MONDAY, 2 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "The Death of a Soldier" by Wallace Stevens from Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. © Alfred A Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Death of a Soldier

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens, (books by this author) born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). Stevens was one of the few writers of the 20th century who not only took a job in corporate America but actually kept at it, even after he became a successful writer.

He worked for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was eventually promoted to vice president. He woke up early every day and read for a few hours and then composed his poems in his head while walking to and from work. In that way, he produced some of the most revolutionary and abstract poetry of the 20th century.

Almost no one at his office knew that he was a poet, even after he became famous in the literary world. He said, "I am sure that most people here in Hartford know nothing about the poetry and I am equally sure that I don't want them to know because once they know they don't seem to get over it."

Stevens wrote poems for most of his life, but he didn't publish his first book until he was 45 years old. His wife had discouraged him from publishing because he'd written poems for her when they first started dating, and she felt that his poems belonged to her and her alone. But after many years of keeping his work private, he decided that he wanted to know what the world thought of it, and so he went ahead and published his collection Harmonium (1923). The book received almost no attention, even though it eventually came to be seen as one of the most accomplished debuts in American literary history. It contained several poems that went on to become classics, such as "Sunday Morning," "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Wallace Stevens said, "Poetry is the subject of the poem."


It's the birthday of writer Graham Greene, (books by this author) born in Hertfordshire, England (1904). He was the son a school headmaster, and was a very shy child who often tried to run away from home. After several suicide attempts in his teens, his therapist encouraged him to start writing and introduced him to several of his literary friends.

He traveled extensively all over the world, and spent a good part of his life in Vietnam, and that experience gave him the material for one of his most well-known books, The Quiet American (1955).

Greene limited himself to writing just 500 words per day, and would even stop writing in the middle of a sentence, but he ended up publishing more than 30 books.

Graham Greene said, "We are all of us resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to." And, "Morality comes with the sad wisdom of age, when the sense of curiosity has withered."


It's the birthday of comedian Groucho Marx, (books by this author) born in New York City (1890). In 1908 he began acting with his brothers, Harpo and Chico, and they became famous as the Marx Brothers. Groucho was known for his thick fake mustache, which he started using after he arrived late to a stage production and didn't have time to glue on his normal fake mustache. He used black grease paint as a substitute and liked it so much that he never switched. He was known as the most talkative Marx brother, and he's famous for his snappy insults. He said, "Marriage is a wonderful institution. That is, if you like living in an institution." And, "I never forget a face, but in your case, I'll make an exception."




TUESDAY, 3 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "Dance Suite: Hip Hop" by W.D. Snodgrass from Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems. © BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Dance Suite: Hip Hop

                    Lined up
                    Girls and boys,
          Coins in the drop slot; wind-up toys;
                    Necks that switch
                    Every which way;
                    Join the Hip Hop, rapping like a robot.

Streets full of bus fumes; stairs full of shovin';
TV's full of promises: luxuries and lovin';
Oil's on the water; spray's on the pumpkin;
Asprin's full of strychnine, cyanide or somethin'.

                    Wig-wag
                    Knee joints,
          Elbows crimped to zig-zag points;
                    Wrists and ankles
                    Twisted into angles;
          Splayed-out fingers clamping into fists.

Sidewalks full of garbage; pictures in the news;
Mayor's on the radio spouting out excuses;
Bars on the storefronts; landlord's on the way;
Cops have got their spring list—they'll make it pay.

                    Nuts and bolts
                    Charged by volts
          Jumpstart into spastic jerks and jolts;
                    Gears and notches
                    Grinding crotches,
          Juicing up the parts of the fools that watch us.

Ground's full of chemicals; ocean's full of waste;
Brother's full of steroids; meat got no taste;
Ceilings full of roaches; rats around the cradle;
Everybody's learned to read the lies on the label.

                    Swirl around
                    Clown, on the ground,
          Twirling like a dervish whirls, upside down;
                    Legs there,
                    Kicking in the air
          Striking like scorpions or Medusa hair.

A bullet's in the chamber; needle's in the vein;
Leg's set in plaster; no time for pain;
Street's full of dealers; girls are on the curbs;
Make a killing fast and get out for the suburbs.
                    Shift your shoulder
                    Like a soldier
          Ant, an identical mannekin or clone;
                    Who can hurt a tall doll
                    Rigid and mechanical
          Dancing the dictates of a microphone?


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany.


It's the birthday of etiquette expert Emily Post, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1873). Her first etiquette manual was published in 1922. It was titled Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. She continued to write manuals for "high society" until 1960. In addition to her books, Post wrote a syndicated newspaper column that was carried by more than 200 newspapers.

She said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."


It's the birthday of American novelist Gore Vidal, (books by this author) born Eugene Luther Vidal, in West Point, New York (1925). He considered going to Harvard for college, but chose to enlist in the Army Reserve Corps instead. For his tour of duty, he became first mate on a transport ship, which gave him lots of time to read, and it inspired his first novel, Williwaw (1946), about a group of sailors caught in a storm.

He wrote two more novels that were total flops, and then in 1948, he published The City and the Pillar, one of the first American novels ever to realistically portray the life of a homosexual man. But his real success as a novelist came when he started writing historical fiction in his novels Burr (1973), about Vice President Aaron Burr told from the point of view of his illegitimate son, and then Lincoln, which came out in 1984.

Vidal's interest in politics has led him run for political office twice on a platform advocating taxing churches, nationalizing natural resources, and reorganizing the United States government as a parliamentary system.


It's the birthday of the memoirist and novelist Bernard Cooper, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1951). As a young man, he decided to go into therapy, hoping to cure his homosexual feelings. His doctor subjected him to an experimental new therapy, in which Cooper was injected with sodium pentothal, in the hopes that it would help him talk about his repressed desires and get them out of his system. It didn't work, but he said it was a wonderful experience, and it helped inspire him to write his first memoir, The Truth Serum (1996).

Cooper's most recent book is The Bill from My Father, which came out this year.


It's the birthday of John Ross, (books by this author) born near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee (1790). Though he was only one-eighth Cherokee, with a Scottish father and a part Cherokee mother, he served as the Chief of the United Cherokee Nation from 1839 to 1866, the period during which the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their land.

John Ross challenged the Removal Act in court. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Cherokees won their case. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign, and that its treaties had to be respected by law. But President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Supreme Court ruling. Jackson famously said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it."

The actual removal took place under President Martin Van Buren. In 1838, 17,000 Cherokees were forced out of their homes at gunpoint by American soldiers. They were gathered together in camps and then forced to walk to the new "Indian Territory" west of the Mississippi. The camps had horrible hygienic conditions, and an epidemic of dysentery killed thousands of the Cherokees. No one knows exactly how many people died, but estimates range from 2,000 to 8,000. John Ross lost his wife on the journey. The event has since become known as "The Trail of Tears."


It's the birthday of Thomas Wolfe, (books by this author) born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900). He wrote autobiographical novels, including Look Homeward Angel (1929). He died of meningitis and left behind him an eight-foot-tall crate of notebooks and manuscripts.




WEDNESDAY, 4 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "Oldies But Goodies" by Grace Bauer from Beholding Eye. © Custom Words. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Oldies But Goodies

Because she's had more than her share
of sad stories and Molson's Ale,
she finds herself at midnight
circling the City of Brotherly Love
singing her heart out with the girl groups
playing on the radio.

The Chiffons do One Fine Day
like it's still 1963
and all the boys she dreamed
she'd fall in love with weren't dead
or gay or still strung out from Nam,
drinking off a rough divorce or looking
for a wife they think will look good
on their resumes.

To the fast-talking DJ
this is just a good night's work,
but he's doing a job on her.
Her head spins like a worn-out 45,
back to when she'd bump and grind
all night to The Temptations or The Miracles,
before she realized lost love
was worse than any lyric, when she still
wondered what the Kingsmen
really sang in Louie, Louie.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer, (books by this author) born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862). He created the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, and Nancy Drew. After writing about 150 books of his own, he created a company called the Stratemeyer Syndicate with a team of ghostwriters to write books based on his outlines. He swore everyone to secrecy and even invented fictional biographies for the pseudonymous authors. The Stratemeyer Syndicate went on to publish about 700 titles under more than 65 pseudonyms.


It's the birthday of journalist Brendan Gill, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1914). He wrote novels, plays, and essays, and was a popular columnist for The New Yorker for more than 50 years.


It's the birthday of journalist and fiction writer Damon Runyon, (books by this author) born Alfred Damon Runyon, in Manhattan, Kansas (1884). He was only 14 when the Spanish-American War broke out. He couldn't get a local Army recruiter to sign him up for service, so he went north and enlisted with the 13th Minnesota Volunteers. He didn't see combat, but he wrote about the experience for a soldier's magazine.

After the war was over, he began to bounce around, writing for various papers, and he eventually began to focus on sports, becoming one of the early baseball journalists. In time, he made his way to New York City, during the prohibition era, and he started hanging around on Broadway with the crowd of gamblers, bookies, fight managers, theatrical agents, bootleggers, and gangsters. In 1929, Runyon began to write a series of stories about the lowlife characters he'd gotten to know, and he helped popularize the evolving slang of the era, in which a woman was called "a doll," a gun was called "a rod," money was called "scratch," and people didn't die, they "croaked."

His short stories were collected in books such as Blue Plate Special (1934) and More than Somewhat (1937), and they became enormously popular. Sixteen movies were made from his short stories. He's best remembered today for the musical Guys and Dolls, based upon several of his stories and characters he created.


It's the birthday of humorist Roy Blount Jr., (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941). His English teacher in high school thought his essays reminded her of New Yorker writers like James Thurber and S.J. Perelman, so she introduced him to those writers and they became his idols. But instead of getting a job at The New Yorker after college, he got a job at Sports Illustrated. His first book was a humorous account of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974). The book was successful enough that Blount quit his job at Sports Illustrated and has made his living ever since as a freelance writer. He has contributed profiles, essays, sketches, verse, short stories, and reviews to more than a hundred different publications.


It's the birthday of the novelist Anne Rice, (books by this author) born in New Orleans, Louisiana, (1941). Her father was a postal worker who wrote fiction in his spare time, and her mother was a failed Hollywood actress who was interested in the occult. Rice's mother would take her for long walks in old New Orleans neighborhoods, and she would tell Anne Rice stories about which of the various old mansions was haunted and which had been used by covens of witches.

After getting married and having a daughter, she struggled to become a writer. She began writing a short story every day as an exercise, but she couldn't get much published. Then, her five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with acute leukemia and died.

Rice fell into a deep depression, and only got herself out of it by writing. She wrote constantly, and in five weeks, she had finished her first novel. It was about a vampire who becomes so lonely that he decides to turn a five-year-old girl into a vampire to keep him company. He's horrified when he realizes that she will never age, that she will remain a five-year-old forever. That novel was Interview with a Vampire (1974). It got mixed reviews and didn't sell very well. But it developed a cult following, and throughout the early 1980s, it kept selling copies, slowly becoming one of the most popular vampire novels of all time. When Rice published a sequel, The Vampire Lestat (1985), it was an immediate best-seller.


It's the birthday of one of the most popular novelists of all time, Jackie Collins, (books by this author) born in London (1941). Her first major American best-seller was Hollywood Wives (1983), which remained on The New York Times best-seller list for 28 weeks, and ultimately sold 15 million copies. Jackie Collins has gone on to average about a novel a year for the last two decades.




THURSDAY, 5 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "Another Life" by Deborah Cummins from Counting the Waves. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Another Life

My mother, 18, the summer before she married,
lounges belly-down in the sun,
books and grass all around, her head on her hands
propped at a jaunty angle.
She smiles in a way I've never seen
at something beyond the camera.
This photograph I come back to again and again
invites me to re-write her life.
I keep resisting, certain
I'd have no part in it, her first born
though not exactly. A boy first,
two months premature, my brother
who lived three days, was buried in a coffin
my father carried. "The size of a shoe box,"
he said, the one time he spoke of it.
And my mother, too, offered only once
that she was pregnant and so they married.

Drawn to this saw-edged snapshot,
I'm almost convinced to put her in art school.
Single, she'd have a job in the city,
wouldn't marry. There'd be no children
if that would make her this happy.
But I'm not that unselfish, or stupid.
And what then, too, of my beloved sister,
her son I adore?

So let me just move her honeymoon
from the Wisconsin Dells to the Caribbean.
Let the occasional vacation in a Saugatuck cabin
be exactly what she wanted. The house
she so loved she won't have to sell.
Winters, there's enough money to pay the bills.
There are no cigarettes, no stroke, no paralysis.
Her right hand lifts a spoon from a bowl
as easily as if it were a sable-hair brush
to an empty canvas.
And the grass that summer day
on the cusp of another life
is thick, newly mown, fragrant.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the few writers ever to become the leader of a country, Czech dramatist and president Václav Havel, (books by this author) born in Prague (1936). In the 1960s, he wrote a series of absurdist plays, including The Garden Party (1964) and The Memorandum (1965), that attacked the Communist Party, describing the way in which the Communists were ruining the language by introducing all kinds of euphemisms and clichés.

Havel kept protesting the government, refusing to go into exile the way so many other writers and artists in the country did. He was jailed several times, and then in 1989, after another arrest and imprisonment, he was released early because thousands of artists protested to the prime minister. He'd become a national hero. After the collapse of the Communist regime, he helped negotiate the transition to democracy, and in December of 1989, he was elected president, the first non-communist leader of his country since 1948. He stepped down from power in 2003.

Václav Havel said, "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become president."


It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist who wrote under the name Flann O'Brien, (books by this author) born Brian O'Nolan in Strabane, Ireland (1911). His novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) has three beginnings and three endings and the three different strands run alongside each other for the length of the book.


It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Edward P. Jones, (books by this author) born in Arlington, Virginia (1950). Jones grew up in Washington, D.C. His father deserted the family when Edward was just a boy, and he was raised by his mother, who supported the family by washing dishes and cleaning houses for a living. His mother had never learned to read or write, and so Jones often had to help her with job applications and other documents. He signed her name on all his own report cards.

Jones and his mother moved about 18 times throughout Jones's childhood. He was the first person in his family to attend college, and he said his mother was so proud that she burst into tears the first time she visited the campus. It was there that Jones began writing fiction. His work was promising, but just as he was graduating, his mother got sick, and he moved back to be with her as she died.

Jones was 53 years old when he finally published a novel, The Known World. It was his first, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

His most recent book is the collection of stories All Aunt Hagar's Children, which came out this year (2006). Edward P. Jones has dedicated all his books so far to the memory of his mother, and he has said, "If I write more, I will dedicate them to [my mother] as well. It is a small, small thing to do for one's creator."




FRIDAY, 6 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Hard Rain" by Tony Hoagland from Hard Rain: A Chapbook. © Hollyridge Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Hard Rain

After I heard It's a Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood there's nothing
we can't pluck the stinger from,

nothing we can't turn into a soft drink flavor or a t-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people

quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades, where the swamp has been
drained and bulldozed into a nineteen-hole golf course
with electrified alligator barriers.

You can't keep beating yourself up, Billy
I heard the therapist say on television
                                                         to the teenage murderer,
About all those people you killed—
You just have to be the best person you can be,

one day at a time—


and everybody in the audience claps and weeps a little,
because the level of deep feeling has been touched,
and they want to believe that
the power of Forgiveness is greater
than the power of Consequence, or History.

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
                                   are covered with blood-
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
Should I say something?
                                                       Signed, America.


I used to think I was not part of this,
that I could mind my own business and get along,

but that was just another song
that had been taught to me since birth—

whose words I was humming under my breath,
as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1847 that Charlotte Brontë (books by this author) published her novel Jane Eyre. She, along with her sisters and her brother, had grown up in extraordinary isolation, it the rural moors of England, where her father was a minister. She and her siblings had created imaginary worlds for themselves as a way of coping with the isolation. But Charlotte was the member of the family who most wanted to get out into the real world. She fantasized about becoming rich and famous and traveling around Europe.

She took a series of jobs working as a teacher and as a governess. She was working at a small private school called Roe Head when she heard a story about a governess who had married a man only to learn that the man was already married. It turned out that his first wife had gone mad, and so he had locked her away in the second floor of his house.

The story stuck in Charlotte's head for years, and that story eventually became Jane Eyre (1847), about a poor orphan girl, raised by her cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed. Jane never gets along with her prettier cousins, but she works her way up to a position as a governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall, and it is there that she begins to fall in love with her employer, Edward Rochester, only to learn that he is actually married. His wife, Bertha, is locked away on the third floor of the house.

The novel made Charlotte Brontë rich and famous, but unfortunately it did not fulfill her plan of helping the whole family. Within two years of publishing Jane Eyre, all of Charlotte's siblings had died of consumption. Charlotte died in childbirth a few years later in 1854.


It's the birthday of novelist and critic Caroline Gordon, (books by this author) born in Merry Mont, Kentucky (1895). Her books include the novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), Old Red and Other Stories (1963), and How to Read a Novel (1957).


On this day in 1930, William Faulkner (books by this author) published what he later said was his favorite of his own novels: As I Lay Dying.


On this day in 1866, the Reno brothers, John and Simeon Reno, pulled off the first train robbery in American history. They took $13,000 from an Ohio and Mississippi railroad train in Jackson County, Indiana.




SATURDAY, 7 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "School Prayer" by Diane Ackerman from I Praise My Destroyer. © Vintage Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

School Prayer

In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, (books by this author) born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948). A writer who has always been interested in the outside world more than her own life, she wrote her first book of poetry, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (1976), entirely about astronomy. She has since written many other poems about science, as well as cattle farming, flying an airplane, and soccer. She became a journalist as well, specializing in essays about animals, and she once put a bat on top of her head to see if it would really get tangled in her hair. It didn't, but she described how it coughed gently.

She is best known for her book A Natural History of the Senses (1990), a collection of wide-ranging essays about her own thoughts and experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.


On this day in 1955, poet Allen Ginsberg (books by this author) read his poem "Howl" for the first time at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. He had graduated from Columbia University back in 1948, and hadn't been having an easy time figuring out what to do with himself. He'd gotten involved with a bohemian crowd that included Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, but the same crowd also included hardcore criminals. One night, he was out with a friend in a stolen car, and they got caught by the police. His friend was sent to jail, but Ginsberg wound up in a mental hospital.

On his first day in the hospital, Ginsberg met a man named Carl Solomon, and the two became instant friends. Carl had been committed to the hospital when he'd shown up at the front door demanding to be lobotomized, because he didn't see any point in having a brain in American society. He and Ginsberg spent their time in the hospital discussing French avant-garde poetry and Dostoyevsky. Ginsberg thought Carl Solomon was one of the most brilliant people he'd ever met, and he decided that if this man was in a mental hospital, then there was definitely something wrong with America.

When he got out of the hospital, Ginsberg worked a series of respectable jobs, doing market research for advertising companies. He eventually wound up in San Francisco, where he spent his nights living like a bohemian with his friends, but he kept going to the same respectable job during the day.

In the spring of 1954, Ginsberg suggested to his boss that he be replaced with an IBM computer, and his boss took the advice. Ginsberg knew he'd have six months of unemployment pay to live on, so he decided to make the most of it. One afternoon that August, he sat down at his typewriter with the goal of writing down whatever came into his head as quickly as he could. For some reason, he thought of Carl Solomon, the guy he'd met at the mental hospital, and he began to type the famous opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."

He wrote the whole first section of the poem that afternoon, cataloguing the lives and experiences of all his bohemian friends who hadn't fit in with contemporary society. But he kept coming back to his friend Carl Solomon. At the top of the first page of the poem, he wrote in pink pencil, "Howl for Carl Solomon." He later revised and greatly expanded the poem, and shortened the title to the single word "Howl."

Ginsberg had never given a public reading before, but he decided to debut his new poem at a reading with five other poets, at the Six Gallery, a converted auto-repair shop on the corner of Union and Fillmore in downtown San Francisco. Allen Ginsburg was the second-to-last reader, and when he took the stage he was a little nervous. But after a few lines of the poem, he began to chant the words like a preacher, and the audience began to cheer at the end of every line.

One of the people in the audience that night was the poet and upstart publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He went on to publish Howl and Other Poems (1956), and an obscenity scandal turned Ginsberg into one of the most famous poets in America.


It's the birthday of the Australian novelist Thomas M. Keneally, (books by this author) born in Sydney (1935). He's the author of Schindler's Ark (1982), also published as Schindler's List. It tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. Of the book, he said: "... when I got the idea for Schindler I was on my way back from a festival on Australian films ... and I came back through America to see publishers. [I had to buy a briefcase], and that's how I came up with the Schindler story: by buying a briefcase from a fellow who owned a luggage store in Beverly Hills who was a Schindler survivor."




SUNDAY, 8 OCTOBER, 2006
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Poem: "The Ceremony of Innocence" Anthony Hecht from Collected Later Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Ceremony of Innocence

He was taken from his cell, stripped, blindfolded,
And marched to a noisy room that smelled of sweat.
Someone stamped on his toes; his scream was stopped
By a lemon violently pushed between his teeth
And sealed with friction tape behind his head.
His arms were tied, the blindfold was removed
So he could see his tormentors, and they could see
The so-much-longed-for terror in his eyes.
And one of them said, "The best part of it all
Is that you won't even be able to pray."
When they were done with him, two hours later,
They learned that they had murdered the wrong man
And this made one of them thoughtful. Some years
         after,
He quietly severed connections with the others
Moved to a different city, took holy orders,
And devoted himself to serving God and the poor,
While the intended victim continued to live
On a walled estate, sentried around the clock
By a youthful, cell phone-linked praetorian guard.


Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1871, the 335,000 residents of Chicago experienced yet another warm, sunny day of their three-month long drought. The conditions were getting dangerous because the whole city was built of wood. A few fires had broken out, including one the night before, for which the whole fire department was called out. But it was nothing like the Great Chicago Fire, which began the evening of October 8, at 8:45 p.m. The fire broke out at the barn of two Irish immigrants, Catherine and Patrick O'Leary, on the West Side. The story is that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lamp while she was being milked.

The fire traveled quickly on the West Side, but the people on the other side of the Chicago River felt safe in their beds. By midnight, though, it had jumped the river and was traveling northeast and upriver. It traveled up to 30 mph at times, and generated "fire devils," whirling masses of fire and superheated air that traveled even faster than the fire itself. The fire devils caused high winds that sent burning planks and other fiery objects soaring for hundreds of yards through the air. The intense heat caused spontaneous combustion in places not yet reached by the fire.

People were running out of their houses and running north. Some people took as many belongings as they could. They ran holding cats, dogs, and goats. One eyewitness saw a lady running with a pot of soup that was spilling all over her dress. Another woman was carrying her framed wedding veil and wreath.

By the next morning, the heart of the business district was in flames. By October 10, more than three square miles in the heart of the city were completely destroyed. The property damages were $200 million. Almost 100,000 people were homeless, and nearly 300 were dead. It was more than 24 hours later, and four and a half miles from where it started, that the fire finally ran out of fuel and rain came.

But the city rebuilt itself. After 18 months had passed, more than 1,000 major buildings, valued at more than $50 million, had been erected. Two years after the fire, the value of the bare ground of the new Chicago was worth more than it had been in 1871 with all its buildings. Between 1870 and 1880, the population rose from 300,000 to 500,000. Then it more than doubled by the turn of the century.


It's the birthday of young-adult novelist R.L. (Robert Lawrence) Stine (1943), (books by this author) born in Bexley, Ohio. The creator of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series of horror novels for young people, he's one of the best-selling children's book authors of all time. He has written more than 200 books, and he's sold more than 100 million copies.

By the early 1990s, Stine's books were selling about a million copies per month. To keep up with demand, he had to write 20 pages a day, finishing a book every two weeks.

In response to critics who have said that his books aren't good for children, R.L. Stine said, "I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value."


It's the birthday of the science fiction author Frank Herbert, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1920). He's best known for his novel Dune (1965) about a desert planet where people only survive because they have learned to conserve and recycle every possible trace of moisture. Dune was one of the first science fiction novels to completely imagine an entirely different world, with different plants and animals, different social classes, and a whole set of elaborate religious beliefs.




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