Jun. 7, 2011
Turn the knob. The burner ticks
then exhales flame in a swift up burst,
its dim roar like the surf. Your kitchen burns white,
lamplight on enamel, warm with the promise
of bread and soup. Outside the night rains ink.
To a stranger bracing his umbrella,
think how your lit window must seem
both warm and cold, a kiss withheld,
lights strung above a distant patio.
Think how your bare arm, glimpsed
as you chop celery or grate a carrot
glows like one link in a necklace.
How the clink of silverware on porcelain
carries to the street. As you unfold your napkin,
book spread beside your plate, consider
the ticking of rain against pavement,
the stoplight red and steady as a flame.
It's the birthday of novelist Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her mother was French-Ojibwe, and her father was German; she and her six brothers and sisters were raised in a close, loving family. Instead of watching TV—they didn't own one—the children were encouraged to write and to memorize poems.
She went off to Dartmouth in 1972, the same year the university started admitting women and the first year of its new Native American Studies program. The program's director was Michael Dorris. Years after she graduated, Erdrich was invited back to Dartmouth to read some of her poetry, and she became re-acquainted with Dorris, and they ended up getting married.
She started off as a poet. Her first book was Jacklight (1984), a book of poems based on the thesis she wrote for her master's degree in 1979. She said, "I began to tell stories in the poems and then realized that there was not enough room." So she moved on to fiction. She published her first short story, "The Red Convertible," in 1981, and "Scales" in 1982. Later that year, Dorris convinced her to enter a new fiction writing contest, so in the space of two weeks she wrote "The World's Greatest Fisherman," and she won the $5,000 prize. Two years later, she published Love Medicine (1984),a novel made up of 14 interrelated stories.
Love Medicine is populated with characters who live in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, or its nearby reservation. There is Marie Lazarre, who starts out life convinced she wants to be a nun—"I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me." And her rival Lulu Lamartine—"Lulu Lamartine was usually controlled as a cat, and got her way through coaxing, cajoling, rubbing against your leg. An old woman who remained infuriatingly pretty, she bent others to her will before they knew what was happening." And Nector Kashpaw, the man who loved Lulu but married Marie anyway: "Here is what I do not understand: how instantly the course of your life can be changed. I only know that I went up the convent hill intending to sell geese and came down the hill with the geese still on my arm. Beside me walked a young girl with a mouth on her like a flophouse, although she was innocent. She grudged me to hold her hand. And yet I would not drop the hand and let her walk alone. Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness." After Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich wrote many novels set in the same fictional universe, and Marie, Lulu, and Nector all reappeared, along with others connected to them. Her novels include Tracks (1988), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and Shadow Tag (2010).
She said, "We have a lot of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif—books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the boxes waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench. Advance Reading Copies collect at beside, to be dutifully examined—to ignore them and read Henry James or Barbara Pym instead becomes a guilty pleasure. I can't imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough, or the right one at the right moment, but then sometimes to find you'd longed to fall asleep reading The Aspern Papers, and there it is."
She said, "By having children, I've both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. [...] With a child you certainly can't be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. No running with the bulls at Pamplona. If you value your relationships with your children, you can't write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one's inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I'd have written with less fervor; I wouldn't understand life in the same way. I'd write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I'd probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I'd have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I've made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor."
It's the birthday of novelist Harry Crews (books by this author), born in Bacon County, Georgia (1935). He wrote: "It must seem curious to the few people who might have thought about it for as long as 30 seconds why a boy who was born and raised in the rickets-and-hookworm belt of South Georgia and who moved nearly every year of his life from one framed-out piece of dirt to another so his family could rent out their backs and sweat as sharecroppers on somebody else's land, why such a boy should grow up determined to be a writer. It is more than curious to me; it is an ultimate mystery. [...] I could only point to the place and circumstances in which the notion of being a storyteller was planted in me as solid as bone."
Crews enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War, then went to college on the GI bill. He got married, and had a son. But his family life fell apart—he and his wife got divorced, then remarried, then divorced again after their son drowned. He was convinced that he had started too late, that he would never make it as a writer. He said, "I used to dream when I was as old as 25 or 26 that one of my novels (of course I'd written four novels by that time which had been rejected), I used to dream while I was asleep this tremendous joy and celebration and the rest of it and then wake up literally humiliated, crushed, depressed, stricken that I was still where I was." His first novel, The Gospel Singer, was published in 1968—when he was 32 years old. He proceeded to publish seven novels in the next eight years.
He doesn't like to tour or do book readings and his most recent book, the novella An American Family (2006), was published quietly with no marketing or press releases. But Crews likes to receive visitors at his home in Gainesville, Florida—he said, "Nobody has ever been turned away. Why would I turn them away? Everyone has terrible and wonderful mysteries just dripping off of them."
His other books include the novels All We Need of Hell (1987), The Mulching of America (1995), and Celebration (1998); and the memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978).
It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Bowen (books by this author), born in Dublin (1899). She was an only child, and her parents came from good families but didn't have much money. Her father was mentally ill, in and out of hospitals, and her mother died when she was 13; after that, she was raised by various relatives. In 1923 she published her first book, Encounters, and got married to an administrator—it was apparently a platonic marriage more than a passionate one, but they were content.
Bowen was friends with Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, and Eudora Welty. Welty wrote about visiting Bowen at her family house in rural Ireland in the 1930s: "It was so lovely to be in that house, and I immediately fell into the way things were done. Elizabeth worked in the morning, which is what I like to do, and at about 11 o'clock you could come downstairs if you wanted and have a sherry and then go back to work. Then you met at lunch, I mean to talk, and the whole afternoon was spent riding around, and the long twilights coming back. There was usually company at dinner time. And evenings, just a few people, or maybe more. We liked to play games. Eddy Sackville-West was visiting her, and we all played 'Happy Families,' a children's card game—it's just like 'Going Fishing' where you try to get all of a family in your hand by asking 'May I have?' except that it's done with Victorian decorum."
Bowen's novels include The Death of the Heart (1938), The Heat of the Day (1949), and Eva Trout (1968).
She said, "I am sure that in nine out of ten cases the original wish to write is the wish to make oneself felt. It's a sign, I suppose, of life's decreasing livableness as life that people should feel it possible to make themselves felt in so few other ways. The non-essential writer never gets past that wish."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®