Monday, 29 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "This Is the Hay That No Man Planted" by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Printed with the permission of the estate of Elizabeth Coatsworth.

This Is the Hay That No Man Planted

This is the hay that no man planted,
This is the ground that was never plowed,
Watered by tides, cold and brackish,
Shadowed by fog and the sea-born cloud.

Here comes no sound of bobolink's singing,
Only the wail of the gull's long cry,
Where men now reap as they reap their meadows
Heaping the great gold stacks to dry.

All winter long when deep pile the snowdrifts,
And cattle stand in the dark all day,
Many a cow shall taste pale sea-weed
Twined in the stalks of the wild salt hay.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the birthday of three writers known for their books for children: Louisa May Alcott, Madeline L'Engle and C. S. Louis.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832). She had started out writing these sensational stories about duels and suicides, opium addiction, mind control, bigamy and murder. She called it "blood and thunder" literature and she said, "I seem to have a natural ambition for the lurid style." She published under male pseudonyms to keep from embarrassing her family.

But in 1867, an editor suggested that she try writing what he called "a girl's book," and she said she'd try. The result was Little Women (1868), which was based mostly on her own family and her own experience as an aspiring writer. In the book, the character Alcott based on herself decides to give up writing sensationalist stories in order to pursue great literature. But in fact, Alcott was miserable that Little Women was so successful that she was obligated to keep writing more books in the same vein. Ten years after Little Women came out, she wrote in her diary, "[I'm so] tired of providing moral pap for the young."

It was only in 1975 that much of the work she published under pseudonyms was republished in the collection Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Scholars had long assumed that it must have been trash, but when they actually read her "blood and thunder" novels, the caused a whole critical reassessment of Alcott the writer.


Madeleine L'Engle was born in New York City (1918). She grew up with parents who were deeply in love with each other, but who didn't give her much attention. She spent most of her time alone, reading, or living in her imagination. When she was twelve, her parents took her to Switzerland. She thought they were just visiting, but while they were there, her parents brought her to a boarding school and left her there. She said, "I shook hands with the matron, and they vanished."

Around the same time, she began writing fiction. She said, "I think that my characters came to me because I didn't have any family, and I wanted to have a family, and it was the only way I could get it.

After school, she moved back to her hometown of New York City and became part of the artistic community. For a while, she lived in an apartment beneath the young Leonard Bernstein. She got involved in theater and tried acting but most of all she worked on becoming a writer. She published a few novels and then suddenly everything she wrote was rejected.

On her fortieth birthday, she got another rejection letter and decided to give up writing all together. She covered up her typewriter and started crying, but when she noticed that her brain was trying to turn this experience into a story, she realized that she had no choice but to go on writing.

All of Madeline L'Engle's books had dealt with more or less ordinary families and ordinary situations, but after reading about the ideas of Albert Einstein, she produced her masterpiece, a science fiction novel called A Wrinkle in Time (1962) about a group of children who have to rescue their father from a planet where individuality has been outlawed.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 different publishers, who all felt that the book was too difficult for children but too fantastic for adults. When it finally came out in 1962, the novel won the Newbery Medal, and it has sold steadily ever since. Today it sells about 15,000 copies a year. L'Engle put a clause in her publishing contract that gave her publisher the rights to A Wrinkle in Time in perpetuity in the whole universe except for the Andromeda galaxy.


C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland (1898). He said of his childhood, "I am a product...[of] books. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloak room, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves."

Lewis's parents were Anglicans and took him to church as a boy, but he found religion cold and boring. He preferred pagan mythology: Irish, Norse, and Greek myths he read in storybooks. He created an imaginary country called "Boxen" and wrote stories about it. He said, "My early stories were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

He began teaching philosophy at Oxford, where he met J.R.R. Tolkien. The night of their first meeting, Lewis wrote in his diary, "No harm in him: only needs a smack or two." Tolkien was a devout Christian and Lewis was an atheist, but they shared a love for mythology. They took a long walks around the Oxford grounds, debating the existence of God. Tolkien tried to persuade Lewis that the story of Jesus was a myth but that it had also actually happened.

The morning after one of those walks, Lewis went with his brother to the zoo. He said, "When we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion." He came to believe that the pagan stories he had always loved were God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, while the life of Jesus was God expressing Himself through reality.

At a time when European philosophy and science were turning away from Christianity, Lewis became the most prominent Christian apologist in the world. He recorded a series of lectures for radio, which were broadcast in England during World War II, and many people gathered around their radios to take comfort from his ideas in the midst of bombing raids. The lectures were collected into his book Mere Christianity (1952).

But he is best remembered for the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia, which he started publishing in 1950. Lewis decided to write for children, even though he never had any children himself and had never had any strong relationships with children. He wanted to give children what he had gotten himself from fairytales when he was a child. Lewis said, "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Today, the Narnia books sell about a million copies a year.

C.S. Lewis said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

And, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."




TUESDAY, 30 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Yes" by Catherine Doty, from Momentum © Cavan Kerry Press. Reprinted with permission.

Yes

It's about the blood
banging in the body,
and the brain
lolling in its bed
like a happy baby.
At your touch, the nerve,
that volatile spook tree,
vibrates. The lungs
take up their work
with a giddy vigor.
Tremors in the joints
and tympani,
dust storms
in the canister of sugar.
The coil of ribs
heats up, begins
to glow. Come
here.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the playwright David Mamet, born in Chicago, Illinois (1947). His father was a labor lawyer who loved to argue for the sake of arguing. Mamet said, "In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, solely based on our ability to speak the language viciously."

When he was eleven years old, Mamet hit his sister in the face with a rake. His mother came home and demanded an explanation, but Mamet's sister wanted to protect her brother so she wouldn't say anything. In an essay about the incident, Mamet wrote, "My mother...said that until one or the other answered, we would not go to the hospital; and so the family sat down to dinner, while my sister clutched a napkin to her face and the blood soaked the napkin and ran down onto her food, which she had to eat; and I also ate my food, and we cleared the table and went to the hospital."

He started writing plays in the 1970's, he became obsessed with the ways people manipulate each other with language. He specializes in writing about conmen, salesmen, thieves, and liars in plays such as American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He has also written and directed films such as House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1998). His most recent play is an adaptation of Dr. Faustus, which came out this year.

David Mamet said, "People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want."


It's the birthday of Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin (1667). He grew up in Ireland, but most of his relatives were English, and he moved to England as soon as he could after college, because he thought Ireland was an inferior country. He got involved in politics and became a kind of press secretary for the ruling Tory party, even though he didn't necessarily agree with their politics. But when the Queen died, the Tories fell out of office and Swift had to move back to Ireland, the home country he hated. He said, "[Ireland is] a wretched, dirty doghole and prison."

But because he was forced to live in Ireland, he began to notice how horribly the English were treating the colonized Irish. He began to write political pamphlets in protest of England's rule, but eventually he lost patience in straightforward commentary, and he began to express his ideas in more creative ways. In his most notorious essay "A Modest Proposal" (1729) he suggested that perhaps the best way to deal with the Irish poor was to feed their babies as a delicacy to the English aristocracy.

His masterpiece was Gulliver's Travels (1726), the story of a man journeying through a series of exotic places and meeting all kinds of strange creatures. The novel was full of political parallels, and Swift was so nervous about the consequences of publishing it that he dropped the manuscript off at the publisher's house in the middle of the night to protect his own anonymity.

Jonathan Swift said, "When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."


It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri (1835). He's best known to us today for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in his own lifetime his best-selling books were his travel books such as Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883).

He spent most of his life traveling. His mother was pregnant with him when his family joined the migration westward to the edge of the frontier. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and he loved observing the people who flowed in from the river: the gamblers, confidence men, boat captains, pioneers, and slave traders.

He traveled east to try to make a living as a printer, but eventually came back to Missouri and took a job as an apprentice pilot on a river boat. He would later say that his years working on the Mississippi river were his happiest.

He wrote, "All men—kings & serfs alike—are slaves to other men & to circumstances—save, alone, the pilot—who comes at no man's beck or call obeys no man's orders & scorns all men's suggestions...asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety & not caring a damn whether school keeps or not."

When Civil War broke out, and tied up traffic on the river, Clemens followed his brother west to Nevada. He rode out on a stagecoach, watched the scenery go by, and in a letter home he wrote, "Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs...and after these a pipe—an old, rank, delicious pipe—ham and eggs and scenery...a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart—these make happiness."

While his brother worked for the governor, Clemens loafed around, drinking and playing poker all night long. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise. They offered him a fulltime job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada.

He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. Virginia City was a rough town. Clemens interrupted one of his letters to his mother to write, "I have just heard five pistol shots down the street...I will go and see about it." It turned out that two policemen had been murdered a few blocks away.

He had always written entertaining letters to his family, and he treated his newspaper work like those letters: humorous, exaggerated, entertaining, but always conversational. He took the name "Mark Twain" from his riverboat experience. The phrase "Mark Twain" means two fathoms deep, which for a riverboat captain is just deep enough water to navigate.

In 1867, Clemens persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to send him on a steamboat pleasure cruise to Europe, and he got paid twenty dollars for each letter he sent home. Those letters made him famous, and in 1868 he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad. Many writers had gone abroad and written about their travels before, but he was the first to do so in such a distinctly American voice.

Describing the moment the ship set out for Europe he wrote, "I thought there never was such gladness in the air before, such brightness in the sun, such beauty in the sea...and as America faded out of sight, a spirit of charity rose up in [me] that was as boundless, for the time being, as the broad ocean that was heaving its billows about us. I wished to express my feelings—I wished to lift up my voice and sing; but I did not know anything to sing, and so I was obliged to give up the idea. It was no loss to the ship, though, perhaps."

Clemens wrote about his travels in Europe, his travels in the West, and his boating days on the Mississippi. But some of the most beautiful passages in his writing come from his descriptions of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the river with Jim. He wrote, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest."

It the middle of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Clemens decided he needed to do some research on his hometown, so he traveled back to Hannibal, Missouri for the first time since he was a teenager. It was the most depressing trip of his life, because all the romanticized ideas about the place where he'd grown up were shattered. He met old women who had been just young girls when he was a child. He saw how poverty stricken the townspeople were, and how blacks, even after the Civil War, were still living like slaves.

The visit erased all his old memories of Hannibal and replaced them with reality. The second half of Huckleberry Finn became much more satirical and political. Most readers prefer the first half of the book, and some scholars even call the second half a failure. After that, he traveled less often, and spent most of his time writing angry but humorous political commentary.

Samuel Clemens, who said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."

And, "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."




WEDNESDAY, 1 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "In the Middle" by Barbara Crooker, from Yarrow © 1998 and printed by permission from the author.

In the Middle

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1860 that the first installment of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations was published. Dickens was under financial strain at the time. He had recently purchased a giant mansion called Gad's Hill Place, which he had first admired when he was five years old. His father had pointed it out to him on a walk and told him that if he worked very hard he might some day come to live in it, and he fulfilled his life's dream by purchasing it almost forty years later.

Unfortunately, the cost of the house and its upkeep was quite a burden on his bank account. He had also recently separated from his wife, and was forced to support her separate living expenses. Several of his sons were starting out on their own, and he had given them generous allowances. On top of it all, he had recently founded his own magazine, called All the Year Round, and in the fall of 1860, he was serializing a novel called A Day's Ride, by Charles Lever, and sales of the magazine were dropping.

So in order to improve his financial outlook, he decided to start publishing a new novel. Critics consider it one of his most autobiographical books because it tells the story of a boy who is destined to become a blacksmith, but because of a chance meeting with a fugitive prisoner, he winds up becoming an aristocratic gentleman. Dickens himself had been on the verge of desperate poverty as a child, and worked briefly in a warehouse, but by the time he wrote Great Expectations, he had become one of the most famous men in England, and one of the most successful writers ever.

Each installment of Great Expectations sold more than a hundred thousand copies, more copies than each issue of the London Times newspaper at the time. Today it is among the most popular of Dickens's novels.

In Great Expectations, Dickens wrote, "That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."


It was on this day in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln gave the state of the union address at one of the lowest points of his presidency. An end to the Civil War was nowhere in sight. Just ten weeks before, Lincoln had issued his emancipation proclamation, turning the war into a war about slavery rather than just states rights. But in the recent election, anti-Lincoln Democrats had made big gains in the Congress. Many people saw that as a sign that the North didn't want to fight to free the slaves. People wondered if the war could ever be won, if the Union had been lost forever. And if the Union had been lost, perhaps the democratic experiment of the United States had actually been a failure.

Instead of expressing doubts in his speech, Lincoln argued that freeing the slaves was necessary to ensure that America live up to its own ideals. In his speech, on this day in 1862, Lincoln said, "The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union...In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."


It's the birthday of American detective novelist Rex Stout, born in Noblesville, Indiana (1886). He often said he had left Indiana when he was one year old because he was already fed up with Indiana politics. As a young man, he intended to become a lawyer, because he said, "I wanted to be in a good strategic position for abolishing all injustice everywhere." But he was distracted from that goal when he published a poem in a magazine and got $25 for it. So instead of going to law school, he got a job in a cigar store and kept writing.

He was a hack magazine journalist for a while and then developed a popular savings-account scheme for schools. He made a great deal of money and then retired to Paris. He was forty-six years old when he wrote his first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, a detective who weighs more than 300 pounds, collects orchids, and never leaves his house. The first Nero Wolfe novel was called Fer-de-Lance, and it was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934. It was a huge success, and Stout went on to write another Wolfe novel almost every year for the rest of his life. He ultimately published 46 novels in the Nero Wolfe series.

Rex Stout said, "I love books, food, music, sleep, people who work, heated arguments, the United States of America, and my wife and children. I dislike politicians, preachers, genteel persons, people who do not work or are on vacation, closed minds, movies, loud noises, and oiliness."


It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Woody Allen, born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn (1935). His father supported the family with various jobs and his mother worked at a flower shop. His parents wanted him to become a doctor or a dentist, but Allen hated studying more than anything in the world. He said, "I loathed every day and regret every day I spent in school."

Every day, when Allen got home from school, he immediately went into his bedroom and shut the door, refusing to do any extracurricular activities or even to eat dinner with his family. He spent all his time reading, learning to play the saxophone, and teaching himself magic tricks.

He also became obsessed with New York City, and especially movies about New York. He said, "I loved every single movie that was set in New York, every movie that began high above the New York skyline and moved in. Every detective story, every romantic comedy, every movie about nightclubs in New York or penthouses. To this day, I rarely latch on to...movies that are not about the city."

Allen didn't start reading great literature until he started taking girls out on dates. They would ask them if he'd read some Faulkner novel and he'd never heard of Faulkner and it was embarrassing. So in order to keep pace he had to read. He said, "The things those women read and liked led them inevitably to Nietzsche and Trotsky and Beethoven, and I had to struggle to stay alive in that kind of company."

He first began submitting jokes to gossip columnists when he was fifteen, and he became a stand-up comedian at seventeen. He tried to take classes at film school but he was expelled for poor attendance. So he supported himself writing jokes for the Tonight Show and other TV programs.

Allen wanted to make movies, so in order to teach himself about filmmaking, he bought the rights to a Japanese spy movie, and inserted all new dialogue, turning it into a movie about one man's attempt to acquire the recipe for the world's greatest egg salad. He went on to create a new kind of movie comedy that incorporated big ideas about love and death and psychoanalysis in between the jokes. But when he turned forty, Allen began to feel like a failure. He worried that all his movies had just been goofy, nothing serious, nothing about real life. So he started working on an autobiographical movie, full of scenes from various aspects of his life.

When Allen turned the rough cut of the movie into the studio, it was several hours long, with almost no plot, and he wanted to call it Anhedonia, which is the name of a psychological disorder in which a person is unable to experience pleasure. The studio helped him cut the movie down to a more reasonable length, and they found themselves cutting almost everything except for the scenes with Diane Keaton, who played Woody Allen's love interest. So they named the move after her character, and it became Annie Hall (1977). It went on to win the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actress, and many people consider it his masterpiece.

Woody Allen said, "Life [is] full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

Woody Allen said, "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

And, "How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?"




THURSDAY, 2 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "The Longly-Weds Know" by Leah Furnas, from To Love One Another © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission.

The Longly-Weds Know

That it isn't about the Golden Anniversary at all,
But about all the unremarkable years
that Hallmark doesn't even make a card for.

It's about the 2nd anniversary when they were surprised
to find they cared for each other more than last year

And the 4th when both kids had chickenpox
and she threw her shoe at him for no real reason

And the 6th when he accidentally got drunk on the way
home from work because being a husband and father
was so damn hard

It's about the 11th and 12th and 13th years when
they discovered they could survive crisis

And the 22nd anniversary when they looked
at each other across the empty nest, and found it good.

It's about the 37th year when she finally
decided she could never change him

And the 38th when he decided
a little change wasn't that bad

It's about the 46th anniversary when they both
bought cards, and forgot to give them to each other

But most of all it's about the end of the 49th year
when they discovered you don't have to be old

to have your 50th anniversary!!!!


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, born in Los Angeles (1963). She's best known for her novel Bel Canto (2001), about a hostage crisis in which terrorists take control over an extravagant party, and hold the guests hostage for over four months. Over time, some hostages and terrorists become friends and even lovers.

Her parents divorced when she was six, and her mother took her to live in Nashville, where Patchett rarely went to school and earned mostly D's and F's on her early report cards. She said, "We were scrambling; we had bigger things going on in our lives than whether or not I could read."

But she had decided to become a writer by the time she was in high school. She said, "While my girlfriends danced and dated, I sat and wrote. Every ounce of gangly energy I had went onto paper. I sprawled. I mass-produced." Her first published story came out in the Paris Review on her twenty-first birthday.

That story "All the Little Colored Girls Should Learn to Play Harmonica" would go on to be anthologized dozens of times, and was made into a play, but Patchett had trouble following up on it with anything else. She tried writing a novel based on the story, but that didn't work, and her publisher dropped her. The same year, her marriage broke up, so she moved home to live with her mother and took a job waiting tables at T.G.I. Fridays.

Patchett spent a year just thinking about a novel to write. She said, "The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head." At the end of that year, she took a residential fellowship and wrote her novel in six months, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), and it got great reviews.

She got the idea for her most recent novel, Bel Canto, when she read about a hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. She said, "The story in Lima stretched on, one month, two, three...I couldn't stop thinking about these people. There is no such thing as a good kidnapping, but I heard the hostages played chess with their captors. I heard they played soccer. There were rumors of large pizza orders. It had all elements I was interested in: the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that was at once dangerous and completely benign."

Ann Patchett said, "If I weren't a novelist," she says, "the thing I would most like to do is build dioramas. I was one of those kids who built little worlds in shoeboxes. That's basically what novel writing is. You get to build every tree, every person, put them all in place, and decide when the sun comes up and goes down. That I can make a living at that is astonishing."


It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer T(homas) C(oraghessan) Boyle, born in Peekskill, New York (1948). He was born Thomas John Boyle but he changed his middle name to Coraghessan when he was seventeen. He said, "I suppose it's an affectation, of a sort, but what the hell. There are five billion of us on the planet all screaming for attention."

He never read books when he was growing up, but he loved the stories his mother read to him from newspapers. Both of his parents were alcoholics, and as a young man Boyle was a bad student and a troublemaker. He and his friends once stole a statue of Jesus from a church and put it in the middle of the street so it looked like Jesus was directing traffic.

He lived for several years as a drug addict, but after a friend overdosed, he decided to replace drugs with writing. He said, "Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm."

His first big success came when he published a story in the Paris Review called "Descent of Man," about a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee. George Plimpton said that when he first read it, he almost fell out of his chair. Since then, Boyle has done his best to try to sell literature to the public. Unlike a lot of writers, he isn't afraid to go on talk shows, make public appearances, and give lots of readings.

Boyle said, "I'm out there trying to get something back for literature...I like to turn [people] on, particularly people who don't read much or their boyfriend or girlfriend dragged them along and they expect to be bored, and then you just blow them away and give them a great show. Because literature is fun. It's entertainment. I think people lose sight of that fact."

Boyle has gone on to write many novels, including The Road to Wellville (1993) about health fads in the late 1800's, and Drop City (2003) about a hippy commune. His most recent book is The Inner Circle, which came out this year.


It's the birthday of short story writer George Saunders, born in Amarillo, Texas (1958). He's the author of two short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000).

He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his dad sold coal to apartment buildings. Saunders said, "I learned to be a satirist from the prevailing mode of storytelling on the south side of Chicago where, if you want to tell someone you love him, you generally pretend to knee him in the groin, then throw him in the pool while guffawing."

In high school Saunders read Ayn Rand and decided that the only worthy work was technological work, so he went to the Colorado School of Mines and studied geophysical engineering. He got a job for an oil company in Indonesia, and started writing fiction on the side. But he found his own work painfully earnest. He said, "In all my stories, a stoic young man who has just arrived in Asia witnesses something brutal and then recoils in silent horror."

After reading Jack Kerouac, he decided that he needed to become a drifter in order to write, so he quit his job, moved back to the states, and worked as a roofer, a slaughterhouse laborer, and a convenience store clerk. He tried to write about his working class life in the style of Hemingway, but everything came out trite and boring.

He finally decided that it wasn't helping his writing to be poor, so he took a job summarizing animal test reports for the FDA. He said, "This was a sobering time, during which I would write about tortured monkeys for eight hours, walk out to my car past a suite of beagles hanging in slings awaiting the next day's round of tests, then go home and write late into the night."

Then one night, he had a dream that he worked at a giant surreal theme park, and he decided to try to turn that dream into a short story. He suddenly realized that if he wrote about bizarre, exaggerated, cartoonish situations, he had a lot more fun. He said, "Having set a story in a bloated, exaggerated theme park, you've committed yourself to a certain kind of ironic satire that, I've found from experience, is where I do my most intense work."

Over the course of five years, he stole time for his fiction at work, and he wrote on the bus to and from work, and he slowly produced the stories that became his first collection: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) with stories about a haunted historical theme park, a misshapen girl named Boneless, a 400-pound businessman, and a boy with skin so fragile that it tears when touched. His most recent book is a children's book called The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000).

George Saunders's short story "The Falls" begins, "Morse found it nerve-wracking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as school was being dismissed because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn't smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks, he was. Sometimes he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn't a pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relatively certain. Being overly certain, he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko."




FRIDAY, 3 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden, from Angel of Ascent © Liveright. Reprinted with permission.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too
my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the
cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently
to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of film director Jean-Luc Godard, born in Paris, France (1930). While a student at the Sorbonne, he met François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and others who would become known as the French New Wave. He was a film critic before he was a director, and wrote for the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. He went to work as a laborer and used his paychecks to finance his first film, a documentary about construction. His first feature film was Breathless, which caused a sensation. An older director once asked him if he wouldn't admit that a movie should have a beginning, middle and end. "Yes," Godard said, "but not necessarily in that order." His other films include A Woman is a Woman, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Weekend.


It's the birthday of writer Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Naleca Korzeniowski, in Berdyczew, Poland (1857). He joined the French marine service when he was sixteen, and spent the next four years shipping out of Marseilles. Next he went to England, shipping out as an ordinary seaman and working his way up to master in the British Merchant Service. When the novelist John Galsworthy was one of his passengers, he showed him a manuscript he had been working on. Galsworthy encouraged him, and Conrad published it as Almayer's Folly. He became a professional writer, after nearly twenty years on ships, and settled in Kent. He wrote The Nigger of the Narcissus, Lord Jim, The Heart of Darkness and Nostromo.


It's the birthday of chemist and home economist Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, born on a farm outside of Dunstable, Massachusetts (1842), the "mother of home economics." She taught chemistry for many years at M.I.T., and became a pioneer in the field of nutrition, applying scientific principles to daily living.


It's the birthday of American portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island (1755). He went to Scotland and then London to learn painting. Then, to escape his creditors, he moved back to America and painted many prominent Americans, including U.S. chief justice John Jay. His most famous painting is that of George Washington.





SATURDAY, 4 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "The Mind is a Hawk," by Walter McDonald, from Night Landing © Harper and Row. Reprinted with permission.

The Mind is a Hawk

The mind is like a hawk, trying to survive
on hardscrabble. Hunting, you wheel
sometimes for hours on thermals

rising from sand so dry
no trees
grow native. Some days, you circle
only bones and snakeskin, the same old

cactus and mesquite. The secret
is not to give up on shadows, but glide
until nothing expects it, staring

to make a desert give up dead-still
ideas like rabbits with round eyes
and rapidly beating hearts.


Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1783, General George Washington received 44 officers of the victorious Continental Army for a final farewell. The event was held in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern, on the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets, in lower Manhattan. When it was all over, Washington and his second-in-command were in tears; they embraced, and then all his men followed him down to the ferry landing and watched him leave on a barge for Mt. Vernon.


It's the birthday of Sioux Indian Chief Ta-sunko-witko, known as Crazy Horse, born near what is now Rapid City, South Dakota (1842). Crazy Horse was a great war chief who sought to stave off the advancement of the white man into the homelands of his people. He waged many battles with white troops and South Dakota Gold Rush gold diggers who disregarded treaties, encroached on Sioux reservation land and trampled Sioux rights. Crazy Horse was fearless in battle, and successfully defeated cavalry led by such men as George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). Crazy Horse said:

"We had buffalo for food, and their hides for clothing and for our teepees. We preferred hunting to a life of idleness on the reservation where we were driven against our will...We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone."


It was on this day in 1872 that the U.S. Brigantine Mary Celeste was found drifting in the Atlantic Ocean between the Azores and Portugal. The ship was deserted—the captain's table was set with an uneaten meal, and the lifeboat was missing. But there was only slight damage to the ship's rigging, and it's cargo of 1,700 barrels of alcohol was intact. There are numerous, conflicting theories as to what may have happened, but the mystery has never been solved. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing under a pseudonym, wrote a fictionalized account of the ship called "Marie Celeste."


It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke born in Prague (1875). As a very young man he met and fell madly in love with Lou Andreas-Salomé, the wife of a German university professor; she became a prime influence on his life and writing, though their affair was eventually called off. He followed her to St. Petersburg, Berlin, and other cities, where she helped him write, more as a mother-figure than a lover. Eventually he left her and traveled widely around the Continent by himself, finally settling in Paris. His great poems come from his 12 Paris years, including The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), and Duino Elegies (1923). Rilke wrote:

"It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation."




SUNDAY, 5 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "Of the Stones of the Place," by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost © Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Reprinted with permission.

Of the Stones of the Place

I farm a pasture where the boulders lie
As touching as a basketful of eggs,
And though they're nothing anybody begs,
I wonder if it wouldn't signify

For me to send you one
out where you live
In wind-soil to a depth of thirty feet,
And every acre good enough to eat,
As fine as flour put through a baker's sieve.

I'd ship a smooth one you could slap and chafe,
And set up like a statue in your yard,
An eolith palladium to guard
The West and keep the old tradition safe.

Carve nothing on it. You can simply say
In self-defense to quizzical inquiry:
"The portrait of the soul of my Gransir Ira.
It came from where he came from anyway."


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's Walt Disney's birthday, born in Chicago (1901), the creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and a cast of other cartoon characters.


On this day in 1932, Albert Einstein was granted a travel visa which allowed him to come to the United States.


Prohibition came to an end on this day in 1933. After fourteen years, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which had prohibited all liquor, was finally repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment.


It's the birthday of Joan Didion, the novelist and essayist, born in Sacramento, California, 1934. Didion is the author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Play It as It Lays (1970), Salvador (1983), and other books.


It's the birthday of author and journalist, Calvin Trillin, born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935). Trillin attended Yale, and, in 1963, became a staff writer for The New Yorker. Trillin's wife, children, and parents are often the subject of his lighthearted reflections. His books, such as Travels with Alice (a travel journal of a European tour taken with his wife), and Family Man (a celebration of Trillin's life as a son, father, and husband), are hysterical and touching accounts of the world as Trillin sees it. His father, Abe, ran a restaurant, and often wrote humorous aphorisms for the menu: "Don't sigh, Eat Pie." When asked what his late father would have wanted for him in this life, Trillin responded with the following: "He thought any American boy could grow up to be president, so there was some presidential pressure. His fall-back position was that I not be a ward of the county."


On this day in 1791, Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in Vienna at the age of 35. Mozart first became ill during a trip to Prague in 1787: he suffered unexplainable fevers, chills, and arthritis-like pains. From this point on his health did not improve, though he continued to work steadily. Following an unproductive and turbulent year in 1790, Mozart sunk into a severe depression, and suffered anxiety about his finances and flagging popularity. A month before he died, he become so ill he was confined to bed, and worked there on a commissioned requiem mass for the wife of Count Von Walsegg-Stuppach. Speculation about Mozart's illness abounds: the official cause of death in 1791 was listed as severe miliary fever, but was later changed to rheumatic inflammatory fever. Other theories have included Schoenlein-Henoch syndrome, and a severe emotional illness known as cyclothymic disorder. Some even suspect poisoning by his fellow composer and arch-rival Antonio Salieri. Mozart was buried in a common grave in Vienna, and his requiem composition was completed later by Joseph Eybler and the composer Suessmayr.




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