Jun. 19, 2004
Sing a song of sixpence
Poem: "Sing a song of sixpence."
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie!
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Was not that a dainty dish
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting-house
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And snapped off her nose.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of short story writer and memoirist Tobias Wolff, born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). He's the author of several collections of short stories, including In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), but he's best known for his memoir about his childhood, This Boy's Life (1989). His most recent book is the novel Old School, which came out last year.
Wolff said, "[Writing is] like spelunking, with a light on your hat. You keep going into different chambers until you find a chamber that seems to you to be the right one; you're descending into dark and unknown territory and you can never see very far ahead."
And he said, "There are very few professions in which people just sit down and think hard for five or six hours a day all by themselves. [If you become a writer] you have the liberty to do that, but once you have the liberty you also have the obligation to do it."
It's the birthday of the journalist and music critic Greil Marcus, born in San Francisco (1945). He started out as a music critic for various magazines, and he has gone on to write many books of criticism, including Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975) and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989). He is a music critic who believes that rock and roll is just as profound an art form as great literature or painting. He once compared punk rock to a fourteenth-century movement of religious reformists.
It's the birthday of Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay, India (1947), two months before India's first day of independence. He comes from a wealthy Muslim family. He started going to school in England as a teenager, and he didn't get along with his classmates, who made fun of his accent. Then he found out that his parents been forced to move to Pakistan, and Rushdie was crushed. He didn't like England, he didn't like Pakistan, and now he couldn't go home to Bombay. He tried working as a journalist in Pakistan, but there was too much censorship, so he went back to England and tried to become a writer.
He supported himself in England by writing for advertising. His first assignment was to write a jingle about the merits of car seat belts, to the tune of a Chuck Berry song. While he was working there he wrote a science fiction novel called Grimus (1975) that didn't do well. Then he decided to write a book about India, the country that he hadn't seen in years.
Rushdie's novel was called Midnight's Children (1981), and it was about a man who was born the same day India gained independence. The book was a huge success, among both westerners and Indians. It won the Booker Prize, and Rushdie became the leader of so-called "post-colonial literature." Only Rushdie's family hated the book. He had revealed a lot of family secrets in the novel and they didn't appreciate it.
When Rushdie published the Satanic Verses in 1987, most western critics didn't notice that it might be offensive to Muslims. In the book, Rushdie makes a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion, he names the whores in a Mecca brothel after the Prophet Muhammed's wives, and he suggests that the Koran is not the direct word of God. The book was banned in some places and burned in others. There were bomb threats called into the publishing house. There was a riot in Kashmir over the book, and The Ayatollah Khomeini saw scenes from the riot on Iranian television in which police shot demonstrators. The Ayatollah announced that "all zealous Muslims of the world" should try to find Rushdie wherever he was and kill him.
Rushdie went into hiding for nine years, but he has since come out of hiding and written several more novels, including The Ground Beneath Her Feet (2000).
Today is the fortieth anniversary of the day that the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after a long battle in the Senate. Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law thirteen days later. It was this piece of legislation that outlawed segregation on the basis of race in the United States. The text of the law was extremely specific, listing all the places of public accommodation where segregation was forbidden, including any inn, hotel, motel, restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, gasoline station, motion picture house, theater, concert hall or sports arena.
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