MONDAY, 3 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Crows" by Judith Barrington from Horses and the Human Soul. © Story Line Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Crows startle the clouds
with grievances never resolved
and warnings blurted into thin air.

Once in a while, the cries of all those who tried to survive
pour from the funnels of their throats.
No wonder we never really listen.

Like most animals, crows tell the truth:
working hard to penetrate our tiny tubular ears,
they cackle on telephone lines while we watch TV.

Once I did listen to a crow, but even when I had heard
his whole story, there was nothing I could do.
Next, I thought, I'd have to listen to squirrels and coyotes.

I like to think I deal with my share of rotten truths
but I couldn't bear to kneel down in damp grass
and listen to the hedgehog or the mole.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Dave Barry, (books by this author), born in Armonk, New York (1947). He's a columnist for the Miami Herald, and his column has been syndicated in more than 150 newspapers nationwide since 1986. He's the author of many books, including Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down! (2000) and Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway (2003).

It's the birthday of poet William Henry Davies, born in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1871, who wrote the lines, "What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?" For many years, he wandered around the United States and Europe, begging and working odd jobs to support himself. He wrote about his experiences in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908).

It's the birthday of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, (), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan (1908). She's the author of many books about food and eating, and best known for The Gastronomical Me (1943).

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka, (books by this author), born in Prague (1883). His father was a self-made man who had been forced to become a peddler as a teenager, and then worked his way up to owning a shop that specialized in clothing, walking sticks, and parasols. Kafka later complained that his father drove him crazy going on and on about his own miserable childhood. Kafka wrote, "No one denies that for years, as a result of insufficient winter clothing, [my father] had open sores on his legs, that he often went hungry, that when he was only ten he had to push a cart through the villages ... but to hear all this in a boastful and quarrelsome tone is torment."

From an early age, Kafka was obsessed with his own guilt. He did well in school, but he was constantly terrified that someday the teachers would realize their mistake and give him a failing grade. At night, he came home and listened to his father pronounce judgments on all subjects and people. In a letter he later wrote to his father, but never sent, Kafka said, "From your armchair, you ruled the world. ... [And] I lost the ability to talk." Kafka grew increasingly shy, anxious, and miserable.

After law school, he got a job at an insurance company, where he was responsible for finding ways to prevent industrial accidents. He was actually quite good at it, and it's estimated that he prevented thousands of factory deaths in Prague. But he found the job exhausting. He wrote to a friend, "I have a headache from all these girls in porcelain factories who incessantly throw themselves down the stairs with mounds of dishware."

Even though he had a good job, he continued to live at home with his parents. He tried to write at night, but was constantly annoyed by the sounds his parents made in the room next door. And then, on the night of September 22, 1912, Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote nonstop, from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., finishing in one sitting a short story called "The Judgment." It's the story of a young man who announces to his father that he's going to get married, whereupon his father orders the son to drown himself in the river. The son, as though against his own will, runs out of the house and throws himself off a bridge. Kafka considered the story his first real literary success.

He would rarely write in such long stretches again, but over the next few years he began to produce the stories that made his name, including "The Metamorphosis" (1915), about a man who wakes up to find he's become a giant insect, and "In the Penal Colony," about a machine that kills criminals by inscribing the name of their crime on their skin.

It was only in the last year of his life that Kafka found happiness with a woman named Dora, whom he met at a Jewish holiday camp. People who knew him at the time said that he finally lost all his anxiety, became funny and cheerful. Once, while out for a walk with Dora, he met a little girl who was crying over a lost doll. Kafka spent the next several weeks writing letters to the girl from the lost doll, explaining where the doll had gone and what it was up to, and finally announcing that it, the doll, was getting married. Kafka wanted to get married that year too, but he died of tuberculosis. His last two novels, The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), were left unfinished.

Franz Kafka wrote, "We need the books that affect us like disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

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Poem: "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key. Public domain. (buy now)

The Star Spangled Banner

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1776 that Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a second-floor room on Market Street in Philadelphia, on a little lap desk that he had designed himself. Some members of the Continental Congress had hoped that Benjamin Franklin would write the document, but Franklin declined. John Adams was also considered a possible writer of the document, but Adams gave the assignment to Jefferson because he said, "You can write ten times better than I can."

Jefferson finished the first draft after a few days work and sent it to Franklin on the morning of June 21, asking for suggestions. Franklin made just a few changes. In the most famous passage, Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

The actual vote for independence came on July 2nd, 1776. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, "The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival." The adoption of the Declaration itself came two days later, on July 4th. At the time, it was considered an afterthought. But copies of the Declaration were printed and distributed throughout the colonies, and since the document was dated July 4th, that became the date that we now celebrate as the birth of our nation.

There were unofficial celebrations of Independence Day from its first anniversary, but it really became a popular holiday after the War of 1812. On the frontier, it was the only time of the year when everyone in the countryside gathered together in one place. There would be parades and speeches, and the prettiest and most wholesome girl in the village would be named the Goddess of Liberty. Politicians would get up and call the King of England a skunk and challenge him to a fight. Drunken men in the streets would get into fights and call each other Englishmen.

It was on this day in 1845 that Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. He was not quite twenty-eight years old at the time, and he had decided to try an experiment in simple living. He was inspired, in part, by the memory of a summer trip he took with his beloved brother John. During the summer of 1839, he and John had built a boat and sailed down the Concord River to take a two-week walking tour around Mt. Washington.

Thoreau (books by this author) had a wonderful time on that trip, but it took on a special meaning when his brother cut himself shaving in the winter of 1841 and caught lockjaw. He died in Thoreau's arms. For weeks after his brother's death, Thoreau couldn't write in his journal, or even talk to his family and friends. For a brief period, he even experienced all the symptoms of lockjaw himself.

It was a family friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who suggested that Thoreau get his mind off his grief by writing a review of a bunch of natural history books, and Thoreau took great comfort from the assignment. The essay he wrote about the books begins, "Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come." The essay was published, and it was one of Thoreau's first literary successes.

He went on writing essays for the next few years, but he kept thinking about that summer trip with his brother, and how it felt to be living out in the wilderness. He decided that he wanted to do that again, but on a greater scale.

Thoreau looked around for someplace where he could build a small cabin, and it was finally Ralph Waldo Emerson who gave him a few acres of land on Walden Pond, a pond that Thoreau had been visiting for most of his life. Thoreau built a tiny cabin on the land, ten feet wide and fifteen feet long, and he moved into the cabin on this day, Independence Day, in 1845.

Thoreau ultimately lived at Walden for two years, two months, and two days. He went on to publish his book about the experience Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854. It sold only 256 copies in its first year, but it has never gone out of print, and has been translated into virtually every modern language on earth.

On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

It's the birthday of literary critic Lionel Trilling, (books by this author) born in New York City (1905).

It's the birthday of playwright Neil Simon, (books by this author), born in the Bronx in New York City (1927).

It's the birthday of the first great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, (books by this author) born in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He's the author of novels such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851).

On this day in 1931, James Joyce married Nora Barnacle at the Kensington Registry Office in London. They had been living together for twenty-six years. She once complained about Joyce's late hours, "I can't sleep anymore ... I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing!"

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Poem: "Service Is Our Business" by Michael McFee from Shinemaster. © Carnegie Mellon University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Service Is Our Business

It used to be black as the insides of a Penzoil can
whenever we drove this ten-mile stretch of Highway 25
at night from lit-up Asheville back to our gloomy house
in Arden, no stoplights or streetlights anywhere, nothing.

And there's where (during the day) mom would stop for gas,
a Shell filling station in the curve at the foot of a long hill,
a couple of pumps and a little office and a double bay
over which "Service Is Our Business" shone in red plastic

as the smiling proprietor emerged, wiping his large hands,
looking like Glenn Miller on the 78-rpm records she'd play
(I still have them, maiden initials scratched on each label),
like some veteran still wearing his crisp khaki uniform.

He'd bend to the open window and speak to her, then us,
sun polishing his wire rims, starching his cursive name,
brightening the yellow scallop shell stitched to his chest
and the huge one slowly revolving overhead as he began

hooking the nozzle in the tank (gas rushing behind us),
checking (obscured but heard) the oil and radiator water,
cleaning each window (mom laughing loud through hers),
topping off (when needed) the fluids or the air in tires,

then lowering the heavy hood gently, not slamming it down,
and firmly replacing the gas cap behind the license plate,
and taking her offered bills with a thank-you and half-bow
before watching us drive off, shading his eyes as if saluting.

That was 40 years ago. Gas was 28.2. Now that I'm the age
she was then, I wonder: Who was that guy? A former boyfriend?
A harmless but steady flirtation? And what was she to him—
another nice housewife to flatter, to keep the business going?

Or were they just a couple of decent lonely people
who enjoyed each other's company for a few public minutes
before returning to work and turning up their tinny radios,
longing to hear "In the Mood" or "Moonlight Serenade". ...

That station's long gone. Now it's ten pumps and a mini-mart.
Service was his business. And service was her business, too,
a mother serving children every day for over twenty years
until they were old enough to drive their cars away from her.

I pump my own gas then climb into town past strip mall
after strip mall, this local branch of the Dixie Highway
lifting its newly affluent glare into the lost sky every night.
We used to look up at countless stars. Mom loved "Stardust."

I tidy my parents' graves at the cemetery behind K-Mart.
Dusk lurks. That man with the ovaled name might be here
on this hillside with my mother, just one of many customers
queued up in the darkest dark of all, waiting to be served.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day that in 1880 that George Bernard Shaw quit his job in order to write full time (books by this author). He followed his mother to London when he was twenty, hoping to make something of himself. His aunt got him a job at the Edison Telephone Company. He tried to write in his spare time, but eventually decided that he couldn't write and work at the same time. So on this day in 1880, when the Edison Telephone Company announced the consolidation with a competing firm, he used that as an excuse to quit. It was the last non-literary job he ever had.

At first, his decision seemed to be a disaster. He had to live on one pound a week from his father and whatever his mother could spare from her job as a music teacher. He spent his days in the British Museum Reading room, reading and writing, but his first five novels were all rejected. He caught smallpox while writing one novel, managed to complete it in spite of his illness, and then saw it rejected too.

He finally gave up on fiction and began to focus his energy on becoming a critic, and that was where he finally had some success.

On this day in 1954, Elvis Presley recorded his first rock and roll song and his first hit, "That's All Right, Mama." Elvis had wanted to be a crooner, and in his first recording sessions he only sang slow ballads. But then, in between takes, Elvis and the other musicians started fooling around and singing a blues tune called "That's All Right." Sam Phillips asked them to start over from the beginning and recorded the song. He then rushed the record to the biggest DJ in Memphis, and it became Elvis's breakout hit.

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Poem: "Summer Kitchen" by Donald Hall from The Painted Bed. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Summer Kitchen

In June's high light she stood at the sink
    With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
    She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

"It's ready now. Come on," she said.
    "You light the candle."
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century, Peter Singer, (books by this author) born in Melbourne, Australia (1946). His book Animal Liberation (1975) is generally credited with starting the animal rights movement.

Singer generated enormous controversy with his book Rethinking Life and Death (1994). He had previously argued that animals should have the same right to be treated humanely because they could suffer. In his new book, he argued that some humans were so severely disabled that their suffering would outweigh their happiness later in life, and therefore it would be ethical for their parents to euthanize them.

On this day in 1862, Samuel Clemens first started publishing stories for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. The paper gave him his first full-time writing job, and it was the place where he first used the name Mark Twain. (books by this author)

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Eleanor Clark, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles, California (1913). She went to college at Vassar, and while she was there she founded a literary magazine with three classmates who would go on to become well-known writers: Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and Mary McCarthy. After Clark graduated, she worked a series of freelance editing and translating jobs before publishing her first novel in 1946.

One of Clark's best-known books is a nonfiction volume on oysters: The Oysters of Locmariaquer, in which Clark wrote about the oyster industry in a small region in northwest France. It won the National Book Award in 1965.

Clark wrote, "If you don't love life you can't enjoy an oyster; there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. [They] shiver you for a split second."

It's the birthday of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, born just outside of Mexico City (1907). She said, "My painting carries with it the message of pain. Painting completed my life. I believe that work is the best thing."

It was on this day in 1957 that two teenagers named John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met at a church dance in Liverpool, England.

The biggest event in John Lennon's neighborhood every summer was a party and dance held by St. Peter's parish church. There was a carnival and a parade with decorated floats, and that event was held on this day in 1957. John Lennon, with a little maneuvering, had gotten The Quarrymen a place in the parade, playing their music from atop one of the floats, and they also had an invitation to play at the dance afterwards.

The float The Quarrymen played on brought up the rear of the parade, and they attracted a large group of teenagers. One of the teenagers was a kid from a different high school named Paul McCartney. He had hoped to pick up girls at the church dance, and so he had ridden his bicycle over from his neighborhood.

In the audience, Paul McCartney was impressed by John's singing, and by the way John seemed to be challenging everyone in the room to a fight. After the performance, Paul went over to meet this guy. Paul and John were introduced, but they didn't hit it off until Paul mentioned that he played guitar, and he knew how to tune one. None of the other boys had learned how to do that yet. They'd all been forced to ask local musicians to tune their guitars for them.

John was even more impressed that Paul knew the lyrics of recent rock and roll songs. John could never remember lyrics, which was why he often made up new ones while he was singing. Paul volunteered to write out the lyrics for the song "Be Bop a Lula" for John, and the two became fast friends. By 1959, they were calling themselves The Beatles.

On this day in 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed for treason, as a result of his refusal to recognize King Henry VIII as the head of the Church. He was convicted of high treason on July 1, 1535. Five days later, on this day in 1535, he was led to the scaffold on Tower Hill. His executioners asked him if he had any final words, and he took the time to say that he did not blame them for their actions and he looked forward to the day when they could all meet in heaven. With that, he was beheaded. His head was later displayed on the London Bridge, but his daughter retrieved it and it was buried with her.

More was named a saint by the Catholic Church in 1935, and in the year 2000, he was declared the patron saint of politicians.

FRIDAY, 7 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Female Comic Book Superheroes" by Jeannine Hall Gailey from Becoming the Villainess. © Steel Toe Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Female Comic Book Superheroes

are always fighting evil in a thong,
pulsing techno soundtrack in the background
as their tiny ankles thwack

against the bulk of male thugs,
They have names like Buffy, Elektra, or Storm
but excel in code decryption, Egyptology, and pyrotechnics.

They pout when tortured, but always escape just in time,
still impeccable in lip gloss and pointy-toed boots,
to rescue male partners, love interests, or fathers.

Impossible chests burst out of tight leather jackets,
from which they extract the hidden scroll, antidote, or dagger,
tousled hair covering one eye.

They return to their day jobs as forensic pathologists,
wearing their hair up and donning dainty glasses.
Of all the goddesses, these pneumatic heroines most

resemble Artemis, with her miniskirts and crossbow,
or Freya, with her giant gray cats.
Each has seen this apocalypse before.

See her perfect three-point landing on top of that chariot,
riding the silver moon into the horizon,
city crumbling around her heels.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, born in Kaliste, Bohemia (1860).

It's the birthday of painter Marc Chagall, born in a small town in the Russian Empire that is now part of Belarus (1887), to a family of devout Russian Jews. He said: "When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art."

It's the birthday of poet Margaret Walker, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama (1915). She grew up in the South during a time of extreme racial segregation. Walker took refuge in her father's huge library of classic literature, reading poets like Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. She went to Northwestern University, and when she graduated in 1935, she found a job as a junior writer for the Works Progress Administration.

In 1942, Walker published her first collection of poems, For My People. The book sold unusually well for a first collection, and Walker became the first black woman to win the Yale Younger Poets Series Award. The book stayed in print for more than thirty years, and it became an inspiration for activists in the Civil Rights movement during the '50s and '60s.

In 1965, Walker published her best-known work, the novel Jubilee. It's a long novel about life in the American South from before the Civil War to the days of Reconstruction. The main character is a black woman who is the daughter of a slave and a white plantation owner in Georgia. The novel became a best-seller.

It's the birthday of the popular historian and biographer David McCullough, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). He started out as a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine, but he took a job at the United States Information Agency writing for a magazine aimed at Arab readers. One of his first articles was about the Battle of Gettysburg. He'd never been much interested in history, but he found that he loved digging into old documents, and learning just how lively the past could be.

His first two books, The Jonestown Flood (1968) and The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972), were moderately successful. But his big commercial break through when he decided to write a biography about Harry Truman.

He spent ten years working on the book, and he tried to completely enter Truman's world. He began to acquire Truman's habits, taking a brisk walk every morning, just as Truman did. He spent months in Truman's hometown: Independence, Missouri. For one of the most important turning points of Truman's life, he retraced Truman's steps through the capitol the night Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman was summoned to the White House to be told that he was now president.

The result was his book Truman (1992), one of the best-selling biographies ever published at the time. It spent forty-three weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and sold more than a million copies. Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton read it while they were running for president that year, and they both claimed Truman was their presidential idol.

McCullough went on to surpass the sales of Truman with his book John Adams, which came out in 2001 and sold two million copies.

David McCullough said, "History is about life. It's awful when the life is squeezed out of it and there's no flavor left, no uncertainties, no horsing around. It always disturbed me how many biographers never gave their subjects a chance to eat. You can tell a lot about people by how they eat, what they eat, and what kind of table manners they have."

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Poem: "1959" by Arlene Weiner from Escape Velocity. © Ragged Sky Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Is it hot enough for you?
the neighbor said on the stairs
to the girl in gloves. Hot enough
for you?
said the subway conductor,
closing the doors. Hot
the elevator man
to the girl in a shirtwaist dress,
one of many white girls,
in summer gloves, hair damp
on her neck, on her way
to the typing pool. She laughed
for the colored man moving
the brass control through its arc.

In the big room where the men
yelled into phones at debtors
fans turned. Ribbons fluttered
on the round cages to indicate breezes.
In the center of the room
an iron mesh, floor to ceiling,
surrounded the typists. Little jackets
hung on the backs of their chairs.

After work, elevator, subway,
stairs, supper. Maybe a movie,
Twenty degrees cooler inside.
Maybe an Esther Williams.

They never said, Fast enough
for you? Deep enough? High enough?

They never said then, Far enough?
Far enough for any of us?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer J.F. (James Farl) Powers (books by this author), born in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917): a writer who didn't have a lot of readers in his lifetime because he wrote primarily about the lives of Catholic priests in Minnesota. Non-Catholics weren't particularly interested in his work, and Catholics tended to think he was too critical. But after his death in 1999, many critics said he should be ranked among the greatest and funniest fiction writers of the late twentieth century.

He grew up in town with few Catholics other than his own family and he later said, "The town was Protestant. The best people were Protestants and you felt that. That, to some extent, made a philosopher out of me. It made me mad." He was twenty-five when he published his first important short story, called "Lion, Harts, Leaping Does," about a priest named Father Didymus, who remains faithful even though he believes he's unworthy of God. The story was selected for the first edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology, and it was published in his first collection, The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947).

As he got older, his work just got funnier, and in 1962, he published his first novel, Morte D'Urban, about a priest named Father Urban Roche, who runs a parish in Great Plains in Minnesota, but who thinks of himself as a kind of businessman, using his position to get the best rooms in hotels and spending all his spare time playing golf. Morte D'Urban won the National Book Award, but it only sold 25,000 copies. Powers was deeply disappointed. He said, "I thought when I'd finished it that it was a good book—and I guess it was, because nobody bought it."

He only published two novels and three collections of stories in his lifetime. Saul Bellow once called him one of the five great writers in America, but by the time he died, most of his books had gone out of print. But his two novels have since been republished, and his stories have been collected in The Stories of J.F. Powers, which came out in 2000.

J.F. Powers was once asked by nun in an interview for The American Benedictine Review if he had any ideas about the role of the Catholic writer. He replied, "No, I'm afraid I don't, Sister, except that obviously he should not write junk."

It was on this day in 1918 that Ernest Hemingway was wounded while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I. He had wanted to serve as a soldier but he had bad eyesight so he volunteered as an ambulance driver. During the day, his main duty was delivering post cards and chocolates to the Italian soldiers on the front. Then, on this day in 1918, only one month after he'd arrived, Hemingway (books by this author) was passing out chocolates to Italian soldiers on the frontlines when he heard the sound of a trench mortar flying through the air. He later said that the explosion felt like a furnace door bursting open.

He received an official citation from the Italian Army for bravery, which said, "He rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated."

When he wrote to his parents to say what had happened, he tried to make light of the incident, saying, "Don't worry about me because it has been conclusively proved that I can't be killed." But Hemingway had numerous pieces of shrapnel removed from his leg and spent the next several weeks in the hospital. He also started suffering from insomnia. He was terrified that he might die in the night, and he couldn't sleep without a light on.

Hemingway traveled back to his parents' home in January 1919, still recuperating from his injury. He walked around with a cane, read everything he could get his hands on, and taught his sisters Italian swear words. He was a small-town war hero, and often spoke at schools and social clubs about his experience in the war. He always passed around his bloodstained, shrapnel-torn trousers.

The wound he received would go on to become the central event of his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), which he considered his best book, and his experiences in Italy appeared in many short stories as well. He later said, "In Italy, when I was at the war there ... my own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password."

SUNDAY, 9 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Hornworm: Summer Reverie" by Stanley Kunitz from The Collected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Hornworm: Summer Reverie

Here in caterpillar country
I learned how to survive
by pretending to be a dragon.
See me put on that look
of slow and fierce surprise
when I lift my bulbous head
and glare at an intruder.
Nobody seems to guess
how gentle I really am,
content most of the time
simply to disappear
by melting into the scenery.
Smooth and fatty and long,
with seven white stripes
painted on either side
and a sharp little horn for a tail,
I lie stretched out on a leaf,
pale green on my bed of green,
munching, munching.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the science writer Oliver Sacks, (books by this author) born in London (1933). He's known for writing about the experiences of people suffering from neurological disorders in books of essays such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973). Oliver Sacks said, "Classical fables have archetypal figures-heroes, victims, martyrs, warriors. Neurological patients are all of these. ... They are travelers to unimaginable lands-lands of which otherwise we should have no idea or conception."

It's the birthday of best-selling author Dean Koontz, (books by this author) born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He's the author of more than seventy supernatural and science fiction thrillers, many of which have been best-sellers. But he's never gone on a talk show or done a nationwide book tour, because he refuses to fly.

It's the birthday of the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1932). In 2003, he published Rumsfeld's Rules: Wisdom for the Good Life, a list of guidelines for his colleagues that he'd gathered over the years. It includes advice such as, "It is easier to get into something than to get out of it."

It's the birthday of the "queen of the romance novel," Barbara Cartland, (books by this author) born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England (1901). She dictated her novels to assistants, who would type furiously, forbidden to sneeze or cough. Reclining on a sofa, a hot water bottle at her feet and her dog dozing by her side, she could dictate 7,000 words in an afternoon. She is the author of more than seven hundred books. Starting in the mid-1970s, she averaged twenty-three a year, and she sold more than a billion copies in her lifetime.

Her books followed a simple, unvarying formula: chaste, beautiful heroine is pursued by rich, handsome, rakish man in an exotic locale, sometime in the nineteenth century; they fall in love, overcome obstacles, marry, and only then give free rein to their passions.

It's the birthday of the man who invented the technology of alternating electrical current, which led to all kinds of technologies, including radio. And that was Nikola Tesla, born in a small mountain village of Croatia (1856), the son of an Eastern Orthodox priest. He wanted to be an inventor from an early age, got a degree in engineering, and took a job at a telegraph office. Then one day, while out for a walk with a friend, he suddenly got an idea for a more efficient way to transmit electricity. At the time, Thomas Edison had begun transmitting electricity with direct current, which meant that he could only transmit the energy about a mile before it began to lose power. Tesla's invention of an alternating current would allow electricity to be transmitted hundreds or even thousands of miles.

The invention got him a job working for Westinghouse. He went on to propose the idea for transmitting signals wirelessly through the air. He was at work on this project, when the building that housed his laboratory burned to the ground, destroying all his equipment and papers. The result was that an Italian inventor got the credit for inventing radio, rather than Tesla.

He spent the later years of his life suffering from mental illness, living in New York City, where he spent most of his time feeding pigeons in Bryant Park, behind the main branch of the New York Public Library. People who knew him said that whenever there was a lightning storm, he stopped whatever he was doing and sat in front of the window to watch it.



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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