A few weeks ago I sought the web page for the NY Public Library, checking to see about opening hours for this magnificent building. What greeted me was a display of various books that had been banned or censored over the years, most of which were well known to me as an avid reader. What I didn’t know was that the last week in September is Banned Books Week, “Celebrating the Freedom to Read.” I wondered whether the freedom to read coexists with the freedom to write?

The Puritans, of course, were masters of telling folks what they could and could not read and write. The first known banned book in America was Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan published in 1637. It encouraged readers to love Native Americans and satirized the Puritans. In the eighteenth century, while America still strained under the yoke of Britain, Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana: the Fortunate Mistress, as well as the perhaps more infamous Fanny_Hill_1910_coverFanny Hill by John Cleland, met the censor’s ax. Fanny Hill bears the dubious distinction of being the last book to be banned throughout the USA. While the dime novels of the nineteenth century may have caused an outrage or two, increased literacy, and hence literary output, seems to have led to an accepted form of censorship. Expurgation and the accompanying bowdlerization of numerous books was acknowledged as protecting public virtue and decency. Even Shakespeare did not elude cuts. Perhaps the most famous of nineteenth century banned books is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Still coming in at number fourteen in 2009, Huck Finn has been repeatedly challenged from all sides of the spectrum. 550px-Huckleberry_Finn_bookOriginally banned as immoral and sacrilegious, not to mention having a lack of respect for adult authority, as time has passed, the baton was dispatched to others, so to speak. In the 1950s, the NAACP began challenging the book as racist because of its portrayal of the slave Jim and the repeated use of racially pejorative terms, namely the N—– word—a conflict that has repeatedly harassed To Kill A Mockingbird as well. During his lifetime, Twain aka Samuel Clemens, simply saw the controversies surrounding his book as excellent fodder for promotion. He knew publicity when he saw it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is occasionally credited with having started the Civil War but, although it may have been difficult to purchase in southern states, it was never officially banned. I’m sure Congress might have liked to ban Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor as well as Ramona, both of which deal with the treatment of Native Americans, especially by the federal government, but that didn’t happen either.

However, in the twentieth century, guardians of public morality became rife. Almost everything Theodore Dreiser wrote was either challenged or banned: Sister Carrie, Genius, and An American Tragedy were all held in check by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, The Western Society for the Prevention of Vice, and the Boston District Attorney. But it was James Joyce’s

James Joyce

James Joyce

Ulysses, considered by many one of the great masterpieces of modern literature, that really brought up a host of questions as to what is acceptable as freedom of speech and what is not: what has literary merit and what is pornographic? It is a question that bears heavily on free speech, under the jurisdiction of individual states, the federal government only being able to intervene when items are passed between states. The federal government passed an obscenity law in 1873 when the Supreme Court decided that pornography/obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment, yet this still leaves the question open as to what is obscene. The toing and froing over Ulysses took some fifteen years internationally to finally be settled in a NY court of law when it was decided that Joyce’s purpose, despite several sexually explicit scenes, was not pornographic. I can only wonder if E.L. James can truly stand up to such a test. Oh, but I forget: today we have ‘erotic’ literature…

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfViceThe other famous court case of the twentieth century was, of course, Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I can well remember the girlish giggles accompanying “discussion” of who had a copy of the book and where we might gather to read passages away from the prying eyes of teachers and parents. Chatterly and Tropic of Cancer, of course. Chatterly had been banned for both its coarse language and explicit scenes of a sexual nature, but in 1959 the ban of this, along with Fanny Hill and Tropic of Cancer, was overturned when the court found it had literary merit. As an aside, let me say that the case was then taken up in the UK the following year, where the judge asked the famous question, “would you want your wife and servants to read this book?” After three hours of deliberation in Her Majesty’s Court, the answer was, “yes.”

Nowadays, the predominant challenge to books is that they are unsuitable for their age group, having too much violence, too much sex for their age group, containing controversial issues, offensive language, promoting homosexuality, containing drugs/alcohol/smoking/gambling, being socially offensive, containing nudity, and just about any other ‘vice’ you can think of. Heading the list this year was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, which work contains “cultural insensitivity” and “depictions of bullying.” The 2009 list, which is the last year for which I can find a full top 100, contains some titles with which most of us are familiar: the Harry Potter series, Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Snow Falling on Cedars, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Kite Runner and, yes, Huck Finn is still there. Yet looking at the current list, most of the challenges are by parents who deem certain books as not appropriate for the age for which they were intended. And Tango Makes Three, a true story about same-sex penguins who were given an egg to raise after building a nest together and trying to raise a ‘rock’, has been challenged numerous times as promoting homosexuality. I wonder if the author ever thought twice about not writing this incredible story?

So I go back to my original question: is freedom of speech, and the freedom to read, the same as the freedom to write? With laws defining “hate crimes” as well as obscenity/pornography, are authors free to write as they wish? Are we bound by decency? If we write historical novels, do we think twice about using the N—– word or other racial slurs common to the time period we are depicting? Do we dampen down our scenes of an intimate nature or avoid them altogether simply because we are afraid of parental/friend/spouse/church condemnation? And while my magnificent NY Public Library most likely does not wish to purchase my western historical romances on grounds that they are irrelevant for their reading audiences, how does this decision not to purchase equate with banning books via not purchasing them for the libraries.

Let me know what you think.


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When I was in school, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail was on my reading list. At the age of thirteen, the formal writing and the lengthy, detailed descriptions of a time, scenery and people who did not in the least interest me, turned me towards another choice of book. So here I am, some fifty years later, with other interests, more tolerance, and certainly a more receptive mind.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman was born into an aristocratic Boston family, son of a well-connected and wealthy Unitarian minister. Plagued by illness most of his childhood, he was often sent into the countryside in an attempt to make him more robust. This, combined with his own enjoyment of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, seems to have had a lasting effect on the young man whose walks in the woods always entailed carrying a rifle, just as his hero, Hawkeye, did. Continue reading


IMG_1890One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, FullSizeRender-18Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. Continue reading


IMG_0423The judges have decided—the votes are in! Having traveled more than 8,000 miles and scoured the country for the very best, here are the 2015 DOWNING ROADTRIP AWARDS…in order of encounter. Continue reading


FullSizeRenderIt’s been a long last day, Cristal doing all the final driving from Rhinebeck into NYC, dropping things at her apartment, at my apartment, and then out to my house. She’s dealt with double parking, cutting in, blocking in, speeding and reckless driving on top of all the other traffic woes. But here we are, safe and sound, at home in East Hampton. Our groceries have, happily, been delivered—a perk of living out here—and the first load of wash is in. My own suitcase is still half-unpacked and I haven’t touched the two months of mail waiting for me; the garden is distinctly overgrown, and there were 59 messages of varying importance on the answering machine. But here we are, seven weeks later, having had the experience of our lives and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.IMG_2450

We have a list of some twenty-five awards we’d like to share with you in a day or two, but for now I am signing off. There is no deeply felt summation here; I fear I would get sentimental in the extreme if I tried to do so. But what I would like to say here is that America is every bit as varied and diverse in both its population and its landscape as I hoped it would it be. We are so incredibly lucky in this wide ranging variety, it is impossible to compare our country with anywhere else. Cristal and I both had a fantastic time—there is no other IMG_2452expression to round it off—and we both would do it again.

Stay tuned for the Award Ceremony, but for now, thank you for coming along—we’ve enjoyed your company.


Springwood, Hyde Park

Springwood, Hyde Park

The sitting room at Springwood

The sitting room at Springwood

My daughter’s take on visiting ‘Springwood,’ the Hyde Park home of Franklin Roosevelt, was that visiting the homes of famous people was like reading People magazine; her point was that the way people lived is no reflection of the impact they had on the world. Good point, but I dragged her along anyway.

For anyone who has seen the recent Ken Burns

FDR's bedroom

FDR’s bedroom

series on the Roosevelts, actually visiting the house is an insightful supplement. Here is the story of the financial hold his mother had on him and Eleanor, and here is the story of his tremendous fight to hide his incapacity to walk while showing a great capacity to think and live normally.

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President--it just says, "Attaboy."

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President–it just says, “Attaboy.”

The Presidential Library—the nation’s first, and started while he was still in office—is a comprehensive showcase of the Depression, a sad chronicle of the nation at its lowest point. In addition, the estate also includes Top House, FDR’s getaway, and Val-Kill, the cottage Eleanor designed and furnished independently of her mother-in-law’s influence and her husband’s harried life.

Eleanor's sitting room at Val-Kill

Eleanor’s sitting room at Val-Kill

The visit was a splendid last day of sightseeing for us before we head home tomorrow. And how did Cristal feel at the end of it? She said she was glad she went because now she would like to know more about the Roosevelts and what they accomplished.

The view from Springwood

The view from Springwood

FDR's grave in the rose garden

FDR’s grave in the rose garden


FullSizeRenderIn the last days of travel as lengthy as this has been, the mind slowly turns toward what awaits at home. For Cristal, who had only been back from three years living in Colombia (less some visits home) for one week before departure, there are applications for a new full-time job to get out, a renovated apartment to move into, and the arrival of her boyfriend to look forward to. My own mind is swimming around two months of mail and bills to deal with, bathrooms that will be modernized, doctor appointments and the start of a new book. As Cristal deals with numerous deliveries and unpacking belongings sent from Bogota, I’ll be considering the cheapest way to update my house, and making plans to escape once again in October—to a conference and on to Wyoming. It’ll be a busy August, no doubt.

IMG_2408For today, we made a start on sorting what needs to be dropped in the city and what will be taken on to my house, and how to place everything in the car for the speediest evacuation of luggage on city streets without parking spaces. We wonder why we have so many breakable goods in tow and why the suitcases don’t close. We’re thinking ahead to lunch in the car and fighting traffic on the Thruway.

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

But today also offered us a small glimpse into old America. Settled by the Dutch, in 1686, as much of the Hudson Valley was, Rhinebeck also played a part in the Revolutionary War. The oldest inn in America is here and, even today, there is a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. But it is to the old Dutch families that the area mostly owes its character. On our last stay, a couple of years ago, we visited one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Tomorrow we’re off to see the Roosevelt homes.IMG_2417


There we were, taking the long way—the scenic route—down from Canandaigua to Rhinebeck, tooling along pleasantly through the glorious Catskill Mountains, when a speeding car whizzed past us practically slamming into another vehicle, who just managed to slip into the right hand lane directly in front of us. Had the speeding vehicle hit the other car, it would surely have spun around in front of us including us in the crash. Cristal and I were both shaken by the incident, but remain in fine fettle. What the occupants of the nearly-missed car were like, I dread to think.

IMG_1031The Catskills, after the Rockies and the Tetons, are mere hills, but green ones at that, thick with trees, bisected with rivers, dotted with old towns. We took a detour to visit an old hotel at which I had had several vacations as a child. It has just undergone a name change along with its twenty million dollar makeover, but looked pretty much the same. It strikes me now as something from another time, another era, and it wouldn’t appeal to me to stay there now. Its sister hotel, on the other hand, right next door, is in gloomy decadence, rather like an old southern mansion that has been left to decay.IMG_1035

So here we are in our last home away from home, a small chalet-type house in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley. Compared to other houses we’ve rented over the past weeks, and homes we’ve stayed in as B and Bs, it somewhat misses the mark. We found the beds unmade, a single toilet roll at 2/3 use, which we’ll have to replace, air con only in the bedrooms—insufficient at 85 degrees—and, worst of all, Cristal’s ‘room’ was the chalet attic, boiling hot with no shades on the windows. We have duly moved her mattress and bedding down to my room. I’m not sure if we’re ‘spoiled’ travellers; we discussed this earlier today, wondering about our expectations. As Cristal is currently unable to find mugs for our evening tea, I don’t really think our expectations are too high.



IMG_2402IMG_2400Some years back there was a campaign for good food and healthy eating with the slogan, “You Are What You Eat.” In fact, it started as a television series in the UK and spread from there. It’s an adage I’ve tried to follow, but obviously, when traveling, it’s far more difficult than at other times.

Here in the Finger Lakes, as I’ve been saying, life pretty much revolves around food production and wineries. There’s a good-sized Amish and Mennonite community whose pristine farms line the roads with cabbages, corn and other vegetables. FullSizeRender-17We started our outings today with one of the markets they attend, and ogled the variety. After that, we went on to a “Garlic Festival’ at one of the wineries, an event brimming with oils and vinegars to buy in flavors you’d never think of, honeys of every variety, and, needless to say, real garlic—not the store-bought stuff that’s virtually tasteless, but garlic that sings and zings in your mouth. No “EEEE-uwwwws” here, please; this was delicious stuff. And finally, we ended the day with a ‘wine walk’ in the town of Canandaigua, going from shop to shop, tasting wines and cheeses, cookies and dips.IMG_2405

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the saying goes. Here at our B and B the day starts with what the innkeeper obviously views as a gourmet breakfast. This morning this consisted of tea, mango juice and pure grape juice shots (nothing like Welch’s). There was a gigantic blueberry muffin waiting on our plates as we sat down, swiftly followed by peaches on whipped feta IMG_2399atop bruschetta with a balsamic reduction. Before the last bite was down, blueberry pancakes were staring us in the eye with two rashers of bacon, baked with a sprinkle of sugar and walnuts. Finally, with hardly a second to spare, a mound of sliced strawberries sitting on a split scone sat in front of us, pretty as a picture. I won’t describe yesterday’s breakfast in such detail, but I will tell you it ended with wine ice cream on chocolate cookies.

If I am what I eat, I dread to think exactly what I am.IMG_0981


IMG_2387On Sundays opposite my New York apartment there is a farmer’s market. Most of the vendors come down from the Finger Lake region here in upstate New York, standing out in winter weather with numb fingers, half asleep from their very early rising to get to the city. Today, in glorious summer sunshine, I got to see their produce first hand.

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes region is primarily known for its wine. New York State wine used to be a joke many years ago, but a number of the wineries have now managed to build their reputations to an acceptable level. Cristal and I did a bit of a wine tour around the Lake—to the extent that it’s something of a miracle I can still write today. As Designated Driver, I had to decline tasting at the last winery—beginning to feel somewhat wary of facing these winding country roads.

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Our tour also included a stop at the Sonnenberg Mansion, a post-Civil War home

The 'Old Fashioned Garden' at Sonnenberg Mansion

The ‘Old Fashioned Garden’ at Sonnenberg Mansion

in the Tudor style built by Frederick and Mary Thompson, a wealthy NY banker and his wife. Mary apparently loved flowers and gardening, and the grounds around the house are divided into twelve different types of garden. But what caught my eye was the story of how flowers actually ‘saved’ her life. She was travelling in Europe when she discovered the tulip festival in the Netherlands was taking place. She therefore changed her plans to return home and went to see the tulips. Mary had had tickets to travel on the Titanic…

Weeks ago in Nashville, as we wandered around The Old Opry and read stories of the great and the good of country music, there was the biography of Waylon Jennings. Jennings, before he was truly famous, had been a guitarist for Buddy Holly. He gave up his seat on Holly’s fateful flight to another man.

Life is full of those, ‘what if I had done this?” or “ what if that happened?” but for most of us, it doesn’t hit with such a resounding thud.IMG_0986