Thursday

Apr. 28, 2011

Celia Celia

by Adrian Mitchell

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.

"Celia Celia" by Adrian Mitchell, from Heart on the Left: Poems 1933-1984. © Bloodaxe Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean (books by this author), born in Glasgow in 1922. His first language was Scots-Gaelic, and he didn't learn English until he was seven. He published 28 novels and a collection of short stories, and was so successful that he lived in Switzerland from 1957 to 1963 to avoid paying British taxes.

He wrote testosterone-heavy thrillers, but unlike his contemporary Ian Fleming, he didn't include any sex or romance in his books, because he felt they got in the way of the action. "I'm not a novelist," he said, "I'm a storyteller. There's no art in what I do, no mystique." His writing style was highly visual, which made his books very easy to turn into movies, like The Guns of Navarone (1957), Ice Station Zebra (1963), Where Eagles Dare (1967), and Force 10 from Navarone (1968).

Today is the birthday of the woman whose one and only novel begins ordinarily enough: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." The rest of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is concerned with the events leading up to Jem's broken arm. Nelle Harper Lee (1926) (books by this author) was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and she was named after her grandmother Ellen — "Nelle" is "Ellen" spelled backward. She was a tomboy, and her father was a lawyer, and so they shared some similarities with her characters, Scout and Atticus Finch. Her mother rarely left the house, because she suffered from mental illness, and young Nelle befriended — and often defended — fellow kindergartener and next-door neighbor Truman Persons. They didn't have much in common apart from family problems and a love of reading, but they became best friends.

At first Nelle thought she might follow in her father's footsteps, and so she entered law school. But after the first year, she realized she wanted to be a writer, "the Jane Austen of south Alabama," as she put it. She moved to New York in 1949, when she was 23, and renewed her acquaintance with Truman Persons, who now went by the name Truman Capote. She also made friends with a Broadway composer and his wife, who eventually offered to support her for a year so that she could devote her time to writing. Three years later, she had finished her novel. The opening line of the Washington Post review read, "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

She came to Capote's aid once again in 1960, when he went to Kansas to investigate the murders of a small-town family of four. His flamboyant demeanor didn't endear him to the locals, and she was the first to gain their trust. She took volumes of notes on the community, the crime, and the killers, and turned them all over to Truman, but although he dedicated In Cold Blood (1966) to her, he denied her significant contribution to the book.

Lee gave her last interview in 1964, saying that she never expected the success of her novel, and that she was having trouble writing her second. She lives a quiet, private life divided between New York and Monroeville.

Today is the birthday of geologist and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, born in Los Angeles in 1928. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology at the age of 19, and he earned his master's degree a year later. He went to work for the United States Geological Survey, and studying the Earth sparked in him an interest in the moon. He tried to convince the USGS that he should do a geological map of its surface, and would have loved to go there himself, but he was diagnosed with Addison's disease in 1963, which put an end to his astronaut aspirations.

He was particularly interested in the formation of meteor impact craters, and so, with the help of his wife, Carolyn, he studied asteroids that had the potential to crash into planets or moons. He discovered 32 comets, which now bear his name, and was thrilled when, in 1994, one of those comets, Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into Jupiter — the first collision of two solar system bodies ever observed.

Shoemaker was killed in a car accident in 1997, and at the suggestion of one of his students, his cremated remains were placed aboard the Lunar Prospector, an orbiter on a mission to map the moon. When its battery ran out at the end of its mission, the orbiter crashed onto the surface of the moon, and there his ashes remain, in a capsule engraved with a quote from Romeo and Juliet:
And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Today is the birthday of Lois Duncan (1934) (books by this author), an author known chiefly for her suspense novels for teen readers. She was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and submitted her first story to a magazine at the age of 10. By 13, she had made her first sale, and she wrote magazine articles for publications like Seventeen throughout high school. She's best known for the books that were made into movies: Hotel for Dogs (1971) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973).

In 1992, she wrote a true crime book about the unsolved murder of her youngest child, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette, in Albuquerque. Police called it a random shooting, but Kaitlyn's boyfriend was involved in organized crime and Duncan believes the gang killed her daughter to keep her quiet. She told an interviewer: "My dream is to write a sequel to Who Killed My Daughter? to give our family's true-life horror story a closure. Of course, for that to be possible, Kait's case must be solved."

And today is the birthday of poet Carolyn Forché (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1950. A human rights activist as well as a poet, she's committed to what she calls "the poetry of witness," and this has opened her up to criticism, especially in the United States, from those who believe poetry and politics should be separate concerns. She says that, in other countries, "The poets are more expected to be intellectuals and to have an active interest in history and politics and everything going on. They're not expected to be sequestered in a literary culture. They're not expected to have no opinions about events in the world. They're expected to have more seriously considered opinions because they're poets — and not necessarily predictable opinions." Her anthology, Against Forgetting (1993), collects the work of international poets who had suffered imprisonment, torture, and exile.

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