That she was glad to sit down.
That her legs hurt in spite of the medicine.
That times were bad.
That her husband had died nearly thirty years before.
That the war had changed things.
That the new priest looked like a schoolboy and you could barely
        hear him in church.
That pigs were better company, generally speaking, than goats.
That no one could fool her.
That both her sons had married stupid women.
That her son-in-law drove a truck.
That he had once delivered something to the President's palace.
That his flat was on the seventh floor and that it made her dizzy to
        think of it.
That he brought her presents from the black market.
That an alarm clock was of no use to her.
That she could no longer walk to town and back.
That all her friends were dead.
That I should be careful about mushrooms.
That ghosts never came to a house where a sprig of rosemary had
        been hung.
That the cinema was a ridiculous invention.
That the modern dances were no good.
That her husband had a beautiful singing voice, until drink
        ruined it.
That the war had changed things.
That she had seen on a map where the war had been fought.
That Hitler was definitely in Hell right now.
That children were cheekier than ever.
That it was going to be a cold winter, you could tell from the height
        of the birds' nests.
That even salt was expensive these days.
That she had had a long life and was not afraid of dying.
That times were very bad.

"What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me" by Christopher Reid, from Katerina Brac. © Faber &Faber. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. In 1872, Georges Bizet wrote to a friend, "I am asked to write three acts for the Opéra-Comique...It will be bright, but of a brightness that allows style."

When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. It's set in an exotic Spain among gypsies and bullfighters. One element that surprised audiences was that the heroine smokes on stage, something considered less than proper then. Carmen's debut was not a failure, although some history books have portrayed it that way. The opera ran for 37 performances even though it came out late in the season, and it came back the next season, too.

Nietzsche heard Carmen 20 different times, and thought of it as a musical masterpiece. Tchaikovsky first heard Carmen in 1880. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals. Carmen is still the most popular French opera of the 19th century.

It's the birthday of the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). The telephone's invention was actually an accident that came about when Bell was trying to perfect the telegraph.

Alexander Graham Bell said, "When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

It's the birthday of English poet and novelist Edward Thomas, (books by this author) born in London (1878). He's best known for using natural word choices and colloquial speech rhythms in metric verse, a style he worked on with Robert Frost. The two poets became friends in 1913, while Frost was in England.

Thomas had written a positive review of Frost's first poetry collection, and Frost encouraged Thomas to write his own poetry. Frost described Thomas as "the only brother I ever had." It took him a while before he followed Frost's advice, but Thomas started writing poetry in December of 1914.

Edward Thomas wrote mostly about nature and solitude even though many of his contemporaries and their writing were preoccupied with World War I. One critic said Edward Thomas's poetry was "the last body of work to seek to define a rural concept of beauty that was finally invalidated by the First World War." Thomas enlisted in July of 1915, and he was sent to fight in 1917. He was killed in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, just 28 months after he started writing. He had written 143 poems.

Edward Thomas wrote, "There is not any book / Or face of dearest look / That I would not turn from now / To go into the unknown / I must enter, and leave, alone, / I know not how."

It's the birthday of British philosopher and novelist William Godwin, (books by this author) born in Cambridgeshire (1756). He started off as a minister but started writing when his extreme beliefs made him fall out of favor with his congregation. He'd eventually become an atheist. His most important book was Political Justice (1793), but this was only one of the defining pieces of his literary career. He's best known as the father of Mary Godwin, who would go on to marry and become Mary Shelley and write Frankenstein.

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records on ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen's point or brush's tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger's to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the 'Slender Gold.' A nervous man
Writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

"Writing" by Howard Nemerov from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press, 1981. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is March 4, the original date for the inauguration of presidents in the United States. And so, on this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. Lincoln easily won his re-election in 1864, and by the time of his inauguration the Civil War was nearly at an end.

The day of the inauguration, Pennsylvania Avenue was little more than mud and standing water, due to weeks of wet weather. Still, the turnout was unprecedented. Trains carrying spectators arrived to the sound of bands playing "The Battle Cry of Freedom." The inaugural ceremonies included a battalion of African-American troops in the escort party, accompanying Lincoln to his address. Lincoln took the executive oath on the East Portico, with the newly completed Capitol dome in clear view. In his brief address, Lincoln talked about reconciliation between the Union and the ailing Confederacy.

The address, just four paragraphs and 26 lines, concludes: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

One of the spectators in the crowd was an actor named John Wilkes Booth. Six weeks later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln.

It was on this day in 1837 that Chicago was incorporated as a city, with a population of 4,170.

It's the birthday of the English novelist Alan Sillitoe, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1928). He wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), about a young man working at a factory.

It's the birthday of the crime novelist James Ellroy, (books by this author) born Lee Earle Ellroy in Los Angeles (1948).

All night snow came upon us
with unwavering intent—
small flakes not meandering
but driving thickly down. We woke
to see the yard, the car and road
heaped unrecognizably.

The neighbors' ewes are lambing
in this stormy weather. Three
lambs born yesterday, three more
Felix the ram looked
proprietary in his separate pen
while fatherhood accrued to him.
The panting ewes regarded me
with yellow-green, small-
pupiled eyes.

I have a friend who is pregnant—
plans gone awry—and not altogether
pleased. I don't say she should
be pleased. We are creation's
property, its particles, its clay
as we fall into this life,
agree or disagree.

"Winter Lambs" by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise. © Graywolf Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It was on this day in 1933 that the Nazi Party won 44 percent of the vote in German parliamentary elections, enabling it to join with the Nationalists to gain a slight majority in the Reichstag.

Hitler had become chairman of the Nazi Party in 1921, and two years later he tried to topple the German republican government in the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. Nazi storm troopers surrounded government officials during a meeting at a beer hall in Munich. The troopers forced the officials to swear allegiance to the Nazi revolution. But the coup was defeated and Hitler fled, then he was captured and imprisoned. While in prison, Hitler dictated his autobiography Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to a sympathetic scribe, and the book became important to Nazism.

The failed coup made Hitler famous, and the Nazi Party capitalized on the economic depression of 1929, as well as the heavy reparations Germany was made to pay for World War I, and they became a powerful force in Germany. In 1932, Hitler ran for president of Germany, but lost. The next year, he became the chancellor. Just before the parliamentary elections in 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire, which led to the Reichstag Fire Decree, which rescinded habeas corpus and other protective laws. The following week, March 5, 1933, the Nazi Party won a slight majority in the elections. Within three weeks, the Nazi-dominated Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers and ended the Weimar Republic in Germany.

It's the birthday of the novelist Frank Norris, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1870). Norris's father was a self-made man, a wealthy jeweler, and Norris grew up in luxurious homes in Chicago and then San Francisco. His mother read poetry to him, especially Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

At 17, Norris went to Paris to study drawing, even though he had very little talent himself. He found his talent as a writer when he became obsessed with Arthurian legends. Norris began writing long, narrative poems about medieval knights, and he forgot about visual art altogether. Then, at his father's urging, Frank Norris began attending the University of California. His father wanted Norris to take over the family jewelry business, but Norris was a poor student. He took only those courses that interested him, and he spent much of his time partying with his fraternity. He spent four years at the university, without graduating.

Then, Norris moved to Boston and enrolled at Harvard as a special student. Norris had been imitating the writing of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but a teacher at Harvard introduced him to the writing of Émile Zola, a naturalist. Norris was impressed, and he began to write fiction from a naturalist perspective, which painted humans as irrational, instinctual animals.

Norris's most famous and important novel is McTeague (1899), about a man who kills his wife for money and flees to Death Valley.

It's the birthday of Josephine Herbst, (books by this author) born in Sioux City, Iowa (1892). She is known for her novels Money for Love (1929) and The Executioner Waits (1934), and for her journalism that described life in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Herbst wrote articles on the Spanish Civil War and Cuba, but she wanted most to learn about Nazi Germany and the underground culture that was opposed to Hitler. She was assigned by the New York Post to travel to Germany, undercover, and learn all that she could. Herbst spent a month in Nazi Germany in 1935, and she was one of the first American reporters to warn about the meaning of the rise of Adolf Hitler.

It's the birthday of Leslie Marmon Silko, (books by this author) born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and is best known for her novels Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1992). Her books are about the increasing disappearance of Native American cultures.

I am an old man sitting on a sagging dock,
fishing in the rain, with not a fish in miles:
it is a perfect night for fishing.

Droplets run down my glasses, blurring my vision,
but there's nothing to see beyond the circle of light
from the dock, anyway.

I know they're out there, lurking in the weeds,
hiding in shadows, waiting until hunger brings them out,
forcing them to react without thinking, making them
bite against their will.

Like them, I feel the gnaw of hunger working. Like them
I try to hold off, stay put, keep from being like all the rest.
But time wins out, wears down the will,
and I reach inside my coat for a ham and cheese on rye.

"Ham and Cheese on Rye" by Gary Busha from Lines on Lake Winnebago. © Marsh River Editions, 2002. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, (books by this author) born near Durham, England (1806). She was the first to write and publish love poems in English from a woman's point of view. Many of her love poems were sonnets for or about her husband, the poet Robert Browning, whom she met after he sent her a telegram that praised her writing. She married him in 1846 in secret, when she was 40 years old. She ran away with him to Florence, Italy, because her father had forbidden her to marry.

It's the birthday of sculptor, painter, architect, and poet Michelangelo, born in Caprese, Italy (1475). During his lifetime he created some of the most important artistic work ever made, including the Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (1499) and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). He also wrote around 300 poems, as well as many letters. Most of the poems are love poems. He started writing poetry when he was young, but he wrote his best poems in the last 20 years of his life.

In 1505, Michelangelo was commissioned to build a huge marble monument for Pope Julius II's tomb, and he worked on this piece for 40 years. Pope Julius kept interrupting him to make changes and to give him other jobs, and the monument was never actually completed. Only fragments of it survive today.

One of the jobs that the pope gave Michelangelo that interrupted his work on the monument was the painting of frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It took him three and a half years to finish.

It's the birthday of humorist and fiction writer Ring Lardner, (books by this author) born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, in Niles, Michigan (1885). He was famous for his sports writing and the way he captured the way baseball players spoke in his writing.

When games were boring, Lardner would fill his articles with jokes and stories about the personal lives of players. He wrote for several Chicago newspapers, covering the Cubs and the White Sox. He wrote more than 4,500 articles and columns for newspapers throughout his life, as well as several other longer works of fiction. His first book was called You Know Me, Al (1916), about a made-up baseball player named Jack Keefe. It was supposedly a collection of letters Keefe had written.

One of Ring Lardner's good friends and drinking buddies was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald encouraged Lardner to publish a collection of short stories, and he did with the book How to Write Short Stories (1924). Lardner wrote a lot of satire, and he once wrote of Fitzgerald, "Mr. Fitzgerald sprung into fame with his novel This Side of Paradise which he turned out when only three years old and wrote the entire book with one hand. Mr. Fitzgerald never shaves while at work on his novels and looks very funny along towards the last five or six chapters." Some of Lardner's other fans included Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and Virginia Woolf.

Ring Lardner said, "Where do they get that stuff about me being a satirist? I just listen."

It is the birthday of novelist Gabriel García Márquez, (books by this author) born in Aracataca, Colombia (1927). He's best known as the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in literature, and for his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). He's also known as the main figure in writing known as "magical realism," which combines storytelling with elements of the supernatural.

García Márquez lived with his grandparents until he was eight years old. He was a shy boy, and his nickname in school was "the Old Man." He never liked playing sports and started telling stories from a young age. He said, "My earliest recollection is of drawing 'comics,' and I realize now that this may have been because I couldn't yet write. I've always tried to find ways of telling stories and I've stuck to literature as the most accessible."

García Márquez started writing for the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador, and he was eventually sent to Europe as a foreign correspondent. The government shut down the paper while he was in Paris, and this left him without any way of making money. He said, "For three years I lived by daily miracles. This produced tremendous bitterness in me. ... But if I hadn't lived those years I probably wouldn't be a writer.

One day in January of 1965, the complete first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude came to him suddenly while he was driving his car from Mexico City to Acapulco. He came home that night and told his wife not to bother him and locked himself in a room for eight to 10 hours a day for the next 18 months and wrote the novel. The original manuscript was 1,200 pages long, and García Márquez pawned their heater and his wife's hair dryer to pay for the postage to send the novel out to publishers.

Vex me, O Night, your stars stuttering like a stuck jukebox,
put a spell on me, my bones atremble at your tabernacle

of rhythm and blues. Call out your archers, chain me
to a wall, let the stone fortress of my body fall

like a rabid fox before an army of dogs. Rebuke me,
rip out my larynx like a lazy snake and feed it to the voiceless

throng. For I am midnight's girl, scouring unlit streets
like Persephone stalking her swarthy lord. Anoint me

with oil, make me greasy as a fast-food fry. Deliver me
like a pizza to the snapping crack-house hours between

one and four. Build me an ark, fill it with prairie moths,
split-winged fritillaries, blue-bottle flies. Stitch

me a gown of taffeta and quinine, starlight and nightsoil,
and when the clock tocks two, I'll be the belle of the malaria ball.

"Vex Me" by Barbara Hamby from Babel. ©University of Pittsburg Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist William Boyd, (books by this author) born in Accra, Ghana (1952). He's the author of many novels, including A Good Man in Africa (1981), The Blue Afternoon (1995), and Restless (2006).

It's the birthday of novelist Bret Easton Ellis, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1964). He grew up in California, but he went to college in Vermont, as far away from California as possible. And it was there, at Bennington College, that he took a creative writing class with true crime writer Joe McGinnis and wrote a series of stories about substance abuse and the sex lives of California teenagers.

McGinnis loved the stories and showed them to his agent, and the result was Ellis's first book, Less Than Zero (1985), which came out when he was only 21. The book became a best seller, and Ellis went on to write many more novels, including American Psycho (1991) and Glamorama (2000).

It's the birthday of fiction and nature writer Rick Bass, (books by this author) born in Fort Worth, Texas (1958). He studied geology in college and started working for an oil company in Mississippi, prospecting for oil. He wrote a book about his experiences called Oil Notes (1988).

Bass and his girlfriend eventually decided that they wanted to get away from civilization, so he quit his job and they packed all their possessions into a pickup truck and drove to Montana. He said, "[We were looking for] a place of ultimate wildness, with the first yardstick of privacy: a place where you could walk around naked if you wanted to."

They wound up in the Yaak Valley, and he published a memoir of his first winter there called Winter: Notes from Montana (1991). He wrote, "I can picture getting so addicted to this valley, so dependent on it for my peace, that I become hostage to it."

He's gone on to write many books of fiction and nonfiction.

On this day in 1923, Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" was published in The New Republic magazine (books by this author). It was Frost's favorite of his own poems, and he called it "my best bid for remembrance." He's remembered for many of his poems today, but that one is his best known and one of the most popular poems in American literature.

Though it's a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before, he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called "New Hampshire" (1923). He finally finished it and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He'd never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he'd finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.

While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, "It was as if I'd had a hallucination."

He later said that he would have liked to print the poem on one page followed by "forty pages of footnotes." He once said the first two lines of the poem, "Whose woods these are, I think I know, / his house is in the village though," contained everything he ever knew about how to write.

It was on this day in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964: "Oh Pretty Woman."

The Roy Orbison version of the song is about a man watching a pretty woman walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version is about the subsequent relationship with that woman, who becomes a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman, and a two-timing woman. The music publishing company Acuff-Rose, which holds the copyright for the Roy Orbison song, sued 2 Live Crew for copyright violation.

Among those who sent "friend of the court" briefs in support of 2 Live Crew were Mad magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, and the Comedy Central TV channel. Among those who argued against 2 Live Crew were Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of 2 Live Crew.

Justice David H. Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work and, in the process, creating a new one."

             for my son

Last night I walked him back and forth,
his small head heavy against my chest,
round eyes watching me in the dark,
his body a sandbag in my arms.
I longed for sleep but couldn't bear his crying
so bore him back and forth until the sun rose
and he slept. Now the doors are open,
noon sunlight coming in,
and I can see fuchsias opening.
Now we bathe. I hold him, the soap
makes our skins glide past each other.
I lay him wet on my thighs, his head on my knees,
his feet dancing against my chest,
and I rinse him, pouring water
from my cupped hand.
No matter how I feel, he's the same,
eyes expectant, mouth ready,
with his fat legs and arms,
his belly, his small solid back.
Last night I wanted nothing more
than to get him out of my arms.
Today he fits neatly
along the hollow my thighs make,
and with his fragrant skin against mine
I feel brash, like a sunflower.

"Day Bath" by Debra Spencer from Pomegranate. © Hummingbird Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1917). He's best known for his book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). He believed that the great theme of American literature was the search for identity. He said, "Americans have no real identity. We're all ... uprooted people who come from elsewhere."

Fiedler spent most of his life struggling with his own identity. His father was a pharmacist and an atheist. Fiedler went to Hebrew school behind his father's back, but he said, "I stubbornly resisted learning Hebrew — spending most of my lesson time haranguing the rabbi ... trying to explain to him why all religions were the opium of the people. To all of this he would retort only that I read Hebrew like a Cossack, which was, alas, true."

During his teens, he wanted to be a Marxist revolutionary, but he eventually lost his idealism. During World War II, he served as an interrogator of Japanese prisoners of War, and before the war was over, he felt closer to many of the Japanese prisoners than he was to most of his fellow soldiers.

When he got back to the states, he studied literature and began writing fiction. His stories were usually rejected by magazines, but the editors started asking him to write book reviews, and that's how he became a critic. He made a name for himself in the academic world when he wrote the hugely controversial 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" in which he argued that Huckleberry Finn and Jim the slave were in love with each other. Fiedler was one of the first American critics to argue in favor of popular culture. He loved comic books and horror movies and soap operas, and he once said that the only writer of the late 20th century who would be remembered was Stephen King.

Though he made his living for most of his life as a professor of literature, he said, "I never had any interest, really, in being a teacher. ... It's a mistake to teach literature at all, I think: the student doesn't have a sense of discovery about it. You have to teach it as if you weren't teaching it."

He died in 2003. His last book was Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology & Myth (1996).

It's the birthday of essayist and children's author Kenneth Grahame, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859), known today for his book The Wind in the Willows (1908), which began as a series of stories he told to his young son.

Grahame had a difficult life. His mother died when he was five years old, and he was passed around among relatives in England. He wanted to go to college, but his uncle refused to pay for it, so he got a job as a clerk at a bank. He began writing essays and stories on the side, and in 1895, he published two books of stories about children: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which were very popular in England and the United States.

But when he wrote The Wind in the Willows, many publishers turned it down because the idea of talking animals was too fantastic. At the time, Victorian educators believed that children should be discouraged as soon as possible from pretending and daydreaming, that letting children believe in fairy tales and myths was detrimental to their development. Grahame believed the opposite.

It was finally Teddy Roosevelt, a huge fan of Grahame's early work, who convinced a publisher to take on The Wind in the Willows. It became such a success that Grahame was able to retire from the Bank of England and move to the country. He lived for another 25 years, but he never wrote another book.

The Wind in the Willows still sells about 80,000 copies a year.

It's the birthday of writer John McPhee, (books by this author) born in Princeton, New Jersey (1931), and considered one of the greatest living literary journalists. He is known for the huge range of his subjects. He has written about canoes, geology, tennis, nuclear energy, and the Swiss army. He once researched his own family tree and traced it back to a Scotsman who moved to Ohio to become a coalminer.

As a high school student, McPhee played a lot of sports, especially basketball. His English teacher required her students to write three compositions a week, each accompanied by a detailed outline, and many of which the students had to read out loud to the class. Since then, McPhee has carefully outlined all his written work, and he has read out loud to his wife every sentence he writes before it is published.

In college, McPhee was a regular contestant on a weekly radio and television program called "Twenty Questions," which he believes taught him to gather facts and guess at their hidden meanings. His goal as a young writer was to write for The New Yorker, but it took 14 years of being rejected before he published his first article there. During those years, he said, "I tried everything, sometimes with hilarious results. I think that young writers have to roll around like oranges on a conveyor belt. They have to try it all."

In 1962, he got a phone call from his father about an amazing new college basketball player at Princeton. McPhee went to see him play and decided to write a profile of the young man, whose name was Bill Bradley. The profile was published in The New Yorker, which invited McPhee to be a staff writer, and the profile became McPhee's first book: A Sense of Where You Are (1965). He went on to become one of the foremost journalists for The New Yorker. His name in the table of contents would actually increase the sales of that issue of the magazine. Then, in the early 1980s, he decided to write a geological history of the United States, based on the roadcuts carved out for Interstate 80. William Shawn wasn't sure readers would be interested in that particular subject, but McPhee didn't care. He spent almost 20 years writing about geology, and in 1999, he won his first Pulitzer Prize for his book Annals of the Former World (1998).

McPhee has published more than 25 books, even though he rarely writes more than 500 words a day. He once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more, but it didn't work. He said, "People say to me, 'Oh, you're so prolific.' God, it doesn't feel like it — nothing like it. But you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart."

When asked what he writes about, McPhee said, "I'm describing people engaged in their thing, their activity, whatever it is."

It's what makes the pancake hold still
while you slip the spatula under it
so fast it doesn't move, my father said
standing by the stove.

All motion stopped when he died.
With his last breath the earth
lurched to a halt and hung still on its axis,
the atoms in the air
coming to rest within their molecules,
and in that moment
something slid beneath me
so fast I couldn't move.

"Moment of Inertia" by Debra Spencer from Pomegranate. © Hummingbird Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, (books by this author) to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter in 1907. She wrote, "I have wasted all my time trying to begin things and taking up different points of view, and dropping them, and grinding out the dullest stuff, which makes my blood run thick."

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, and then she had to work on correcting the proofs. She found the experience of re-reading her own work in print almost unbearable. She had a nervous breakdown, and spent two years recovering. The experience helped persuade her and her husband to start their own publishing house so she wouldn't have to go through the agony of submitting her work to others.

The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915, but it didn't sell well. It took 15 years to sell 2,000 copies. Critics don't consider it a great work, but among the novel's cast of characters is a woman named Clarissa Dalloway, a character who would stick in Virginia Woolf's mind for more than a decade until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).

It's the birthday of crime novelist Mickey Spillane, (books by this author) the pen name of Frank Morrison, born in Brooklyn, New York (1918). He spent his childhood defending himself as the only Irish boy in a tough Polish neighborhood. His father worked in a hardware store, and it was there that Spillane saw a typewriter for the first time. He later said, "I would type on it. ... I loved the sound it made ... [and] I knew I was going to be a writer."

As a high school student, he wrote for a local newspaper, and he covered bootlegging scams and other criminal activity. He would make carbon copies of the newspaper stories and turn one copy in as a writing assignment for school and get paid for the other. In 1940, he got a job as a scripter of comic books for Funnies, Inc. Other writers required a week to produce a Captain Marvel story while Spillane could write one in a day.

After he served in World War II as a fighter pilot, Spillane bought some land in the Catskill Mountains, where he lived in a tent while building his own house. He kept a typewriter on a wobbly table in that tent, and he wrote at night by the light of a Coleman lamp. It was there that he wrote his first novel, I, the Jury (1947), which introduced his famous detective Mike Hammer. It begins, "I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me."

I, the Jury got terrible reviews when it came out in hardcover. The critic for the New York Herald Tribune called Spillane, "An inept vulgarian." The hardcover only sold 7,000 copies. But when the paperback came out, with one of the most sexually explicit covers ever printed on a book at that time, it sold a quarter of a million copies in one week, and it went on to sell about 9 million.

Spillane published six more books in two years, all best sellers, including My Gun Is Quick (1950), The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). He was known for including far more graphic sex and violence in his books than any other writer at the time. His work helped spark the pulp fiction craze of the 1950s, and he was one of the targets for a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.

Spillane never got as much respect as other detective novelists like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but he sold many more books than they did. Six of his books are now among the 25 top-selling novels of the 20th century. It's estimated that there are about 130 million copies of his books in print.

Spillane was once asked why detective Mike Hammer is always depicted drinking beer. He said, "Mike Hammer drinks beer, not cognac, because I can't spell cognac."

And, "If you're a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. [But] a writer gets more knowledge, and if he's good, the older he gets, the better he writes."

It's the birthday of Vita Sackville-West, (books by this author) born at Knole, her family's castle in Kent, England (1892). She grew up in an incredibly wealthy family, but she never got along with her mother, who was the illegitimate daughter of a famous Spanish dancer. Sackville-West said, "I used to be taken to [mother's] room to be 'passed' before going down to luncheon on party days ... and I was always wrong and miserable, so that parties used to blacken my summer."

Sackville-West spent most of her childhood wandering around her family's huge house, which had 52 staircases and 365 rooms. She began to write, and by the time she was 18, she had written eight novels and five plays.

She married for convenience and she said, "[I became] the correct and adoring wife of the brilliant young diplomat." But it turned out that both she and her husband were homosexual, so while they remained married good friends for the rest of their lives, they each had many affairs.

Around 1918, Sackville-West began going out in public dressed as a man. The first time she ever put on men's pants she said, "I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over the gates. I felt like a schoolboy." She went on to have several affairs with women, most famously with Virginia Woolf. She inspired Woolf's novel Orlando, about a character who lives for centuries as both a man and a woman. It was Woolf who published Sackville-West's novel The Edwardians (1930), which became a big best seller.

She went on to write many more novels, as well as plays, poetry, and biographies, but she's also remembered as one of the great gardening writers of all time. In the 1930s, she and her husband spent years restoring a castle estate called Sissinghurst that had fallen to ruin. Sackville-West grew to love the country, spent much of her time working on the garden, and she began contributing a weekly gardening column to the London Observer. She kept it up almost 15 years. At the time, gardening was considered a masculine hobby, and most members of the British upper class employed gardeners to do all the actual work. But Vita Sackville-West wrote about the joys of digging around in the dirt, pulling weeds, and arranging the flowers herself. She persuaded many people to start their own gardens, and she helped start many gardening trends, including single-color gardens, the incorporation of wildflowers, and the planting of climbing roses at the base of apple trees.

Vita Sackville-West thought of her gardening column as insignificant compared to the rest of her writing until, in 1954, she was awarded a medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. She wrote of the award to her husband: "I was rather pleased but even more astonished. It is all due to those beastly little Observer articles... Haven't I always said that one got rewarded for the things that one least esteemed?"

Vita Sackville-West said, "I suppose the pleasure of country life lies really in the eternally renewed evidences of the determination to live."



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