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Poem: "A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country" by Barbara Ras, from One Hidden Stuff. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country

Because those cows in the bottomland are black and white, colors
anyone can understand, even against the green
of the grass, where they glide like yes and no, nothing in between,
because in the country, heartache has nowhere to hide,
it's the Church of Abundant Life, the Alamo,
the hubbub of the hoi polloi, the parallel lines of rail fences,
because I like rodeos more than I like golf,
because there's something about the sound of mealworms and
leeches and the dream of a double-wide
that reminds me this is America, because of the simple pleasure
of a last chance, because sometimes whiskey
tastes better than wine, because hauling hogs on the road
is as good as it gets when the big bodies are layered like pigs in a cake,
not one layer but two,
because only country has a gun with a full choke and a slide guitar
that melts playing it cool into sweaty surrender in one note,
because in country you can smoke forever and it'll never kill you,
because roadbeds, flatbeds, your bed or mine,
because the package store is right across from the chicken plant
and it sells boiled peanuts, because I'm fixin' to wear boots to the dance
and make my hair bigger, because no smarty-pants, just easy rhymes,
perfect love, because I'm lost deep within myself and the sad songs call me out,
because even you with your superior aesthetic cried
when Tammy Wynette died,
because my people
come from dirt.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the few Catholic priests who's ever been a best-selling novelist, Andrew Greeley, (books by this author) born in Oak Park, Illinois (1928). Soon after his ordination in 1954, Greeley decided that he had other interests beyond running a parish. He went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and he became a professor of sociology. He began writing about the changing role of religion in society and eventually published more than 60 books on sociology, religion, and other subjects. But he also began to write novels, and he generated a storm of controversy with his fourth novel, The Cardinal Sins (1981).

The Cardinal Sins tells the story of a young Irish boy named Patrick Donahue from Chicago's West Side who becomes a priest and then rises through the ranks of the church hierarchy, eventually becoming the archbishop of Chicago and a cardinal. Along the way, he takes a mistress and fathers an illegitimate child. At the time, many people thought the novel was a veiled attack on Cardinal John Cody, then the Archbishop of Chicago.

Greeley went on to write several other novels that were controversial, in part because they exposed the behind-the-scenes world of the Catholic Church, and in part because they often contained explicit sex scenes. He was eventually ostracized by his local church leaders, and when he tried to donate $1 million of the proceeds from his books to the Chicago Catholic schools, they refused to take his money. He said, "It was arguably the first time in history the Catholic Church has turned down money from anyone."

Greeley has now written more than 150 books, which have sold more than 15 million copies. When asked how he can write so much, he said, "I suppose I have the Irish weakness for words gone wild. Besides, if you're celibate, you have to do something."

It's the birthday of a French woman famous for writing letters, Marie de Sévigné, born in Paris (1626). She wrote, "We like so much to hear people talk of us and of our motives, that we are charmed even when they abuse us."

It's the birthday of the novelist William S (Seward) Burroughs, (books by this author) born in St. Louis, Missouri (1914). He was the grandson of a man who'd gotten rich inventing an adding machine, and he grew up in one of St. Louis's wealthiest communities. But Burroughs never fit into the society his parents belonged to, and he didn't fit in at Harvard either. He kept a ferret and a .32-caliber revolver in his dorm room. He started writing, but when a piece of his was rejected by Esquire magazine, he was so disappointed that he didn't write again for six years. He tried to enlist in the military, but he was turned down by the Navy,and when he got into the Army infantry, his mother arranged for him to be given a psychiatric discharge.

So, at 30 years old, he moved to New York City and got involved in a bohemian scene. It was there that he was introduced to two younger men, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He also got addicted to heroin, and wrote his first book about it, a memoir called Junky. It came out in 1953. But his friends had to help him piece together the fragments that became the book he's best known for: Naked Lunch (1959).

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Poem: "Goodbye, New York" by Deborah Garrison, from The Second Child. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Goodbye, New York
          (song from the wrong side of the Hudson)

You were the big fat city we called hometown
You were the lyrics I sang but never wrote down

You were the lively graves by the highway in Queens
the bodega where I bought black beans

stacks of the Times we never read
nights we never went to bed

the radio jazz, the doughnut cart
the dogs off their leashes in Tompkins Square Park

You were the tiny brass mailbox key
the joy of "us" and the sorrow of "me"

You were the balcony bar in Grand Central Station
the blunt commuters and their destination

the post-wedding blintzes at 4 A.M.
and the pregnant waitress we never saw again

You were the pickles, you were the jar
You were the prizefight we watched in a bar

the sloppy kiss in the basement at Nell's
the occasional truth that the fortune cookie tells

Sinatra still swinging at Radio City
You were ugly and gorgeous but never pretty

always the question, never the answer
the difficult poet, the aging dancer

the call I made from a corner phone
to a friend in need, who wasn't at home

the fireworks we watched from a tenement roof
the brash allegations and the lack of any proof

my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door
now you're the dream we lived before

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1937 that John Steinbeck (books by this author) published his novel Of Mice and Men, the story of two migrant farm workers, George Milton and his simple-minded friend, Lennie Small, who dream of owning their own place and living off the fat of the land.

Steinbeck had worked as a farmhand to pay for his tuition in college, and later took various manual labor jobs in California to support himself as a writer. He began to write fiction about the plight of migrant farm workers after the start of the Great Depression. He published two novels that had some success, Tortilla Flat (1935) and In Dubious Battle (1936), but he wanted to write something about migrant workers that was more like a parable or a myth.

He also wanted his fiction to reach the very workers he was writing about, and he knew that many poor farm workers were illiterate. He had seen theater troupes performing for farm labor camps, and he got the idea that he could write a novel that was made up almost entirely of dialogue, so that it could also be produced as a play.

Steinbeck wanted the story of the novel to be simple, like a children's story, even though it would have a tragic, violent ending. He had almost finished his first draft of the novel when his dog tore the manuscript to shreds. He eventually rewrote the novel and it was published on this day in 1937. The play was produced soon after, and both the novel and the play were huge successes.

Of Mice and Men has remained one of Steinbeck's most popular novels, and it's been made into a movie three times, in 1939, 1981, and 1992.

It's the birthday of lexicographer and writer Eric Partridge, (books by this author) born in Poverty Bay, New Zealand (1894). He was one of the first lexicographers to take slang seriously as a subject of study. His book A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937) was a big success and he went on to write books about the slang used in Shakespeare's plays and the history of clichés and catchphrases.

He said, "[Language] was created by people, not in a laboratory."

It's the birthday of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, (books by this author) born in Tampico, Illinois (1911). His father suffered from alcoholism, and Reagan was only 11 years old when he first came upon his father drunk and passed out on the front porch. Reagan wrote about the incident in his 1965 memoir, Where's the Rest of Me. He said, "That was my first moment of taking responsibility. ... I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speakeasy. I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed. In a few days, he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember."

Reagan went into broadcasting and then got a job as an actor in B movies. He loved acting because, he said, "So much of our profession is taken up with pretending, with the interpretation of never-never roles, that an actor must spend at least half his waking hours in fantasy." But by the mid-1950s, Reagan's career as an actor had stalled. He spent eight years as the host of a TV show called "General Electric Theater." But he was slowly growing more interested in politics. He became a Republican in 1962, and in 1964 the Republican Party asked him to give a half-hour address in support of Barry Goldwater. The speech was so good that a group of Republicans got together and persuaded Reagan to run for governor of California, and that was the beginning of his political career.

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Poem: "The Lyric" by Tom Clark, from Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems. © Coffee House Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lyric

lament, sorrow and wild
joy commingle in

the lyric — a collective
sigh of relief comes cascading
out of the blue —

a yearning to submerge
in life like the swimmer
in the pool forgetful

immersed and quenched —
water trailing scattered
diamonds in a rustling

voice of resigned subsidence
as though in the same stroke
everyone alive were speaking through you —

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Charles Dickens, (books by this author) who was born in Portsmouth, England (1812). He grew up in a series of small towns on the southern coast of England, where his father worked as a naval clerk. His mother taught him to read, and he became obsessed with books. He later wrote, "[Reading] was my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life."

When he was 10 years old, his father got a promotion to a job on the outskirts of London. Dickens always remembered leaving the small coastal town where he'd grown up. At the time, London was one of the capitals of the Industrial Revolution, one of the first giant sprawling cities, full of poverty and pollution, crime and mystery. Dickens would go on to describe London as, "The great city ... like a dark shadow on the ground, reddening the sluggish air with a deep dull light, that told of labyrinths of public ways and shops, and swarms of busy people. ... Sounds arose — the striking of church clocks, the distant bark of dogs, the hum of traffic in the streets ... tall steeples looming in the air, and piles of unequal roofs oppressed by chimneys."

Dickens' father had been gathering debts for years, struggling more and more to pay them. Charles was 12 years old when his parents decided he could help the family financially if he took a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by a friend of the family.

A few days after he started the job, Dickens' father was arrested for debt. Dickens was devastated. It was then that he decided that he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was never poor again. In his spare time, he began writing sketches of the people imprisoned with his father, and then began to write about other ordinary people on the streets of London, the cabdrivers, shoe shiners, pickpockets, and clowns.

Dickens eventually got a job as a journalist and began writing fiction, and he went on to become the most popular writer of his lifetime. But he also became a publishing entrepreneur by inventing a remarkably successful new form of publishing, selling his novels in serial installments. Because he couldn't wait to write a whole book before he started getting paid for it, he published each new chapter as soon as it was finished.

Most critics agree that Dickens' first real masterpiece was his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield (1850).

Dickens' reputation among critics declined after his death. His work was considered too melodramatic and moralistic. But his reputation was revived by the critic G.K. Chesterton, and since 1950, more has been written about Dickens each year than about any other author in the English language except Shakespeare.

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, (books by this author) born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). His mother died when he was six years old, and he never got along with his father. Growing up in Sauk Centre, he was a gawky kid, uncoordinated and odd looking, and his only talent seemed to be imitating the voices of local teachers and priests. He never felt comfortable in his hometown and tried to run away to fight in the Spanish American War when he was 13.

As soon as he graduated from high school, he moved away to the East Coast for college and then almost never stopped moving for the rest of his life. He published short stories in popular magazines and produced five novels, none of which got any attention. But he took a trip back home to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and while he was there, he felt as though everyone was judging him and gossiping about him. The experience gave him the idea for a novel about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott who moves to a small town called Gopher Prairie and tries to bring it culturally up to date, only to fail miserably.

That novel was Main Street (1920), and it was a literary sensation. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small-town American life. Lewis described the people in his fictional Gopher Prairie as "a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world." When asked about the popularity of the book, he said, "Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth."

He went on to write many other books, including Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925), but most people consider Main Street his masterpiece. In 1930, he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said his inspiration as a writer came from, "sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world — the Average Citizens of the United States."

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, (books by this author) born Laura Ingalls near Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was 63 years old she started writing about her pioneer childhood in books such as Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935).

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Poem: "Why I Need the Birds" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Why I Need the Birds

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together —
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Lisel Mueller, (books by this author) born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). She fled with her family from Nazi Germany when she was a teenager, and she spent the rest of her adolescence in Indiana. She learned to love English by memorizing the lyrics to American songs she heard on the radio. She has gone on to write many books of poetry in English, including The Need to Hold Still (1980) and Waving from Shore (1989). Her book Alive Together: New and Selected Poems came out in 1996.

It's the birthday of one of the best-selling novelists of the last two decades, John Grisham, (books by this author) born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). His father was a construction worker, and Grisham grew up traveling around the South as his father looked for work. Grisham decided to study law in college. In his first courtroom trial, he successfully defended a man who'd shot his wife's lover six times in the head. He eventually switched to civil law, and he won one of the largest damage settlements ever recorded in his county for the family of a boy who'd been burned by an exploding water heater. But he found the practice of law frustrating, and felt that he might make more of a difference in politics. He served in the Mississippi state Legislature for two terms, but he was disillusioned by the political process.

He decided that maybe the best way to make an impact in the world would be to write a book. He'd recently witnessed a court case in which a10-year-old girl had to testify against a man that raped her. Grisham was overwhelmed by emotion watching that testimony, and he began to wonder what would happen if the girl's father murdered the rapist and was put on trial himself. Grisham spent the next three years writing a novel based on that idea, and the result was his first book, A Time to Kill (1989). Only a few thousand copies were printed, and it didn't even sell out that first run. It was one of the first times in Grisham's life that he'd failed to succeed at something he'd set out to do.

Grisham decided that if he was going to write novels, he wanted them to be best-sellers. He did some research and found an article about the rules of suspense in Writer's Digest magazine. He used those rules to write a potboiler about a young law student who takes a job with a law firm that he later comes to realize is connected to the mafia. And that novel was The Firm, which came out in 1991 and became a huge best-seller. Grisham went on to publish another novel every year for the rest of the 1990s, all of them best-sellers.

Of his formula for writing legal thrillers, John Grisham said, "You take some horrible, mean, vicious, nasty conspiracy over here, you put a very sympathetic hero or heroine in the middle of it, you reach a point where their lives are at stake — and you get them out of it."

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, (books by this author) born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts. For the rest of her life, she was obsessed with travel, and she never felt at home anywhere.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year she mustered all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus, and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking, and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend, and she persuaded Bishop that poems didn't have to be about big ideas, that they could be precise descriptions of ordinary objects and places. Bishop began to write poems about filling stations, fish, the behavior of birds, and her memories of Nova Scotia.

She was an extremely slow writer, and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than 15 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right.

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Poem: "In the Middle of the Road" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translation by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. © The Noonday Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In the Middle of the Road

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Walker, (books by this author) born in Eatonton, Georgia (1944). She grew up the youngest of eight children. She's the author of many novels and books of poetry, but she's perhaps best known for her novel The Color Purple (1982), which begins, "Dear God, I am fourteen years old. ... I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me." That novel went on to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Walker was the first black woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It's the birthday of the playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in a house fiercely opposed to British rule. His mother was fond of saying, "Burn all things British — except their coal." He got involved with the IRA and as a result spent most of his early life in and out of prison. It was while he was in prison that he wrote his play The Quare Fellow (1954) about a day in the life of group of inmates as they wait for one of their fellow prisoners to be hanged. "Quare fellow" is Irish slang for a condemned man. No Irish theater would produce the play, but it became a sensation in London.

Behan was a heavy drinker and a wild character, and he quickly became one of the most notorious writers in London. He once said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.

"Behan's autobiography Borstal Boy (1958) and his play The Hostage (1958) were also big successes, but after that his health declined, and he died in 1964, his career having lasted only 10 years.

It's the birthday of writer George Ade, (books by this author) born near Kentland, Indiana (1866). He went to Purdue University and then got a job as a newspaperman in Chicago writing a daily column about the weather. He would just walk around the city and ask ordinary people what they thought of the weather, and then he wrote down what they said. His column was so popular that he was given free reign to write about whatever he wanted, and so he just took a walk every day, looking at the city and talking to people, until something struck his fancy.

Then, in 1897, Ade got the idea to write a series of fables about modern characters, using modern American vernacular. The first of these fables was "The Fable of Sister Mae Who Did As Well As Could Be Expected," and it was so popular that he wrote many more, collected in his books Fables in Slang (1899) and More Fables (1900). Ade later said, "It was a great lark to write in slang — just like gorging on forbidden fruit."

It's the birthday of the physicist and science writer Brian Greene, (books by this author) born in New York City (1963). He's one of the leading theorists in an area of physics known as "string theory," and he's also the author of a best-selling book about that theory, called The Elegant Universe (1999).

He studied physics at Harvard and became fascinated with Einstein's theory of relativity, which describes the movements of big objects through space, and the theory of quantum mechanics, which describes the movements of tiny subatomic particles. He eventually got involved in the quest to find a way to bring those two theories together, to find some underlying principle that would explain all the basic forces in the universe. At that very moment, two physicists working in London announced that they may have made a breakthrough in a new area of physics called string theory, which is the theory that all matter is tied together by incredibly tiny vibrating strings. Brian Greene chose to write his doctoral dissertation on string theory, and he became one of an early group of physicists who attempted to prove that string theory is not just theoretical.

Greene fell in love with the beauty of string theory, but he was frustrated that so few people understood it. So he decided to try to explain string theory to a broader audience. He'd never been much of a reader or a writer, but he'd always been good at explaining complicated ideas in his lectures, so he decided to write the book in a conversational style, using analogies and metaphors from the ordinary world to explain incredibly complicated mathematical ideas. The result was his book The Elegant Universe, which became one of the best-selling science books of the 1990s.

Brian Greene said, "I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe."

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Poem: "The Blind Leading the Blind" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Blind Leading the Blind

Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud.
Summer blows in with scent of horses and roses;
fall with the sound of sound breaking; winter shoves
its empty sleeve down the dark of your throat.
You will learn toads from diamonds, the fist from palm,
love from the sweat of love, falling from flying.
There are a thousand turnoffs. I have been here before.
Once I fell off a precipice. Once I found gold.
Once I stumbled on murder, the thin parts of a girl.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for the occasional bits and bubbles of light —
Birthdays for you, recognitions: yourself, another.
Watch for the mud. Listen for bells, for beggars.
Something with wings went crazy against my chest once.
There are two of us here. Touch me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary McGarry Morris, (books by this author) born in Meriden, Connecticut (1943). She took 10 years to write her first novel. No one knew she was writing it in all that time. Her neighbors noticed that she was going out less and less, but no one knew why. Morris didn't want to tell anyone she was writing a novel because she didn't want people to ask how it was going. If someone came to the door unexpectedly, she'd jump up and run to the kitchen, so no one would see her at the typewriter. One night, Morris was on such a roll that she decided not to go to a party she'd been invited to. She said, "I remember sitting there thinking, I would much rather spend an evening with [these characters] than whoever may be at that cocktail party."

Morris finally finished the book, called Vanished. It was rejected by almost 30 different publishers and agents, but when an agent finally agreed to take the book, it was purchased by Viking Press just a few weeks later. It came out in 1988 and got great reviews, becoming a finalist for a National Book Award.

Her third novel, Songs in Ordinary Time (1995), sold more than a million copies. Her most recent book is The Lost Mother (2005).

It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, (books by this author) born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). He started studying Karl Marx's Das Kapital when he was a young man. He came to the conclusion that most plays were catering to the rich and privileged, and he developed a revolutionary new theory of drama. He thought that theaters should be closer to political lecture halls than places of entertainment, and he wanted to encourage audiences to think about issues rather than sympathize with characters. He didn't use conventional stage props, he flashed slides and written messages on large screens, and he had actors step out of their roles to directly address the audience.

He eventually moved to the United States and settled in Hollywood to write plays and movies. He wrote more than 50 screenplays during his six years in Hollywood, but only one of them was accepted: Hangmen Also Die (1943), an anti-Nazi film that came out in the middle of World War II. But it was while he was in Hollywood that he wrote his best-known plays, The Life of Galileo (1938), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945).

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1890). He was at first a supporter of the revolutions of 1917, but he then began to witness the political persecution and censorship under the government of Stalin. From 1934 to 1943, he published no original work, because of his fears of censorship. Instead, he made money by translating writers like Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Schiller, and Goethe, since he knew that he wouldn't be punished for publishing translations.

Then, around 1945, Pasternak began to work in secret on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that follows the lives of more than 60 characters through the first half of 20th-century Russia. He finally finished it in 1955, and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy. Pasternak said at the time that he knew he was signing his own death warrant, but he felt he had to go through with it. The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, but it became an international best-seller, selling 7 million copies worldwide. The next year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was forced to refuse it. He spent the last two years of his life living in a writer's colony, satisfied with the knowledge that his novel had been published, even if he couldn't see a printed copy. He died in 1960.

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Poem: "The Psychiatrist Says She's Severely Demented" by Bobbi Lurie, from Letter from the Lawn: Poems by Bobbi Lurie. © CustomWords. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Psychiatrist Says She's Severely Demented

But she's my mother. She lies in her bed,
Hi Sweetie, she says.
Hi Mom. Do you know my name?
I can't wait for her answer, I'm Bobbi.
Oh, so you found me again
, she says.
Her face and hair have the same gray sheen
Like a black and white drawing smudged on the edges.
The bedspread is hot pink, lime green. Her eyes,
Such a distant blue, indifferent as the sky. I put my hand
On her forehead. It is soft, and she resembles my real mother
Who I have not spoken to in so many years.
I want to talk to her as her eyes close.
She is mumbling something, laughing to herself,
All the sadness she ever had has fled.
And when she opens her eyes again, she stares through me
And her eyes well up with tears.
And I stand there lost in her incoherence,
Which feels almost exactly like love.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Joy Williams, (books by this author) born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts (1944). Williams went to college and grad school in the Midwest, but she decided she needed to live someplace more mysterious and exotic, so she moved to a trailer park in northern Florida, surrounded by swamps and alligators and snakes. She said, "I was miserable, of course. But it was all very good for my writing. It's good to be miserable and a little off-balance." The result was her first novel, State of Grace (1973), which got great reviews. But her second novel did not do so well.

She was so devastated that she didn't try to write another novel for a long time, but focused on short stories instead. She now considered the short story her favorite form.

Williams has gone on to write many more books, including the novel The Quick and the Dead (2001), and the story collection Honored Guest (2004).

The title story of Honored Guest begins, "She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke. ... Under the circumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all. It was just not cool."

It's the birthday of novelist Sidney Sheldon, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1917). He didn't start writing novels until he was 53 years old. He was a playwright and screenwriter, and then created and produced the popular 1960s sitcoms The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. But each of his novels has hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list, and they've sold more than 300 million copies worldwide.

It's the birthday of writer and activist Lydia Maria Child, (books by this author) born in Medford, Massachusetts (1802). She wrote novels, anti-slavery tracts, appeals on behalf of Native American rights, and essays on the status of women in society — but she's remembered today for writing the classic holiday song "Over the River and Through the Woods."

It's the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio (1847). He did not do well in school, in part because he'd spent his early childhood sick in bed, and he suffered from bad hearing. So he was home-schooled by his mother. He started working odd jobs when he was 13, bouncing around various jobs at machine shops, jewelry shops, and telegraph offices, and he soaked up as much as he could about the operation of different kinds of technology. His first important invention was an improvement on the stock ticker. Western Union paid him $40,000 for the device.

That helped Edison set up one of the first independent industrial research laboratories in the world. He eventually amassed 1,093 patents, the most patents ever issued to a single person in American history. His most important inventions were the phonograph, the light bulb, and the movie camera. But perhaps his greatest achievement was managing to make these things a part of everyday life. When he invented the light bulb, it might have been just a novelty. Edison had to invent the electricity industry in order to make the light bulb useful. He built the first power plant in the world, designed his own steam-powered generators, built a 14-mile network of underground wiring, and installed meters to measure the flow of the electricity. He's now regarded as the father of the modern electronic world.



  • “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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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