Our plane falls from the sky
into France, where everyone seems
so much happier than we are,
but no, it's not the people
who are happy, it's the buildings,
the high-beamed Norman farmhouses,
the cottages with roofs of trim thatch,
the chateaux set in verdant vineyards.
The people are like you and me:
their clothes don't fit very well,
their children are ungrateful,
and they're always blowing their noses.
But the buildings are warm and well-lit,
and even the ones that aren't,
the ones that have bad lighting
and poor insulation and green things
growing on the tile, even these
seem to be trying like crazy to comfort us,
to say something to us in French,
in House, in words we can understand.

"The Very Rich Hours of the Houses of France" by David Kirby, from I Think I Am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay. © Orchises Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1949). Her book Why Did I Ever (2001) won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her most recent book is One D.O.A., One on the Way.

She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager. She started writing seriously when she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked with John Barth. In addition to novels and short stories, she has also written screenplays. She says, "I'm afraid of autobiography and fond of my family. I'm not ready to write them really."

It's the birthday of writer Anchee Min, (books by this author) born in Shanghai, China (1957). She is the author of a memoir about growing up in communist China called Red Azalea (1994). The book was banned in China, but after its success here, she was invited back to her homeland to make some public appearances. Min writes in English even though she didn't speak it until she was 27 years old. She learned English when she came to the United States by watching Sesame Street and Oprah on television. She says, "Her show played a big role in convincing me to get my story out, the way she encourages guests to reveal their past by telling them it's all right to speak out about what they consider shameful."

Min is the eldest of four children. Her father taught astronomy, but lost his job when he taught his students about sunspots. The sun was thought to represent Chairman Mao, and so talking about sunspots was considered a criticism of the communist system.

In 1974, Min was separated from her family and sent to a labor camp near the East China Sea. It was there that a group of talent scouts saw her working in the fields and picked her to star in a film, but changing political climates prevented the film from being made. Her association with the movie made her a political outcast, and so she began the process of getting permission to leave China for the United States.

Min worked as a plumber's assistant, a waitress, and a baby-sitter when she first moved to the U.S. She even held a job painting flowers on women's underwear. She took English classes at Chicago's University of Illinois and learned English well enough to eventually earn a B.F.A. and an M.F.A from the Art Institute of Chicago. Min once said her writing process was "like a long line of ants walking for blocks carrying one crooked cricket leg."

It's the birthday of columnist Maureen Dowd, (books by this author) born in Washington D.C. (1952). She was one of five children, and her father was a native of Ireland who worked as a police detective for the city. She said, "For me, the Capitol is not just a famous building; it's where my mother and I picked up my father from work. The Lincoln Memorial is where we went on cheap dates."

Dowd was well known for what she called "warts-and-all journalism," especially her articles on former President George H. Bush, who was not always happy with how she portrayed him.

Her first job out of college was at the pool and tennis club at the Washington Hilton, but she quit because her family didn't like that she wore a tennis dress to work. She tried substitute teaching after that, but finally ended up as an editorial assistant for the Washington Star. She said, "I was almost fired every day because I couldn't take a decent phone message."

She was hired by The New York Times in 1983 when the editor found Dowd's two-year old résumé in a pile of old job applications. In 1995, she became the fourth woman in the history of Times to have her own op-ed column. She said, "The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for."

She's described as habitually late, and her favorite meal is said to be potato chips and champagne. She said, "Attacking the press is a cheap way to throw the spotlight off a politician who is stumbling."

It's the birthday of novelist John Dos Passos, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1896). His grandfather was a Portuguese immigrant and had worked as a shoemaker in Philadelphia. His father served in the American Civil War as a drummer boy, and he was a successful lawyer by the time Dos Passos was born.

Dos Passos was born out of wedlock, and so he lived with his mother. He moved around so much that he called himself a "hotel child," living in Mexico, Belgium, England, Washington D.C., and on a farm in Virginia. He attended the Choate School, a private American prep school, where his friends called him by the nickname "Dos."

Dos Passos later attended Harvard, where he was a classmate of E. E. Cummings. He went to Spain to study architecture after he graduated, but with the outbreak of World War I, he worked as a volunteer ambulance driver instead. He later enlisted in the United States Medical Corps as a private. He served in France and Italy, and that experience inspired his anti-war novels, One Man's Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). When the war was over, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in Spain, Mexico, and New York. He said, "People don't choose their careers; they are engulfed by them."

Dos Passos was a sympathizer of the radical left when he was young. He wrote, "My sympathies lie with the private in the front line against the brass hat; with the hodcarrier against the strawboss, or the walking delegate for that matter; with the laboratory worker against the stuffed shirt in a mortarboard; with the criminal against the cop."

As Dos Passos got older, his views became more conservative. One of the reasons for this shift was the execution of his friend José Robles by Communists during the Spanish Civil War.

His other books include the Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the famous U.S.A. Trilogy, comprised of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936).

The nearsighted Dos Passos was shy and didn't like to speak in public or over the radio. Later on in his life, he lived on Cape Cod, where he wrote in the mornings and sailed and swam in the afternoons. He also sketched and painted. In 1937, a New York gallery held an exhibit of 30 of his sketches. He hated talking about the literary world and avoided what he called "talking shop." He said, "If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works."

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.

"Nothing Is Lost" by Noel Coward, from Noel Coward Collected Verse. © Methuen Publishing, Ltd., 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1831 that Victor Hugo (books by this author) finished his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, known to us as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In this epic Gothic novel, Quasimodo, a grotesque, hunchbacked bell ringer, falls in love with a gypsy street dancer named Esmeralda. While the novel was being written, Hugo was asked to compose a poem in honor of Louis-Philippe, France's first constitutional king, who had been brought to power by the July Revolution. Because of the distraction, Victor Hugo had to keep asking his publishers for deadline extensions for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Once he finally sat down to write it, he finished it in only four months.

Victor Hugo, who said, "If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away."

It's the birthday of another French writer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, (books by this author) born in Besançon in the east of France (1809), seven years after Victor Hugo was born in the same town. Proudhon was a socialist journalist, and in 1840 he wrote the pamphlet What Is Property? In it, Proudhon said, "I am an anarchist" and "Property is theft." During the July monarchy, he narrowly missed being arrested for What Is Property? But he was brought to court when, two years later, he wrote the sequel, Warning to Proprietors (1842). He was not convicted, because his jury decided they couldn't condemn a man for making arguments they didn't understand.

In the late 1840s, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon edited four newspapers, all of which were destroyed by government censorship. He said, "The newspapers are the cemeteries of ideas."

It's the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1929). The leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King was a powerful speaker and strong leader even during his younger years. After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, King was urged by his father, who was a Baptist preacher, to enter the ministry. He enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he worked toward a Bachelor of Divinity degree.

While at the seminary, King was elected president of the student body, which was almost exclusively white. A Crozer professor wrote in a letter of recommendation for King, "The fact that with our student body largely Southern in constitution a colored man should be elected to and be popular [in] such a position is in itself no mean recommendation."

It was 1955, early in King's new tenure as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on one of that city's busses. King was elected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed with the intention of boycotting the transit system. He was young, only 26, and he knew his family connections and professional standing would help him find another pastorate should the boycott fail. So he accepted.

In his first speech to the group as its president, King said: "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice."

The boycott worked, and King saw the opportunity for more change. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which provided him a national platform. For the next 13 years, King worked to peacefully end segregation. In 1963, he joined other civil rights leaders in the March on Washington—that's where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The following year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and King earned the Nobel Prize for Peace. In his acceptance speech for that prize he said, "I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, was assassinated almost four years later, in Memphis. He was there to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers, and had told them the night before a sniper shot him dead on his hotel-room balcony: "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

It was on this day in 1622 that a third French writer, the playwright Molière, (books by this author) was baptized in Paris. He is known to be the father of French comedic theater, and wrote Tartuffe (1664), Le Misanthrope (1666), and Le Malade Imaginaire (1673). Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin to wealthy parents—his father was the royal upholsterer—Molière attended school at the well-respected College de Clermont and studied law at Orleans.

He was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but, when he was 21, he became involved with a theatrical family, the Béjarts. He joined them and others to produce and play comedy as a company under the name of the Illustre-Théatre. The company didn't last long—it was a financial mess, and Poquelin spent time in debtor's prison. But it was during these first years with Illustre that two things happened: Poquelin developed a relationship with Madeleine Béjart, who was with him until her death and widely thought to have been his mistress. And, as a performer, he started using the stage name Molière.

Since there was clearly no room for another theater troupe in Paris, Molière, Madeleine, and their company ran off to tour the provinces. They did this for 13 years, giving Molière plenty of practice with all aspects of the theater: He was an actor, director, stage manager, and writer. In 1658, Molière and his company performed before Louis XIV on a makeshift stage in a guardroom of the Louvre. They chose a play that had been popular with provincial audiences, Le Docteur Amoureux (The Amorous Doctor). The King's brother Philippe loved it, and the troupe was invited to stay in Paris. Molière spent the rest of his life there, and died in 1673 not far from where he was born.

Molière was a womanizer and had affairs with several actresses in addition to Madeleine. When he finally married, at age 40, he scandalously chose 19-year-old Armande Béjart, who was either Madeleine's daughter or her sister. She was a flirt, and Molière was not only a womanizer but also a jealous husband, so they were unhappy. They separated after only two years, after she bore him a son, but she continued to work with him. One of her most important roles was Célimène in The Misanthrope, a coquettish character which was modeled after her. Molière played the role of Alceste, who is in love with Célimène.

The Misanthrope is widely considered to be Molière's greatest achievement. In it, the character Alceste says "I have the fault of being a little more sincere than is proper."

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
                           when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn't make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I'd rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it's spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer's song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She's like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I'm glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature's wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It's been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.

"A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means To Me. © Graywolf Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of another poet, Anthony Hecht, (books by this author) born in New York City (1923). Hecht won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry, and served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, but his interest in writing did not come early. He said that in school he was so "conspicuous" in his "mediocrity" that his mother had him tested to see if anything was wrong. The tests found him to be without any "aptitudes whatsoever."

Hecht fell in love with poetry during his freshman year at Bard College. When he told his parents that he intended to become a poet, they asked their only literary friend for advice: Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Geisel's advice was that Hecht should read The Life of Joseph Pulitzer, which he never did, because he suspected it would be discouraging. Until his death on October 20, 2004, Hecht discouraged new poets from reading that book, since not reading it had served him so well.

It's the birthday of the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, (books by this author) born in Preston, England, in 1874. He moved to Canada in 1897 and for eight years worked in the Yukon for the Canadian Bank of Commerce. It was there that he began to write. He said, "I was greatly surprised to find my work acceptable."

Influenced by Kipling, Robert W. Service wrote ballads about Yukon life. Two of these poems, his most famous, are "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." They appeared in Songs of a Sourdough (1907, reprinted in 1915 as The Spell of the Yukon). He left the Yukon to report about the Balkan War for the Toronto Star. During World War I, he drove an ambulance, which gave him material for Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916). After the war, he moved to France and wrote more in his later years, but he never met the same fame as he had with his poems about the Yukon.

It's the birthday of the novelist William Kennedy, (books by this author) born in Albany, New York (1928). Kennedy's novel Ironweed was the third in his "Albany trilogy," but it was the first success. When it was published in 1983, there was an immediate demand for the first two: Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978). The trilogy, which was set in the "sin city" days of Albany's Prohibition and Depression eras, made Kennedy famous and put his hometown on the map. Ironweed won him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer; in 1987 it was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

William Kennedy, who said about the life of a writer, "There's only a short walk from the hallelujah to the hoot."

It's the birthday of essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag, (books by this author) born in New York City (1933). Her father died when she was five, and her mother moved her and her sister first to Tucson, Arizona, and then to the suburbs of L.A. She was an intellectual even as a child, buying the Partisan Review and reading Trilling, Rosenberg, and Arendt. She graduated from high school at age 15 and became a serial academic. She took classes at Berkeley, then earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago after only two years of classes. She earned two master's degrees from Harvard, studied at Oxford and the University of Paris, and then, in 1959, moved with her son to New York City. During the course of her studies she had married, had a child with, and divorced Philip Rieff, who had been one of her professors at the University of Chicago.

Susan Sontag said that she preferred to think of herself as a novelist. Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963—her last In America, in 2000.

In her early essays, Sontag wrote criticism of art and culture. Other critical essays of the early '60s were dry and academic—hers were not. Her essay "Notes on Camp" was first published in the Partisan Review in 1964. Sontag suggested that even bad art can be appreciated, that there can be "a good taste of bad taste." The essay had a huge impact on the New York intellectual world, and Susan Sontag became a sort of spokesperson for American avant-garde.

In 1969, Sontag decided to try filmmaking, which fascinated her. She said it gave her the chance to exercise a part of her imagination and her powers in a way that she couldn't as a writer. But she missed writing. She said: "I thought: where I am? what am I doing? what have I done? I seem to be an expatriate, but I didn't mean to become an expatriate. I don't seem to be a writer anymore, but I wanted most of all to be a writer."

In 1976, she returned to the literary world, this time focusing on short stories. That same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors told her she had two years to live. She searched for treatment options and found alternatives with a doctor in France. She not only survived, but also wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978), which looked at the way language is used to describe disease. It was one of her most significant books. Other critical works include AIDS and Its Metaphors (1988) and On Photography (1977).

Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, said his mother had "an unslakable kind of curiosity, of interest in the world. She was someone who could go to an opera, meet someone at two in the morning to go to the Ritz and listen to some neo-Nazi punk synthesizer band, and then get up the next morning to see two Crimean dissidents." Sontag lived in Chelsea, in Manhattan, and maintained a personal library of 15,000 books, neatly arranged by historical period: Egyptians, Greeks, Fascism, Communism. She said, "What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what's in the books, because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember."

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

"What's In My Journal" by William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow © Harper Collins, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of founding father Benjamin Franklin. (books by this author) Though Philadelphia is regarded as his home, he was born in Boston on this day in 1706. Franklin had a natural curiosity about how things work. He spent much of his life searching for ways for people to live better. After he retired from the printing business in 1749, he turned his attention to science and inventions. He had already invented a safer, heat-efficient stove—called the Franklin stove—which he never patented because he created it for the good of society. He also established the first fire company and came up with the idea of fire insurance.

When he grew tired of taking off and putting on his glasses, Franklin had two pairs of spectacles cut in half and put half of each lens in a single frame, now called bifocals. His brother was plagued with kidney stones, so Franklin created a flexible urinary catheter to help him feel better. Among Franklin's other inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a musical instrument), the odometer, and the lightning rod.

Franklin eventually retired from public service to spend his time reading and studying. He found, however, that his age left him unable to reach the high shelves in his library. He invented a tool called a "long arm"—a long wooden pole with a grasping claw at the end—to reach the books he wanted to read.

Benjamin Franklin said, "A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things. There will be sleeping enough in the grave."

It's the birthday of Anne Brontë, (books by this author) born in Yorkshire (1820). Anne Brontë has been remembered primarily as the third Brontë sister. She was meek and more religious-minded than Charlotte or Emily and little is known about her life compared to the lives of her sisters. As a child, she was closest to Emily, the youngest of her older siblings. Together they played with toys, made up stories about them, and began to write them down. They created an imaginary world called "Gondal," which provided the setting for the first of Anne's known poems, "Verses by Lady Geralda" (1836) and "Alexander and Zenobia" (1837).

In the summer of 1845, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte found themselves at home together without work. They decided to put together a book of poems they'd written over the past five years. They told no one what they were doing. Anne and Emily each contributed 21 poems and 19 were Charlotte's. The sisters agreed to publish under pseudonyms and Charlotte arranged publication of The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell through Aylott & Jones, at the authors' expense. The cost of publication was 31 pounds, 10 shillings—about 3/4 of what Anne's annual salary had been as a governess. On May 7, 1846, the first three copies of the book were delivered to the Brontë home. The book received three somewhat favorable reviews and sold a total of two copies.

The sisters turned to writing novels. Charlotte's The Professor and Emily's Wuthering Heights reflected both Gothic and Romantic ideas. Anne was more of a realist and began Agnes Grey—based on her experience as a governess—with the words, "All true histories contain instruction."

The three manuscripts made the rounds of London publishers for a year. In the meantime, Charlotte wrote and published Jane Eyre (1847). Two months later, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published, in December of 1847. Most of the reviewers' attention was given to Wuthering Heights and the wildly successful Jane Eyre.

Anne went ahead and wrote her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was an immediate success. The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, leaves her husband to protect their young son from his influence. She supports herself and her son by painting while living in hiding. In doing so, she violates social conventions and English law. At the time, a married woman had no independent legal existence apart from her husband. It was later said that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.

In the second printing of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë responded to critics who said her portrayal of the husband was graphic and disturbing. She wrote, "Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering "Peace, peace," when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."

After Emily died in 1848, Anne took ill. She died of tuberculosis in May 1849. While on her deathbed, Anne's last words, whispered to Charlotte, were, "Take courage."

It's the birthday of Robert Cormier, (books by this author) born in Leominster, Massachusetts (1925). He wrote the best seller The Chocolate War (1974), a young-adult novel whose hero, Jerry Renault, has a poster in his locker reading, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" He refuses to sell chocolates during a school fundraiser and becomes a scapegoat for the anger of his schoolmates. He is intimidated by administrators and classmates and eventually brutally beaten. The book opens with the words, "They murdered him."

The novel got great reviews when it was released, but because of its theme of nonconformity many attempts were made to ban the book. Parents said the swear words and content were inappropriate. Cormier spent much of his career defending The Chocolate War. The book was No. 5 on a list of the 50 most frequently banned books in the nation's public libraries and schools in the 1990s. Cormier said, "I think that a controversial book belongs in the classroom where it can be discussed, where a teacher can guide the students, where, in fact, a student can get up in class or write a paper saying that he or she doesn't like the book and objects to facets of it. That's the kind of freedom that we must preserve."

Cormier's other books include I Am the Cheese (1977) and After the First Death (1979). He died in 2000 at age 75. His final novel, The Rag and Bone Shop (2001), about the brutal murder of a young girl, takes its name from a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats—"I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Cormier said, "I think all readers, young and old, in any place or time, want to be told a story, the thousand variations of 'Once upon a time.' ... Styles change, slang changes, the music they love changes—but the emotions of childhood and adolescence never change."

It's the birthday of poet William Edgar Stafford, (books by this author) born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914, the same year as American poets Weldon Kees and Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).

Stafford received a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and, in 1954, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector. He refused to be inducted into the U. S. Army. From 1940-1944 he was interned as a pacifist in civilian public service camps in Arkansas and California where he fought fires and built roads. He wrote about the experience in the 94-page prose memoir Down In My Heart (1947), which opens with the question, "When are men dangerous?"

In 1948 Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark (1962), was published when Stafford was 48. It won the National Book Award for poetry in 1963. He said, "At the moment of writing... the poet does sometimes feel that he is accomplishing an exhilarating, a wonderful, a stupendous job; he glimpses at such times how it might be to overwhelm the universe by rightness, to do something peculiarly difficult to such a perfection that something like a revelation comes. For that instant, conceiving is knowing; the secret life in language reveals the very self of things."

Stafford usually wrote in the early morning. He sat down with a pen and paper, took a look out the window, and waited for something to occur to him. He wrote about simple things like farms and dead deer and winter. He wrote about the West and his parents and cottonwood trees. He wrote, "In the winter, in the dark hours, when others / were asleep, I found these words and put them / together by their appetites and respect for / each other. In stillness, they jostled. They traded / meanings while pretending to have only one."

Stafford served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1970, a post now designated "American Poet Laureate." He published more than 65 volumes of poetry and prose. He was a professor of English at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, until his retirement in 1990. He died on August 28, 1993 at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon. About his own works, Stafford once commented, "I have woven a parachute out of everything broken."

Born with a cleft palate,
My two-year-old brother,
Recovering from yet another surgery,
Toddled into our bedroom
Toppled a tower of blocks
That I had patiently built
And in a five-year-old's fury
I grabbed a fallen block
And winged it at him
Ripping open his carefully reconstructed lip.
The next hours were gruesomely compressed
Ending with a boy in a bed in the dark
Mute with fear
Staring out into the hallway with horror
As the pediatrician went in and out of the bathroom
With one vast blood-soaked towel after another
Shaking his head worriedly.
My brother's howls
And my parents' cooed comfort
Became the soundtrack to this milky movie
That plays
In my darkest theatre,
The one that I sidle past each night
With a shudder
And a throb in my fist

"A Boy in a Bed in the Dark" by Brad Sachs, from In the Desperate Kingdom of Love: Poems 2001-2004. © Chestnut Hills Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the physician and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget, born in London, England (1779). He was a working doctor for most of his life, but he was also a Renaissance man, a member of various scientific, literary and philosophical societies. In his spare time, he invented a slide rule for performing difficult mathematical calculations, and a method of water filtration that is still in use today. He wrote papers on a variety of topics, including the kaleidoscope and Dante, and he was one of the contributors to the early Encylopaedia Britannica.

He was 61 years old and had just retired from his medical practice, when he decided to devote his retirement to publishing a system of classifying words into groups based on their meanings. Other scholars had published books of synonyms before, but Roget wanted to assemble something more comprehensive. He said, "[The book will be] a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express."

He organized all the words into six categories: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Sentient and Moral Powers, and within each category there were many subcategories. The project took him more than 10 years, but he finally published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852. He chose the word "thesaurus" because it means "treasury" in Greek. 

Roget's Thesaurus might have been considered an intellectual curiosity, except that at the last minute Roget decided to include an index. That index, which helped readers find synonyms, made the book into one of the most popular reference books of all time. It is considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the English language, and it has been helping English students pad their vocabularies for more than 150 years.

It's the birthday of the humorist and children's book writer A. A. [Alan Alexander] Milne, (books by this author) born in London, England (1882). His parents ran a private school for boys, and while Milne was growing up, one of the teachers his parents hired was H. G. Wells, who encouraged him to be a writer.

Milne got into college on a scholarship for mathematics, but once there he spent all his time writing funny poems and essays for campus publications. When he graduated, he got a job at the famous Punch magazine, where he became one of the leading humorists of his day, writing essays about golf, croquet, parties, and cricket.

In 1917, he produced the play"Wurzel-Flummery." He went on to write more than 30 plays, all of them drawing-room comedies and all of them successful, but all quickly forgotten. So he turned to writing novels and specialized in detective stories, which were also successful and forgotten. He also published 19 volumes of essays, but though everything he wrote was entertaining, it was all forgettable. More than anything else, Milne wanted to write something that would stand the test of time.

One of Milne's friends had just started a new magazine for children, and asked him if he would contribute. He didn't have any interest in writing children's literature, even though his own son was three years old and just learning how to read. But during a holiday in Wales, he found himself trapped in the house during a rainstorm with nothing to do.

Milne said, "So there I was with an exercise-book and a pencil, and a fixed determination not to leave the heavenly solitude of that summer-house until it stopped raining ... and there on the other side of the lawn was a child with whom I had lived for three years ... and here within me unforgettable memories of my own childhood."  So he began writing a series of poems, most of them addressed to his son, Christopher Robin. The poems were collected in his book When We Were Very Young (1924), which was a huge success. 

Around the same time, his son had begun playing with a group of stuffed animals named Pooh Bear, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore in the Ashdown forest near their house. Milne loved the idea that his son played with fake animals in a real forest. In his books Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), he turned that forest into a magical place where there are no adults, but only Christopher Robin and his animal friends.

Since his death, Milne's more than 60 books for adults have almost all gone out of print, but his Winnie-the-Pooh books remain classics of children's literature. They have been translated into more than 20 languages, including Latin. 

A.A. Milne wrote, "Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

It's the birthday of the poet Jon Stallworthy, (books by this author) born in London (1935). His parents were New Zealanders who came to England for a temporary visit just before World War II and wound up staying for almost 30 years. Stallworthy grew up in England, but he always felt slightly out of place. He said, "I had an odd, exciting rather than disturbing, sense of not quite belonging in the middle-class world of my friends. My parents were New Zealanders, and their other world was always shimmering like a mirage at the edge of sight."

He went to a school where he was forced to memorize dozens of poems and to write new poems in the style of various authors. He said, "By the time I was thirteen … I had wrestled with Chaucerian couplets, Shakespearean sonnets, Housmanic quatrains, and knew that poetry was music and hard to write."

He went on to write many collections of poetry, including A Familiar Tree (1978) and The Guest from the Future (1995).

In the greenest of our valleys,
      By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace
      (Radiant palace) reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion
      It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
      Over fabric half so fair.

Banners yellow, glorious, golden
      On its roof did float and flow
(This, all this, was in the olden
      Time long ago);
And every gentle air that dallied
      In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
      A wingèd odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley
      Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
      To a lute’s well-tuned law;
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
      The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
      Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
      And sparkling evermore,
A troop of echoes, whose sweet duty
      Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
      The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
      Assailed the monarch’s high estate
(Ah! let us mourn, for never morrow
      Shall dawn upon him, desolate);
And round about his home the glory
      That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
       Of the old time entombed.

And travelers, now, within that valley,
       Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
       To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
       Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
       And laugh – but smile no more.

                        from The Fall of the House of Usher

"The Haunted Palace" by Edgar Allan Poe, Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Julian Barnes, (books by this author) born in Leicester, England (1946). Both of his parents were French teachers, and he grew up interested in language. One of the first jobs he took out of college was working as an editorial assistant for the Oxford English Dictionary. Since most of the other employees were women, he became the head of what he called "the sports and dirty words department."

He started writing and had published two novels when he happened to visit two museums devoted to the novelist Gustave Flaubert. At the first museum, Barnes was delighted to see the stuffed green parrot that Flaubert had kept on his writing desk while working on his story "A Simple Heart." Then, at the second museum, Barnes saw another stuffed parrot, which was supposedly the same parrot Flaubert kept on his desk. Barnes said, "The first parrot had made me feel in touch with the master. The second parrot mocked me with a satirical squawk." The experience gave him an idea for a short story about a man obsessed with Flaubert, and it grew into his novel Flaubert's Parrot (1984), which became his first big success.

He's known for novels that read more like philosophy, biography, or literary criticism, but he has also written a series of conventional detective novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, including Putting the Boot In (1985), and Going to the Dogs (1986). His most recent book is Arthur & George (2006).

It's the birthday of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith, (books by this author) born in Fort Worth, Texas (1921). She had a terrible childhood as an unwanted only child. Her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, and when she was born anyway, her father abandoned the family.

She started thinking about writing novels in her teens, after she read a book of case histories about criminals. She said, "I can't think of anything more apt to set the imagination stirring, drifting, creating, than the idea — the fact — that anyone you walk past on the pavement anywhere may be a sadist, a compulsive thief, or even a murderer." 

As a young woman, she was working in the toy department of Bloomingdale's when she saw a tall blonde woman and fell completely in love. The woman bought something for her daughter and left her address for delivery. Highsmith kept the address, and two years later, she took a train to the woman's house and stood outside for several hours. She said, "[I felt] quite odd — like a murderer in a novel."

Highsmith never met that woman, but she never forgot the experience, and went on to write a series of novels in which characters are constantly stalking, spying, peeking through windows, and eventually attempting to kill each other. She made a name for herself when her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a movie. Around the same time, she moved to Europe, where she came to be regarded as one of the best American novelists of her generation, compared by European critics to Kafka and Dostoyevsky.

But her books didn't do well in the United States, because they were not traditional thrillers or mysteries. Instead of writing about murderers who get caught, she wrote from the point of view of murderers who get away with the crime. American critics thought her work was too dark, and by the time of her death, most of her books were out of print in this country. Then her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was made into a movie 40 years after it was published, which sparked interest in her work. Today all of her books have come back into print, and her recent Selected Stories was a best-seller when it came out in 2001.

It's the birthday of the poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe, (books by this author) born in Boston (1809). He was the son of two actors, but both his parents died of tuberculosis when he was just a boy. He was taken in by a wealthy Scotch merchant named John Allan, who gave Edgar Poe his middle name. His foster father sent him to the prestigious University of Virginia, where he was surrounded by the sons of wealthy slave-owning families. He developed a habit of drinking and gambling with the other students, but his foster father didn't approve. He and John Allen had a series of arguments about his behavior and his career choices and he was finally disowned and thrown out of the house.

He spent the next several years living in poverty, depending on his aunt for a home, supporting himself by writing anything he could, including a how-to guide for seashell collecting. Eventually, he began to contribute poems and journalism to magazines. At the time, magazines were a new literary medium in the United States, and Poe was one of the first writers to make a living writing for magazines. He called himself a "magazinist."

He first made his name writing some of the most brutal book reviews ever published at the time. He was called the "tomahawk man from the South." He described one poem as "an illimitable gilded swill trough," and he said, "[Most] of those who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops." He particularly disliked the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Poe also began to publish fiction, and he specialized in humorous and satirical stories because that was the style of fiction most in demand. But soon after he married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia, he learned that she had tuberculosis, just like his parents, and he began to write darker stories, about husbands preserving the teeth of their dead wives and people buried alive. One of his editors complained that his work was growing too grotesque, but Poe replied that the grotesque would sell magazines. And he was right. His work helped launch magazines as the major new venue for literary fiction. 

But even though his stories sold magazines, he still didn't make much money. He made about $4 per article and $15 per story, and the magazines were notoriously late with their paychecks. There was no international copyright law at the time, and so his stories were printed without his permission throughout Europe. There were periods when he and his wife lived on bread and molasses, and sold most of their belongings to the pawnshop. 

It was under these conditions, suffering from alcoholism, and watching his wife grow slowly worse in health, that he wrote some of the greatest Gothic horror stories in English literature. Poe's best-known short story is "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), about a man who kills his employer and then believes he can still hear the employer's heart beating. It begins, "TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."

Near the end of his wife's illness, he published his most famous poem, "The Raven," about a young man visited by a raven in the middle of the night, and who comes to believe that the bird is possessed by the spirit of his dead lover, Lenore. It begins,

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —"

For many years after his death, Poe was considered by critics in this country to be a mere sensationalist writer of Gothic tales. But much of his work was translated into French, where he inspired a generation of surrealist poets and fiction writers, including Charles Baudelaire, who said that he prayed every morning to God, to his father, and to Poe. Today Poe is credited with having invented the psychological horror story and the detective story. 

Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
   In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”
They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
   In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.

They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
   To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
“O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
   In a Sieve to sail so fast!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.

The water it soon came in, it did,
   That water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
   And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, “How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.

And all night long they sailed away;
   And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
   In the shade of the mountains brown.
   “O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar;
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
   In the shade of the mountains brown!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
   To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
   And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
   And no end of Stilton Cheese
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve.

And in twenty years they all came back,
   In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve, ~
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
      Far and few, far and few,
         Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
      Their heads are green and their hands are blue,
         And they went to sea in a Sieve

"The Jumblies" by Edward Lear, Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Edward Hirsch, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1950). He's written several collections of poetry, including Wild Gratitude (1986), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other books include On Love (1998), Earthly Measures (1994), and For the Sleepwalkers (1981).

Edward Hirsch said, "Books are our only beacons, our imaginative guides through the labyrinths of human experience."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Robert Olen Butler, (books by this author) born in Granite City, Illinois (1945). He won the Pulitzer Prize in short fiction in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992).

Butler worked as a cab driver, an editor, in a steel-mill, and as a teacher in both high school and college. He started off at Northwestern University as a theater major, but before graduating he turned to playwriting, deciding he would "rather write the words than mouth them." He began writing on his 21st birthday. He said, "For a time I had been thinking of writing, and I thought, well if I'm going to write, I'd better do something." He received his M.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. He signed up to serve in the Vietnam War and was assigned to army intelligence, and he spent a year learning Vietnamese.  

Butler was sent overseas in 1971, but was not sent to a combat zone. He lived in an old French hotel, and he would frequently go out in the middle of the night to talk to the locals in the alleys and doorways of Saigon. He also wrote a play while he was there.

He returned to the U.S. in 1972 and worked as an editor and reporter in New York City. He wrote his first novels using a lapboard, while traveling to and from work on the Long Island Railroad.  

Butler's first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was published in 1981 after 21 publishers had turned it down. It was the first book in what would become a Vietnam trilogy. The novel received very good reviews, but it sold only a few thousand copies. He wrote six novels before winning the Pulitzer Prize, but it was only after the award that he achieved any commercial success from his writing.

Butler says, "I didn't sell much for a long time. And before I sold that first novel, I wrote five ghastly novels, about forty dreadful short stories, and twelve truly awful full-length plays, all of which have never seen the light of day and never will."

Butler went on to write another collection of short stories called Tabloid Dreams (1997), in which all the stories are based on actual headlines he had seen in grocery store tabloid newspapers.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Federico Fellini, born in Rimini, Italy (1920). Fellini was a perfectionist who oversaw all the details of a film's production. He wrote all of his scripts, with help from dialogue writers, and was even involved in the final editing of his films. He said he approached making movies the way Marco Polo sailed for the Orient — not really knowing what may happen along the journey or where the end may lie.

Fellini spent his early childhood at a strict boarding school run by priests. One of the regular punishments was to make a student kneel for half an hour on grains of maize. As a treat on Sundays they marched to the beach, where they would say prayers while kneeling and looking at the sea. The only thing he seemed to be any good at while in school was drawing, and he and his friends would frequently miss their classes.

When he was 12, he ran away and joined a traveling circus, but the police eventually found him and brought him back. At 17, he moved to Florence, and later to Rome, and he went on to support himself as an actor, a newspaper cartoonist, and a radio scriptwriter. He wrote for a serial program about Cico and Pallina, the Italian version of "Blondie and Dagwood."

Fellini had to move frequently when he first left school because he would often have romantic affairs with his landladies, and he'd have to move when they ended. Fellini went on to have what he called "the most important year of his life" in 1939, when he traveled with his friend, the comedian Aldo Fabrizi, all across Italy with a vaudeville troupe.

Fellini earned a reputation as a good sketch writer, scenery painter, bit player, and "company poet." It was during this trip that Fellini saw his country and experienced the variety of what he called its "human landscape." He said, "A different language is a different vision of life."

When Fabrizi was offered the lead role in a film comedy, Fellini provided the film's storyline, beginning his film career. He went on to marry Giulietta Masina, an actress, after a four-month courtship that began when he became intrigued by her voice. She had taken over as the voice of Pallina. She went on to star in several of his films. She said of her husband, "The only time Federico blushes is when he tells the truth." 

One of his best-known films is La Dolce Vita (1960). In 1993, he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He had a massive heart attack later that year and he died soon afterward of heart and lung failure.

He said, "All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

It's the birthday of Austrian-born wildlife conservationist and writer Joy Adamson, (books by this author) born in what is now Opava, Czechoslovakia (1910). She's best known as the author of Born Free (1960), the first in a series of books about lions. 

She said, "Since we humans have the better brain, isn't it our responsibility to protect our fellow creatures from, oddly enough, ourselves?"



  • “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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