Thursday, December 30, 2010

“You say ‘to-may-to’ and I say ‘to-mah-to’”

The palatial Loew’s Kings theater on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn was where I spent many Saturday afternoons as a child. With its majestic wide central staircase covered in red carpet it was simple to imagine being a princess descending to enter the ball.

In later years, the theater suffered hard times. It’s now been closed for thirty years. But many are full of hope that the opulent movie palace will be restored. There is a wonderful video on YouTube which gives you the story of this large wonderful theater. Whether you’re from Brooklyn (or wish you were!) or if you are a history or theater buff, you’ll understand why the Loew’s Kings holds such a special place in many hearts.

Whenever I happened to mention my childhood days - probably too frequently for my three children - I pronounced the name of the theater as I always had: “Lo-eez” Kings. My daughter Trish would correct me and say it was pronounced “Lows.” The discussion continues to this day, despite my having pointed out that during interviews with both Larry King and Barbra Streisand (both true Brooklynites) they pronounced it my way. Then, two years ago, my son John gave me a cookbook called Junior’s, Remembering Brooklyn with Recipes and Memories from Its Favorite Restaurant.

I love the cookbook more for the vivid memories and photographs of Brooklyn through the years than for its famous cheesecake recipe, and that’s saying something. But the authors also point out that the Loews theaters in Brooklyn were pronounced “Lo-eez.”

In the YouTube video, you’ll notice that the commentators pronounce Loew’s in one syllable. Except for Brooklyn’s Borough President. It’s got to be a generation thing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thor Day

I had just decided to write something every week that focused on aspects of our language when I came across a four-letter clue in a crossword puzzle. It asked for the origin of “Thursday.” The answer? Thor, the Norse god of thunder. In the Norse language this day is called Torsdag. Perfect, I thought, since I’d chosen Thursday as the day in which I’d write about words and books.

Which brings me to the word “blog.” Although it is often called a contraction of “web log,” the word “blog” is actually a portmanteau. That is a word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings. For example, “smog” is a blend of “smoke” and “fog;” “infomercial” combines “information” and “commercial,” and “brunch,” well you get the idea.

Until a few years ago, I thought a portmanteau was a valise. (Does anyone use that word anymore?) Whenever I came across the word in an old English novel, I pictured an English gentleman carrying his portmanteau aboard a London train. I’ve since learned that this definition still stands, but the newer definition of blending two words is more popular now.

You can see how a large leather suitcase, or a portmanteau, that opens into two hinged compartments evolved into the merging of two words to make one, a portmanteau.

I think it would be interesting to see how many other portmanteaus we can come up with.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's List Time

Every year at this time, readers look forward to book reviewers’ lists to see which books deserve to be called the best books of the year. I’ve made my list, too. But it’s not of the best books published this year, but my five favorite books out of the 26 that I’ve read in 2010.

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, first published in England in 1908, tells the story of sisters Constance and Sophia, the choices they make, and how their different experiences and environments shape their lives. I loved this book when I first read it just after graduating from college and decided to see if it had the same impact fifty years later. The sisters, as well as the other characters, are well drawn and provide a fascinating read.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is a charming novella published in 2007. It supposes that Queen Elizabeth encounters a bookmobile outside Buckingham Palace and discovers the world of books. It’s delightful and entertaining and speaks to the possibility of change regardless of age or circumstance.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, published in 1993, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book tells the poignant story of  Daisy Goodwill from the moment of her birth in Manitoba in 1905. She lives an unremarkable life, carved by the circumstances and emotions encountered as a motherless child, in a loveless marriage, and in the ordinary daily life of wife and mother. My sister recommended this book to me years ago, but I put it aside, thinking that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong I was.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published in 1960 and is a classic of American literature. I had read it when it first came out but now, fifty years later, I found it again a simply elegant, heart-wrenching, and beautiful story.

The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larrson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010) are literary thrillers and publishing sensations throughout the world. Using his background as an investigative reporter, Larrson has plotted three fascinating books that are tied together by his main character Lisabeth Salander, a computer hacker whose personality and style keep the tension flowing.

What are the best books you've read recently?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace of the Hermitage
It is not surprising to me that some travel groups shun Moscow and head directly to St. Petersburg. This former capital is as different from the current capital as a peasant is from a prince. Founded by the czar Peter the Great on the northern banks of the Neva River in 1703, it is today Russia’s cultural capital.

To reach St. Petersburg, we boarded the ultra modern train at the Moscow railroad station for the five-hour ride. As the train sped along, we passed forests and groves of birch trees, small hovels, and occasionally saw a babushka carrying her tote along the muddy unpaved roads toward home. The train made a few stops at rundown stations.

Stanlislav, our St. Petersburg guide, met us at the station and drove us to the modern Park Inn Hotel that overlooks the Bay of Finland. For the next few days we visited all the major attractions within the city, driving over dozens of islands with their hundreds of bridges. No wonder St. Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North.

The most well-known of St. Petersburg’s attractions is Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage,  one of the most famous museums in the world. Because of its immensity, it is impossible to see it all in one visit.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. Everywhere you look, it seems, are former palaces once owned by of Russia’s wealthiest citizens. As we descended our tour bus to enter the grounds of Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace on the outskirts of the city, our group of Irish men and women (plus me) was serenaded by a group of musicians who -obviously tipped off - played the Irish National Anthem.

Catherine the Great’s summer palace is just what you’d imagine a palace to be, with all the gold and artifacts and residue of its former resident. The wood floors in each of the rooms differ in design from each other. To keep them beautiful, visitors must don paper slippers to wear throughout the tour.

The St. Petersburg tour allowed a lot of free time to wander along Nevsky Prospekt,  the most famous street in all of Russia. The shops, hotels, churches and historic buildings draw crowds similar to those on New York’s Fifth Avenue: stylishly dressed women wearing the latest fashions, especially beautiful boots. The Nevsky Prospekt website offers views of its buildings and their histories.

The name alone, St. Petersburg, tells you something about the history of the country itself. In 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, it was changed because it was thought too “German sounding.” It then became Petrograd and was known as the “Cradle of the Russian Revolution.” Then, after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, the city’s name was changed to Leningrad. To many, the name recalls the German invasion in 1941 which was called the Siege of Leningrad. Leningrad became St. Petersburg again 67 years later when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

There’s so much to be said for and about St. Petersburg. Anyone considering a visit will find it immensely helpful to get a good guide book.

I’ve been fortunate to visit practically all of the places on my “to-see” list and although Russia had never made an appearance on the list, I am glad I had the opportunity to see two of its most historic cities.