Monday, 8 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "An Ill Wind" by Louis Jenkins, from Sea Smoke © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

An Ill Wind

Today there's a cold northeast wind blowing, piling up ice all
along the water's edge. The Point is deserted, no one for five
miles down the beach. Just the way I like it. The sand is frozen
mostly, so the walking is easy as I pick my way through the
wrack and drift. Today I don't even leave footprints. Wind,
sand, sun and water. A simplicity that defies comprehension.
The barest essentials for the imagination's work. This shore has
been pretty much the same for ten thousand years. Countless
others have been here before me, musing and pondering, as
they walked down the beach and disappeared forever. So here's
what I'm thinking: wouldn't it be great if one of them dropped
a big roll of hundred dollar bills and I found it?


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954). His family moved to Great Britain when he was six years old. Though he didn't visit his home country again for more than thirty years, he wrote two novels about Japanese life, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986).

But he's best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a fastidious English butler who served under a Nazi sympathizer during the lead up to World War II. That novel won the Booker Prize. Ishiguro's most recent novel is When We Were Orphans, which came out in 2000.


It's the birthday of the poet Rachel Hadas, born in New York City (1948). She's the author of many collections of poetry, including Mirrors of Astonishment (1992) and The Empty Bed (1995). Her most recent collection, Laws, came out this year.


It's the birthday of Bram Stoker, born in Dublin, Ireland (1847). He was working as a clerk for the civil service when he saw an unknown actor named Henry Irving in a play that changed his life. He became obsessed with Irving's acting career, and began writing freelance reviews of every play in which Irving appeared. Eventually, Irving became one of the most famous Shakespearian actors of the era, and he invited Bram Stoker to be his manager at the Lyceum Theater in London.

Stoker became the devoted servant of Henry Irving, writing his speeches, ordering his lunches, and planning his every appointment. He was a hard worker and a meticulous bookkeeper and always kept the theater out of debt, and didn't have much ambition to do anything else. But one night, in 1890, he dreamt that a woman was trying to kiss him on the throat, and an elderly Count interrupted her shouting, "This man belongs to me!" Stoker woke up and immediately wrote about the dream in his diary. He couldn't get it out of his mind for weeks, and kept thinking about whom the Count might be.

Over the next several years, he began to make notes for a novel about the Count. He spent seven years gathering material, reading Transylvanian folklore, visiting graveyards, and studying the behavior of zoo animals. He named the Count after a Romanian historical figure, Vlad Dracula, remembered as the last warrior to defend Europe against the Turks after the fall of Constantinople.

Dracula came out in 1897 and got mixed reviews. It only became a minor best-seller in Stoker's lifetime. When he died in 1912, the obituaries about Stoker focused on his career in theater, and not a single one mentioned his authorship of Dracula. Stoker's wife made a fortune when the first Dracula movies started appearing in 1922, but she lost most of the money in the 1929 stock market crash. She used her remaining savings to build a bathroom in her basement, and she named the bathroom "Drac."

Count Dracula went on to become one of the most enduring fictional and cinematic characters of all time, appearing in more than 250 movies. Today there is a World Dracula Congress, many Dracula societies, and Romania has recently developed a tourist trade around Dracula, leading tours of Vlad Dracula's castle, where visitors can purchase Dracula goblets, Draculina soft drinks, paintings of Dracula, and bottles of blood red Vodka.


It's the birthday of the author of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1900). She spent almost her entire life in Atlanta, where everyone's grandparents told stories about the Old South and the War Between the States. She started writing fiction, and had written short stories and novels by the time she was a teenager, but she decided she wasn't good enough, so she gave up. She went to Smith College for a year and studied psychiatry, but moved back home when her mother became ill.

She was an independent and controversial young lady. The Atlanta Junior League rejected her application for membership because she'd once performed a risqué dance at a debutante ball that scandalized everyone in attendance. She married a wild bootlegger named Red Upshaw, who later became the basis of the character Rhett Butler, but when he turned violent she divorced him and married his best friend.

She got a job as a reporter, and wrote a series of stories about Georgia women who'd broken conventions, including a woman who'd disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. The articles resulted in a barrage of angry letters from readers who said Mitchell was defaming Georgian womanhood. So she gave up on feminist journalism and started writing about Confederate history. While working on a story about Confederate General Henry Benning, she became fascinated by the story of his wife, who struggled to keep the family plantation in operation and nursed wounded Confederate soldiers in her house.

In 1926, Mitchell injured her ankle, which forced her to quit her job as a reporter. Her husband brought her books to read from the library during her recovery, and then one day he brought home a stack of copy paper and a typewriter as a present. He told her that there was hardly a book left in the library she hadn't read, so she better write one of her own. She worked on her novel for years, writing the chapters out of order, and poring over history books so she could get all the historical details right. She documented at least four sources for every historical event she referenced.

Mitchell was still working on the rough draft when the editor for Macmillan, who was in Atlanta looking for publishable manuscripts, heard about her book. He contacted her, but she denied having written anything. Then, just before he was to leave the city, she showed up at his hotel with the five-foot pile of paper. She later said, "I just couldn't believe that a Northern publisher would accept a novel about the War Between the States from the Southern point of view."

Macmillan editors said Mitchell's manuscript was in terrible shape, with more than 1000 pages of faded and dog-eared paper, poorly typed and with penciled changes. But they loved the story. They asked Mitchell to change the original title "Tomorrow Is Another Day" because at the time there were already thirteen books in print with the word "Tomorrow" in the title. They also asked her to change the main character's name from Pansy to Scarlett.

Gone with the Wind broke all publication records. It sold 50,000 copies in one day, a million copies in six months, and two million by the end of the year. The sales of the book were even more impressive because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. The hardcover of the novel cost three dollars a copy, which was fairly expensive at the time. Its sales injected millions of dollars into the publishing industry. The year it came out, employees at the Macmillan publishing company received Christmas benefits for the first time in nearly a decade.

Gone with the Wind was translated into almost forty languages. Margaret Mitchell was particularly proud that it was banned in Nazi-occupied Europe during the war and that black market copies sold for high prices among members of the French Resistance, who identified strongly with Scarlett O'Hara.

Margaret Mitchell became one of the most famous writers in America. She was the victim of rumors she was insane, that she had a wooden leg, that her husband had really written Gone with the Wind, that she had paid author Sinclair Lewis to write the book for her, that she was dying of leukemia, and that she was going blind.

Mitchell never wrote another novel, but spent the rest of her life answering fan mail and doing charity work. In 1945, she had a premonition and wrote to a friend, "I'm going to die in a car-crash. I feel very certain of this." Four years later, she was crossing the street with her husband, when a drunk driver struck and killed her. Two collections of her early writing have been published: Before Scarlett: Girlhood Writings of Margaret Mitchell and Margaret Mitchell: Reporter, both of which came out in 2000.




TUESDAY, 9 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Feasting" by Elizabeth W. Garber, from Pierced by the Seasons © The Illuminated Sea Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Feasting

I am so amazed to find myself kissing you
with such abandon,
filling myself with our kisses
astounding hunger for edges of lips and tongue.
Returning to feast again and again,
our bellies never overfilling from this banquet.
Returning in surprise,
in remembering,
in rediscovering,
such play of flavors of gliding lips
and forests of pressures and spaces.
The spaces between the branches
as delicious as finding the grove of lilies of the valley
blossoming just outside my door under the ancient oak.
"I've never held anyone this long," you said,
the second time you entered my kitchen.
I am the feast this kitchen was blessed to prepare
waiting for you to enter open mouthed in awe
in the mystery we've been given,
our holy feast.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The attack was inspired by the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew in Paris. When Hitler heard the news, he got the idea to stage a mass uprising in response. He and Joseph Goebbels contacted storm troopers around the country, and told them to attack Jewish buildings but to make the attacks look like spontaneous demonstrations. The police were told not to interfere with the demonstrators, but instead to arrest the Jewish victims. Fire fighters were told only to put out fires in any adjacent Aryan properties. Everyone cooperated.

In all, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Many of the attackers were neighbors of the victims. The Nazis confiscated any compensation claims that insurance companies paid to Jews. They also imposed a huge collective fine on the Jewish community for having supposedly incited the violence. The event was used to justify barring Jews from schools and most public places, and forcing them to adhere to new curfews. In the days following, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps.

The event was called Kristallnacht, which means, "Night of Broken Glass." It's generally considered the official beginning of the Holocaust. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.


It's the birthday of the poet, playwright and novelist James Schuyler, born in Chicago (1923). When he was fifteen years old, he went camping by himself in Upstate New York. Sitting in his tent, he read a book about Walt Whitman, and he said, "I looked up from my book, and the whole landscape seemed to shimmer." From that moment on, he decided to be a poet.

He is associated with the New York School of poetry, along with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, though he actually didn't care for New York City and spent most of his life in Maine. He's known for his conversational poems, which read like beautiful grocery lists and notes to himself. In one poem, he wrote,

"There is a hornet in the room
and one of us will have to go
out the window into the late
August midafternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge
in being humane to hornets
but not much."
His many books of poetry include Hymn to Life (1974) and The Morning of the Poem (1980). His Collected Poems came out in 1993.


It's the birthday of the poet Anne Sexton, born Anne Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts (1928). She said of her childhood, "I was locked in my room until the age of five. After that...at home, or away from it, people seemed out of reach. Thus I hid in fairy tales and read them daily like a prayer-book. Any book was closer than a person. I did not even like my dolls for they resembled people."

She never went to college, eloped when she was nineteen, and became a suburban 1950's housewife. She was twenty-eight when she had her first nervous breakdown. After a suicide attempt, her psychiatrist advised her to try to writing poetry as therapy. She did, and the following year she took a poetry seminar with the poet Robert Lowell, who admired her work. Within a few years of having written her first poems, she had published her work in more than forty magazines, including Harpers and The New Yorker.

For the rest of her life, she was in and out of mental institutions, on and off psychiatric drugs, and she said that poetry was the only thing that kept her alive. She said, "My fans think I got well, but I didn't: I just became a poet."

Most critics consider her best poems to be those in her first two books To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962). Her collection Live or Die (1966) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She committed suicide in 1974.

Anne Sexton said, "Poetry is my love, my postmark, my hands, my kitchen, my face."


It's the birthday of the astronomer Carl Sagan, born in Brooklyn, New York (1934). He said, "I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light." He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn't see any buildings, trees, or anything else but stars. He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only sixteen.

He became a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the Universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet earth.

Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said, "It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!"

In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II. The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn't believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, "Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask."

Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras. He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close up photographs of the outer planets and their moons. Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science, to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to the public's sense of wonder.

He was one of the first scientists to appear on the Johnny Carson show, and he became a regular guest, appearing twenty-five times. He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of over half a billion people in sixty countries, the most popular scientific television program ever produced. His book based on the series spent seventy weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977) about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985) which was made into a movie. He even had an asteroid named after him.

Carl Sagan said, "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

And, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."




WEDNESDAY, 10 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem:"Banking Rules" by James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys © Harper Collins, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Banking Rules

I was standing in line at the bank and
the fellow in front of me was humming. The
line was long and slow, and after a while
the humming began to irritate me. I said to
the fellow, "Excuse me, would you mind not
humming." And he said, "Was I humming?
I'm sorry I didn't realize it." And he went
right on humming. I said, "Sir, you're
humming again." "Me, humming?" he said.
"I don't think so." And then he went on
humming. I was about to blow my lid. Instead,
I went to find the manager. I said, "See
that man over there in the blue suit?" "Yes,"
he said, "what about him?" "He won't stop
humming," I said, "I've asked him politely
several times, but he won't stop." "There's
no crime in humming," he said. I went back
and took my place in line. I listened, but
there was nothing coming out of him. I said,
"Are you okay, pal?" He looked mildly peeved,
and gave me no reply. I felt myself shrinking.
The manager of the bank walked briskly up
to me and said, "Sir, are you aware of the
fact that you're shrinking?" I said I was.
And he said, "I'm afraid we don't allow that
kind of behavior in this bank. I have to ask
you to leave." The air was whistling out
of me, I was almost gone.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living writing poetry. He became a vagabond, wandering across the country, trading his poetry for food. He said, "I will never forget the easy, dreaming Kentucky and the droning bees in the blue grass...and the queer feeling of being the family disgrace."

In 1913 Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).


It's the birthday of Oliver Goldsmith, born in Pallas, County Longford, Ireland (1730). He only wrote for fifteen years, but he produced everything from essays to poetry to fiction and plays. He's best remembered for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his long poem The Deserted Village (1770), and his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

He said, "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine."


It's the birthday of German playwright Friedrich Von Schiller born in Marbach, Germany (1759). One of the most important playwrights of German literature, he's best known for his historical plays, Don Carlos (1787) and Wallenstein (1798). He began writing at a time when Germans were jealous of the literary works being produced by England, France, and Italy. Among Germans there was talk that the German language itself might not be appropriate for literature. When Schiller appeared on the scene, Germans were so grateful to have a major literary figure that they revered him as if he were a god.

Schiller grew up in a part of Germany that was ruled by a Duke who saw himself as the absolute dictator. Schiller wanted to enter the clergy as a young man, but the Duke forced him to enter a military academy where he was forbidden to leave school, receive visitors, or write letters. While living under these conditions, he began to write his first play, The Robbers (1781), about a noble man who drops out of society and join a band of criminals.

Schiller secretly sent the play to a theater director outside of the Duke's jurisdiction, and the play began to break all box office records. When the Duke learned of it, he had Schiller jailed for two weeks and forbid him to ever write again. So Schiller deserted the army, a capital offense at the time, and went into hiding. He eventually became so successful that the Duke gave up on trying to capture him.

Schiller once attended a performance of his play The Maid of Orleans (1824), and after the first act, the audience began to shout, "Long live Schiller!" He got a standing ovation, and as he left the theater, everyone fell silent, bowing their heads and removing their hats, clearing a path before him. Parents held their children up to see him.

Schools in Germany are named after him, there are many monuments raised in his memory, and today Germans are celebrating his birthday as a national holiday.


It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. Between the years of 1516 to 1546, he published an article on religion every other week, totaling more than sixty thousand pages. It has been estimated that during his writing life, his published writings made up twenty percent of all the literature being published in Germany at the time.

In addition to his own writing, Luther spent much of his late life working on a translation of the Bible into German. There had been a few German translations before his, but they were purely literal translations. He wanted to appeal to average people, and he tried to use words that would be understood by common Germans. He said, "[The translator] must ask the mother at home, children in the street, the common man in the market and look them in the mouth, and listen to how they speak, then translate accordingly."

Toward the end of his life, Luther began to regret how many books he had written. He said, "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing. . . . I wish that all my books were consigned to perpetual oblivion."

Today, most of Luther's writings are only read by theologians, but his words survive in his popular hymns. He knew that many people couldn't read, and he believed hymns could communicate ideas more broadly. He also just loved music. He said, "My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary." His hymns are sung in churches throughout the world.

Martin Luther said, "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."


It's the birthday of Karl Shapiro, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1913). He became famous at an early age for his poems about World War II. His collection of war poetry V-Letter and Other Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. He spent the rest of his career trying to prove that he was more than a war poet. When other poets were disgusted by the modern world, he wrote poems celebrating things like Buicks, drug stores, and Hollywood.

He put himself at odds with most other poets of his generation by attacking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a famous essay he wrote in 1959, he said poetry was a diseased art and the carriers of the disease were Eliot and Pound. He called them the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of modern poetry.

Many of Shapiro's contemporaries, such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, died young or killed themselves. Shapiro outlived them all. The Journal of the American Medical Association mistakenly included him in a list of writers who had committed suicide, and in 1978, the New York Times crossword puzzle used his name as the answer for the clue "late U.S. poet." He went on living for more than a decade, and titled his 1990 autobiography Reports of My Death. His last collection The Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early and Late came out in 1998.

Karl Shapiro said, "Poetry is a separate language. It's a language in which you never really come to the point. You're always at an angle."


It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman, born in Portchester, England (1960). He writes serious comic books and turns them into graphic novels. Growing up in England, he knew what comic books were, but the comic books published in England weren't very exciting. One day, a friend of his father gave him a box of old DC and Marvel comic books from America, and he fell in love with them. He stayed up late every night, reading them by the light from the hallway.

He said, "The most important dreams, the most manipulable of cultural icons, are those that we received when we were too young to judge or analyze." He wanted to take those icons of his youth and write about them in a serious, literary way.

In 1987, DC Comics let Gaiman pick one of their old, failed comic book characters and revive him. Gaiman chose a character called the Sandman, who uses sleeping gas to catch criminals. Gaiman kept the name but changed everything else, turning the character into the god of both dreams and stories.

He chose different artists to draw the seventy-five issues, and he filled the series with references to myths, folklore and literature, especially Shakespeare. In 1991, a single issue of The Sandman called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award.

People like Stephen King and Norman Mailer became fans of the Sandman series, and it was also one of the first comic books to appeal to women. The seventy-five issues were collected and published in ten volumes, the first of which was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991). It launched the graphic novel as a serious art form.




THURSDAY, 11 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Diner" by Louis Jenkins, from Sea Smoke © Holy Cow! Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Diner

The time has come to say goodbye, our plates empty except
for our greasy napkins. Comrades, you on my left, balding,
middle-aged guy with a ponytail, and you, Lefty, there on my
right, though we barely spoke I feel our kinship. You were
steadfast in passing the ketchup, the salt and pepper, no man
could ask for better companions. Lunch is over, the cheese-
burger and fries, the Denver sandwich, the counter nearly
empty. Now we must go our separate ways. Not a fond embrace,
but perhaps a hearty handshake. No? Well then, farewell. It is
unlikely I'll pass this way again. Unlikely we will all meet again
on this earth, to sit together beneath the neon and fluorescent
calmly sipping our coffee, like the sages sipping their tea
underneath the willow, sitting quietly, saying nothing.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces.

November 11 was originally called Armistice Day because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. The armistice was signed at 11:00 AM, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. After four years of brutal trench fighting, nine million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded.

It was called "The War to End All Wars," because it was the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and it made many people so sick of war that they hoped no war would ever break out again.

Many intellectuals and artists were disillusioned by the war and thought it had been meaningless. But President Woodrow Wilson believed that the United States' participation in World War I was a great victory for idealism. He said, "The Americans who went to Europe to die are a unique breed. Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, which they knew was the cause of humanity and mankind. These Americans gave the greatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit."


It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990) and, most recently, Timequake (1997). His family was descended from German immigrants, and both of his parents were fluent in German, but they did not teach the language to Kurt because he was born at a time when Americans still considered Germans an enemy from World War I. Vonnegut said, "[My parents] volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism."

His father forced him to go to college to study biochemistry, though he wanted to be a journalist. Vonnegut said, "[College] was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for." He was failing almost all of his classes when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he jumped at the chance to join the army and get out of school.

In December of 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and forced to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that burned up the oxygen in the city and killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners only survived because they slept in a meat locker three stories below the ground. When they walked outside, they were practically the only living people in a city that had burned to the ground.

After the war, Vonnegut started publishing fiction about the dangers of technology, but his work wasn't taken seriously. He said, "I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction'...and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

While writing other books, he kept trying to work on a novel about the bombing of Dresden. At one point he drew a diagram of the book's plot on the back of a roll of wallpaper. Finally, in 1967, he published Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said, "[I knew] after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn't have to write at all anymore if I didn't want to...I suppose that flowers, when they're through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served."

Slaughterhouse-Five was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and the book made Vonnegut a hero among the war protesters. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers." He has since become one of the most popular guest lecturers at universities across the country.

Kurt Vonnegut said, "We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms...only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash."


It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, born in Moscow (1821). He started out as a fairly ordinary, mostly political writer who attacked the evils of the Russian bureaucracy. Then in 1849, the Russian government arrested him along with a group of other writers for planning to distribute political pamphlets advocating socialism and the emancipation of the serfs. Czar Nicholas I decided to teach this group of writers a lesson. They were told that they had been sentenced to death by firing squad, but they were actually sentenced to prison for four years.

In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky wrote, "They made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death. Thereupon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution. Being the third in the row, I concluded I had only a few minutes of life before me. I thought of you and your dear ones and I contrived to kiss [my friends] who were next to me, and to bid them farewell. Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold, and informed that his Majesty had spared our lives." Two of Dostoevsky's friends never recovered their sanity.

After four years in prison, Dostoevsky began to write the novels that set him apart from other Russian realist writers. He called his work fantastic realism, because he tried to write the kinds of stories that would appear in sensationalist newspapers. He wrote about a paranoid man living in his basement in Notes from Underground (1864). He wrote about a college student who murders his landlady in Crime and Punishment (1886). And he wrote about a father who is murdered by one of his sons in The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

Fyodor Dostoevsky said, "You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days."




FRIDAY, 12 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "an art student at a certain stage," by Gerald Locklin, from The Modigliani/Montparnasse Poems (dOOm-AH Books).

an art student at a certain stage

she hisses at her elders,
"he is not considered major nowadays."

i want to ask her why she cares
what he's considered,
why she cares what her guests
think of him,
how highly she herself feels
he should be esteemed,
and whether she does not find often
that she disagrees with those who drive
her to the passive (though aggressive)
voice.

but we have all been students once,
and it's a terrifying thing to be,
so impressed by the glib self-assurance
of the arbiters of fashion,
and as such so easily enlisted into the
(temporary) ranks of the cultural terrorists.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and short story writer Tracy Kidder, born in New York City (1945). He served in the Vietnam War and came back to write the short story "The Death of Major Great" (1974), about a group of soldiers who kill their commanding officer. The story was published in the Atlantic Monthly and launched his career as a writer. But instead of continuing to write stories, he decided that the best use of his talent would be to describe the real world in non-fiction. After a book about a murder trial that he considered a failure, he focused his attention on the growing industry of computers. He spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer, which they said would revolutionize the world. He wasn't sure he believed them, but he wrote about the engineers anyway, describing the way they talked, what they looked like, their rituals, frustrations and desires. He described the engineers as, "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement." He said, "They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." His book The Soul of a New Machine was published in 1981. It was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Kidder went on to write many more books, including House (1985), about the world of carpenters and house building, and Among Schoolchildren (1989), about the education industry. His most recent book is Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003).


It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, born in Cherbourg, France (1915). His father was killed in World War I, and his mother struggled to support the family, working as a bookbinder. Barthes did well in school and wanted to be a professor of literature and philosophy, but he came down with tuberculosis as a young man. Because of his frequent relapses, and the periods of time he had to spend in sanitariums, he couldn't hold down a teaching job. So instead of writing long books about great works of literature, he began to support himself by writing short essays about popular culture. He was one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, "I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and...it's been pretty fun." He greatly expanded the scope of cultural studies, and it is partially thanks to him that college students can now take classes on subjects like Bugs Bunny. His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970). Barthes said, "Literature is the question minus the answer."


It's the birthday of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, born in New York City (1943). He's best known as a character actor in Hollywood movies such as The Princess Bride (1987), and Clueless (1995), but he's also one of the most experimental modern playwrights in America. His father was William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker magazine from 1952 to 1987. Wallace grew up surrounded by the New York literary society, and he became an excessively sophisticated kid. In grade school he wrote puppet plays about the fall of Chinese dynasties, and he wrote a puppet adaptation of Paradise Lost that went on for hours. But when he grew up, most people found his plays too strange. He said of his first play, Four Meals in May (1967), "[I thought it was] the answer to the war in Vietnam. I thought they would rename the country after me when people saw that play! . . . [But they acted] as if they'd been given a handful of blank pieces of paper."

Shawn continued writing plays that either had no plot, or were so violent and disturbing that no one would produce them. He has said of his early plays that they are characterized mostly by "weeping and vomiting." His first play to receive a full production was Our Late Night (1975), in which a series of casual conversations at a cocktail party gradually reveal deeply disturbing things about the characters' sex lives. At the premier of the play, members of the audience were so disturbed that they started shouting for the characters to shut up. One audience member tried to climb onstage and attack one of the actors. When his play A Thought in Three Parts (1977) was produced in London, its sexual content caused such controversy that Shawn was almost deported from Great Britain.

At the end of the 1970s, Shawn felt he was running out of ideas, so he collaborated on a play with the experimental theater director Andre Gregory. The two got together and recorded their conversations about theater and life, and Shawn used the conversations as the basis for a script about two friends having a conversation over dinner. The script was made into the 1981 movie My Dinner With Andre, and even though the entire movie consists of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sitting at a dinner table talking, it was a big success. He's since gone on to write several more plays, including The Designated Mourner (1996), his most recent. Shawn said, "I really don't think there is very much honor in a life devoted to writing, unless that writing can do something awfully unusual, awfully necessary."


It's the birthday of the founder of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). He was seriously wounded in World War I. During his recovery he read hundreds of magazines, and he began to realize that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He compiled a sample issue of the first Reader's Digest and spent years trying to sell the idea to publishers in New York, but they all turned him down. He would have given up, but he was fired from his job and figured he didn't have anything to lose. He moved to New York to publish the magazine on his own, and when he arrived he ran into a woman he had known years before named Lila Bell Acheson. He told her about his idea and she decided to help him get it off the ground. They marketed the magazine themselves from a basement underneath a Greenwich Village speakeasy, and while working on the magazine they fell in love and got married. Just before they left on their honeymoon, they sent out several hundred circulars advertising subscriptions, and when they got back, they had 1,500 subscribers. The first issue came out in February, 1922. People didn't think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal, but Wallace had a talent for finding those stories that appealed to the widest number of people. By the end of the decade, Reader's Digest was one of the most profitable magazines in the country, and it is now one of the most widely read magazines in the world.




SATURDAY, 13 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Where Go the Boats," by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Where Go the Boats

Dark brown is the river,
    Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
    With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
    Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
    Where will all come home?

On goes the river
    And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
    Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
    A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
    Shall bring my boats ashore.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He began to suffer from a lung disease at a very early age. He said, "My recollections of the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing are only relieved by thoughts of the tenderness of my nurse." His nurse stayed up with him at night when he couldn't sleep and told him all kinds of stories about ghosts and monsters and pirates. His father was an engineer who specialized in building lighthouses, and Stevenson studied engineering himself until he dropped out of school and became a bohemian, hanging out with seamen, chimneysweeps and thieves. He wanted to live a life of adventure, to sail the high seas, but his poor health forced him to move to France, where the weather was supposed to be better. One night, he was passing by the window of a house when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of friends. He stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne, and when she traveled back to the United States, he followed her all the way to San Francisco, and finally married her there.

Stevenson and his wife traveled constantly during the years of their marriage, looking for a climate to improve his health. They tried Switzerland, Scotland, France, England, and even New Jersey. Stevenson's health kept declining, people called him "Bag of Bones," but he wrote constantly on trains, in boats, and in his bed, coughing. He once said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." They finally settled on the Pacific island of Samoa.

One day in the summer of 1881, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island for his stepson, and the map gave him an idea for the novel Treasure Island (1883). He finished it in a few weeks, and was happy to get the hundred pound payment, never realizing that the book would become one of the most popular adventure stories of all time, with one of literature's most famous villains, the one-legged pirate Long John Silver. A few years later, he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) in a single week. Despite his productivity, he believed strongly in the benefits of idleness. He said, "A faculty for idleness implies . . . a strong sense of personal identity."

Stevenson's contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Henry James considered him an equal, and G.K. Chesterton wrote, "All his images stand out in sharp outline. . . . It is as if [the words] were cut out with cutlasses." But with the rise of modern fiction and its emphasis on psychology and emotion rather than action, critics began to look down on Stevenson as merely a children's writer of adventure stories. One of the few modern writers who claimed Stevenson as an influence was Jorge Luis Borges, who said, "If you don't like Stevenson, there must be something wrong with you."


It's the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia (354), a part of North Africa that is now Algeria. His father was a wealthy Roman landowner, living on the outer edge of the Roman Empire, and his mother was a local tribeswoman. Augustine grew up thinking of his father as a tyrant and his mother as a saint. He lived at a time when the Roman Empire was beginning to decline, and there were new religions cropping up everywhere. His mother was a Christian, but he went away to college in Carthage and got involved in a new religion called Manichaeism, which taught that the universe was controlled by two equal but opposing forces, one good and one evil. When he came home from college, and his mother found out about his new religion, she was so disgusted that she threw him out of the house. He went to live with a rich friend and started living the high life, trying to get over his mother's rejection. He made a name for himself as an orator, and he spent most of his free time out on the town, spending his friend's money on expensive goods and on women. Then, without warning, his rich friend fell sick and died. Augustine was shocked to learn that his friend had received the Christian sacrament on his deathbed. He thought his friend was a Manichaean like him. The incident plunged Augustine into a deep depression. He wrote, "Darkness fell upon my heart, and wherever I looked there was only death."

Augustine moved to Rome to try to escape his grief. He started having doubts about Manichaeism, because it said nothing about life after death. He got a job as a lawyer and continued to live a life he knew his mother disapproved of, keeping a mistress and having a baby out of wedlock. But eventually he started reading about Christianity. A friend gave him a book of St. Paul's Epistles, and he had the book with him one day in the garden when he heard a child's voice in the street say, "Take up and read." He opened the book and the first words he read were "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and take no care for the flesh in its desires." He was instantly converted. He said, "It was as though the light of salvation had been poured into my heart."

Augustine wanted to live the rest of his life in quiet meditation, but when he visited the city of Hippo, near his hometown, the parishioners there forced him to become a priest and replace their aging bishop. He accepted the post out of fear for his safety, but he regretted for the rest of his life that he had been forced to take time away from reading and writing to perform the duties of a bishop, stranded in such a provincial town. At the time, Christians were spread so far and wide across the Roman Empire that there was a lot of diversity in their beliefs. Augustine became a famous theologian in part because he spoke out against this diversity, arguing that all Christian churches should follow the doctrine of the central church in Rome. It is partially due to his writings that the Catholic Church did not break up into separate churches for another thousand years. Augustine especially attacked the group of Christians known as Donatists, who believed that the only true Christians were those people who lived their lives completely free of sin. Augustine argued that no one could possibly be free from sin, because sinfulness is the very nature of humans. He developed the idea of original sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins.

Augustine used himself as an example of sinfulness by writing The Confessions (c. 400), one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion, everything from crying over a fictional character in a poem, to stealing pears from a neighbor's tree, to his sexual fantasies and exploits. He wrote, "Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. [Lust] stormed confusedly within me. . . . The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over." He believed that people could never hope to be innocent, and so their only hope lay in God's forgiveness. His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is because of him that many Christian churches still baptize infants, to cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.




SUNDAY, 14 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "April Day in November, Edinburgh," by Norman MacCaig, from Collected Poems (Chatto and Windus).

April Day in November, Edinburgh

The sun punches through the cloud gaps
with strong fists and the wind
buffets the buildings
with boisterous good will.

Bad memories are blown away
over the capering sea. Life
pulls up without straining
the jungle tangle between us
and the future.

Easy to forget
the last leaves thicken the ground
and the last roses are dying
in their sad, cramped hospitals.

For gaiety's funfair whirls
in the gray squares. Energy
sends volts from suburb to suburb.

And April, gay trespasser,
dances the dark streets of November,
Pied Piper leading a procession
of the coloured dreams of summer.


Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick , by Herman Melville, about a ship captain named Ahab who is obsessed with hunting the great white sperm whale that took his leg. The book had been published in Britain in October with the title The Whale; Melville's decision to change the title didn't get there in time. The American version of the book had crowded pages and ugly binding, but the English version was done in three beautiful volumes with bright blue and white covers. It also had gold stamps of whales, but they were the wrong kind: they were shaped like Greenland whales—humpbacks or gray whales—instead of sperm whales. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how the narrator lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. Melville never fully recovered from the disappointment.

In America, Moby-Dick sold for $1.50. One reviewer said the book wasn't worth more than 25 cents. It took only two weeks for the publisher to see that Moby-Dick would sell even fewer copies than Melville's previous books. In his lifetime, Melville's royalties added up to a total of about $10,000. These days, college students buy 20,000 copies of Moby-Dick every year.

Melville said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."


It's the birthday of the woman who wrote about the adventures of a girl named Pippi Långstrump, or, as we know her in English, Pippi Longstocking: Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, was born Astrid Ericsson on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907). One day in 1944, Lindgren sprained her ankle, and while she was stuck in bed she wrote down the Pippi Longstocking stories she'd been telling her children for years. She wanted to give a copy to her daughter Karin for her tenth birthday. Astrid Lindgren was so happy with her work that she sent it to a publisher, and in 1945, Pippi Longstocking was published. Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with no parents who lives in a red house at the edge of a Swedish village with her horse and her pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson. She has red pigtails, and she wears one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. She eats whole chocolate cakes and sleeps with her feet on the pillow, and she's the strongest girl in the world. The sequels to Pippi Longstocking include Pippi Goes on Board (1946) and Pippi in the South Seas (1948). Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books are her most popular, but she wrote more than 115 others, including detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy novels, and realistic fiction. Her books have sold 80 million copies and have been translated into Arabic, Armenian, Vietnamese, and Zulu. Lindgren died last year in Stockholm. She was 94. When she was asked what she wanted for her 94th birthday, she said, "Peace on earth and nice clothes."


It's the birthday of cartoonist and author William Steig, born in New York City (1907). When he was 23, The New Yorker bought one of his cartoons for $40. It was 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, and his father had lost his job. William said he wanted "to be a professional athlete, or to go to sea like Melville," but he earned $4,500 his first year as a cartoonist, which he used to support the family. His cartoons are collected in books such as Small Fry (1944), Spinky Sulks (1988), and Our Miserable Life (1990). In 1990 he wrote Shrek! , about a green ogre whose name means "fear" in Yiddish and who has nightmares about fields of flowers and happy children who won't stop hugging and kissing him. In March, Steig published his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat, a picture-book memoir about what it was like to be eight years old in 1916.


It's the birthday of poet Norman Alexander MacCaig, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1910). He worked as a primary school teacher for more than 30 years, and he became one of Scotland's most esteemed poets. His books include Riding Lights (1955) and Tree of Strings (1977).






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