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Poem: "One Organ Too Many" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

One Organ Too Many

I know very little about how the body works,
Father said, but as long as it gets me to where
I want to go, I don't mind if it has to be repaired
from time to time. I can definitely think
of lots of ways it could have been designed better.
It makes me wonder what God was thinking about
when He created Adam. He must have been
exhausted from creating everything else. I wish
He could have thought of another way for me to have
kids without my needing a prostate gland. If I
had known I was going to get cancer there
I'd have gotten rid of it ages ago. But I couldn't
just walk into a hospital & ask for my prostate
to be removed. I first had to have a reason.
But when I finally had one it was too late.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Ken Kalfus, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1954). Kalfus spent much of his early career as a freelance journalist. He wrote book reviews for The New York Times, and spent two years as a reporter for a science magazine. But what he really wanted to do was write fiction. Kalfus had been writing fiction since he was a kid, and in 1981 he began to publish a few stories here and there. He told himself that he had to make it as a fiction writer by the time he was 35 years old, or he would give it up. But 35 came and went and he still hadn't published a book. Instead, he married another journalist, and the two of them moved to Europe, where they worked as correspondents from Ireland, Paris, Yugoslavia, and finally Moscow.

Kalfus felt that living abroad changed his perception of even the most ordinary things. He said, "Just the idea of going out to get your milk and coffee is an adventure. You see everything fresh. It gives you a chance as an adult to see things in a more childlike way."

All the while that Kalfus was traveling around Europe with his wife, he was occasionally publishing short stories in American journals. He was 45 years old when his first collection of stories, Thirst, finally came out in 1998. It contained stories that Kalfus had written over the previous 10 years. The book got great reviews, and several critics named it as one of the best books of the year.

He went on to write two books of fiction that take place entirely in Russia, with no American characters, including his novel The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003). His most recent book is A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006), about a married couple in New York City going through a divorce in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On the day of the attacks, each of them hopes that the other has been killed.

It's the birthday of satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer, born in New York City (1928). He wrote, "Make a cross on your abdomen, / When in Rome do like a Roman, / Ave Maria, / Gee it's good to see ya, / Gettin' ecstatic an' / Sorta dramatic an' / Doin' the Vatican Rag!"

It's the birthday of cartoonist Frank King, born in Cashton, Wisconsin (1883). He was working as a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in 1918 when he began drawing a cartoon strip called "Gasoline Alley" about a group of characters named Walt, Doc, Avery, and Bill who got together every week to talk about their cars. The strip ran for a few years, and then in 1921, the editor of the paper decided that it needed to appeal more to women, so King drew a strip for Valentine's Day in which a baby was left on the doorstep of the bachelor Walt Wallet. From then on, the strip focused on the growing baby, named Skeezix, and Gasoline Alley became the first comic strip in which the characters aged. Skeezix grew up, served in World War II, got married to a girl named Nina Clock, and had children of his own.

It was on this day in 1865 that General Robert E. Lee (books by this author) surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. At that point, Lee's army consisted of about 25,000 soldiers, compared to Grant's army of more than 100,000. In the year leading up to the surrender, the Northern blockade of the South had made it almost impossible for the Confederate army to get proper supplies. Confederate soldiers were fighting without decent food, without proper clothing, in some cases without even shoes. Confederate numbers were also dwindling as many soldiers began to desert.

So Lee and Grant met in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia on this day in 1865, Palm Sunday, just after noon. After it was over, Grant said, "[I felt] sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, the worst for which people ever fought." When the Union soldiers began to cheer and celebrate, Grant ordered them to be silent out of respect.

Lee rode back to his camp, and crowds of Confederate soldiers along the road began to weep as he passed. When he reached his tent, Lee said to the crowd, "Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you. Goodbye, and God bless you all."

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Poem: "Love We Must Part" by Philip Larkin from Collected Poems: Philip Larkin. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Love We Must Part

Love, we must part now: do not let it be
Calamitous and bitter. In the past
There has been too much moonlight and self-pity:
Let us have done with it: for now at last
Never has sun more boldly paced the sky,
Never were hearts more eager to be free,
To kick down worlds, lash forests; you and I
No longer hold them; we are husks, that see
The grain going forward to a different use.

There is regret. Always, there is regret.
But it is better that our lives unloose,
As two tall ships, wind-mastered, wet with light,
Break from an estuary with their courses set,
And waving part, and waving drop from sight.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Pulitzer, (books by this author) born in Budapest, Hungary (1847). He moved to the United States as a young man, served in the Civil War, and then moved to Saint Louis, where he got into journalism. He eventually moved to New York City and bought the New York World newspaper. Upon taking that paper over, he said, "There is room in this great and growing city for a journal that is not only cheap but bright, not only bright but large, not only large but truly democratic ... that will expose all fraud and sham; fight all public evils and abuses; that will serve and battle for the people with earnest sincerity." With his profits he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism as well as the annual Pulitzer prizes for journalism, literature, drama, music.

It's the birthday of Lewis (Lew) Wallace, (books by this author) born in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1827). After serving as a general in the Civil War, he wrote a novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ (1880). Some critics have credited the popularity of Ben Hur with breaking through rural America's moral opposition to the novel as a literary form, creating a far larger audience for future writers. For decades, it was outsold by only the Bible.

It was on this day in 1912 that the RMS Titanic departed Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. It was supposed to arrive in New York City on April 15th. The sinking of the Titanic was one of the worst maritime disasters in history, and it has been a great inspiration to artists of all kinds. The disaster has been the subject of more than 100 books and at least a dozen movies. More than 500 songs were written about the disaster, most famously "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down," performed by Pop Stoneman, with the lines, "Oh they threw the lifeboats out o'er the dark and stormy sea / The band struck up with 'Nearer My God to Thee' / Children wept and cried as the water rushed through the side / It was sad when that great ship went down."

It's the birthday of the short-story writer and poet Stuart Dybek, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1942). He grew up in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that had originally been a Polish and Czech neighborhood, but which was slowly filling up with Latino immigrants as well. Dybek's father came from a Polish family, and his mother came from a Mexican family.

Dybek was the first member of his family to go to college, and he went into social work, and then became a teacher. He eventually took a job teaching in the Virgin Islands, as far from Chicago as he'd ever been. But more and more, he found that he wanted to write, so he finally applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop and got in. And one day, he read about some Hungarian composers who had drawn on gypsy music in their compositions. He checked some of their records out of the library, and as soon as he started listening to the music, he was mysteriously flooded with memories of his childhood in Chicago. He said it was like falling into a trance, and it was in that trance that he wrote most of the stories that became his first story collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980). Dybek has since published two more collections of stories: The Coast of Chicago (1980) and I Sailed with Magellan (2003).

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Anne Lamott, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California (1954). Her first big success was her memoir Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993), which she wrote about her first year as a single mother. She's since written several other books of nonfiction: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, (books by this author) born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). After college he decided to join the Peace Corps in 1963, and went to live in East Africa. He was expelled from Malawi after he became friends with a group that planned to assassinate the president of the country. He continued traveling around Africa, teaching English, and started submitting journalism to magazines back in the United States. While living in Africa, he became friends with the writer V.S. Naipaul, who became his mentor and who encouraged him to keep traveling. He did keep traveling and had published several novels when he decided to go on a four-month trip through Asia by train. He wrote every day on the journey and filled four thick notebooks with material that eventually became his first best-seller, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975).

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Poem: "Breakfast Song" by Elizabeth Bishop, from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Breakfast Song

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten, (books by this author) born in Lodz, Poland (1908). As a young man, he taught English classes to immigrants, and one of his favorite students was a man named Hyman Kaplan, who used English more creatively than anyone he had ever met. Years later, he wrote a collection of humorous stories about that man called The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which became a best-seller.

But his masterpiece was The Joys of Yiddish (1968), an unofficial lexicon of Yiddish words, phrases, and rhetorical devices, illustrated with proverbs, quotes, and jokes. He wrote about Yiddish words like schlep, klutz, schlemiel, glitch, yenta, schmooze, schlump, schnook, and schlock. It was Rosten who first set down in print the famous definition of chutzpa as, "That quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."

It's the birthday of Glenway Wescott, (books by this author) born in Kewaskum, Wisconsin (1901). He ran away from home when he was 13 and moved in with relatives. For the next 20 years of his life, he moved farther and farther away from home—to Chicago, New Mexico, and New York. But all the while he was moving away, he kept writing about his hometown in novels such as Apple of the Eye (1924), The Grandmothers (1927), and the collection of short stories Good-Bye Wisconsin (1928).

He moved to Europe just before the stock market crash of 1929, and he joined the community of expatriate writers in Paris. It took him 10 years to write The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), a short novel about expatriates that takes place on a single afternoon. It was hailed as a masterpiece. But though he lived for almost 50 more years, he never published another serious work of fiction. The Pilgrim Hawk fell out of print for years, but it was recently rediscovered and republished in 2001.

It was on this day in 1945 that the U.S. army entered the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. At the time, there had been reports of concentration camps from the field, but no Americans had seen the camps for themselves. The American soldiers who arrived at Buchenwald on this day in 1945 would become the first Western observers of one of the worst atrocities in human history.

Several of the soldiers carried Kodak cameras, and so they took photographs of the surviving prisoners and the dead, so that people would believe what they had seen. Their photographs showed human beings so emaciated that they could barely walk, and victims' bodies stacked around the camp like piles of wood.

One of the children liberated at the camp that day was a teenager named Elie Wiesel, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been forced to march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald a few weeks earlier, and his father had recently died in the camp. In the weeks before the liberation, Wiesel had stopped going to get his food rations, had given up on living. And then, on this day in 1945, Wiesel saw American jeeps rolling into the camps. In his memoir All the Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel wrote, "I will never forget the American soldiers and the horror that could be read in their faces. I will especially remember one black sergeant, a muscled giant, who wept tears of impotent rage and shame... . We tried to lift him onto our shoulders to show our gratitude, but we didn't have the strength. We were too weak to even applaud him."

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Poem: "The Movies" by Billy Collins from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Movies

I would like to watch a movie tonight
in which a stranger rides into town
or where someone embarks on a long journey,

a movie with the promise of danger,
danger visited upon the citizens of the town
by the stranger who rides in,

or the danger that will befall the person
on his or her long hazardous journey—
it hardly matters to me

so long as I am not in danger,
and not much danger lies in watching
a movie, you might as well agree.

I would prefer to watch this movie at home
than walk out in the cold to a theater
and stand on line for a ticket.

I want to watch it lying down
with the bed hitched up to the television
the way they'd hitch up a stagecoach

to a team of horses
so the movie could pull me along
the crooked, dusty road of its adventures.

I would stay out of harm's way
by identifying with the characters
like the bartender in the movie about the stranger

who rides into town,
the fellow who knows enough to duck
when a chair shatters the mirror over the bar.

Or the stationmaster
in the movie about the perilous journey,
the fellow who fishes a gold watch from his pocket,

helps a lady onto the train,
and hands up a heavy satchel
to the man with the mustache

and the dangerous eyes,
waving the all-clear to the engineer.
Then the train would pull out of the station

and the movie would continue without me.
And at the end of the day
I would hang up my oval hat on a hook

and take the shortcut home to my two dogs,
my faithful, amorous wife, and my children—
Molly, Lucinda, and Harold, Jr.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Inquisition, for supporting the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In late April 1633, Galileo agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to an unlimited period of house arrest in his home in Florence. He gradually went blind and died in 1641. It wasn't until 1992 that the Catholic Church formally admitted that Galileo's views on the solar system are correct.

It's the birthday of children's book author Beverly Cleary, (books by this author) born in Yamhill, Oregon (1916). Her first book was Henry Huggins (1950), about a boy who tries to smuggle a dog onto a bus and keep him as his own, and it was a huge success. But she's best known for a series of books about a young girl named Ramona Quimby, including Ramona the Pest (1968), Ramona the Brave (1975), and Ramona Forever (1984).

It's the birthday of Tom Clancy, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1947). He was an insurance salesman, and he was doing well for himself, but he'd always wanted to be a writer. He had spent all his spare time reading magazines about military technology, such as Combat Fleets of the World and A Guide to the Soviet Navy, and one day he began to wonder what would happen if a Soviet submarine tried to defect to the United States. That became the basis for his first novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984).

Instead of focusing on the interactions between his characters, Clancy focused more on the technology. He described the soviet submarine in intricate detail, the way it moved and maneuvered, and all its weaponry and hardware. Since he didn't think the novel would appeal to a mass audience, he published it with a small military publishing house called the Naval Institute Press. But the book got passed around among officers and generals, and eventually made its way to Ronald Reagan, who said he loved it. That endorsement from the president helped turn The Hunt for Red October into a huge best-seller.

It's the birthday of Scott Turow, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1949). He decided to be a writer when he was in high school, and in college he started submitting short stories to literary magazines. But when he got into a creative writing program at Stanford, he realized that he wasn't cut out for the life of a starving artist. All the other writers he knew in California were addicted to alcohol or drugs, and marriages were breaking up left and right. On top of everything else, none of his classmates liked his writing. He said, "It finally dawned on me that I was not James Joyce. I wanted to be a genius, but I wasn't one."

So one day, he decided on a whim to take the Law School Admission Test, and he managed to score well enough to get into Harvard Law. He got a job as a prosecutor in Chicago, but for eight years, while he was riding back and forth to his job on the train, he began to write a novel. He didn't think he'd ever finish it, but his wife finally persuaded him to take three months off and get it done. He did, and the result was Presumed Innocent (1987), which became one of the best-selling books of the year.

FRIDAY, 13 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks" by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years... .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper... .

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me... .

I am food on the prisoner's plate... .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills... .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden... .

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge... .

I am the heart contracted by joy... .
the longest hair, white
before the rest... .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow... .

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit... .

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name... .

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, (books by this author) born on his father's plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia (1743). He was just 33 years old when he was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence.

It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, (books by this author) born in Mossbawn, Northern Ireland (1939). He is the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, and Heaney grew up in a three-room thatched farmhouse. He said, "[It was] an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other."

Heaney has gone on to write many more books of poetry and prose, and in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His poetry collection District and Circle came out in 2006.

It's the birthday of the journalist Christopher Hitchens, (books by this author) born in Portsmouth, England (1949). After college, he got a job writing for the New Statesman, a leftist political magazine in London. He eventually moved to the United States, where he began a column in The Nation magazine called "The Minority Report." He became famous for extraordinarily contrarian opinions about all kinds of things. As an atheist, he has often attacked religious figures, including Mother Teresa. He also launched an investigation into the career of Henry Kissinger, whom he accused of war crimes.

But Hitchens had often objected to what he called Islamic fascism, especially after a bounty was placed on the head of his friend Salman Rushdie. Then, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he became a supporter of the Bush administration's foreign policy and one of the most vocal supporters of the Iraq war. Many of his leftist friends were shocked. He's since been abandoned by most of his former colleagues in the leftist media.

He's an extremely prolific writer. In just the last few years, he's published two collections of essays, a book about George Orwell, a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and a book about the Iraq war called The Long Short War (2003). His book God Is Not Great comes out this May (2007). He is able to write so much in part because he hates to sleep. He said, "I'm not that keen on the idea of being unconscious. There's plenty of time to be unconscious coming up."

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty, (books by this author) born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). She tried working in advertising but said, "It was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things they didn't need or really want." So she became a writer. Though she wrote several novels, including The Optimist's Daughter (1972), she's best known for her short stories in collections such as The Wide Net (1943) and The Golden Apples (1949).

A critic once asked Welty to explain the symbolism of a marble cake in one of her stories. She replied, "It's a recipe that's been in my family for some time."

It's the birthday of the playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, (books by this author) born in a rich suburb of Dublin called Foxrock (1906). He moved to Paris as a young man and became one of James Joyce's assistants and disciples. He wanted badly to write like Joyce, but he had little success.

During World War II, he got involved in the French Resistance, and after that he decided to take a break from a novel he was working on and try playwriting. He wrote a couple plays that he wasn't too satisfied with, and then, as an exercise, he decided to write a play that would be as simple a storyline as possible. It would be a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a man named Godot, who never arrives.

He finished it in just a few months, faster than he'd ever finished anything. And that was Waiting for Godot (1952), the play in which Beckett wrote, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" He didn't have much hope that it would ever be produced, but his wife thought it was a masterpiece, and she showed it to everyone involved with the theater that she could find. It was finally produced in 1952 and became an international sensation.

Samuel Beckett said, "All I know is what the words know, and dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning and a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead."

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Poem: "The Trees" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems: Philip Larkin. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1961). While many of this genre's writers are known for their striking visual art, Clowes is known as one of the best writers among his generation of graphic novelists.

After college, Clowes tried to support himself as a freelance illustrator, but he said, "I felt like I had a set of talents that were of absolutely no use to the world. It was as if I were a great blacksmith or something." So he started his own series of comic books called "Eightball," which mixed elements of old-fashioned comics like Archie with surrealism, detective stories, and autobiography. His big breakthrough was Ghost World (1998) about two teenage girls named Enid and Becky who take great pleasure in hating almost everything about their suburban lives and the popular culture of their generation. It was made into a movie in 2001.

Daniel Clowes said, "[Comics] are in a sense the ultimate domain of the artist who seeks to wield absolute control over his imagery. Novels are the work of one individual but they require visual collaboration on the part of the reader. Film is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Comics offer the creator a chance to control the specifics of his world in both abstract and literal terms."

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language (books by this author). He was a man who'd grown up in America at a time when Americans from different states spoke with radically different accents and even different languages. Americans in Vermont spoke French, New Yorkers spoke Dutch, and the settlers in Pennsylvania spoke German. All these different languages were influencing American English, and there were no standards of spelling or meaning. Webster wanted to standardize American English so that people across the country would be able to understand each other. He spent 20 years working on his dictionary, which contained 70,000 words, and he did all the research and the handwriting of the book by himself. He is believed to be the last lexicographer to complete a dictionary without any assistance.

Webster's dictionary had the result he intended. His standardized spelling and pronunciation guides helped ensure that Americans who speak English speak more or less the same English. The United States has the fewest dialects of any major country in history.

Today is the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm hit a part of the Great Plains known as the Dust Bowl. When the day started, the weather was sunny and calm. People were on their way home from church, or out visiting friends for lunch, when they saw huge flocks of birds flying south, away from a dark black cloud on the northern horizon. As the cloud approached, people realized that it wasn't a storm cloud, but a cloud of dirt, blown up by the wind. Witnesses said it was like a black tidal wave came down from the sky. It became as dark as night as soon as the cloud descended. Static electricity stalled cars and shorted out telephone lines. People standing a few yards away from their homes got lost in the darkness, and grabbed onto fence posts to keep from being blown to the ground. It was later estimated that the storm carried 300 million tons of soil through the air.

Coincidentally, it was four years later on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck (books by this author) published his novel about the farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl drought: The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells the story of three generations of the Joad family, who lose their farm in Oklahoma and set off across the country for the paradise of California, only to encounter extreme poverty and corrupt corporations trying to make a profit off of them. Steinbeck interspersed the story of the Joads with chapters describing the migration as a whole, to give the impression of a social history as well as a personal story.

Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck spent several weeks in the valleys of southern California, observing the horrible conditions of the migrant farmers there and doing his best to help them. He saw entire families living in tiny tents flooded with more than a foot of water, with almost no food and no medicine. Sometimes he worked so hard bringing food and supplies to the farmers that he would collapse in the mud at the end of the day.

He began writing about what he saw in a 1936 article for The Nation. But Steinbeck was determined to write a book about migrant farmers in California. Finally, in May of 1938, he started work on The Grapes of Wrath. He wrote the novel at an incredible rate—about 2,000 words a day. When it came out, it sold out an advance edition of 20,000 copies in just a few days and eventually became the best-selling book of 1939, with more than 400,000 copies sold.

SUNDAY, 15 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Choice of Diseases" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Choice of Diseases

Now that I'm sick & have
all this time to contemplate
the meaning of the universe,
Father said, I understand why
I never did it before. Nothing
looks good from a prone position.
You have to walk around to appreciate
things. Once I get better I don't
intend to get sick for a while. But
if I do I hope I get one of those diseases
you can walk around with.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the greatest blues singers of all time, Bessie Smith, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1894). She began singing in the street for spare change to help support her family when she was just a kid. She eventually got a job with a traveling show where she met a woman named Gertrude Rainey, later known as "Ma" Rainey, who became known as the mother of the blues. Rainey became a kind of mother figure to Bessie Smith, and the two remained close for the rest of their lives.

It wasn't until the early 1920s that any recording companies were willing to record black singers. But a woman named Mamie Smith sold 100,000 copies of the first vocal blues recording, "Crazy Blues," in 1920, and after that other record companies scrambled to find other blues singers to record. Bessie Smith finally made her first recordings in 1923, and her song "Down Hearted Blues" became a huge success, selling 700,000 copies in six months. It helped save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

When she went on the road in the South, she had a hard time finding decent hotels that would allow a black guest. So she bought her own private railroad car, 78 feet long, with two stories and seven rooms, including a kitchen and a lower level that could hold 35 people. She traveled with her band, and often cooked for them herself. They would stop in small towns and set up a tent for a performance.

In 1929, she was hired by W.C. Handy to star in a 17-minute film about a singer, and the film included her performance of a single song. That movie is now the only existing film footage of a Bessie Smith performance.

It's the birthday of the novelist Henry James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1843). James is known for writing big, challenging novels made up of long, complex sentences. In his lifetime, he wrote almost 10 million words of fiction and nonfiction, including Daisy Miller (1878), Washington Square (1880), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He once said, "I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort."

For a long time, he wasn't very widely read in America, mostly because he seemed so European and old-fashioned. But his popularity has gone up recently, thanks in large part to all of the movies based on his novels that have come out. The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and The Wings of the Dove were all made into Hollywood movies in the late '90s.

It was on this day in 1775 that Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was first published (books by this author). He wrote it single-handedly and finished it in just nine years.

It's the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, (books by this author) born in the Republic of Florence (1452). Though he lived for 67 years, only 17 of his paintings are known to exist, and only a few of those were finished to his satisfaction, including The Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06), which he kept with him for most of his life, working on it now and again, and then taking breaks for years.

But his notebooks overflowed with ideas about architecture and technology of all kinds. Even the doodle pictures of parachutes he drew in the margin of his notes turned out to be technically perfect designs. He drew up plans for an assault battleship, a construction crane, a trench-digging machine, a revolving bridge, and a deep-sea diving suit.

It's the birthday of "Heloise" from the "Hint's from Heloise" column, born Kiah Michelle Cruse in Waco, Texas (1951). Her daily column of household advice is printed in more than 500 newspapers in 20 countries. She's the woman who tells us that hair conditioner can be used for shaving cream, dirty dishes should be stored in the freezer so as not to attract fruit flies, boric acid powder and sugar makes a good roach repellent, and an iron can be used to remove candle wax from a carpet.



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