Aug. 17, 2009


by Eliza Griswold

The prostitutes in Kabul tap their feet
beneath their faded burqas in the heat.

For bread or fifteen cents, they'll take a man to bed—
their husbands dead, their seven kids unfed—

and thanks to occupation, rents have risen twentyfold,
their chickens, pots and carpets have been sold.

Two years ago, the Talibs favored boys and left the girls alone.
A woman then was worth her weight in stone.

"Occupation" by Eliza Griswold, from Wideawake Field. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of an actress known for her clever comments and double entendres: Mae West, born in Brooklyn (1893).

She said, "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before."
And, "Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often."

It's the birthday of novelist Jonathan Franzen, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1959). He wrote two novels that got a lot of praise from critics but didn't sell very well: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992). A few years later, in 1996, Franzen wrote an essay for Harper's called "Perchance to Dream," in which he mourned the death of the social novel in contemporary American fiction, saying that "the dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority." He wrote, "Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society — to help solve our contemporary problems — seems to me a peculiarly American delusion."

But then, he managed to write a dense, epic novel about a dysfunctional American family that also became a huge best seller: The Corrections (2001).

Oprah chose it for her Book Club, but Franzen made several ambivalent comments about the honor in his interviews. He said, "I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it," and, "She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight." Oprah announced that Franzen was "seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection," and for the first time ever, withdrew her invitation to an author to be part of the book club. But The Corrections was still a huge best seller and won the National Book Award.

Franzen said, "It's just a matter of writing the kind of book I enjoy reading. Something better be happening at the beginning, and then on every page after, or I get irritated."

It's the birthday of the poet Ted Hughes, (books by this author) born in the town of Mytholmroyd, England (1930). He grew up in the countryside, surrounded by moors. He joined the air force and was assigned duty as a wireless mechanic in an isolated spot in rural Yorkshire, where he read Shakespeare all day. He went to Cambridge and studied anthropology and archaeology, and he was especially interested in mythology. A few years after he graduated, he helped found a literary magazine, and at the launch party he met an American student named Sylvia Plath. They were married less than four months later.

Sylvia Plath (books by this author) worked on her own writing, but she also helped her husband. She typed up his poems and sent them out to magazines, and she encouraged him to enter a contest sponsored by the Poetry Center in New York City, a contest whose judges were W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Stephen Spender. Hughes won first place, and his poems were published as The Hawk in the Rain (1957), which got great reviews and made Hughes famous.

Hughes and Plath had two children together, but they separated in 1962 when Hughes had an affair with another woman. The next year, Plath committed suicide. Hughes didn't write his own poetry again for years, but instead, spent his time editing and collecting Plath's poetry. A few years after Plath's death, Hughes' lover killed their four-year-old daughter and then herself.

In 1984, Ted Hughes became the poet laureate of Britain. He died in 1998, a few months after publishing Birthday Letters, a book of poetry about his life with Sylvia Plath, a life that he had refused to discuss in the 30 years since her death.

Ted Hughes wrote many books of poems, including Crow (1971), Moortown (1980), and Wolfwatching (1990), and also children's books, including The Iron Man (1968).

He said: "It is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something — perhaps not much, just something — of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees… and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being — not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses — but a human being, we call it poetry."

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