Aug. 3, 2008


by G.E. Johnson

Out of the flat dry country where I seem to be
Stuck these days I'd like to sail up the West Coast
On a cruise ship with strangers and you and me
Lying in bed, feeling the engines vibrate far below.
We'd dress up for dinner in the grand salon
And dine on champagne and oysters like tycoons
And when the ship comes to port, we'd stay on
Board and walk the decks and hear old tunes
Drift across the water as we promenade
Like "If I Had You" which Bucky Weil played
So beautifully. God rest his elegant spirit.
And here we are, so lucky to be able to hear it:
         We are pilgrims afforded room and board.
         And each day, my darling, is its own reward.

"Pilgrims" by G.E. Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

It was on this day in 1492 that Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain on his first voyage, the voyage that took him to the Americas. He set off with three ships (Santa María, Pinta, and Niña) and 90 men. In September, the crew restocked in the Canary Islands and on October 12th, they sighted land—an island in the Bahamas. Columbus kept a journal, and later that day he wrote an entry about the natives of the island: "They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion."

It's the birthday of a woman who has never received a rejection slip, the mystery writer P. D. James, (books by this author) born Phyllis Dorothy James in Oxford, England, in 1920. She was born in Oxford and raised in Cambridge, but since she didn't have a lot of money and she was a girl, she didn't get to go to either university. She always wanted to write novels, but she left school when she was 16, and she worked at a tax agency and in a theater, where she met her husband. Her husband served in WWII, and P.D. James raised two daughters on her own—she named one of her daughters after her favorite author, Jane Austen, whom she calls "an absolute mistress of construction."

Her husband returned from the war with schizophrenia and mental breakdowns; he was repeatedly hospitalized and ended up in an institution, so James had to provide for her family. She wrote her first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), on the train to and from work as a hospital administrator. It was accepted by the first publisher she sent it to, and after that she went on to write more than 20 novels, including A Taste for Death (1986) and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). She worked for a while as a principal in the criminal policy department of the British Home Office before she made enough money to write full time. She is a member of the House of Lords, and she has received many awards for individual books and for lifetime achievement in crime writing.

Cover Her Face introduced her most famous protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh, who runs Scotland Yard but is also an intellectual man who writes and publishes poetry. Dalgliesh is featured in 13 of James's novels, as well as her newest work, The Private Patient, which will be published in fall of 2008.

She said, "We English are good at forgiving our enemies; it releases us from the obligation of liking our friends."

It's the birthday of the science fiction writer and journalist Clifford Donald Simak, (books by this author) born in 1904 in Millville, Wisconsin. He grew up in rural Wisconsin, and it became the setting for all his science fiction. Simak is called a "pastoral" science fiction writer because instead of alien worlds or epic clashes of technology, he writes about parallel worlds in time and about ordinary farmers and workers living in rural Wisconsin and drinking beer on the porch, who might or might not turn out to be aliens. His most famous work is a collection of short stories called City (1952), in which humans abandon cities for the countryside and eventually abandon Earth, which is left to robots and intelligent dogs. He published numerous stories and novels, including Way Station (1963) and Highway of Eternity (1986), and he received the Grand Master award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

But the whole time Simak was writing science fiction, he was also a successful journalist. He worked for almost 40 years at The Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune. He was news editor of the Star and coordinated the Science Reading Series for the Tribune.

It's the birthday of the poet Diane Wakoski, (books by this author) born in Whittier, California, in 1937. She has written more than 40 books of poems, including The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 (1984) and Argonaut Rose (1998), which is the last in her four-volume series called "The Archaeology of Movies and Books." She said, "Poetry is the art of saying what you mean but disguising it."

It's the birthday of the writer Albert Halper, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1904 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His first novel was Union Square (1933), and because the main characters were tenement workers, everyone referred to him after that as a "proletariat writer." Halper disliked this label, saying that his characters were "people," not "proletariats." He wrote seven more novels, including The Chute (1937) and The Little People (1942) and a memoir, Good-Bye, Union Square (1970).

It's the birthday of Walter Kirn, (books by this author) born in Akron, Ohio (1962). He wanted to be a writer, so at Princeton he tried writing poems, but he decided the world of poetry was too confined and academic. Then he tried writing plays, but he couldn't get any produced. One day, he was interviewing the editor of Knopf, who asked Kirn if he wrote short stories. Kirn said "yes" even though he didn't. Then he went home, wrote one, and sent it to the editor, who kept requesting more until he had a book, and that became The Hard Bargain (1990). His first big success was Thumbsucker (1999), a comic novel about growing up in Minnesota based on his own experiences—he, like the protagonist of the novel, sucked his thumb into adolescence. Kirn also writes for Time magazine and is a critic for the New York Times Book Review. His most recent novel is The Unbinding (2007), which was first presented in serial form on (2006).

He said, "Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do."

And, "... the vigilance and skepticism needed for reviewing are not a big help when it comes to fiction writing, where one needs to be relaxed and natural."

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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