MONDAY, 26 FEBRUARY, 2007
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Poem: "The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships" by Christopher Marlowe, from Doctor Faustus. Public domain. (buy now)

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies:
And all is dross that is not Helena:
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wertenberg be sack'd,
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest:
Yea I will wound Achillis in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter,
When he appear'd to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Victor Hugo, (books by this author) born in Besançon, France (1802). In the English-speaking world, he's mainly remembered as the man who wrote Les Misérables (1865) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), but in France he's considered one of the great French poets as well.

His father was a general in Napoleon's army, and Hugo rarely saw him. He lived with his mother in Paris, and he was tutored in the classics by his godfather, who lived in the family garden shed. It was only later that Hugo learned his mother and his godfather were having an affair, and that his godfather was plotting against Napoleon. The man was eventually caught and shot by a firing squad.

Hugo and his brother, Eugene, spent the rest of their childhood traveling around Europe with their mother, to Italy and then to Spain. The brothers entertained each other by writing poetry and plays. They both went to law school, but instead of going to classes they started a literary journal together. And then they fell in love with the same girl. Victor married her, and on the day of the wedding, Eugene had a nervous breakdown, and he never recovered, spending the rest of his life in a mental asylum.

As Hugo was beginning his writing career, he spent a lot of his time wandering around the slums of Paris. At a time when most novelists focused on the aristocracy, Hugo began to write about the people of the street.

He published his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, which made him famous. But his fame helped turn him into an enemy of the state. He spoke out against the regime of Napoleon III, who started out as an elected president and then declared himself emperor. Troops eventually showed up at his door to arrest him, but he had already fled the country, disguised in a workman's cap and a black coat.

He spent 20 years in exile on the island of Guernsey, where he began writing furiously. Every morning, he would stand at a lectern, facing a window with a view of the English Channel, and he would write at least 20 pages of prose or 100 lines of poetry. It was at that lectern that he wrote his masterpiece, Les Misérables (1865), which he'd been sketching out in his mind for more than 30 years.

Les Misérables is the story of a man named Jean Valjean. He is born into poverty in Paris, and as a young man he steals a loaf of bread and is thrown in jail for 19 years. After Valjean is released, he works his way up the ladder of society and becomes a successful businessman and mayor of a small town, only to be hunted down and imprisoned again for a minor crime he committed in his past.

When the book came out, Hugo said, "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Misérables."


It was on this day in 1564 that the playwright Christopher Marlowe (books by this author) was baptized in Canterbury, England. We're not sure of his birthday. He was one of the most prominent playwrights of his lifetime, surpassed only by Shakespeare. When he began his career, most English plays were written in rhyming couplets, but Marlowe wrote in blank verse, without end rhymes. Other playwrights, including Shakespeare, followed his example.

He lived an exciting life. He was a child prodigy and managed to get into Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, even though he was the son of a shoemaker. His school records show that he was frequently absent from class because he was working for Queen Elizabeth's secret service. There is some evidence that he continued to work as a secret agent for the queen for the rest of his life. In the 1590s, while he was producing his plays, church officials began to accuse him of espousing atheism, a charge that could be punished by torture. On May 18, 1593, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he died in a fight over a bar bill before the police could find him.

Conspiracy theorists have wondered about Marlowe's death for centuries, and there is a group called the Marlovians who believe that Marlowe's death was actually faked by the queen in order to protect Marlowe from the Church. They believe the queen actually whisked Marlowe away to Italy, where he continued writing plays. They also believe that Marlowe used an actor named Shakespeare as a front man to cover up his identity.

Marlovians point out that many of Shakespeare's plays mention places in Marlowe's home district of Kent, while they never mention the places near where Shakespeare was born. A tavern mentioned in Henry IV actually belonged to Marlowe's sister.

Marlovians also point out that many of Shakespeare's plays deal with themes of exile and false identity.

But few Shakespeare scholars take this conspiracy theory seriously. And so Marlowe is best remembered for his play Dr. Faustus (c. 1594), about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil and conjures up Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the history of the world.




TUESDAY, 27 FEBRUARY, 2007
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Poem: "Snow-Flakes" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain (buy now)

Snow-Flakes

Out of the bosom of the Air,
    Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
    Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
        Silent, and soft, and slow
        Descends the snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
    Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
    In the white countenance confession,
        The troubled sky reveals
        The grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air,
    Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair.
    Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
        Now whispered and revealed
        To wood and field.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and humorist Peter De Vries, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1910). His parents were immigrants from Holland, and he grew up in a Dutch section of Chicago. His parents wouldn't let him go to the movies, dance, play cards, attend regular public schools, or do anything else they considered secular. He once said, "My father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too."

De Vries eventually rebelled against his upbringing, but he never quite got over the strangeness of worldly things, and it inspired him to begin writing satirical novels, including Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1959). He wrote his novel The Blood of the Lamb (1962) after his daughter died of leukemia, and though it was the darkest book De Vries had ever published, critics now consider it his best novel. It fell out of print after De Vries's death, but was republished in 2005.


It was on this day in 1860 that the photographer Mathew Brady (books by this author) took the first of several portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was just a presidential hopeful at the time, and he stopped by Mathew Brady's portrait gallery in New York City on his way to give an antislavery speech at the Cooper Union, and he thought a portrait might help his presidential campaign.

The portrait was difficult to take, in part because Lincoln was so tall. Brady usually used a head clamp to immobilize his subjects, but the clamp didn't reach Lincoln's head. So Lincoln had to stand absolutely still for several minutes of his own free will. The photograph worked out, though, and it was published on the cover of Harper's Weekly. Lincoln later claimed the photograph and the Cooper's Union had made him president.


It's the birthday of the novelist John Steinbeck, (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). He's best known for his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about the "Dust Bowl" farmers who had to migrate to California after a drought had destroyed their land. To research the book, he bought a an old bakery truck, filled it with blankets, food, and cooking utensils, and joined the migration himself, so that he could meet and talk to people without being conspicuous. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1940 and Steinbeck went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.


It's the 200th birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (books by this author) born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was the most popular American poet in his lifetime, and one of the first American poets to be taken seriously abroad.

He was something of a child prodigy, and entered Bowdoin College when he was just 14, where he was in the same class as Nathaniel Hawthorne. When Longfellow graduated, Bowdoin offered him a chair in modern languages, and he went on to teach German, French, Spanish, and Italian.

He didn't start focusing on his own poetry again until he took a trip with his wife to Germany, and on the way she had a miscarriage and died from complications. Longfellow was devastated, and he responded by throwing himself into his work, reading as much German poetry as he could. And when he got back to the United States, he began writing a series of poems about specifically American subjects, something that was still rare at the time. Among these early poems was "The Village Blacksmith," which begins, "UNDER a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands; / The smith, a mighty man is he, / With large and sinewy hands; / And the muscles of his brawny arms / Are strong as iron bands."

But the poem that made Longfellow's name was a book-length poem called Evangeline (1847), about two lovers in Nova Scotia who are separated on their wedding day when the English government expels French Canadian settlers from the area. Evangeline goes on an epic journey across North American to search for her husband, only to find him on his deathbed. Longfellow went on to write numerous popular narrative poems, including "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1863).

But though he eventually quit teaching modern languages, he always enjoyed translation. In 1861, his second wife was attempting to melt some sealing wax when she caught her own dress on fire and was burned to death. Longfellow was badly burned trying to save her. He spent the next few years comforting himself by working on a translation of Dante's Inferno, the first major translation of the poem into English by an American.




WEDNESDAY, 28 FEBRUARY, 2007
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Poem: "Echocardiogram" by Suzanne Cleary, from Trick Pear. © Carnegie Mellon University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Echocardiogram

How does, how does, how does it work
so, little valve stretching messily open, as wide as possible,
all directions at once, sucking air, sucking blood, sucking
                                                                             air-in-blood
how? On the screen I see the part of me that always
                                                                 loves my life, never tires
of what it takes, this in-and-out, this open-and-shut
                                                                 in the dark chest of me,
tireless, without muscle or bone, all flex and flux and blind
will, little mouth widening, opening and opening and,
                                                                         then snapping
shut, shuddering anemone entirely of darkness, sea creature
of the spangled and sparkling sea, down, down where light
                                                                             cannot reach.
When the technician stoops, flips a switch, the most
                                                               unpopular kid in the class
stands offstage with a metal sheet, shaking it while Lear raves. So
this is the house where love lives, a tin shed in a windstorm, tin
shed at the sea's edge, the land's edge,
waters wild and steady, wild and steady, wild.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, (books by this author) born in Périgueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner. Montaigne went off to college and became a lawyer, but his father died when Montaigne was 38 years old. And so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. And it was there that he began to write. He wrote short pieces on various topics, and he called them "essays," because the French word "essai" means attempt.

He lived at a time when religious civil wars were breaking out all over the country — Protestants and Catholics killing each other. The Black Plague was ravaging the peasants in his neighborhood; he once saw men digging their own graves and then lying down to die in them. Still, while he occasionally wrote about big subjects like hatred and death, he also wrote about the most ordinary things, like his gardening or the way radishes affected his digestion. He wrote about sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among other things.

Michel de Montaigne wrote, "The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness."


It was on this day in 1854 that about 50 opponents of slavery gathered in Ripon, Wisconsin, to found the Republican Party. The group was made up of Northern Democrats, Whigs, and a small antislavery party called the Free Soil Party. And they were remarkably successful for a brand-new party. In 1856, after just two years in existence, they elected 92 representatives and 20 senators, and they came close to capturing the presidency with their candidate John C. Freemont. And just four years after that, they did win the presidency with their candidate Abraham Lincoln. No new political party since then has won the presidency of the United Sates.


It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. They made the discovery with the help of some X-ray photographs taken by a woman named Rosalind Franklin. They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would have been awarded the Nobel Prize as well, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.


And it's the birthday of the man who almost beat Watson and Crick to the discovery of DNA, the chemist Linus Pauling, born in Oswego, Oregon (1901). He studied chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College, and then won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to go abroad to study the new field of quantum mechanics with some of the most important physicists of the era.

Pauling returned to the United States and took a chemistry job at Caltech. He later said of that time, "I was the only person in the world who had a good understanding of quantum mechanics and an extensive knowledge about chemistry." Using his new knowledge, Pauling became the first chemist to examine individual molecules with X-rays, and he showed how the various properties of a chemical — its color and texture and hardness — are a result of its molecular structure. He won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1954.

Linus Pauling said, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."


It's the birthday of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, (books by this author) born in New York City (1913). Her first book of poems, Ants on the Melon, came out in 1996, when she was 83 years old.


It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, (books by this author) born in New York City (1893). He's best known for the play he wrote with a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).




THURSDAY, 1 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "A New Lifestyle" by James Tate from Memoir of the Hawk. © The Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A New Lifestyle

People in this town drink too much
coffee. They're jumpy all the time. You
see them drinking out of their big plastic
mugs while they're driving. They cut in
front of you, they steal your parking places.
Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over
tombstones are slurping café au lait.
Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are
sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down
the street with their nets are savoring
their cups of mocha java. The holdup man
entering a convenience store first pours
himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down
the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a
skateboard is spilling his. They're so
serious about their coffee, it's all they
can think about, nothing else matters.
Everyone's wide awake but looks incredibly
tired.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1692 that the Salem Witch Trials began, as three women were charged with practicing witchcraft. At the time, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, had recently gone through an epidemic of small pox, and the Indian Wars that had gone on for years had left many of the children in the town without fathers. There had also been a power struggle between the Puritan Colony and the king of England, which left Massachusetts without a true legal system.

It was in the middle of this difficult period that several girls began to go into convulsions, and they began accusing people in the town of having bewitched them. Some historians now believe that the witch-hunt might have been fueled by a long-running family feud in the town. The Porter family had long been growing in influence and wealth in the area, and the Putnam family had been losing influence. The girls doing most of the accusing were connected in various ways to the Putnam family, and most of the witches they accused were connected to the Porter family.

There were multiple attempts to keep the trials from getting out of control. Judges resigned in protest of the convictions. Neighbors gathered petitions in support of the accused. But in the end, 19 accused witches were hanged, 14 of them women, and three more died in jail. By the following fall, the preacher Cotton Mather was speaking out against the trials. He said, "We ought not to practice witchcraft to discover witches. It is better that 10 suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned." After the girls accused the governor's wife of being a witch, the governor stepped in and stopped the trials. It was the last time anyone was put to death for witchcraft in American history.


It's the birthday of the poet Robert Hass, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1941).


It's the birthday of poet Howard Nemerov, (books by this author) born in New York City (1920). He started writing poetry after studying T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats in college. He later said, "I got ... the idea that what you were supposed to do was be plenty morbid and predict the end of civilization many times, but civilization has ended so many times during my brief term on earth that I got a little bored with the theme, and in old age I concluded that the model was really Mother Goose."


It's the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur, born in New York City (1921). He entered the military during World War II, and wrote a book of poems about the war called The Beautiful Changes (1947), and it was a big success. Ten years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of this World.

Wilbur became one of America's leading poets at a time when most of this country's leading poets were suffering from mental illness and alcoholism. While those other poets wrote about their madness in increasingly more experimental styles, Wilbur has kept writing precise, rhythmical verse with meter and rhyme, living the mild-mannered life of a successful writer and literature professor.


It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1917). He wrote his early poems in the style of Milton, with elaborate meter and rhyme schemes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first major collection, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which included poems about whale hunters and Napoleon. But after World War II, Lowell began to write more and more about himself and the people he knew — his relatives and friends — and the most ordinary details of his daily life.

He said, "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own."

His collection Life Studies (1959) was one of the most baldly autobiographical collections of poetry ever published at that time, and he wrote it in a conversational free-verse style. He was criticized at first for writing what was called "confessional poetry," but it quickly became the standard style of American poetry.


It's the birthday of a man who had a hard time following up on his first book, Ralph Ellison, (books by this author) born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He originally wanted to be a classical composer, but when he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, they encouraged him to write stories and book reviews for New York magazines. Ellison decided to quit studying music and devote his life to writing.

One day, Ellison was sitting in a barn on his friend's farm in Vermont, staring at a typewriter, when he typed the sentence, "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. The sentence turned into his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952.




FRIDAY, 2 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "The Shipfitter's Wife" by Dorianne Laux, from Smoke. © BOA Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Shipfitter's Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I'd go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I'd open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me — the ship's
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull's silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Tom Wolfe, (books by this author) born in Richmond, Virginia (1931). His father was an agricultural scientist who also edited an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. Wolfe wrote, "As far as I was concerned, my father was a man who sat at his desk writing with a pencil on a yellow legal pad. Two weeks later his not terribly legible handwriting would reappear as smartly turned out regiments of black type on graphically beautiful pages for thousands of people to read. To me that was magic, and my father was a writer."

Wolfe went on to write about as many aspects of American life as he could — stock car racing, the drug culture, architecture, surfing, and the space program. He published his reportage in books such as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Pump House Gang (1968). Then, in the 1980s, Wolfe decided to try to write a novel. He had been doing research on the criminal justice system in New York City, and he got the idea for a story about a court case that could involve as many different aspects of New York society as possible: the rich, the poor, the lawyers, the media, the activists, the politicians, and all the bystanders.

He spent months going to trials at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building and the Bronx County Courthouse, and he took notes on all the stories he heard, the clothes people wore, the way everyone talked, and whatever else he could absorb, and he put it all in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which became a huge best-seller in 1987.

Wolfe's most recent book is I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) about the lives of contemporary college students.

Tom Wolfe said, "[I want to explore] the lurid carnival of contemporary life and [bring] it alive on the page brilliantly enough to light up the sky."


It's the birthday of novelist John Irving, (books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). His parents divorced by the time Irving was two years old. He never met his father, and never learned anything about the man.

He made his name with his novel The World According to Garp (1978), about the fatherless son of a radical feminist. It was Irving's fourth novel, and it went on to sell more than 3 million copies in six months. He said, "The first thing I thought of when that novel made me famous was, 'Now [my father] will come find me. Now he'll identify himself.'"

Irving finally learned the identity of his father in 1981, when his mother gave him a collection of letters she'd been hiding since World War II. Irving learned that his father had been a fighter pilot who was shot down over Burma, who walked to China, and who was only rescued after being missing for 40 days. Irving used his father's letters in his novel The Cider House Rules (1985). He hoped that somehow his father might read the book and see the letters. But he later learned that his father had died in 1996.

Irving went on to write a novel about a man searching for his father, called Until I Find You, which came out in 2005.


It's the birthday of the children's book author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, (books by this author) born Theodor Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). Seuss made a living selling cartoons to magazines, and he also drew cartoons for advertisements. He published his first book for children, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937. His next few children's books were moderately successful. Then, in 1955, an educational specialist asked him if he would write a book to help children learn how to read. Seuss was given a list of 300 words that most first-graders would know, and he used those words to write The Cat in the Hat (1957).




SATURDAY, 3 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Sonnet" by Robert Hass, from Sun Under Wood. © The Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sonnet

A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone.
He has loved her voice and listens with attention
to every modulation of its tone. Knowing
it intimately. Not knowing what he wants
from the sound of it, from the tendered civility.
He studies, out the window, the seed shapes
of the broken pods of ornamental trees.
The kind that grow in everyone's garden, that no one
but horticulturalists can name. Four arched chambers
of pale green, tiny vegetal proscenium arches,
a pair of black tapering seeds bedded in each chamber.
A wish geometry, miniature, Indian or Persian,
lovers or gods in their apartments. Outside, white,
patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and philosopher William Godwin, (books by this author) born in Cambridgeshire, England (1756). In his lifetime, he was celebrated as one of the most radical political philosophers in England. He had a great influence on the Romantic school of literature with his book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793), in which he argued that the best government is none at all. His book was one of the first comprehensive arguments for a kind of political anarchism, and it included the argument that property should be abolished.

That book made him famous in his lifetime, but we remember William Godwin for his daughter. His wife Mary Wollstonecraft died from complications of childbirth in 1797, but their daughter, also named Mary, survived, and she went on to write the novel Frankenstein.


It was on this day in 1863 that Congress passed the Civil War conscription act, which required all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to serve three years in the military. But one big loophole in the law allowed wealthy men to hire substitutes to serve in their place.

The draft was hugely controversial in Northern cities. Increasingly lengthy casualty lists were printed in newspapers every day, and men of the working classes resented the fact that they were being used as cannon fodder while the rich men sat idle. The frustration eventually led to the New York Draft riots that summer.


It's the birthday of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). He was trying to help the deaf by developing a device for transmitting sound with electricity, and that led to the telephone. But though he brought the phone into the world, Bell refused to have a telephone in his own study, and that there was no telephone in the house where he spent his winters in Florida. He hated the interruption.


It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France, written by Georges Bizet. When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. It's set in exotic Spain among gypsies and bullfighters. One element that shocked audiences was that the heroine smokes on stage, something considered less than proper then. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals.


It's the birthday of the host of the radio show "This American Life," Ira Glass, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1959). After his freshman year of college, he was looking for a summer job in television or advertising, and someone suggested that he try to be an intern for National Public Radio. In 1989, he moved to Chicago and started a live show called The Wild Room that included music, stories, and commentary, and outtakes from his own documentaries. In 1995, he came up with the idea for a show called "Your Radio Playhouse," which would tell a series of stories each week, centered on a certain aspect of everyday life in America. That show became "This American Life," which has become one of the most popular radio programs in the country.




SUNDAY, 4 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "A Church in Italy" by Tom Tammaro, from When the Italians Came to My Home Town. © Spoon River Poetry Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Church in Italy

Last summer, in church in Italy,

           I prayed for all of you, asked not for forgiveness

                      And strength, but that all the sadness of our days,


All the grief of our lives,

           All the loneliness given us be taken,

                      Without judgment — asked for life and light.


That was the first time in twenty-three years something

           Like that happened to me. Not knowing the modern prayers,

                      I fell back on the old way of ending prayer, recited:


Glory be to the Father and to the Son

           And to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning,

                      Is now, and ever shall be, world without end


Then dropped some lire coins in the metal offering box,

           Walked through the heavily curtained doorway into the

                      Mediterranean heat, into the hard traffic of the village,

                                 Into the harsh light of the afternoon

                                            Into this world without end.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of crime novelist James Ellroy, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles, California (1948). He is best known for his "LA Quartet," a series of four novels that attempt to depict the criminal history of Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1950s. The first book in the series was Black Dahlia (1987).


It's the birthday of the novelist Khaled Hosseini, (books by this author) born in Kabul, Afghanistan (1965). His first novel, The Kite Runner, became a word-of-mouth best-seller after it came out in 2003, and it's now sold more than 3 million copies.

Hosseini grew up the son of an Afghani diplomat. They were living in Paris when the Soviet Union had invaded their country. Hosseini's father applied for political asylum in the United States, and the family moved there in 1980. In Afghanistan, Hosseini's family had been wealthy and respected, and he'd grown up surrounded by servants. But when they settled in San Jose, California, his family had to survive on welfare and food stamps. The only job his father could find was working as a driving instructor.

Hosseini had wanted to be a writer from the time he was 10 years old, but watching his family struggle to pay the bills, he realized that he needed a more practical profession. So he went to medical school, and for the next 10 years, he didn't even have time to think about writing. But after Hosseini got a job as an internist at a hospital in Sunnyvale, California, he began to write in his spare time, and much of what he wrote concerned his memories of Afghanistan.

And he wrote The Kite Runner (2003) about two friends, one rich and one poor, growing up in Afghanistan in the years before the Soviet invasion. After the invasion, the rich boy moves to America with his family, and he later learns that his childhood friend was killed by the Taliban. So he travels back to Afghanistan to try to rescue his friend's surviving son.


It was on this day in 1789 that the U.S. Constitution went into effect, and so it was that this day was chosen as the original Inauguration Day. Just about every president from Washington to Roosevelt was inaugurated on this day. Washington's first inauguration was delayed until April 30th, but his second inauguration took place on this day in 1793, and he delivered the shortest inaugural address in history. It was only 135 words long.

President Andrew Jackson was inaugurated on this day in 1829. He invited the American public to the White House, and more than 20,000 drunken partygoers showed up.

On this day in 1841 William Henry Harrison stood outside in an ice storm and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. It was 8,445 words long, and it took Harrison two hours to deliver it. He died a month later from pneumonia.

Abraham Lincoln's first and second inaugural addresses, delivered on this day in 1861 and 1865, are generally considered the greatest inaugural addresses in American history. His second inaugural address included the great lines "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Photographs of Lincoln's second inauguration show John Wilkes Booth in the audience, watching.

Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to be inaugurated on this day in 1933. He was a polio survivor, and couldn't walk without great difficulty. But in spite of that, Roosevelt walked 37 steps up to the podium, and he stood there for five minutes in order to deliver his address.




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