Friday

Mar. 28, 2014

Why I Love Swimming Pools

by Faith Shearin

I grew up in a resort town where they were
as frequent as houses. I love their false blue

which is more vivid than the sky and their shapes:
rectangle, L, oval, diamond. Some have waterfalls,

palm trees that rustle just above your head.
I like the smell of chlorine, the ladies

in sunglasses as still as human sacrifices
on their chaise lounges. There are umbrellas,

those swirls of happiness, and lifeguards dressed
in eternal youth. We wear sunscreen

thick with coconut oil and the rooms where we change
into swimsuits are like the telephone booths

Superman used. Like him we are different in our new form:
weightless, able to jump from high places and survive.

"Why I Love Swimming Pools" by Faith Shearin from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Lauren Weisberger (books by this author), born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1977. Weisberger majored in English, spent a summer backpacking around Europe and Asia after graduation, then moved back to the U.S. and landed a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. After she left Vogue, she worked as an assistant editor at Departures magazine, then took some writing classes and started to work on a book. It became The Devil Wears Prada, which contains a pretty straightforward autobiographical narrative about Weisberger's experiences as a personal assistant at Vogue magazine: The main character, Andy Sachs, aspires to be a writer, moves to New York City, and gets a job at a fashion magazine working as the personal assistant to the despotic and domineering editor. The Devil Wears Prada spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in 2003.

Her advice to young unpublished writers is this: "It's all about setting aside just a little time to write each week. ... Figure out what works and make it completely non-negotiable."

It's is the birthday of Nelson Algren (books by this author), born Nelson Algren Abraham in Detroit (1909). He grew up in Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods. He became known as a writer of Chicago. "People ask me why I don't write about nature or the suburbs," he once said. "If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

Algren's older sister, Bernice, helped him pay for college, because his parents couldn't understand why he wanted more schooling, and couldn't have afforded it anyway. He got a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and then hit the road. It was the Great Depression, and he was trying to find work just like everyone else. He worked as a door-to-door salesman and an itinerant farm worker in the Southwest, and wrote his first story while working at a run-down gas station in Texas. He was picked up for vagrancy in El Paso and spent some time in jail for stealing a typewriter from a school. He slowly made his way back to Chicago by hitchhiking, hopping trains, or just walking. His life, and work, would never be the same. He had tried to play by the rules and just couldn't get ahead, and from then on he identified with the down and out.

He returned to Chicago, where he worked for the WPA, and wrote his first two novels: Somebody in Boots (1935), which was based on his experiences in Texas, and Never Come Morning (1942), a realistic portrayal of poverty and crime that was banned by the Chicago Public Library. He married Amanda Kontowicz, whom he would later divorce, and then remarry, and then divorce again. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army medical corps, and published a collection of short stories upon his return. And in 1950, he had his first popular success with The Man with the Golden Arm, about a poker dealer battling drug addiction. It won the National Book Award and was later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

In 1951, he wrote a lyrical portrait of his home: the book-length essay Chicago: City on the Make. He spins a tale of crime and corruption, and the Chicago Chamber of Commerce wasn't too crazy about it, but in the end, it's a fond portrait as well as a scathing one. He writes: "Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

It's also the birthday of a man who counts Algren among his heroes: poet, novelist, and short-story writer Russell Banks (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He wrote: "At a university, you study books that can be deconstructed, not books that can change your life. Algren's books can change your life, and this kind of book you always have to discover on your own."

His father abandoned the family when Russell was 12, and the boy was forced to help out his mother with family finances. He was a bright student, and won a scholarship to Colgate, becoming the first in his family to go to college. But he dropped out after only eight weeks, feeling that he didn't fit in among the privileged preppies, "the sons of the captains of American industry," as he called them. He left the North for Mexico and Florida and intended to join Castro's rebellious army, but he ended up in Florida fishing, writing, and working as a gas station attendant. By his early 20s, he was married and had a daughter, but the relationship ended in divorce when he was 22. He later called this period "the terrible years."

When he was 24, he went back to college, entering the University of North Carolina, and this time around he felt well adjusted and was a good student.

He wrote a novel, Hamilton Stark (1978), in which he experimented with narration techniques and perspective, using shifting points of view to frame the story. His novel Continental Drift (1985) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and called by Atlantic reviewer James Atlas "the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America: its greed, its uprootedness, its indifference to the past. This is a novel about the way we live now."

Banks' latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin (2011) — a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction — was inspired by an encampment of sex offenders living under a causeway near Banks' Miami high-rise apartment.

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

 









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