Nov. 12, 2007

In November

by Lisel Mueller

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Poem: "In November" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In November

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and short-story writer Tracy Kidder, (books by this author) born in New York City (1945), who started out as a fiction writer, but decided early on that he preferred writing about real people. In the late 1970s, he spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer. He described the engineers as, "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement. ... They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1981.

Kidder went on to write a series of books about apparently ordinary topics. For his book House (1985), he wrote about the construction of a single house in Amherst, Massachusetts, because he said, "[Building] is the quintessential act of civilization." To write his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he sat in a single fifth-grade classroom in an impoverished public school for an entire school year, missing only two days. Over the course of that year, he took 10,000 pages of notes. He wanted to focus entirely on the experience of a single teacher because, he said, "For better or worse, education is what happens in these little rooms." His most recent book is the memoir My Detachment (2005) about his experiences in Vietnam.

Tracy Kidder said, "To write you have to have stories you want to tell, you have to keep your mind alive, and you have to work hard."

It's the birthday of Wallace Shawn, (books by this author) born in New York City (1943). He's the son of the former New Yorker editor William Shawn, and he's become well known as a character actor in Hollywood movies such as The Princess Bride (1987) and Clueless (1995). Most people don't know that he's also an avant-garde playwright. When he got out of college, a lot of his friends took jobs writing for his father's magazine, but Shawn supported his playwriting by working as a photocopy clerk. He then got the idea of selling stock in himself, and managed to raise $2,500 from investors, which helped him write his first plays. To this day, he sends all those early investors a small annual check. His early plays were not successes. During his first play, the audience actually shouted for the actors to shut up. But he finally had a breakthrough when he wrote and starred in the movie My Dinner with Andre (1981), which consists entirely of Shawn and the theater director Andre Gregory talking over dinner, but it became a cult classic. His play The Designated Mourner came out in 1996.

It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, (books by this author) born in Cherbourg, France (1915), who studied to be a professor, but he caught TB and that made it hard for him to teach. So he began writing for magazines, and he became one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, "I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and ... it's been pretty fun." His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970).

It's the birthday of DeWitt Wallace, (books by this author) born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889) who got an idea to publish a magazine that just reprinted condensed versions of the best articles from all the major publications of the day. The first issue came out in February, 1922, and it went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, Reader's Digest, with 39 editions in 15 languages and a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.

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