Oct. 13, 2013

Coming Up for Air

by Diana Der-Hovanessian

I who never learned
to swim right
walk through this water
with you, with tanks,
new lungs, on our backs,
new eyes that show me
creatures who do not fear
us any more than
other fish.
You float above me and
there is no such thing
as fire to feed or tamp.
My former life is swallowed
by deaf tides.
The songs are all new
and wordless. I open
my hand as if it were a fin.

"Coming Up for Air" by Diana Der-Hovanessian, from The Circle Dancers. © Sheep Meadow Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of cookbook author Mollie Katzen (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1950). She grew up in a Jewish home, where she learned to love food. "Being grateful for food, slowing down around food — that's what was sacred for me, and this was all in kashrut. [...] Even a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, I love to 'behold' the popcorn, and not just mindlessly reach in and eat it."

She went to college at Cornell University, although she dropped out partway through, frustrated that all the student activism made it impossible to actually attend classes. She said: "I just kind of wanted to go to school. Everyone was like, 'Nixon invaded Cambodia, so we shouldn't go to school!' I was thinking, 'I don't completely see the connection.'" She moved to California, to the Bay Area, where she was inspired by the healthful-but-still-tasty food there. She returned to Ithaca to visit her brother, and he was on the verge of helping to launch a collectively owned restaurant called the Moosewood. Katzen decided to stay and help for a while, and ended up working at the Moosewood for five years. She collected recipes from the restaurant and published The Moosewood Cookbook (1977), with illustrations and hand-lettered recipes for dishes like Gypsy Soup, Tabouli, Vegetable-Almond Medley, and Zucchini-Feta Pancakes. She got a loan from a local bookstore and printed 800 copies, and they sold out within two weeks. So she printed 2,000 more, and they also sold out. The Moosewood Cookbook became a sensation. Recently, it was listed by The New York Times as one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. Since then, Katzen has published many more cookbooks, including The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1982), Sunlight Cafe (2002), and most recently, Get Cooking (2009).

She said: "I love working at home. I rarely dress in anything fancier than a T-shirt and sweats. My kids often have dance and gymnastics classes in the evening (they are both serious dancers), so they often eat dinner on the run (frequently some variation of homemade pizza that I whip up for them. There is always pizza dough in my refrigerator!) and my husband and I eat late, usually a simple vegetable stir-fry. We love to go for evening walks in the park down the road. The most important leisure activity for me is just plain being outside in beautiful Northern California, where I am lucky enough to live. I even love it in the rain. And I adore my work."

It's the birthday of novelist Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father was a Lutheran preacher, and the family moved from one coal-mining town to another. Richter said: "My father, grandfather, uncle, and great uncles were preachers. Their fathers, however, had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers, and I think that in my passion for early American life and people I am a throwback to these."

Richter's wife, Harvena, was not in the best of health, and in 1928 the Richters uprooted and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the drier air would help her. There, Richter was charmed by stories of pioneer life in the Southwest and its land and folklore. He started writing longer fiction, and published his first novel, The Sea of Grass (1936), a story of cowboys and farmers in New Mexico at the turn of the century.

A neighbor in New Mexico, a longtime resident of Ohio, was fascinated by history, and the two men spent a lot of time talking about Ohio's pioneer days. One day, his neighbor brought Richter a couple of books. Richter said later: "They were heavy, well used, more than 1900 pages in all. I opened them with misgivings but found them packed with some of the most fascinating, authentic, and often firsthand accounts of pioneer life that I had ever read. For weeks I took notes but could not begin to set down a tenth of what interested me so I asked him if he would trade these two volumes for two of my own." These stories inspired him to write a trilogy of novels set in Ohio, The Awakening Land trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize. The books tell the story of Sayward Luckett, a young woman whose family strikes out for the wilderness of Ohio from Pennsylvania. When The Trees begins, Sayward is a 15-year-old girl who takes on the responsibility of her younger siblings after her mother dies; by the end of The Town, she is a wife and mother of seven children.

Richter never achieved the level of popular success he desired. After the disappointing sales figures of The Trees, his friend and editor Alfred A. Knopf offered an explanation: "I think you must reckon the archaic language which you deliberately adopted a commercial handicap. I don't question its artistic advisability mind you, but I think you must reckon on the sacrifice involved. I think also that The Trees suffered rather from lack of action and story, and gave the reader not enough narrative to bite into and something of the impression of being an overture rather than the main show." Also, Richter's brand of slow-moving historical fiction had some tough competition from more relevant contemporary novels — the best-sellers of the year 1940 included For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Richter, always anxious about money, was disappointed over and over again by the sales of his novels. These days, his novel The Light in the Forest (1953) is probably his most read book, because it is required reading in many middle or high schools.

In The Trees, Richter wrote: "Everywhere she went the trees stood around her like a great herd of dark beasts. Up and up shot the heavy butts of the live ones. Down and down every which way on the forest floor lay the thick rotting butts of the dead ones. Alive or dead, they were mostly grown over with moss. The light that came down here was dim and green. All day even in the cabin you lived in a green light."

It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud "Arna" Wendell Bontemps (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother's death when he was 12, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.

His second novel Black Thunder (1936) was about an actual slave uprising, and many people consider it his masterpiece. After Bontemps's third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African-American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African-American literature, editing such books as The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.

It's the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce (books by this author), born Leonard Schneider in the town of Mineola on New York's Long Island (1925). He got his start in comedy working as an emcee for a strip club, where he told jokes as he introduced the performers, and eventually he got his own show. At the time, comedians told jokes methodically, with a setup and a punch line, over and over. Bruce developed a new form of comedy where he just stood on stage and talked about things like politics, society, religion, and race; and he free-associated on those topics to make people laugh.

Bruce said, "The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds."

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




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