MONDAY, 12 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Cottonwoods" by Phebe Hanson, from Why Still Dance. © Nodin Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Cottonwoods

In the cottonwood grove
behind Dahl's farm
the eyes of rustling cars
stare at me before
I crawl into them,
pretend I am driving;
power flows from the wheels,
I believe I am in control;
forget my mother's heart
lies fading in a little bedroom
beyond the rows of corn.

They have sent me away
from her dying
to play in the grove,
to whisper into the ears of corn
towering above me
as I sit between the rows
reading her letters
which say she misses me,
even though it is quieter without me
and my brother fighting.
He has brought her a goldfish
from the little pond
beside the pergola house
and laid it on her stomach.

Years later I return to the grove,
where the cottonwood trees
have grown scrawny,
but the old cars are still there,
their eyes stare at me,
unseeing and dead.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and children's author Naomi Shihab Nye, (books by this author) born in St. Louis, Missouri (1952). She has published several books of poetry, including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002) and Hugging the Jukebox (1982).

She said, "Since my father was Palestinian, from Jerusalem, and my mother was American, our house in St. Louis held rich fragrances of cardamom, garlic, and olive oil. "Shihab" means shooting star in Arabic. I liked that. Languages danced together in our rooms and interesting people drifted through our doors. I used to think, 'We're still waiting for a dull moment.'"


It's the birthday of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, (books by this author) born Jean-Louis Kerouac, in Lowell Massachusetts (1922). He grew up speaking French, and couldn't speak English fluently until junior high. He was a football star in high school and got an athletic scholarship to Columbia University. It was there that he became friends with Allen Ginsberg.

In 1951 he sat at his kitchen table, taped sheets of Chinese art paper together to make a long roll, and wrote the story of the cross-country road trips he took with Neal Cassady. It had no paragraphs and very little punctuation and Allen Ginsberg called it ''a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself.'' And that became Kerouac's novel On the Road (1957).


It's the birthday of the writer and editor Dave Eggers, (books by this author) born in Boston (1970). He grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a city that was famous when he was growing up for having been the setting for the movie Ordinary People. He originally wanted to be a cartoonist, but when he was in grade school, he worked on a project where he had to write and illustrate his own book. He found that he loved all aspects of the process, from writing to designing the layout of the book. He went on to study art and journalism at the University of Illinois, and it was while he was in college that his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Then, just after his mother went through severe stomach surgery, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. Six months later, both of his parents were dead. Eggers was just 21 years old.

Of the experience of losing both of his parents so suddenly, Eggers later said, "On the one hand you are so completely bewildered that something so surreal and incomprehensible could happen. At the same time, suddenly the limitations or hesitations that you might have imposed on yourself fall away. There's a weird, optimistic recklessness that could easily be construed as nihilism but is really the opposite. You see that there is a beginning and an end and that you have only a certain amount of time to act. And you want to get started."

Before he was able to finish his college degree, eggers had to become the guardian of his 8-year-old younger brother. They moved to Berkeley, California, and Eggers used the insurance money from his parents' deaths to start his own magazine with some high school friends. They called it Might Magazine. It only lasted for 16 issues. But Eggers went on to start a new literary journal called Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. He wanted to experiment with graphic design and printing techniques, so he changed the format of the journal for every issue. One issue consisted of 14 individually bound pamphlets. Another issue included a music CD with a different piece of music composed specifically to accompany each piece in the journal.

All the while that he was starting up these magazines, Dave Eggers was staying up late at night trying to write a book about the death of his parents and the effect that it had on his life. That book grew into his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which became a big best-seller in 2000.

Eggers has gone on to write a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry (2004), and two novels: You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) and What Is the What (2006). He also founded a writing center for young people in San Francisco called 826 Valencia, which has grown into a national organization designed to help and encourage young people to write.




TUESDAY, 13 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Thompsondale" by David Kherdian from Nearer the Heart. © Taderon Press. Reprinted with permission.

Thompsondale

We will never leave the picnic
      at Thompsondale
      our mothers ever beautiful
      in their summer dresses
Our fathers with straw hats
      and colored suspenders
A blanket spread upon the meadow
      cane poles strung
      with bobbers dancing over
      the slow moving stream

The grapeleaves gathered
      in the basket
      will never be taken home
      the sandwiches will be eaten
      again and again
And clouds will gather and part
      the sun will rise and recede
      night will come
And then tomorrow again and again

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen's (books by this author) play Ghosts opened on the London stage. Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it contained details about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. The play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds when it premiered in London.

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts. ... It's not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."


It's the birthday of writer Janet Flanner, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1892). Flanner studied at the University of Chicago, but after two years she was asked to leave by the college administration, because she was "a rebellious influence." So she moved back to Indianapolis and began writing for newspapers and making speeches in support of women's suffrage. She finally decided to move to New York City, where she said, "[I] wanted to learn to be the writer I had for 25 years already wished to be."

She didn't manage to become a literary success, but she became friends with a woman named Jane Grant, whose husband, Harold Ross, was then thinking about starting a magazine. In 1922, Flanner took a trip to Europe and decided to settle in Paris. She began writing letters home to her friend, Jane Grant, and Grant shared the letters with Harold Ross. By the time The New Yorker was getting off the ground in 1925, Harold Ross invited Flanner to contribute a letter to the magazine every two weeks. She would go on to write the "Letter from Paris" from October 10, 1925, until September 29, 1975.

At first Flanner just saw the magazine assignment as a way of making extra money while she wrote novels. But she eventually realized that the "Letter from Paris" was becoming her life's work. Her writings from Paris were collected in Men and Monuments (1957), two volumes of Paris Journal (1965 and 1971), and Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 (1972). She also collected her profiles in An American in Paris: Profile of an Interlude Between Two Wars (1940).


It's the birthday of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, (books by this author) born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, in Tilden, Nebraska, (1911). He started out as a writer for pulp magazines, writing science fiction, fantasy, and Westerns. Then, in 1950, Hubbard published a book called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, describing his theory that all psychological problems are caused by painful memories, and that people just needed to go through a therapeutic process called auditing, which would rid them of their negative associations. The process involved a person recounting painful memories while having a device called an "e-meter" applied to the skin. Hubbard claimed that this process could eliminate emotional problems, cure disease, and increase intelligence.

Despite the fact that many psychiatrists and medical professionals spoke out against the book as pseudo-science, it became a best-seller. Hubbard went on to found the Church of Scientology.


It's the birthday of English writer Sir Hugh Walpole, (books by this author) born in Auckland, New Zealand (1884). His first book was The Wooden Horse, which came out in 1909, and he published on average a book a year after from then until his death. He once wrote in his diary, "My hatred of revision and my twist towards abnormality spoil much of my work." But he was so prolific in his writing that he was knighted in 1937 for his services to literature.




WEDNESDAY, 14 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "The Stones at Callinish, Isle of Lewis" by Roger Mitchell, from Half/Mask. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Stones at Callinish, Isle of Lewis

A boarded-up hotel beside
a fishing pier, a pub. Above them both,
a church crouched on a hill. Whoever brought
Christ to this desolate coast did it
with sword and fire, and it's not clear today
whether it took, or whether the slow seep
of centuries, the long winter nights,
would ever let anything be that wasn't
as sullen as the hill. The village
is that way, too. When you step outside,
there it is, the universe, all of it,
the glare of it pure, God's unshaven face
so close your skin rasps. Whoever raised
the stones did a good job of vanishing, too,
though the longer I stand here, the more
it seems it was deeper into the genes
they went, not just into the air.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the photographer Diane Arbus, (books by this author) born Diane Nemerov in New York City (1923). She's known for her photographs of prostitutes, transvestites, the deformed, and the mentally disabled. She said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."


It's the birthday of the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, (books by this author) born in Wharton, Texas (1916). He's best known for writing the screenplays for movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983). He also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995).


It's the birthday of the novelist and humorist Max Shulman, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1919). He grew up during the Great Depression, and he said, "I turned early to humor as my branch of writing ... [because] life was bitter and I was not."


It's the birthday of Sylvia Beach, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She founded an English-language bookstore and lending library on Paris's Left Bank called Shakespeare & Company. It became a central feature of the Parisian literary scene of the 1920s, as it opened just as the "lost generation" discovered Paris. It became "the unofficial living room" of the expatriate artists there. Writers used it as a meeting place, a post office, and a place for guidance with their writing.

She met James Joyce in 1920, just as he as finishing his novel Ulysses. When all the major publishers in Europe and America decided that it was too obscene to publish, Sylvia Beach said she'd publish it, even though she'd never published a book before.

Beach had to contact a printer and get people to buy advanced copies to fund the cost. Because she had no editors, she edited the enormous manuscript herself, and managed to get the novel published before James Joyce's birthday, February 2, 1922.


It's the birthday of the physicist Albert Einstein, (books by this author) born in Ulm, Germany (1879). He was home-schooled for the early part of his life, and when he finally went to school with the other children, his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled. He refused to study any subject he didn't find interesting. The only subjects he did find interesting were math and philosophy. One teacher tried to have him expelled because all he did in class was sit in the back of the room smiling. He finally dropped out at the age of 16.

He went to a technical college in Zurich to study physics, but he often missed classes and only passed his final examination because his friend let him borrow all his lecture notes and was the only member of his class not to receive an assistant professorship. He was planning to get married, and suddenly he didn't have any way to make a living. So he took a job at the Swiss patent office.

His job was to evaluate patent applications and determine whether the inventions described would actually work. He found that it was the perfect job for him. He didn't have to bring any work home at night, when he was free to work on his own theories about physics. He was removed enough from the scientific community that he didn't worry about whether his theories were fashionable or important. He just worked on the problems he found most interesting. Above all, he was interested in finding some law that could explain all the forces in the universe.

One night the spring of 1905, Einstein went to bed feeling extremely frustrated because he hadn't been able to solve any of the problems he'd been working on for weeks. The following morning, he woke up and suddenly everything made sense. He said, "It was as if a storm broke loose in my mind."

Einstein spent the next several weeks writing a paper on his theory, which came to be called the Special Theory of Relativity. That same year, 1905, Einstein published three more papers, each of which was just as revolutionary as the first, including the paper that included his most famous equation: E = mc2.




THURSDAY, 15 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "How to Tell If You're a Participant or a Staff (A Handy Guide for Day Programs)" by David Moreau from You Can Still Go to Hell and Other Truths About Being a Helping Professional. © Moon Pie Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

How to Tell If You're a Participant or a Staff (A Handy Guide for Day Programs)

If you have a bowel movement at work and no one records it in a
communication book — you're a staff person.

If someone shouts at you from the other side of the room, Did you
wash your hands
? every time you come out of the bathroom — you're a participant.

If your feet don't quite touch the ground when you're sitting in one of
the cafeteria chairs — you're a participant.

If you know where the candy is in Jolene's office — you're a staff
person.

If you can run out to Subway or Burger King for your lunch — you're a staff person.

If you're in a wheelchair — you're a participant.

If you get a buzz cut every staff day — you're a participant.

If you've never ridden in the back seat of the van — you're a staff
person.

If you can walk in the office without being asked, Where are you
supposed to be?
— you're a staff person.

If the soap dispenser is on the side of the sink opposite your one good
hand and you can't reach high enough to keep the automatic faucet
from getting your sleeve wet — you're a participant.

If you can give a hug without someone telling you, Remember circles
you're a staff person.

If you go out for cigarette breaks — you're a staff person.

If your paycheck is for $1.82 — you're a participant.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann, (books by this author) born in Detroit, Michigan (1918). His father and both of his brothers were lawyers, but he decided to study literature at Yale. He became interested in William Butler Yeats, and at the end of World War II he went to Dublin to do some research. And that was where he became interested in James Joyce. Ellmann began reading all of Joyce's works and researching his life. He spent 10 years tracking down documents and interviewing friends of Joyce, and in 1959 he published a biography, James Joyce. It won the National Book Award in 1960, and it's been called the greatest literary biography ever written.

He spent the last 20 years of his life working on a biography of Oscar Wilde. He suffered from Lou Gherig's disease and pneumonia during the last few months of his life, but he continued to work on the biography on his deathbed, using special machines to type out revisions. Oscar Wilde was published in 1986.


It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Ben Okri, (books by this author) born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). He spent his early childhood in England, then went back to Nigeria until 1977, when he moved back to London. He lived for a time in subway stations and with friends. He published more novels and short stories, but he didn't really get much attention until his novel The Famished Road came out in 1991. It's about a Nigerian child who hovers between the real world and the world of spirits, and it describes the horrible poverty and oppression in modern Nigeria. The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Britain's best novel of 1991.

Okri said, "Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer. ... The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens' characters are Nigerians. ... Literature may come from a specific place, but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."


It's the birthday of the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, (books by this author) born in the Waxhaws Region of South Carolina (1767). He was first president of the United States who could honestly claim to have pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Before him, all the presidents had come from distinguished or aristocratic families along the East Coast. Jackson was born in poverty in the backwoods frontier, and he received almost no formal education.

The Battle of New Orleans turned him into a national hero, and when he ran for president in 1828, he portrayed himself as a champion of the common man and appealed to working-class voters, especially frontiersmen who were settling in the West. The election drew more than three times as many voters to the polls as the previous election, and Jackson won in a landslide.




FRIDAY, 16 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "To Hold" by Jean Nordhaus, from Innocence. © The Ohio State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To Hold

Before I left for camp, my mother sewed my name
with a firm stitch into everything I owned.
She even looped a string of nametapes
through the scissors I keep to this day on my desk.

She wanted to be sure, when she sent me into the woods,
she'd get the right child back at summer's end,
that I'd not be left in the laundry drum
like an unmarked sock. Others—

careless lazy mothers-favored marking pens,
illegible black letters bleeding into stain.

My mother knew nothing was permanent.
She'd seen how fast a child could disappear:
her two dead sisters with names like flowers:
Lily, Rose, their summery smells, indelible voices.

That's why she sewed my name so tight
on all four sides, double-knotted the knots.
So I wouldn't forget when she sent me off
into the wet, the dark, the wild: I was hers.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's (books by this author) masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published. He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first great American novel that could reach a large audience. A total of 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published on March 16, and they sold out within 10 days.


It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, (books by this author) born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). He's known as the "Father of the Constitution." At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was the leading voice of the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government, including a strong executive branch, long terms in the Senate, federal courts, and a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one part of the government would ever become too powerful.

Madison said, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."


It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1952). She's known for mixing fantasy and magic with everyday reality, in novels such as White Horses (1982), Illumination Night (1987), and The River King (2001).

Her parents got a divorce when she was eight years old, at a time when not many couples got divorces, and she was raised on Long Island by her working mother. She loved reading Grimm's fairy tales and Ray Bradbury novels, and watching fantasy movies like Mary Poppins (1964). She started writing stories, dividing them into two categories — fantasy and realism. It wasn't until she read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) that she realized you could "take everyday realities and transform them into something fabulous."

Hoffman's latest novel, Skylight Confessions, came out this past January (2007).


It's the birthday of poet Cesar Vallejo, (books by this author) born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner, and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he later became a socialist.

In 1920, he found himself caught up in a festival in his hometown — a festival that deteriorated into looting and arson. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail. After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He eventually founded a literary magazine in Paris and published several collections of poetry. He spent the last years of his life promoting Russia's communist policies and trying to gain support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.




SATURDAY, 17 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites" by William Butler Yeats, from Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats. © Scribner Paperback Poetry. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites

Come gather round me, Parnellites,
And praise our chosen man,
Stand upright on your legs awhile,
Stand upright while you can,
For soon we lie where he is laid
And he is underground;
Come fill up all those glasses
And pass the bottle round.

And here's a cogent reason
And I have many more,
He fought the might of Ireland
And saved the Irish poor,
Whatever good a farmer's got
He brought it all to pass;
And here's another reason,
That Parnell loved a lass.

And here's a final reason,
He was of such a kind
Every man that sings a song
Keeps Parnell in his mind
For Parnell was a proud man,
No prouder trod the ground,
And a proud man's a lovely man
So pass the bottle round.

The Bishops and the Party
That tragic story made,
A husband that had sold his wife
And after that betrayed;
But stories that live longest
Are sung above the glass,
And Parnell loved his country
And Parnell loved his lass.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is St. Patrick's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. There will be parades and celebrations in cities all across the world, but the holiday has always been most popular in the United States, especially in cities with large Irish-American populations. In Chicago, they dye the Chicago River green every year. And in New York City, there's a huge parade that goes up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street, past St. Patrick's Cathedral. And it's all to celebrate the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.


It's the birthday of the science fiction novelist William Gibson, (books by this author) born in Conway, South Carolina (1948). He moved to Toronto to avoid the draft, and he became a stay-at-home father while his wife was getting her master's degree. Since he was stuck in the house, he thought that writing might be a way for him to help support the family.

Gibson found immediate success writing science fiction short stories, and then in 1984, he published his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), which begins, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." It was in that novel that Gibson coined the word "cyberspace," which Gibson described as, "a graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system."

Neuromancer (1984) won all the major science fiction awards and became a best-seller, and Gibson's concept of cyberspace anticipated the invention of the Internet by about a decade. By the late 1980s, he was considered a kind of prophet of the information age. He was invited to all kinds of conferences on virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and people were always somewhat surprised to learn how little he knew about computers. He wrote all of his early books on a manual typewriter.

William Gibson has gone on to write many more books of science fiction, but he set his novel Pattern Recognition (2003) in the present, because he said, "I don't have to write about the future. For most people, the present is enough like the future to be pretty scary."


It was on this day in 1901 that Vincent Van Gogh's (books by this author) paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. The exhibit made Van Gogh's work famous. There were 71 paintings in the Paris exhibit, and all of them showed the bright colors and intense brush strokes for which Van Gogh became known.


It was on this day in 1941 that the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C. Andrew W. Mellon donated the funds for the construction of the museum's main building, and he also gave his own entire art collection, which included 369 paintings by European artists such as Botticelli, Corot, Perugino, Raphael, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Dyck, and many, many others.


It's the birthday of novelist and children's author Penelope Lively, (books by this author) born in Cairo, Egypt (1933). She's the author of the novels The Road to Lichfield (1977), Treasures of Time (1979), and According to Mark (1984), among many others.


It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Paul (Eliot) Green, (books by this author) born on a farm near Lillington, North Carolina (1894). His first full-length play, Abraham's Bosom, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. In 1941, he collaborated with Richard Wright to produce a dramatic version of Wright's novel Native Son (1940). Green also wrote several short stories and two novels, The Laughing Pioneer (1932) and This Body the Earth (1935).




SUNDAY, 18 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "To Mecca with Love" by James Tracy, from Sparks and Codes. © Civil Defense Poetry. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To Mecca with Love

After work at H and M Market Liquor and Deli,
quietly pondering the choices life gives us—
a Twenty-First Century natural selection:

Coke or Pepsi
Seven-Up or Sprite
Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb
Old English or Guinness in a Can
Doritos or Encharitos
Lottery or Super-Lotto

Someone is haggling for a fourty-ouncer.
Someone is scratching a lottery ticket.
Someone calls out for spare change.

Behind the canned food aisles,
underneath the glow of the far security monitor,
I hear a man chant, the one who sold me
last night's beer, chips and tuna.

He is chanting devotion to Allah,
to Mecca with Love,
crouched on a cardboard flat;
a lone tear rests on his cheek.

A poster of a blonde straddling a beer can hears
his prayers.
The hum of the freezer harmonizes with him tonight.
Someone is still haggling for a fourty-ouncer.

I walk to the counter to the man
who will sell me
tonight's beer, chips and tuna.

He says, "How's it goin'?"
I say, "Pretty good, same as usual."
He says, "Anything else?"
I say, "Yeah, a newspaper."

Walking away I look at the front page headlines

BLOODSHED AS ISRAEL RETALIATES
IN WEST BANK: 13 DEAD.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wilfred Owen, (books by this author) born in Shropshire, England (1893). He's known for his poems about the violence and cruelty of war, and he was killed while fighting in World War I.


It's the birthday of George Plimpton, (books by this author) born in New York City (1927). Along with his friends Harold Humes, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas Guinzburg, and Donald Hall, he founded the literary magazine The Paris Review.


It's the birthday of John Updike, (books by this author) born in Shillington, Pennsylvania (1932). He grew up without any brothers or sisters and later said, "I'm sure that my capacity to fantasize and to make coherent fantasies, to have the patience to sit down day after day and to whittle a fantasy out of paper, all that relates to being an only child."

He also suffered from hay fever, psoriasis, and a stammer as a child, and after his father lost his job during the Great Depression, the family moved into a farmhouse 11 miles outside of town. The result was that Updike spent much of his childhood alone, either reading or living in a kind of dream world. His mother had been an aspiring writer for most of her life, and she encouraged Updike to write. He contributed to his high school newspaper, and every week he would read The New Yorker magazine.

He later said, "My true and passionate ambition was to be a cartoonist, first for Walt Disney, then for the syndicates, lastly for The New Yorker." He began sending his cartoons, poems, and stories to The New Yorker when he was still in high school. He won a scholarship to Harvard, and The New Yorker finally began accepting his work when he was a senior. Just after graduation, the magazine offered him a job.

But he quickly realized that he didn't enjoy living in New York City. So Updike moved with his wife to a small town outside of Boston and began to support his family writing short stories about his own childhood and about the suburban life of average, middle-class, white, Protestant families. He became known for his intricate descriptions of the most ordinary things. He later wrote, "[Those early short stories] were written on a manual typewriter ... in a one-room office ... between a lawyer and a beautician, above a cozy corner restaurant ... where my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me — to give the mundane its beautiful due."

Updike got a lot of attention for those early stories, collected in books such as Pigeon Feathers (1962). But what made him famous was that he chose to write in such detail about the love lives of ordinary middle-class suburban Americans, in novels such as Rabbit, Run (1960) and Couples (1968). Updike later said, "The artistic challenge to me, as I saw it in the late '50s and mid-'60s, was to try to describe sex honestly as a human transaction, as a human event, and try to place it on the continuum of the personality, to write about it freely but not necessarily as an endorsement of sex. I don't think sex really needs an endorsement." These books were controversial, but they became best-sellers, and Updike has gone on become one of the most celebrated writers of his lifetime.

He's published more than 20 novels, and more than 20 collections of short stories. His most recent book is Terrorist (2006).

John Updike said, "When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him."




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  • “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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