Sep. 15, 2008

Maybe Very Happy

by Jack Gilbert

After she died he was seized
by a great curiosity about what
it was like for her. Not that he
doubted how much she loved him.
But he knew there must have been
some things she had not liked.
So he went to her closest friend
and asked what she complained of.
"It's all right," he had to keep
saying, "I really won't mind."
Until the friend finally gave in.
"She said sometimes you made a noise
drinking your tea if it was very hot."

"Maybe Very Happy" by Jack Gilbert from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, (books by this author) born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, the 11th of 12 children. Cooper was only 13 years old when his parents sent him to Yale. He didn't study much; mostly he wandered around the woods by New Haven. He went back to Cooperstown for a while and then became a sailor and joined the Navy. Then he inherited money from his father, so he tried to make his living as a gentleman farmer, landlord, and investor, but he failed at all those things. And meanwhile, he was running out of money. One day, he was reading aloud to his wife, a book about English social life, and he said, "I believe I could write a better book myself." His wife told him to prove it, so James Fenimore Cooper began his first novel. It became the novel Precaution (1820). He also wrote The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground (1821), The Pioneers (1823), and The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

It's the birthday of the mystery writer Agatha Christie, (books by this author) born in Torquay, England, in 1890. She wrote more than 60 mystery novels, including The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and The Mousetrap (1952), which had the longest initial run of any play in history. More than 30 of her books feature Hercule Poirot. But she got frustrated by him; by the 1930s, she referred to him in her diary as "insufferable," and by 1960, she called him "an ego-centric creep." So she invented another protagonist based partly on her maternal grandmother: Miss Marple, an elderly busybody who uses her feminine intuition to solve crimes.

It was Agatha Christie who said, "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes."

It's the birthday of Robert McCloskey, (books by this author) the author and illustrator of children's books, born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1914. He grew up loving music, especially the harmonica. He said, "The musician's life was the life for me — that is, until I became interested in things electrical and mechanical. … The inventor's life was the life for me — that is, until I started making drawings for the high school annual." He got a scholarship to art school in Boston, and he did well there. But afterward, he couldn't make it as an artist, and all he sold were a few watercolors of Cape Cod. One day, he went to visit an editor of children's books in New York City, and he brought along his portfolio. It was filled with fantasy scenes, with magic and strange beasts. He took the images and the characters and the stories from life there, and he wrote and illustrated a picture book about a regular boy in a regular Midwestern town. The boy can't whistle, so he learns to play the harmonica, and the boy and his harmonica save the day when the mayor's homecoming celebration is almost ruined. This book was called Lentil (1940), and the next year he published Make Way for Ducklings (1941), which won a Caldecott. In 1987, bronze sculptures of Mrs. Mallard and the ducklings from the book were installed in the Boston Public Garden. McCloskey also wrote Blueberries for Sal (1948) and Time of Wonder (1957).

Robert McCloskey said, "I get a lot of letters. Not only from children but from adults, too. Almost every week, every month, clippings come in from some part of the world where ducks are crossing the street."

It's the birthday of the Italian explorer Marco Polo, born in 1254. He grew up in Venice, and he was probably born there too. The Polos were a wealthy family of traders, and when Marco was just six years old, his father and uncle left to explore Asia together. For hundreds of years, Europeans hadn't been able to travel farther east than the Mediterranean. All the overland trade routes were controlled by the Muslim empire, so when Europeans wanted spices or pepper or silks or jewels from Asia, they had to go through middlemen to get them, and those middlemen charged high prices. But then Genghis Khan established the Mongol empire, which was an enormous empire that stretched from China to the Middle East to Hungary to Russia. And the Mongols believed in free trade and open routes, so suddenly all the routes between Europe and Asia opened up, and a few adventurous traders — like Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco's dad and uncle — made it all the way to Mongolia, to the court of Kublai Khan, and then they made it back home.

Marco was raised by his mother, but she died just before Niccolo and Maffeo got back to Italy. As soon as the Polo men returned, they were eager to set out again, so they decided to bring along 17-year-old Marco. Kublai Khan had sent a request to the pope, asking for oil from the lamp of Jerusalem and 100 Christian missionaries. Instead, the pope sent two Dominican friars. The friars got scared and gave up partway, but the three Polos and the lamp oil traveled through the deserts of Iran and Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, and through the Gobi Desert, and arrived about the year 1275 at Shang-tu, at the summer court of Kublai Khan. At Shang-tu, the Khan had a palace made entirely of varnished wicker, and it was held to the ground by silk cords so that it could be picked up and moved any time.

Kublai Khan liked young Marco. He liked that the boy could speak several languages, including Turkish, which was similar to Mongol; and he liked the fact that Marco was a talented storyteller, who told colorful tales of the places he had traveled. So he asked Marco to go on a six-month diplomatic mission and then report back on what he had seen. The Khan was so pleased with the results that he went ahead and sent Marco on these missions for the next 16 years. Marco went to Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and all over China. The Khan also made him governor of Yangzhou. Marco Polo was fascinated by many things he saw in China: They used paper money, and printing presses, and they bathed frequently. Europeans didn't do any of these things.

But finally the Polos got homesick for Venice. It took years for the Khan to relent and let them go. He finally agreed, but only if they would escort a Mongol princess to her fiancé, the king of Persia. They delivered her safely, and three years later finally returned to Italy.

When they got back to Venice, people were fascinated by their stories of life in the East. Crowds would gather to listen to their stories. But even though they thought the stories were great, people also thought they were lies. The things the Polos described seemed impossible.

Then Venice went to war with Genoa, and Marco Polo was captured and put in jail. He shared a cell with a writer named Rustichello, a man who wrote romances and adventure stories. Marco got so bored in prison that he decided to dictate the account of his travels to Rustichello, who added a few touches and produced The Travels of Marco Polo (1298), as it's known in English.

The book became a huge sensation, even though Europeans didn't use the printing press yet. Many Europeans were illiterate, so the ones who could read had to read it aloud to each other. The book begins: "Emperors and kings, dukes and marquises, counts, knights, and townsfolk, and all people who wish to know the many races of men and the strange customs of the many regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you."

Many people read The Travels of Marco Polo as entertainment, but it was also a major source of information about Asia, especially since the Mongol empire collapsed in 1350 and the land route between Europe and Asia was closed again. The book inspired Christopher Columbus to try and find a route to Asia, and he carried with him a highly annotated copy.

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge read Marco Polo's book, and he had a dream about the places described in it, so he wrote the poem "Xanadu," which starts

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.

People say that on his deathbed, Marco Polo was asked to admit that his stories were fabricated, which he denied; in fact, he said, "I didn't tell all I saw, because no one would have believed me."

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




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