Sep. 5, 2013


by Linda Pastan

My son is practicing the piano.
He is a man now, not the boy
whose lessons I once sat through,
whose reluctant practicing
I demanded—part of the obligation
I felt to the growth
and composition of a child.

Upstairs my grandchildren are sleeping,
though they complained earlier of the music
which rises like smoke up through the floorboards,
coloring the fabric of their dreams.
On the porch my husband watches the garden fade
into summer twilight, flower by flower;
it must be a little like listening to the fading

diminuendo notes of Mozart.
But here where the dining room table
has been pushed aside to make room
for this second or third-hand upright,
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.

"Practicing" by Linda Pastan, from The Last Uncle. © W. W. Norton, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of comedian and actor Bob Newhart, born in the Austin area of Chicago (1929). Newhart started out as an accountant before he began doing stand-up comedy in the 1950s. He became known for his deadpan style and slight stammer. He said: "I've been told to speed up my delivery when I perform. But if I lose the stammer, I'm just another slightly amusing accountant."

Newhart appeared on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show eight times, but his big breakthrough came when his comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart won the 1960 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It was the first comedy album to make it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, beating out Elvis Presley and The Sound of Music cast recording album. He went on to act in several television sitcoms, including The Bob Newhart Show, in which portrayed a Chicago psychologist named Robert Hartley. Newhart said: "The reason [the character] was a psychologist is [because] much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic."

In 2006, Newhart published his memoir, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album.

Newhart once said: "I think you should be a child for as long as you can. I have been successful for 74 years being able to do that. Don't rush into adulthood; it isn't all that much fun."

It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (books by this author), was published in the United States. Doctor Zhivago is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected — the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution and was too concerned with individualism.

An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!" He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. In one of them, Pasternak called his novel "in need of serious improvement." But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and he continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: "I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish."

Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union's attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn't published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a best-seller in 24 languages. That same year, Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize, and when he first heard of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

It's the birthday of Ward Just (books by this author), born in Michigan City, Indiana (1935). He's the author of more than a dozen books of fiction, including Echo House (1997), a finalist for the National Book Award, and his 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

He began his career as a journalist. By the time he was 24, he was writing features for Newsweek magazine and eventually The Washington Post. He went to Saigon to cover the Vietnam War, where he was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a grenade. He came back to the States to recover, and he wrote a book called To What End: Report from Vietnam (1968), and then he quit journalism and launched into fiction.

His latest book is Rodin's Debutante (2011), a coming-of-age story set in midcentury Chicago. It begins: "This is a true story, or true as far as it goes. Ogden Hall School for Boys never would have existed were it not for the journey that two Chicago girls made to Paris with their mother."

It's the birthday of the avant-garde composer John Cage, born in Los Angeles, California (1912). He wrote pieces of music to be played on a variety of objects, including flowerpots, scrapped hoods of old cars and other pieces of junk. Then he began tinkering with a piano, shoving objects under the strings, including screws, bolts, spoons, clothespins, and even a doll's arm. He said, "Just as you go along the beach and pick up pretty shells that please you, I go into the piano and find sounds I like."

He kept adding new sounds into his compositions. His piece "Water Music" (1952) required a piano, a radio, whistles, water containers, and a deck of cards. He finally decided he wanted to explore silence, so as an experiment he entered a completely soundproof chamber at Harvard University. Instead of hearing nothing, he heard the sound of his own circulation and his nervous system. Afterward, he said, "No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound." The experience inspired him to write his most famous piece,"4'33" (1952), in which the performer was instructed to sit silently at a piano for 4 minutes, 33 seconds, to draw attention to all the sounds being made by the audience members and the world around them.

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