Jul. 23, 2009


by Joyce Sutphen

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

"Soundings" by Joyce Sutphen, from Naming the Stars. © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He's known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlow, such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). He's one of the originators of hardboiled detective fiction, and he's known more for the style and atmosphere of his novels than his plots.

He said, "The things [my readers] remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death."

It's the birthday of Vikram Chandra, (books by this author) born in New Delhi (1961). As a child in India, he spent summers checking out books from a library near his home, which functioned the way a DVD-rental store does in the United States: Borrowers paid a small fee per book, and new releases cost more. The youthful Chandra read until, he said, "I ran out of money and had to beg for more."

At first, he read a lot of science fiction, but then he encountered classic American writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He said, "Once I started reading them, I realized they were doing things to me that I didn't understand. Reading 'The Great Gatsby' at age 15 in India, I knew nothing — I had no context for it, social or symbolic — and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful."

He decided that he should go to America to study creative writing — a notion that his friends' parents thought was crazy: After all, they thought, you only go to America to study if you are going to be a doctor or an engineer. But Chandra's own mother was a screenwriter in India, and his parents agreed to pay his college tuition. So he went for it, heading out to Southern California for college and majoring in English and creative writing.

He published the novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) and the short-story collection Love and Longing in Bombay (1997) while he was still in his 30s. The 1,200-page manuscript of his third novel, Sacred Games, set off a bidding war among British, Indian, and American publishers in 2005, and Chandra received a $1 million advance for the novel (published in 2006), which he whittled down to 900 pages. He has summed up the novel as "a Victorian-Indian-gangster-spy-family saga."

It was on this day in 1929 that Italy's Fascist government banned the use of foreign words in Italy. It was part of a larger cultural indoctrination into Fascism. Newspapers were told exactly what to print and were even required to type MUSSOLINI in all-capital letters.

Mussolini abolished elections, free speech, and almost every aspect of Italy's constitution. He set up a tribunal specifically to charge and convict suspected anti-Fascist subversives. He established new procedures at the border and restricted access into and out of Italy.

Foreign words that had previously made their way into the Italian language were now either replaced entirely with an Italian word or were somehow Italianized. The English word "film" was being used in Italy, but under Fascist rule, a person had to say "pellicola." The French "Bordeaux" wine became "Barolo." Often, place names were Italianized by a vowel makeover and the adding of an "e" or "i" or "a" onto the end of the word. Around Italy, public buildings were spray-painted with slogans such as "Mussolini is always right" and "Better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

At the same time that Fascist Italy was rejecting foreign influence within Italy, it was expanding its foreign influence outside of Italy through military campaigns and coercive diplomacy. Mussolini invaded the Greek island of Corfu, and then took part of Yugoslavia through "negotiation." He occupied Libya and invaded Albania and Ethiopia. It was his colonization of Africa in particular that upset France and Britain, led to diplomatic sanctions, and helped drive Italy into an alliance with Germany, whom Mussolini hoped would help him stand up against the French and British. In May 1939, Mussolini entered a formal military alliance with Hitler, and in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland — the beginning of World War II.

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