Mar. 18, 2008

A Farm in Western Minnesota

by Robert Bly

When I look at childhood, I see the yellow rosebush
Grandma planted near her door, the gravel
Beneath the bicycle tires, and the new legs pumping
As we raced along; and the roads that invited us
West—only a mile from home the land began to rise.

We tried those wind chargers. My father
Was open to any new idea, and one day
A thousand sheep—starving—arrived in cattle cars
From Montana—almost free. We took four
Hundred. How thin they were! Some lived for years.

Many rooms were cold at night, and the hired men
Didn't have much of a life. Sometimes they'd just
I remember my father throwing dead ewes over
The edge of the gravel pit. It was efficient. There
Was work to do, but no one learned how to say

"A Farm in Western Minnesota" by Robert Bly, from Morning Poems. © Harper Collins, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1915, American novelist Richard Condon was born in Manhattan. (books by this author) In his lifetime, Condon wrote 26 novels and two works of nonfiction, including the best sellers The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Winter Kills (1979), and Prizzi's Honor (1982). His novels often focused on the themes of government conspiracy and abuse of power.

Condon earned very low grades in high school, which ruled out the possibility of a college education. Instead, he began working a string of jobs that included elevator operator, hotel clerk, waiter on a cruise ship, advertising copywriter, and studio press agent. His career as a press agent included a stint with Walt Disney Productions, working on the movies Dumbo, Fantasia, and Pinocchio. While a press agent, Condon was required to see all of the rival studios' pictures — eight to 10 a week. He estimated that he saw around 10,000 movies in his 27 years as a press agent.

Condon's work as a press agent led to a career in writing for two reasons. The first was that, after spending years being required to chat with and constantly entertain actors, producers, and directors, he felt antisocial, and the writer's isolated life appealed to him. Secondly, watching so many movies heightened his interest in storytelling. In a 1994 interview with Texas Monthly, Condon said, "That was back in the golden years of Hollywood, when the stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. The characters were clearly established. The storylines were clear. The entrances, the exits, everything was clear." He said viewing those films gave him "an unconscious grounding in storytelling."

At the age of 42, Condon wrote his first novel, The Oldest Confession (1958), about an art heist. The book was a success, and in 1959, Condon went on to publish his second novel, The Manchurian Candidate. That book, about a Communist plot to brainwash an American soldier and turn him into an assassin, became Condon's most famous novel. It was made into a movie starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Angela Lansbury (the movie was remade in 2004). The Manchurian Candidate contains Condon's favorite themes: government conspiracy and abuse of power. These themes would appear in later books, such as his critically praised 1974 novel, Winter Kills, a fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination.

Condon also wrote novels about organized crime. Those novels focused on the Prizzi family. Prizzi's Honor (1982), in particular, was a huge popular and critical success, and Condon took his place as one of the country's most famous writers of organized crime novels.

In his interview with Texas Monthly, Condon said, "I think the most important part of storytelling is tension. It's the constant tension of suspense that in a sense mirrors life, because nobody knows what's going to happen three hours from now."

Today is the birthday of American novelist John Updike, (books by this author) born in Shillington, Pennsylvania in 1932. Updike is known for writing about middle-class, middle-aged, ordinary Americans. He is also known for writing about the theme of adultery. His most popular books feature a character named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a man who is afraid of responsibility, aging, and his tedious job, and who suffers marital problems. The last two novels in Updike's "Rabbit" series, Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), earned Updike a number of awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and two respective Pulitzer Prizes. Of winning the prizes for Rabbit is Rich, Updike said, "After a long period of prizelessness, winning the National Book Award and some other major fiction prizes of the year felt like a step up in my position as an American writer. I felt that not only was I being given a prize, but that a prize was being given to the idea of trying to write a novel about a more-or-less average person in a more-or-less average household. That vindicated one of my articles of faith since my beginnings as a writer: that mundane daily life in peacetime is interesting enough to serve as the stuff of fiction."

On this day in 1990, the largest art theft in U.S. history took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A pair of thieves, disguised as Boston police officers and reportedly wearing fake moustaches, gained entrance to the museum shortly after one o'clock a.m. by telling the on-duty security guards that they were responding to a disturbance within the compound. The security guards, against museum regulations, granted the thieves access to the museum. The thieves proceeded to steal 13 pieces of art, including three Rembrandt paintings (one of which was the artist's only seascape), one Vermeer painting (of the only 35 or so known to be in existence), five drawings by Edgar Degas, and a painting by Edouard Manet. The thieves took no care with the art, often ripping pieces out of their frames. The total worth of the stolen art is estimated to be as high as $300 million. Although the Gardner Museum has offered a $5 million reward for the safe return of the art, none of the pieces have yet been recovered.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “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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