Wednesday, April 23, 2014


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     John Shakespeare enrolled his seven-year old son William in The King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1571.Latin was the most important subject taught and many children later became scholars at Oxford University but Will wanted to grow up to be just like the traveling players who performed medieval, religious and new pastymes (plays) in Stratford’s Gild Hall and the Bridge Street innyards. Stratford had amateur mummers (actors and mimes) and two touring companies, The Queen’s Men and the Earl of Worcester’s Men who played Gild Hall. Artificial light did not exist and spectacles and dramas took place during daylight hours. Limelight, gaslight, electricity, incandescent lamps and computer light boards, had not been invented in the 16th century. 
     Portrayals of Will’s life between school and the time he arrived in London differ  Some accounts state he was apprenticed to a butcher, others think he was a schoolmaster or believe he left Stratford because he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace.  Many are convinced a theatre company passed through Stratford and invited Will to join their troupe as a minor actor and scrivener (dramatist).  
     When William Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s, he explored a vibrant and dramatic city of contrasts that stimulated his imagination. Shakespeare’s London had tall buildings and the majestic St. James Palace, the residence of kings and queens of England for over 300 years. Londoners shopped at Cheapside, a large market where country people displayed their goods, a butcher’s market in Eastcheap and a fish market on Fish Street Hill  People had to watch where they stepped in London; beggars and artful dodgers roamed; garbage, body wastes and dead animals were thrown into streets and alleyways and epidemics of plague often raged.
     The English navy scored a great victory over the Spanish Armada (an invasion fleet of about 130 ships) in the 1580s.  Francis Drake, the explorer and naval hero and Walter Raleigh, a navigator, writer and colonizer, had returned after their voyages of discovery which led to the expansion of trade in the Americas.  When Will crossed London Bridge on foot, the only crossing over the River Thames, he joined crowds of people—London had two hundred thousand inhabitants. On the bridge were houses—some over four stories high plus shops, a chapel and gatehouses on both ends. The bridge had been rebuilt many times and a nursery rhyme told its story.
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady
     Shakespeare lived in a section of London called Bishopsgate in the gloom cast by the Tower of London. When he crossed the Thames, he could see coal barges moored in front of the Tower and wherries carrying passengers. The Tower was a prison for high ranking citizens. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in the Tower, suspected of participating in an assassination plot against the Queen, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth signed her death warrant and Mary was put to death on Feb. 8, 1587. Shakespeare mentioned the Tower in many of his plays such as Richard III, Henry VIII and Henry VI Part III. There were 18 prisons around London; each held a special class of criminal. Newgate held felons, debtors and those awaiting execution. Ludgate held bankrupts and the Fleet held offenders waiting for their day in the Courts of Chancery. 
     Shakespeare worked with many theatre companies before joining James Burbage and his sons as an actor and dramatist. He soon became a charter member of a new company known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men that appeared by royal command. Shakespeare became one of the most popular playwrights of the day. 
     London’s Lord Mayors disapproved of plays believing they encouraged irreverence, and idleness; when trumpets blasted the air and flags were raised announcing a performance, workers were lured away from jobs. To avoid restrictions imposed by the authorities, theatres were built outside the walls of the city; across the Thames in Southwark, easily reached by boat or bridge and close to bear-baiting rings, prisons and cockpits.
     The Queen’s Privy Council protected the actor/managers because the Queen enjoyed being entertained. Elizabeth I wrote poetry and music and took pleasure in drama, plays at Christmas and masques—a dramatic entertainment based on mythological or allegorical themes. She appointed a Master of the Revels, who acted as a producer/director and guardian of morals, in addition to providing costumes and a hall to be used for performances. Composers worked at the Chapel Royal in St. James Palace.
     Beginning in 1598, the first Globe Theatre was raised in Southwark and the plays Henry the Fifth, and As You Like It were written for the theatre in 1599. Considered the glory of the Banke, the Globe had a central “discovery place.” Double doors, covered with finely embroidered hangings, a curtain or both allowed the actor to reach the upper level for balcony scenes. Above that was a room with machinery for special effects – cannon were fired, angels or ghosts descended and a trap door in the floor led to hell.  Wooden stage posts, painted to look like marble, supported a canopy representing heaven filled with clouds, stars, moon and the sun; the canopy also protected the actors and their costumes from the sun. 
     Groundlings (commoners) paid one English penny to stand in the open yard of the Globe, two pennies would purchase a seat on a bench in the gallery, protected from sun and rain by a thatched roof made of water reed. A cushioned seat close to the stage cost three pennies and six pennies bought the most prestigious seats of all – the Lord’s rooms – behind and above the stage. Music underscored Shakespeare’s plays – the audience entered the theatre to the faint throb of a drum then the musicians of the Globe would   begin playing trumpet, cornet, sackbut and percussion. The players filled the stage and a stave pounded the floor. The music gradually increased in volume and intensity, adding to the excitement until every onlooker felt a part of the drama as it developed.
     Commoners, known as stinkards because they rarely washed themselves or their clothes, stood in a yard covered with a mixture of hazelnut shells, cinders, ash and silt. They fought amongst themselves and critiqued the actors with rousing cheers, hisses or a missile of fruit, often an orange. A useful piece of fruit, the orange could be used protect the nose from the stench of the unwashed or eaten to stave off pangs of hunger.
     Shakespeare describes the Globe in his prologue to Henry the Fifth when the chorus asks the audience to use their imagination, Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
     When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. James valued the arts, particularly theatre and the Chamberlain’s Men. He demanded they come under his patronage and granted a royal patent. Their name changed to the King’s Men.
     Shakespeare’s company played the Globe in winter and summer. When epidemics of the plague caused the Privy Council to close the theatre, they became traveling players.    Fire destroyed the first Globe theatre in 1612. During a performance of Henry VIII, a piece of wadding fired from one of the stage cannons, landed on the thatched roof, smoldered, smoked – the audience was too engrossed in the play to notice – and burst into flame. In less than an hour, the fire consumed the Globe but the three thousand spectators managed to escape through the two exits. One patron’s pants began to burn but his companion, used his wits, and doused the flames with a bottle of ale. Quickly rebuilt, the second Globe, was built on the foundations of the first, and protected by a tiled roof.  It was said to be the fairest that ever was seen in England.
     In 1949, the Shakespeare Globe Trust was founded and the new Globe, modeled after the first, was inaugurated in 1997 with Henry the fifth. It stands today, as a living memorial to the greatest playwright of all time.



Thursday, March 27, 2014



 Artwork courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

     We feel sorrow, sympathy and fear when we read the newspapers or see photographs of the southern Indian ocean where victims of Flight 370 are said to lie. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends but we are writers and there is something inside of us that will write an ending if it is not found.

     More than 100-years ago, our parents learned of the Titanic--a 46,328-ton British liner that sunk after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York. At least 1,500 people are said to have drowned. Prominent members of society, the rich and the famous were amongst the lost.
     Books were written, films made, posters, television shows and even a Broadway musical. Writers had to write about the dramatic circumstances, the beautiful people, the tragedy. 
     In 1985, the ship was found by American and French researchers on the bottom of the ocean south of Newfoundland.
     Today, no one knows why or how Flight 370 was lost and writers will pen tragedies, fantasies, mysteries and scientific novels about the passengers, the pilots, the conflict between nations and the plane's diversion by using their imagination to construct an ending.
     Are you one of the writers?



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Thursday, March 20, 2014


Courtesy of Wikepedia

     This morning as I sipped my coffee and listened to WQXR, our city’s public radio station for classical music, Jeff Spurgeon—the knowledgeable and delightful morning host of the program—was about to play one of George Gershwin’s most famous songs I Got Rhythm. Spurgeon mentioned that Gershwin was inspired by a musician he heard warming up by practicing several notes on his trumpet.
     Seeds of future writings often take root in authors, when we become fascinated by bits of dialogue overheard in a restaurant, shop or train, the look on a person’s face, a memory of something that happened to ourselves, a friend, relative or acquaintance, a walk on the hard concrete of the city’s streets or a landscape that in our mind defines a foreign country. Weeks, months, years later the bits and lines we jot down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper and throw in a drawer—our warm-up—becomes  a cast of characters—people with needs, desires, opportunities and thwarted hopes. The landscape may be the backdrop or part of the action. We begin a short story, a play or a novel with the scraps that have grown, been transformed, and conjured into something new, something different, a tale we want and need to tell. 
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Thursday, March 13, 2014



 Photo by Qtrix
     I have unfinished stories rattling around in my brain. bits of information stored in files on my computer, jotted on pieces of paper--sometimes a line, sometimes a title, once in awhile an entire paragraph or page.
     The story is waiting for the heroine or the hero. Perhaps I have to decide on the villain. Often I have met the characters but the plot is fuzzy. Then one day--often when I least expect it--the story jells and I can sit down at the computer and begin. When I reach the end, I go back to the beginning and as Oscar Hammerstein wrote, "A very good place to start."
     My characters often change my mind about things. The villain declares he is not really evil and the heroine says she is definitely not  a namby-pamby while a secondary character tries to get into the act. It's time to rewrite and then go back again and again. Read the story aloud and decide if it's good to go.

     How about you? Is your brain rattling with unfinished stories waiting to escape?


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Friday, January 31, 2014


 Photo courtesy of Anne Lowe
      In the heart of New York City’s Chinatown—the largest Chinatown in the USA, streets bustle with restaurants and chop suey joints, vegetable markets sell snow peas and ginger, exotic pears, lichee nuts and comquats and busy fish stalls offer seafood so bright and fresh and shiny you can smell the sea’s brine. Chinese New Year will be celebrated in the streets and its celebrated dining places on January 31.
     Here, at 215 Centre Street, Museum of Chinese in America presents a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the Chinese people and their thorny relationship with America.
     Through artifacts, collections of memoirs, photographs, videos and exhibitions of art, visitors and students may study and research the events and chronicles of the Chinese in the Western Hemisphere.
     An introductory video disc transports us back in time to the 1600’s before Chinatown was Chinatown and the region was home to Native Americans who traded with the Dutch at Werpoes Hill and Center Street; by 1626, the Dutch had purchased Manhattan Island and small farms dotted the area. Tanneries used the standing water in nearby swamps and provided employment and pollution around the area that is Worth, Centre and Mulberry Street in the late 18th century and butcher shops occupied Mott, Pell and Bayard Street.  The neighborhood was crowded, filled with the stench of the slaughterhouses and the poverty of the poor. Free blacks and escaped slaves moved into the area in the 1830’s, labored in the tanneries and were active in the abolition movement. Then Irish and German immigrants arrived in America in the 1850’s, crowding tenements and Italians and East European Jews followed them. Today, the area is becoming though visitors may tour the past in the Tenement Museum at 970 Orchard Street, the St. Paul Chapel dating from 1766, that miraculously survived September 11, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue built in 1887. Though Chinese traders and sailors brought tea and silk to our ports in the early 1830’s, permanent Chinese residents in the neighborhood in the 1850’s only numbered about 150.
      Displays of artifacts and memoirs illustrating the dispersion of the Chinese to the Western Hemisphere mesmerize. The Chinese immigrated from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, fleeing a deteriorating economy, floods, food shortages, government corruption and violence. Called Collies or “Bitter Strength,” in Chinese, they came to find their Gold Mountain. Many arrived in San Francisco in 1849—thousands of others traveled to Peru, Trinidad, California, Montana and Oregon seeking a new life in a new world. They labored in gold mines and later ten thousand men were recruited to build the first transcontinental railway while others washed, ironed, served food and harvested crops. The immigrants found lives of harsh manual labor and prejudice based on race.
     When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined tracks at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad transformed the West—no longer needed by the railroads the immigrants were used as replacement labor in a depressed economy.  Mob violence and discriminatory laws followed and many Chinese fled to larger cities; their ghettoized neighborhoods becoming known as Chinatowns. By the 1880’s, the number of Chinese in New York was close to one thousand—the foundation of the largest Chinatown in America. 
     The United States reacted to the hostility toward the Chinese by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prohibited laborers from entering the United States.  Merchants were exempt under Section Six of the act.
     A current exhibition features The Lee Family of New York Chinatown Since 1888. Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. outlines the growth of a small foreign exchange company, founded in 1888, to it’s success today as a national insurance agency. This year is the agency’s 125th anniversary.
     The Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943 and China, our war-time ally, given a small immigration quota. In 1968, the quota was increased, the population grew and today, Chinese citizens are prominent in the arts, science, technology, medicine and politics.
     Amongst the highlights in past exhibits were Chinese American Designers such as Vera Wang, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam and Shanghai Glamour between 1910 and the 1940s. Shanghai was a modern city by the 1920s with its fashion known worldwide.
     Currently on display is a more serious presentation  Life in Chinatown On and After September 11.  The display communicates the experience of Asian New Yorkers during and after the World Trade Center attacks through documents, images and artwork and is dedicated to those that lost their lives.
      Chinese American art historians and students founded the museum in 1980, as the New York Chinatown History Project, to show the “Chinese experience as part of the larger history of America” MocCA’s mission is “to reclaim, preserve, and broaden understanding about the diverse history of the Chinese people in the Americas.”
Happy Chinese New Year

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Saturday, January 18, 2014


     When I was in my teens, I studied Shakespeare with a teacher who read Hamlet to us, relished the monologue and as she read the words pronounced them “trippingly on her tongue.” This probably encouraged my love of words.
     Words and how they’re used may shape, enlighten, or defame. Influence elections. Judge human frailties.  Prod, push and urge fanaticism. Cause one nation to fight another. Incite murder. Words are debated, memorized, and changed as they pass from one generation to the next. Whispered, sung, and shouted. Sighed over and repeated when chosen to encourage love or lust. Thought about and constantly rewritten when used in fables, stories, plays, histories and religious texts.

     The Torah: The Five Books of Moses that Christians call The Old Testament is studied by Jews and Christians today. The New Testament is read by the faithful in many interpretations throughout the world—the King James Bible, from the year1611, one of the most popular. The Koran, the sacred text of Islam is believed to contain the revelations made by Allah to Mohammed.
     Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species explained the evolutionary process. Controversy followed and is still debated because it disagreed with the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
      Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism and Communism have many roots: The Republic written in 380 BC by Plato, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx brought about changes in government in many parts of the world. The words in these documents all reverberate in our day.
     Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives bringing attention to the poor in the United States. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir changed the lives of women. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Harriet A. Jacobs under a pseudonym and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass focused on the lives of enslaved African Americans and led to the unforgettable words of Martin Luther King. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair—a novelist and social reformer—exposed the horrors of the Chicago meat packing industries and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerted the public to the dangers of environmental pollution.
     Shakespeare’s plays influenced our view of history and are still selling tickets today. (Personal note: When I saw Henry the Fifth at the Globe Theatre in London, I found myself enthusiastically cheering for the English before the realization struck—I was an American and should have been cheering for the French who helped during our revolution.)
     Examine the ancient history of enemy warfare and learn about the first documented manuscript, titled The Art of War, written in 400 BC, by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher who advised the use of deception as an instrument of conflict. The book includes a chapter on counter-intelligence. “All war,” Sun Tzu wrote, “is based on deception.” Sound familiar?
     In the play Amadeus, the author Peter Shaffer, accuses Antonio Salieri, a court musician—who taught Beethoven Liszt and Schubert—of jealousy leading to the murder of Mozart. Didn’t happen but the power of Shaffer’s words persuaded many in the audience. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a play about a priest who is suspected by a nun of molesting a child led to discussion by playgoers that sometimes lasted for days. Did he or didn’t he? The argument goes on.
     By the end of a narrative—document, biography, history, fiction—no matter the genre, a connection between the writer and reader will encourage conversations with others about motivations, the truth of what has been written, and what the story means to them—each takes something different away from the page. We may not write a book that will last through the ages, we may not become a 21st century Jane Austin or Charles Dickens but we can write books that will bring enjoyment, discovery, escape and the hunger for another manuscript.


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