Jul. 31, 2014
In the early afternoon my mother
was doing the dishes. I climbed
onto the kitchen table, I suppose
to play, and fell asleep there.
I was drowsy and awake, though,
as she lifted me up, carried me
on her arms into the living room,
and placed me on the davenport,
but I pretended to be asleep
the whole time, enjoying the luxury—
was too big for such a privilege
and just old enough to form
my only memory of her carrying me.
She's still moving me to a softer place.
It's the birthday of the British author of the "Harry Potter" series: J.K. Rowling (books by this author), born in Yate, near Bristol, in 1965. She was born Joanne, with no middle name; when the time came to publish her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), her publishers wanted initials rather than her first and last name. She needed a middle initial, so she took her grandmother's name: Kathleen. She studied French in college, and after college she went to work for Amnesty International as a secretary. She was on a train coming home to London from a weekend looking at flats in Manchester in 1990, when she suddenly got the idea for a novel. "I was looking out of the window at some cows, I believe and I just thought: 'Boy doesn't know he's a wizard — goes off to wizard school,'" she said in an interview with Stephen Fry. "I have no idea where it came from. I think the idea was floating along the train and looking for someone, and my mind was vacant enough, so it decided to zoom in there." She found a publisher in 1996, and was paid an advance of £1,500, about $2,500. Six more books followed. Her rags-to-riches story is legendary: In five years' time, she went from being on public assistance to being a multimillionaire. She's now one of the richest women in Britain, even richer than the queen, and Forbes magazine estimates her net worth at 1 billion U.S. dollars.
Her readings are wildly popular now, and people come to them in costume, but that was not always the case. At her first reading, attendance was so sparse that the bookstore had to have their employees fill some of the seats. She appeared a few years ago at the Royal Albert Hall, and told the audience, "This is the nearest I'll ever get to being a Beatle, hearing you all shouting. It was very nice. I see myself as the George Harrison."
She's often asked to give advice to aspiring young writers, and her answer is always the same: "Read as much as you possibly can. Nothing will help you as much as reading and you'll go through a phase where you will imitate your favourite writers and that's fine because that's a learning experience too."
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Kim Addonizio (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1954). Her dad was a sportswriter for The Washington Post, and her mom was the tennis champion Pauline Betz. She's the author of Tell Me (2000) and What Is This Thing Called Love (2004), and her fifth book of poetry, Lucifer at the Starlite, came out in 2011.
When she was asked about the creative process, she said: "What I've learned is simple: if you nurture it, it will expand, and it will nurture you in return. I have also learned that it is a kind of salvation. Sometimes it's more than enough and sometimes it's not enough — by that I mean one's own creativity. If you can truly tap in to the creative process, you know it's there all the time, and then you probably don't need saving."
On this date in 1703, English novelist, journalist, and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe (books by this author) was pilloried for sedition. He had published a pamphlet called "The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters" in 1702, written as a satire of High Church policies toward Nonconformists, or Dissenters — Protestants who didn't conform to the established Church of England practices. He wrote it from the High Church viewpoint, advocating the killing of Dissenters as the simplest way to deal with them, and it was a huge seller. The Church and the Dissenters missed the irony, though, and took it seriously; although he had published it anonymously, eventually he was revealed to be the perpetrator of the hoax. Everyone was furious at being embarrassed, and he was prosecuted for seditious libel. The Church advertised a reward for his capture, and in it we have the only remaining description of Defoe: "a middle-size spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark-brown coloured hair, but wears a wig, a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth." He was found guilty, fined, imprisoned in Newgate Gaol, and sentenced to stand three times in the pillory, where he would likely be pelted with dirt, and rotten eggs, and even less savory items. While he waited in prison, he wrote a satirical poem, "Hymn to the Pillory." He managed somehow to get it printed, and had it distributed while he was in the pillory; it was a gamble that paid off, because instead of hurling filth at him, onlookers drank to his health and pelted him with flowers.
An excerpt from "Hymn to the Pillory":
... let all the statesmen stand;
Who guide us with unsteady hand;
Who armies, fleets, and men betray;
And ruin all the shortest way.
Let all those soldiers stand in sight.
Who're willing to be paid and not to fight.
Agents, and Colonels, who false musters bring,
To cheat their country first, then their King.
Today is the birthday of Jewish-Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi (1919) (books by this author), born in Turin, Italy. He graduated from the University of Turin in 1941, and two years later he went to northern Italy intending to join the resistance against the Nazis. He was captured instead, and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he worked as slave labor in a rubber factory until Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.
He wrote two memoirs of his wartime experiences: If This is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963). He also wrote novels, stories, and poems, as well as several essays, and The Periodic Table (1975), a collection of 21 meditations, each named for a chemical element.
He died in 1987 after a fall, or a jump, from his third-floor balcony in Turin. Fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said at the time, "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier." The coroner ruled his death a suicide, and it's true that he had been suffering from depression. Others argued that he had complained of dizziness a few days earlier, and that, as a chemist, he would have chosen a more foolproof method with less risk of paralysis, had suicide been his intent.
He said, "We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless."
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