Saturday

Mar. 16, 2013

Piano, New York

by Julia Kasdorf

Anywhere, like Idaho, women like our aunts
would save quarters in cups or sell pies
to buy one like this. They'd put it in a parlor
for hymns and rub it with lemon oil each week,
but here an old piano comes with the apartment,
and no one will pay movers to hoist
the beast out the window on ropes.
We think we've no choice but to saw into its side
that shines like the side of a horse.
We save the real ivory keys in shopping bags
and yank out the rack of purple felt mallets.
Behind it all is a harp, tall as the whole piano
and sprayed with gold. When wing nuts are loosened,
the strings twang then hang slack. We stop
for a moment, then rasp through its frame
with hacksaws and drag the thing, piece by piece,
down three flights of stairs to the street
where people walking by recognize—
just from its insides—a piano.

"Piano, New York" by Julia Kasdorf, from Sleeping Preacher. © Pittsburgh University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Alice Hoffman (books by this author), born in New York City (1952). Growing up, she thought that her brother was the smart one, and that as a girl she couldn't be a veterinarian or a writer, the two things she was most interested in, but should settle for life as a hairdresser. But she read a lot, and she said: "When I wasn't reading science fiction, I read a lot of fairy tales and anything to do with magic. I was crazy about Mary Poppins and the E. Nesbit books and Edward Eager. I really loved those stories that begin with a normal family and then all of a sudden, something magical enters their lives." After high school, she got a job in the Doubleday factory, but she hated it so much that she quit the first day and went to night school and on to graduate school to study writing. But she thought that the magical stories she had loved as a kid didn't fit into adult writing. Then she read One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by Gabriel García Márquez, and it changed her life. She said, "It allowed me to see that a writer could take everyday realities and transform them into something fabulous."

One of her professors helped her get her short stories published, and Ted Solotaroff, the editor of The American Review, read one and asked her if she had written a novel. She lied and said yes, and immediately started to write one. Solotaroff published part of it in The American Review, and it became her first novel, Property Of (1977), published when she was 25 years old.

Her most recent novel is The Dovekeepers (2012).

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Don Carpenter (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California (1931). He served in Korea, taught English for a while, but his first book was moderately successful and he was able to quit teaching to write. That book was Hard Rain Falling (1966), the story of Jack Levitt, who grows up in an orphanage and spends a lot of his life in and out of prisons and reform institutions, and who says, "Society is an animal, just like the rest of us." Hard Rain Falling got rave reviews from critics and was admired by other writers, and it sold pretty well but not substantially.

He wrote seven novels, including Blade of Light (1967) and A Couple of Comedians (1979), and many screenplays, including the one for Payday (1973). He was never able to achieve the level of commercial success of his best friend, Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing in America (1967). Brautigan and Carpenter were part of a group of writers who got together every Friday night at a café called Enrico's in San Francisco's North Beach. Then, in 1984, Brautigan committed suicide, and Carpenter was distraught. He continued writing, but his health deteriorated rapidly from a combination of diabetes, tuberculosis, allergies, and glaucoma. Diabetic retinitis impaired his vision so that he had trouble reading. And so in 1995, he committed suicide. At the time of his death, he was working on a manuscript called Fridays at Enrico's. It was dedicated to his friend and neighbor Anne Lamott, who had already dedicated her best-seller Bird by Bird (1994) to Carpenter, and she thought it was his best work yet, but Fridays at Enrico's still has not been published.

It's the birthday of the children's writer who said, "I sometimes think I was born to set a bad example." That's Sid Fleischman (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1920). His family moved to San Diego when he was a toddler, and when he was in fifth grade he decided to become a magician. After high school, he toured with vaudeville, worked as a journalist, fought in WWII. When he was 19, he published a book about magic tricks, Between Cocktails (1939). He made a living writing mysteries and adventure novels, and John Wayne's movie company bought the film rights to his novel Blood Alley and asked Fleischman to write the screenplay. It was made into a movie starring Wayne and Lauren Bacall in 1955.

He said: "My young children led me into writing children's books. They didn't understand what I did for a living. Other fathers, they learned, left home in the morning and returned at the end of the day. I was always around the house. I decided to clear up the mystery and wrote a book just for them." So he wrote Mr. Mysterious and Company (1962), and he went on to write many books for children, including his most famous, The Whipping Boy (1986). It's set in 18th-century Europe and is the story of two boys. One is a horrible prince, and the other is his servant whose job it is to be whipped whenever the prince misbehaves, since it is a crime to hit the prince. The book follows the adventures of the two boys after the prince runs away, bringing his servant with him. The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal and was made into a movie. Fleischman has published more than 60 books for children and adults.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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