, “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog”, which was first published in October 2005, and has gone on to sell an obscene amount of hardcovers, various sizes of paperbacks, children’s book spinoffs, and movie tickets. Go, Marley! Never underestimate the power and appeal of pets, I say! May some of your success rub off on me. (Just for the record, Marley is exactly the kind of dog I like – cute on paper, and on screen. Not live, at my house. Sorry, pups, but I’m a pen-pal kind of friend to the likes of you.)

What I like about “Bad Dogs Have More Fun”: (1) The title. For reasons previously stated above, as well as my general admiration for clever titles. (2) Many people have published this kind of book – a collection of essays, or a selection of columns they’ve written for a newspaper – but many of those newspaper columnists should have stayed with writing columns. John Grogan can write. He’s funny, and thoughtful, by turns sentimental or sarcastic or philosophical. He has great range. (3) This is the perfect kind of book to pick up when you don’t have a lot of time for un-interrupted reading, or if your attention span is short (nothing wrong with that: I’m distracted by important stuff, like naps, or cars going by outside!). This is a “Chicken Soup” kind of book, with a little more grit, more substance, less fluff, but still a lot of “feel-good” stories. Gift this to someone in the hospital, or nursing home, or leave a copy in the waiting home at the office. Put one on your bedside table, or in the wicker basket of magazines next to the toilet.

What I don’t like about “Bad Dogs”: (1) The fine print. John Grogan is not making any money on this book. “Oh, well,” you may say, “he’s already made a mint on ‘Marley’ stuff.” While this is true, it still doesn’t sit well with me. In the tiniest font possible, at the very bottom of the back cover, this is what it says, verbatim: “The articles in this book were originally written by John Grogan and published as columns by The Philadelphia Inquirer, which owns the rights to them. This book is being published through an arrangement with The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Grogan has not participated in its publication and is not profiting from it.” Nevertheless, you better believe John Grogan’s name is splattered all over the front cover, to get you to buy the book. I understand that newspapers are feeling the pinch as production costs rise and readership drops. I still don’t like it. I’ll have you know that the Wellsboro Gazette lets me keep the rights to my articles, and publish them on my blog. Joe Parry, who wrote an outdoor column for the Gazette for years, as well as for Pennsylvania Game News, was allowed to keep the rights to his stories, and was able to publish a book which he benefits from. Kudos, Gazette.

(2) This collection has pieces which work for the time and place they were written about, and for, but don’t have the universal appeal that a reader is looking for in a collection like this. That’s what comes from putting newspaper columns into a book. I prefer a collection like this to run a little smoother and broader, like Robert Fulghum’s writing. Except, maybe, instead of “All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, you should try learning a few things from your cat.

Why not learn a few things from Hobo? Check out his past lessons at his blog, (Don’t put in the “www” prefix we’re all so used to.) Hobo hopes to be a star on the silver screen, but it might take away from his busy schedule or his book club time, so he’s not sure. Send your suggestions for the next Hobo Book Club selection to

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fire, Fire, Put Pants on that Liar!

Kevin Coolidge

“A Man spends many sleepless nights on the riverbank trying to understand women and many sleepless nights in bed trying to understand carp.”

The mighty Thor had Mjolner, King Arthur had Excalibur, and Wyatt Earp had his Buntline Special. Natural born storyteller Paul Lepp has the Monster Stick. The Monster Stick, a remarkable fishing pole of mythical proportions, is Paul’s nine-foot, surf-casting rod full of six miles of brand new, 50-pound test Stren Carp cord with 20 pound, custom made, stainless steel, slip-sliding sinkers. The Monster Stick, born of magic, baptized in the rivers of West Virginia, and able snag DC-10’s or lunker-sized catfish.

Meet Paul and Bil Lepp, natural born storytellers and two repeat winners of the West Virginia State Liars’ Contest. There’s Bil’s dog, Buck, a thirty-seven inch irony, whose mother was a German Sheppard, and whose father was a prolific and extremely determined Basset hound. Buck can pull you through a knothole, and hold his own against a monster truck, but is a gun-shy hunting dog who can’t track a bunny rabbit in a shoebox. Between the Monster Stick, and Buck, you get an original bunch of hilarious short stories and tall tales that you’ll want to share with everyone from your poker buddies to your preacher.

The West Virginia State Liars’ Contest is held every year on Memorial Day weekend. The contest is only open to West Virginia residents. The “lies” should be short stories (humorous, dramatic, supernatural, etc.) with a maximum length of 3 to 5 minutes. The winner receives a golden shovel. You can imagine why. Paul Lepp won six “Biggest Liar” titles before his death in 1998, and his brother Bil Lepp has taken first place five times since he first entered in 1990, proving that lightning – or at least lying – does sometimes strike twice.

Bil Lep, a former Methodist preacher, has published a collection of stories with his brother called The Monster Stick & Other Appalachian Tall Tales. Generally, the fishing stories are Paul’s and the dog tales Bil’s. These twenty three tales have lots to offer on women and carp, more than a little on dogs, trains and cars, a considerable amount on hunting, and more politics than shows on the surface. There’s plenty to keep a thinking man laughing and awake at night.

In his follow-up, Inept: Impaired: Overwhelmed -- Tall Tales from West Virginia and Beyond, Bil Lepp spins more tales of his super-dog Buck, introduces us to his best friend, Skeeter Barth, and keeps a smile on your face with stories about catfish-grabblin’, summer camp, moose-trappin’, and that misunderstood mishap with the FBI. In these books, imagination is the ammunition, and Paul and Bil Lepp have more than most…