Sep. 15, 2004
Poem: "ONE WEEK" by Juliette Torrez, from Madness and Retribution © Manic D Press, San Francisco. Reprinted with permission.
on Sunday she moved out of the house
amidst a nasty cat fight
on Monday her favorite uncle died of cancer
on Tuesday her boyfriend seemed to disappear
and a close friend thought she found a tumor
on Wednesday her cousin shot his wife
in the driveway then himself
with all the kids watching
she couldn't remember what happened Thursday
on Friday she started looking for her boyfriend
the way he was nowhere got her attention
It's the birthday of children's author Robert McCloskey, born in 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio. He's best known for his book Make Way for Ducklings (1941), about a real family of ducks in downtown Boston. The ducks became so popular that a statue was put up commemorating them. McCloskey kept four mallard ducks in his apartment while drawing the illustrations.
He said, "The ducks had plenty to say—especially in the early morning. I spent ... weeks on my hands and knees, armed with a box of Kleenex and a sketchbook, following the ducks around the studio and observing them in the bathtub."
He went on to write many other books for children, including Blueberries for Sal (1949), A Morning in Maine (1953), and Time of Wonder (1958). With Make Way for Ducklings and Time of Wonder, McCloskey became the first author to win two Caldecott Medals.
It's the birthday of humorist Robert Benchley, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1889). When he was in school, he became famous for his creative interpretation of essay assignments. When asked to write an essay about how to do something practical, he wrote an essay called "How to Embalm a Corpse." When asked to write about the dispute over Newfoundland fishing rights from the point of view of the United States and Canada, he chose to write from the point of view of the fish.
Benchley tried to work as a journalist, but he had a terrible time because he hated intruding on people's privacy. His editors started letting him write feature stories and humorous essays with titles such as "Did Prehistoric Man Walk On His Head?" He got a job at Vanity Fair in 1919, and it was there that he met Dorothy Parker, who became his best friend.
Benchley and Parker became known at the magazine for their pranks. When the management asked staff members not to discuss their salaries, Benchley and Parker got their salaries printed on placards to wear around their necks. Benchley resigned from Vanity Fair when Parker got fired, and he went on to become the drama critic for Life magazine and The New Yorker. He knew nothing about drama, so he turned his reviews into humorous essays.
He once wrote a review of the New York City Telephone Directory. He said it had no plot. He was a notorious liar. When he was asked to provide a brief biography of himself to an encyclopedia, he said he was born on the Isle of Wight, wrote A Tale of Two Cities, married a princess in Portugal, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
His work was collected in many books, including From Bed to Worse (1934), and Why Does Nobody Collect Me? (1935) and My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How It Grew (1936).
Robert Benchley said, "It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."
It's the birthday of the first best-selling American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, born in Burlington, New Jersey (1789). For most of his life he was known as James Cooper, but after his father's death, he tried to have his name legally changed to Fenimore, so as to inherit some property from his mother's family. He didn't get the property, but the name stuck.
He started out as a Navy man, but after he got married, his wife persuaded him to quit the sea and stay home. He struggled to run the estate he had inherited from his father, and he got into terrible debt. One day, he was reading aloud to his wife from an English novel, and he said he thought he could write a better novel himself. His wife laughed at him, because he didn't even enjoy writing letters much, but he sat down and wrote a book and it was published as Precaution (1820). He wrote six novels in the next six years.
He became best known for his series of five novels called the Leatherstocking Tales, including Last of the Mohicans (1826), about frontier violence and adventure. At the time, most Americans read English literature about kings and queens, because they thought it was more romantic than their own difficult, colonial lives. James Fenimore Cooper was the first American author to make the wild, untamed life in America seem romantic.
During his life, he was widely respected as a great novelist, but after his death, Mark Twain wrote an essay called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" (1895) that helped to destroy his reputation. Twain wrote, "[The rules of literature] require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in [Cooper's books]." But Fenimore Cooper is still remembered for making America a subject for adventure and romance.
It's the birthday of the mystery novelist and playwright Agatha Christie, born in Devon, England (1890). Her father died when she was little and she was raised by her mother. She never sent to school or university, but her mother encouraged her to write from an early age. She wrote her first story one day when she was home sick with a cold. She kept writing for most of her adolescence, but she said, "[Back then I wrote] stories of unrelieved gloom, where most of the characters died."
During World War I, she was working as a Red Cross nurse, and she started reading detective novels because she said, "I found they were excellent to take one's mind off one's worries." She grew frustrated with how easy it was to guess the murderer in most mysteries and she decided to try to write her own. That book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) about a series of murders at a Red Cross hospital.
Christie's first few books were moderately successful, and then her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in 1926. That same year, Christie fled her own home after a fight with her husband, and she went missing for ten days. There was a nationwide search, and the press covered the disappearance as though it were a mystery novel come to life, inventing scenarios and speculating on the possible murder suspects, until finally Christie turned up in a hotel, suffering from amnesia. During the period of her disappearance, the reprints of her earlier books sold out of stock and two newspapers began serializing her stories. She became a household name and a best-selling author for the rest of her life.
Christie averaged about two novels a year for most of her writing life. She is not known for her prose style or her vivid characters or settings, but for the plots she constructed like puzzles. She jotted down ideas for ingenious murder methods all the time, on scraps of paper and napkins. Her murderers were always members of the upper class, people who dressed well, spoke well, and had great manners, but who just happened to also be killers. She said, "I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest."
Her most famous character was the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. She described him, "An extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg. . .His moustache was very still and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound." He appeared in over thirty books, including The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The A.B.C. Murders (1935). She grew to dislike Poirot and later called him, "An ego-centric creep." So she created a busybody named Miss Marple to solve her crimes.
When asked why she set so many of her books in the English countryside, rather than more modern places, like New York City, she said, "It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story."
Once, after reading in a magazine that she was "the world's most mysterious woman," she said, "What do they suggest I am? A Bank Robber or a Bank Robber's wife? I'm an ordinary successful hard-working author—like any other author."
Agatha Christie recently became the best-selling English writer of all time, having sold more books that Shakespeare, about 2 billion copies. Worldwide, she sells about 14,000 copies every day of the year. In 2002, her play The Mousetrap (1952) had its fiftieth anniversary on the London stage. It had been performed there more than twenty thousand times, to audiences adding up to about ten million people, making it the longest-running show in theater history.
The Agatha Christie industry has spawned films, audio-recordings, museums, exhibitions, theater festivals and murder weekends in her name. Most recently, several of her novels are being made into video games. There has been talk of building an Agatha Christie theme park.
Agatha Christie said, "Every murderer is probably somebody's old friend."
And, "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes."
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