Aug. 22, 2007


by Louis Jenkins

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Poem:"Earl" by Louis Jenkins, from North of the Cities. © Will o' the Wisp Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


In Sitka, because they are fond of them,
People have named the seals. Every seal
is named Earl because they are killed one
after another by the orca, the killer
whale; seal bodies tossed left and right
into the air. "At least he didn't get
Earl," someone says. And sure enough,
after a time, that same friendly,
bewhiskered face bobs to the surface.
It's Earl again. Well, how else are you
to live except by denial, by some
palatable fiction, some little song to
sing while the inevitable, the black and
white blindsiding fact, comes hurtling
toward you out of the deep?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (books by this author), born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). When he was 12 years old, a traveling carnival came to town, and Bradbury met a magician named Mr. Electrico, who talked to him about reincarnation and immortality, and those ideas excited Bradbury so much that he withdrew from his friends and devoted himself to his imagination. He said, "I don't know if I believe in previous lives, I'm not sure I can live forever. But that young boy believed in both, and I have let him have his [way]. He has written all my stories and books for me."

One night, Bradbury was out for a walk when a policeman pulled up on the side of the road to ask what he was doing. He said, "I was so irritated the police would bother to ask me what I was doing — when I wasn't doing anything — that I went home and wrote [a] story." That story became a novella called "The Fireman" and eventually grew into his first and best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), about a man named Guy Montag who lives in a future world in which books are outlawed and burned wherever they're found. Montag is one of the firemen whose job it is to burn the books. One night he takes a book home that he was supposed to destroy and reads it. The act of reading persuades him to join an underground revolutionary group that is keeping literature alive.

Ray Bradbury said, "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it."

It's the birthday of cartoonist George Herriman (books by this author), born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1880). He became a cartoonist after he fell off a scaffold and couldn't paint houses for a living anymore. The basic plot of his Krazy Kat and Ignatz strip was simple: a love story — Krazy Kat loved Ignatz Mouse, but Ignatz just threw bricks at him. Offissa Pupp loved Krazy and tried to protect him and throw Ignatz in jail. The strip appeared in the papers of William Randolph Hearst for more than 30 years and became a classic. Herriman was a big influence on animators such as Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, and Art Spiegelman, and intellectuals like E.E. Cummings loved his work. The author Michael Chabon said, "One could argue the claim, confidently, persuasively ... that George Herriman was one of the very great artists, in any medium, of the 20th century."

It's the birthday of Annie Proulx (books by this author), born Edna Annie Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut (1935). She was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, when she burst onto the literary scene, publishing her first novels, Postcards (1992) and The Shipping News (1993), in her late 50s. She said she doesn't regret becoming a writer later than most people because, she said, she knows a lot more about life than she did 30 years ago. She said, "I think that's important, to know how the water's gone over the dam before you start to describe it. It helps to have been over the dam yourself."

When Proulx was starting out, she supported herself writing nonfiction books about how to make things like apple cider, custard, cheese, a house, or a salad garden. Her freelance writing jobs taught her how to research almost anything, and she has since made a career writing fiction based on her extensive research. After she finished her novel Postcards (1951), she stumbled upon a map of Newfoundland. She said, "Each place-name had a story — Dead Man's Cove, Seldom Come Bay and Bay of Despair, Exploits River, Plunder Beach. I knew I had to go there, and within 10 minutes of arriving, I'd fallen in love." She explored the island, examined maps, and went to bed every night with a Newfoundland vernacular dictionary. The result was her novel The Shipping News (1993), which became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize.

It was on this day in 1942 that the Battle of Stalingrad began. While most Americans think of D-Day as the turning point of the war, military historians often point to Stalingrad as the real turning point.

The German army had begun the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, and they assumed they'd be able to take Stalingrad before the winter. But they got bogged down in a lengthy siege of the city. The German commanders had been so confident of success back in August that they'd never been fully equipped with winter gear, and as the temperature dropped, they were still fighting in their summer fatigues. On November 19th, the Soviets attacked in the middle of a snowstorm, driving the Germans back and encircling their army.

By February, all the German soldiers had surrendered or been killed. It was the first decisive defeat of Hitler's army. About 800,000 of Hitler's soldiers were killed in the battle. But even though the Soviets were the victors, they actually lost more men. Official Russian military historians estimate that more than a million Soviet soldiers died defending the city.

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