MONDAY, 21 MAY, 2007
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Poems: "Sinister Limericks" and "Assorted Pentastiches" by X.J. Kennedy, from Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008. © BOA Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sinister Limmericks

Can Great-grandmother's mind be unsound?
Every midnight she totters around
     Voicing cries of distress
     In a dripping wet dress
That she got off of someone who drowned.


As Eliza stood twanging her zither
She beheld a vast sea serpent slither,
     Oozing slime, up the beach
     Till it came within reach
And she disappeared, no one knows whither.


Wailed an earnest young monk of Duluth
"Where O where is the ultimate truth?"
     All at once from above
     Dropped the dump of a dove—
Prompt reply, if a little uncouth.


A lugubrious lady of Lawrence
Would regard each new day with abhorrence.
     "When I wake up," she said,
     "Just to get out of bed
Seems a good deal more work than it warrants."

Assorted Pentastiches

"Oh, go soak your head!" said Narcissus
To his image. "Some love affair this is!
     I find little surprise
     In your watery eyes
And your all too predictable kisses."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Alexander Pope (books by this author), born in London in 1688. He was born a Catholic in Protestant England, so he was prevented from going to any of the best schools, and there was no chance that he'd ever be able to study at Oxford or Cambridge. But, he taught himself Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, and he read just about every book he could get his hands on. And then, just a week before his 23rd birthday, Pope published a long poem about the history of literature called "An Essay on Criticism" (1711). The poem made Pope famous, in part because it attacked many of the most prominent literary critics in London. But it also became one of the most quoted poems in the English language, with lines like, "A little learning is a dangerous thing," "To err is human, to forgive, divine," and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Alexander Pope said, "Authors are judged by strange capricious rules. The great ones are thought mad, the small ones fools."

It was on this day in 1927 that Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in Paris, completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. He was an airmail pilot, flying between St. Louis and Chicago. It was an incredibly dangerous job at the time. Of the first 40 pilots hired, 31 died in crashes. But in his first four years on the job, Lindbergh flew 7,189 flights, logging almost 2,000 hours in the air, without a single incident.

He crossed the Atlantic in a single-engine plane with a large gas tank, which he called the Spirit of St. Louis. He didn't take a radio, a parachute, or any navigational equipment. He tore unnecessary pages from his flight journal, trimmed the margins from his maps, and only brought five sandwiches for food. The gasoline tank was so heavy that he had trouble getting the plane into the air, and only cleared the telephone lines by 20 feet.

From the take-off in New York, he flew north over Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. He reached Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, flew in over the city of St. John's, and then turned toward Ireland. For the next 15 hours, no one would know if he were alive or dead. The humorist Will Rogers wrote in his column, "No attempt at jokes today. A ... slim, tall, bashful, smiling American boy is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where no lone human being has ever ventured before. ... If he is lost it will be the most universally regretted loss we ever had."

After reaching the halfway point of his journey, Lindbergh was exhausted and disoriented. In order to keep himself awake, he flew close enough to the water to feel the spray on his face. He began to hallucinate, and even saw a coastline before his calculations said that he should. When he flew toward it, the coastline vanished.

After more than 24 hours, Lindbergh spotted fishing boats on the water. He reached Ireland a few hours later and turned south toward Paris.

Lindbergh touched down at 10:24 p.m. on this day in 1927, 33 1/2 hours after he'd taken off. About 150,000 people mobbed the landing strip in Paris, shouting, "Vive Lindbergh!" And overnight, he became one of the most famous men in the world.

It's the birthday of writer Harold Robbins (books by this author), born Frank Kane in New York City (1916). He's one of the best-selling novelists of all time, perhaps best known for his novel The Carpetbaggers (1961), which is loosely based on the life of eccentric businessman Howard Hughes.

It's the birthday of jazz pianist and bandleader Thomas "Fats" Waller, born in New York City (1904).

It's the birthday of the romance novelist Janet Dailey (books by this author), born in Storm Lake, Iowa (1944). At the age of 30, Dailey and her husband sold their construction company and set off to see America in a trailer. In her free time, Dailey read romance novels and soon remarked to her husband that she thought she could write one herself. With her husband's encouragement, that's just what she did. Six months later, her first book became a Harlequin romance. To her great surprise, No Quarter Asked (1976) sold more than one million copies.

TUESDAY, 22 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Tornado Weather" by Vincent Wixon, from The Square Grove: Poems. © Traprock Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Tornado Weather

Clouds build all day,
hold west of the section.
Plowing east he feels them
piling darker, deeper.

Wind through ankle high corn
comes cold, dries his back,
and he pushes the throttle a notch,
checks the hills blurring between the wheels.

At the field's end he raises the shovels,
as first drops darken his shirt.
He shifts into high and opens the engine for home.
The rain thickens, turns hard,
pings off the tractor, bounces on the road,
stings his bent head and back.

He pulls under the cottonwood,
covers the stack with a can,
and sprints for the barn.

Clouds hang low and come on—
a black-green curtain wide as sky.
The high leaves of the cottonwoods
shudder for the first time all day.

Women stand on their porches
and the air turns cool.
They shiver, hug their sleeveless arms,

and listen for the tractor-whine
of their husbands leaving the fields.
They call the children from the barn,
and turn inside to switch on the radio.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of composer Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig, Germany (1813). When he was eight years old, he went to see an opera by a composer named Carl Maria von Weber. When Wagner got home from the performance, he wrote out all the music for the opera entirely from memory. He went on to stage another opera by the same composer in his family's drawing room.

He wrote his first complete opera in 1834, but he couldn't get it produced. His second opera was based on the Shakespeare play Measure for Measure, but it was such a disaster that Wagner had to run away to Paris to get away from his creditors. Then in 1848, he got involved in a revolutionary political movement, writing articles supporting an uprising of the people. When the uprising failed, he went into exile in Zurich. He didn't produce any new musical works for 15 years.

He came to believe that the problem with modern opera was that it lacked the literary seriousness of great drama. He decided to write an opera that would combine the dramatic elements of a Shakespearean play with the musical greatness of Beethoven. The result was his Ring Cycle, which consisted of four operas based on Norse myths. It took him 26 years to complete. It tells the story of a magical ring, which gives its owner the power to rule the world. A hero named Siegfried struggles to win the ring, but he is eventually betrayed and killed. His lover, Brünnhilde, then returns the ring to the Rhine River, where it was created, and in the process the Gods are destroyed.

It was in the middle of working on his Ring Cycle, that Wagner took a break to write an opera called Tristan und Isolde. It was that opera, which premiered on June 10, 1865, that made him into an international celebrity.

Richard Wagner said, "Achievements, seldom credited to their source, are the result of unspeakable drudgery and worries."

It's the birthday of journalist and cultural critic Garry Wills (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. He went off to study for the priesthood at St. Louis University, and at the last minute he switched to philosophy.

When he was just 22 years old, he sent a parody of a Time magazine article to the conservative National Review. But during the 1960s, he started traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots. He began to argue against the Vietnam War and for federal support of civil rights.

His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency. Since then, he has written more than 20 more books – about religion, Shakespeare, the Kennedys, the Declaration of Independence, Ronald Regan, John Wayne, the Gettysburg Address, and the pope.

It's the birthday of novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He served in the Navy during World War II, studied at Yale, and then traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided to start a literary journal called The Paris Review.

After publishing two novels that weren't very successful, Matthiessen took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States. Matthiessen has continued to write books about nature, such as The Snow Leopard (1978). His most recent book is End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica, which came out in 2003.

Peter Matthiessen said, "There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

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Poem: "To His Piano" by Howard Nemerov. Used with permission of Margaret Nemerov. (buy now)

To His Piano

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,
Ready to think the fingerings of thought,
You but a scant year older than I am
With my expectant mother expecting maybe
An infant prodigy among her stars
But getting only little me instead–

To see you standing there for six decades
Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and
The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,
As well as all those years of silence and
The stumbling beginnings the children made,
Who would believe the twenty tons of stress
Your gilded frame's kept stretched out all this while?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Thomas Hood (books by this author), born in London (1799). He wrote, "'Lives' of great men oft remind us as we o'er their pages turn, / That we too many leave behind us – / Letters that we ought to burn."

It's the birthday of the playwright, poet, and novelist Pär Lagerkvist (books by this author), born in Växjö, Sweden (1891). He's best known for his novel Barabbas (1950), about the thief pardoned by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion.

It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon (books by this author), born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947). She published poetry about everyday life in books such as The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986) and Let Evening Come (1990). Then in the early 1990s, her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was given a one-in-three chance of survival. Kenyon helped him through surgery and treatment, and his cancer went into remission. But then Kenyon was diagnosed with cancer herself. She spent the last days of her life working on her last collection, Otherwise (1996).

It's the birthday of the man who gave us a system of classifying and naming all the living things on the planet, Carolus Linnaeus (books by this author), born in Råshult, Sweden (1707). He was born at a time when human beings named plants and animals in a variety of ways, usually based on what they looked like: names like Queen Anne's Lace, ghost orchid, and sword fish. But these names were always local. Even within a single country, like England, a plant could be called by half a dozen different names by different groups of people.

Linnaeus was a botanist, and it was his goal to help import new plants to Sweden to help improve the economy. In order to keep everything straight, he developed a naming system based in Latin, so that he and his students would always know what they were talking about. He put each specimen into a large group called a genus and a smaller subgroup called a species, and this became the binomial naming system, which he published in his book Systema Naturae (1758).

Biologists found his naming system extremely useful. His ideas made him famous around the world, and scientists as well as kings and queens sent him plants and animals as gifts for his garden and zoo. Catherine the Great of Russia sent him flower seeds. The crowned prince of Sweden gave him a North American raccoon.

But Linnaeus had little success importing new crops into Sweden. The tea plants his students sent home all died. Coffee did not make it. Neither did ginger or cardamom or cotton or coconuts. In fact, rhubarb was one of the only new plants that took hold. Late in his life, Linnaeus said that the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement.

But today, we remember Linnaeus for his contribution to taxonomy. His system of naming living things has been modified, but the basic idea behind it has endured for 250 years. When he published his first taxonomy of plants in 1758, Linnaeus listed the 4,400 species of plants known to science at that time. Today, his system has been used to name more than 1.5 million species. We have Linnaeus to thank for the idea behind all those names, including our own name: Homo sapiens.

It's the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1910). She was one of the first writers to write books specifically for children who were just beginning to learn language.

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. She eventually began to write books for children based on her research, and in 1938 she became the editor of a publishing house called William R. Scott & Company, which specialized in new children's literature.

Margaret Wise Brown helped make children's books profitable, because she understood that children experience books as sensual objects. She invested in high-quality color illustrations, and she printed her books on strong paper with durable bindings, so that children could grab, squeeze, and bite their books the way they did with all their toys. And then, in 1947, she published her own book, Goodnight Moon.

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn't sell as well as some of Brown's other books in its first year. But parents began to recommend the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990, the total number of copies sold was more than 4 million.

THURSDAY, 24 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Ars Poetica" by X.J. Kennedy, from Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008. © BOA Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Ars Poetica

The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don't watch.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota (1941). He grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town on the decline. Dylan later said, "It was a very itinerant place — no interstate highways yet, just country roads everywhere. There was an innocence about it all, and I don't recall anything bad ever happening." At school, his classmates said he was a quiet kid who didn't call much attention to himself. But then, in 1955, the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out, and Dylan went to see it at least four times. After that, he began wearing a red leather jacket to school, and he put grease in his hair. He set about forming the first rock and roll band in the history of Hibbing, Minnesota, and he called his band The Golden Chords.

It was only after he enrolled in the University of Minnesota that Dylan became interested in folk music. He heard a record by the folk singer Odetta in 1958 and immediately went out and traded his electric guitar for an acoustic. He soon dropped out of college to focus on learning as many folk songs as he could. At some point, he stumbled upon the work of Woody Guthrie and became a kind of Guthrie disciple. He bought a harmonica and a metal neck brace so that he could sing, play guitar, and play the harmonica at the same time, just like Woody, and he began performing at local coffeehouses. It was at one of these coffeehouses that he first called himself Bob Dylan. He took the name Dylan from the poet Dylan Thomas.

After a few years in Minneapolis, Dylan decided to take off for New York City in January of 1961. He arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. It was one of the worst winters in decades, and he had no place to stay. He spent several days just riding the subways, because it was the only place he could keep warm. He found a place to stay by the end of the week, and then he took a trip down to Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, where he'd heard that Woody Guthrie was slowly dying of Huntington's disease.

Guthrie was staying in the psychiatric part of the hospital, and he was already suffering spasms and having difficulty talking. But Dylan brought along his guitar and he sang songs to Guthrie, which Guthrie loved. Dylan went back to visit Guthrie many times, and the first song he wrote after his arrival in New York was called "Song to Woody." It included the lines, "Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind."

Within a year, Dylan had his first record contract, and he recorded his first album when he was just 19. He went on to become one of the most prolific songwriters in American history, writing and recording songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and "Like a Rolling Stone." Dylan also published his first memoir a few years ago, Chronicles, Volume One (2004), which got great reviews and was even nominated for a National Book Award.

Bob Dylan was once asked if he thought of himself more as a singer or a poet. He said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."

It's the birthday of the novelist Michael Chabon (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1963). He's a writer who suffered from early success. He was just 23 when he wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and turned it in as his master's thesis at a creative writing program. He presented the final draft on a Friday and learned on Monday that his professor had sent the manuscript to an agent. The book was published the following year, in 1988. It became a huge critical and commercial success. Chabon was compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever. He was asked to model clothing for The Gap, and People magazine wanted to include him in its 1988's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue, but Chabon turned down both offers.

Instead, he took an advance on his second novel and started working on it. Chabon later said, "It was a novel about utopian dreamers, ecological activists, an Israeli spy, a gargantuan Florida real estate deal, the education of an architect, the perfect baseball park, Paris, French cooking, and the crazy and ongoing dream of rebuilding the Great Temple in Jerusalem. It was about loss — lost paradises, lost cities, the loss of the Temple, the loss of a brother to AIDS; and the concomitant dream of Restoration or Rebuilding."

Chabon spent five years working on his novel, which he called Fountain City. He wrote 1,500 pages of manuscript. But he finally had to give up on it. Instead, he began a book about a creative writing professor who can't finish his latest novel. And that was Wonder Boys (1995), which was made into a movie in 2000.

In 2000, Chabon came out with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), the story of a Jewish kid who flees the Nazis just before World War II, but he has to leave his family behind to come to America, and along with his cousin, he creates a comic book superhero named The Escapist.

Michael Chabon said, "Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed."

It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He moved to this country in 1972.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer William Trevor (books by this author), born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His collections of short stories include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967) and Beyond the Pale (1981); and his novels include Felicia's Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).

He once said, "If anyone asks why I write gloomy novels, they need only know that my father came from the South and my mother from the North."

He also said, "All my writing is about noncommunication — which is very sad and very funny."

FRIDAY, 25 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "The Faces of Children" by Elizabeth Spires, from Now the Green Blade Rises. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Faces of Children

Meeting old friends after a long time, we see
with surprise how they have changed, and must imagine,
despite the mirror's lies, that change is upon us, too.

Once, in our twenties, we thought we would never die.
Now, as one thoughtlessly shuffles a deck of cards,
we have run through half our lives.

The afternoon has vanished, the evening changing
us into four shadows mildly talking on a porch.
And as we talk, we listen to the children play
the games that we played once. In joy and terror,
they cry out in surprise as the seeker finds the one in hiding,
or in fairytale tableau, each one is tapped and turned

to stone. The lawn is full of breathing statues who wait
to be changed back again, and we can do nothing but stand
to one side of our children's games, our children's lives.

We are the conjurors who take away all pain,
and we are the ones who cannot take away the pain at all.
They do not ask, as lately we have asked ourselves,

Who was I then? And what must I become?
Like newly minted coins, their faces catch
the evening's radiance. They are so sure of us,

more sure than we are of ourselves. Our children:
who gently push us toward the end of our own lives.
The future beckons brightly. They trust us to lead them there.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short-story writer Raymond Carver (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He wrote short-story collections such as Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981).

It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His poetry collections include Open House (1941) and The Waking (1954). He said, "Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

It was on this day in 1787 that the most important convention in United States history got under way, and that was the Constitutional Convention, held in Independence Hall, the same building where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Some of the famous forefathers weren't there: Jefferson was in Paris and John Adams was in England. Patrick Henry was invited, but he refused to go because he objected to the whole thing. He said, "I smelt a rat." He objected to the purpose of the convention, which was to establish a stronger form of central government. Many people worried at the time that a stronger central government would lead to tyranny, and some even questioned whether the convention was legal. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention apparently felt that they were doing something revolutionary, because the convention was held in secret, the windows nailed shut, and guards posted. Not a single word of the proceedings was leaked to the press.

Most of the men there that day were fairly young. Only four of them were over 60, and five of them were still in their 20s. Ben Franklin, at 81, was the oldest. He was suffering from gout by that time and had to be carried to the meetings in a sedan chair. Two of the delegates, Washington and Madison, would go on to become presidents. Seventeen of them would become U.S. senators, 11 would serve in the House of Representatives, four would be justices on the Supreme Court. The only state that didn't send any delegates was Rhode Island, which disapproved of the whole thing.

George Washington presided over the convention even though he would have preferred to stay home in Mount Vernon. He rarely spoke during the formal debates, but his mere presence in the room affected what people said. Many of the delegates later said that they were reluctant to give the office of the president much power, because they were afraid of creating a king. But since they imagined Washington would soon hold that position, they couldn't deny him what he deserved as the head of state.

Once the document was finished, it was sent off to the states for ratification. It took some persuading to get all the states to ratify it. Rhode Island held out almost to the end. Patrick Henry said, "The Constitution squints toward monarchy." But today, ours is the world's oldest written national constitution. It's also one of the shortest constitutions ever written, at only 7,591 words.

The preamble of the Constitution begins, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

It's the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books."

SATURDAY, 26 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Suitcases" by Kathleen Jamie, from Waterlight: Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Piled high in a corner of second-hand store
in Toronto: of course,
it's an immigrant country. Sometimes

all you can take is what you can carry
when you run: a photo, some clothes,
and the useless dead-weight

of your mother tongue.
One was repaired
with electrician's tape—a trade

was all a man needed. A girl,
well, a girl could get married. Indeed
each case opened like an invitation:

the shell-pink lining, the knicker—
like pockets you hook back
with a finger to look

for the little linked keys.
I remember how each held a wraith
of stale air, and how the assistant seemed

taken aback by my accent;
by then, though, I was headed for home,
bored, and already pregnant.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1521 that German priest and theologian Martin Luther (books by this author) was declared an outlaw and his writings were banned by the Edict of Worms. The edict made Luther more of a hero than he already was, and it's a big reason that Protestantism caught on so quickly.

Luther was a monk and a professor of theology at Wittenberg, and he was disturbed by the way the church made money from its people. One of the church's profitable ventures was charging people admission to see holy relics, mostly bones of saints. By 1520, there were about 19,013 holy bones on display at the Castle Church in Wittenberg alone. It had become a kind of holy relic Disneyland. If someone paid to see each and every bone in the collection, he could reduce his stay in Purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

Luther was disgusted. So on the eve of All Saints' Day in 1517, he posted 95 theses attacking indulgences and other church practices on the door of his church. The theses were originally written in Latin, but they became so popular that people demanded they be translated into German, and so they were. Hundreds of copies were printed up on a printing press, which was still a fairly recent invention, and Luther's message spread throughout Germany and Europe. When another theologian published counter-theses, they were burned publicly by Luther's students.

In 1520, Luther published even more controversial writings, attacking papal authority and the whole structure of the church. Religious leaders and politicians began to realize how dangerous he was becoming to the traditional church, and in April of 1521, he was called before a legal assembly of the Holy Roman Empire in the city of Worms. Luther had to appear twice before the emperor, and each time he was told to take back his teachings. He said, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason... my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

Luther was declared an outlaw, which meant that he could be killed by anybody without the threat of punishment. He went into hiding in the Wartburg, where he grew out his hair and beard and began translating the Bible into German. He never stopped considering himself a Catholic, but his writings inspired the Protestant Reformation. He married a nun, breaking the vow of chastity, and finished his days in a small church, giving mass in German instead of Latin.

It's the birthday of the novelist Alan Hollinghurst (books by this author), born in Stroud, England (1954). He became the first openly gay novelist to win the Man Booker Prize. As a young man, he wanted to be a poet. But after he signed a book contract with Faber & Faber, he suddenly lost his ability to write poetry. He hasn't written another poem since.

So Hollinghurst decided to try writing a novel. He said, "[I wanted] to write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position... something that hadn't really been done."

The result was his book The Swimming Pool Library (1988), which was a big success when it came out in 1988. He won the Booker Prize for his most recent novel, The Line of Beauty (2004) (buy now).

It's the birthday of photographer and author Dorothea Lange (books by this author), born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1895). She took some of the most famous photographs of the Great Depression, including White Angel Breadline, which depicted a crowd of well-dressed, newly unemployed men waiting for food on a bread line, and Migrant Mother, which showed a prematurely aged woman in a tattered tent with her children.

SUNDAY, 27 MAY, 2007
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Poem: from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist who created the detective Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett (books by this author), born in St. Mary's County, Maryland (1894).

It's the birthday of novelist John_Barth (books by this author), born in Cambridge, Maryland (1930). He's the author of novels such as The Floating Opera (1956) and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991).

It's the birthday of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson (books by this author), born in Springdale, Pennsylvania (1907). Her best-selling book about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), became one of the most influential books in the modern environmental movement.

It's the birthday of the poet Linda Pastan (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). She started writing poetry when she was a kid, and had some early success. But after she got married, she didn't write again for 10 years. She only started again after her husband told her he was tired of hearing her talk about what a great poet she might have been if she hadn't gotten married. She has gone on to publish many collections, including Waiting for My Life (1981) and Carnival Evening (1998).

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (books by this author), born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). As a child, his grade-school teacher let him tell stories to the class if the children had been good. Sometimes he stretched a single story over the course of several class periods, ending each installment with a cliffhanger.

In the spring of his junior year, Cheever was expelled from prep school for poor grades. He wrote a story about it called "Expelled" (1930), and it was published in The New Republic magazine. He got married and began struggling to support his family by publishing short stories, and he developed a style that blended realism and fantasy.

In his story "The Swimmer," he wrote about a man at a cocktail party who decides on a whim to swim home to his house by way of all the swimming pools in the neighborhood. Cheever wrote, "He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. ... Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River."

Cheever went on to publish several novels, including The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Stories of John Cheever (1978). But all the while that he was writing fiction, Cheever was also keeping a series of journals, which contained his most private and explicit thoughts about his struggles with alcoholism, bisexuality, adultery, and depression. As he approached the end of his life, he began to think the journals were his best work, so he arranged with his son to have the journals published after his death. He died in 1982, and The Journals of John Cheever came out in 1991.

Cheever once described his work as coming from "a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat ... [a world full of] chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing ... who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."



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