Nov. 12, 2010

November, 1967

by Joyce Sutphen

Dr. Zhivago was playing at the Paramount
Theater in St. Cloud. That afternoon,
we went into Russia,

and when we came out, the snow
was falling—the same snow
that fell in Moscow.

The sky had turned black velvet.
We'd been through the Revolution
and the frozen winters.

In the Chevy, we waited for the heater
to melt ice on the windshield,
clapping our hands to keep warm.

On the highway, these two things:
a song from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
and that semi-truck careening by.

Now I travel through the dark without you
and sometimes I turn up the radio, hopeful
the way you were, no matter what.

"November, 1967" by Joyce Sutphen, from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder, (books by this author) born in New York City (1945). He's the author of the nonfiction books House (1985), Among Schoolchildren (1989), Home Town (1999), Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), My Detachment (2005) and, most recently, Strength in What Remains (2009).

His freshman year of college, he discovered Hemingway and within a few weeks had read just about everything Hemingway had written. He said: "I decided to become a writer because I wanted to be a romantic figure like Hemingway. He introduced me to the idea of the writer as himself a hero. … Once you'd performed heroic deeds — or, for the time being, imagined yourself performing them — you just told your story in declarative sentences strung together with lots of ands. No Latinate or multisyllabic words. Crisp dialogue, as elliptical as possible; a hero never confessed to his wounds."

Kidder graduated from Harvard, went off to fight in Vietnam, and then returned and wrote his first book, The Road to Yuba City (1974), which was his first-person account of a murder case. It was a failure. For the next five years, he didn't attempt writing another book (and years later, he still felt so bad about his first book that he went to the publisher and bought back the rights). Throughout those five years, he wrote nonfiction articles for The Atlantic Monthly, and during this time he gradually found his writing voice — which, he said, was "the voice of a person who was informed, fair-minded, and always temperate — the voice, not of the person I was, but of the person I wanted to be." He went back to writing books, but not back to the first-person.

His second book was about 1970s engineers racing to design new computers, a compelling book that one reviewer said "involves binary arithmetic, Boolean algebra, and a grasp of the difference between a System Cache and an Instruction Processor." That book, The Soul of New Machine (1981), won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize.

He wrote a book about constructing a house. And he wrote one about a fifth-grade teacher and her class; for his research he sat in the classroom for 178 of the 180 days of the school year — one day he was sick, and one day he played hooky — and took 10,000 pages of notes. He wrote about relationships at a nursing home in Northampton, Massachusetts, in Old Friends (1993), and about Dr. Paul Farmer, "a Man Who Would Cure the World" in Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003).

His most recent book came out last year. It's called Strength in What Remains (2009),about a young Tutsi student who survived the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda and arrived in New York City with "two hundred dollars in his pocket, no English at all, and memories of horror so fresh that he sometimes confuses past and present … and two years later, he enrolls in an Ivy League university."

Kidder also wrote in Strength in What Remains:

"He discovered the big pond in the park, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. He would stand at the railing and gaze out at the water and his thoughts. Now and then he would join one of the passing groups of runners, jogging along with them for a while by the pond, for the sake of what he thought of as 'psychological friendship.' A curious tableau, the joggers in their shorts and spandex, Deo in his long pants and sneakers and "I © New York" cap. It made him feel as if he belonged there, as if he were like everyone else."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, (books by this author) born in Cherbourg, France (1915). He came down with tuberculosis as a young man. He wanted to become a professor, but since he had frequent relapses and had to spend time in sanitariums, he couldn't hold down a teaching job.

So instead of writing long books about great works of literature, he began to support himself by writing short essays about popular culture. He was one of the first literary critics to apply literary theory to things like movies, burlesque, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, "I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and it's been pretty fun." His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970).

He said, "Literature is the question minus the answer."

It's the birthday of novelist Katharine Weber, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1955. Her novels include Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (1995), The Little Women (2003), a retelling of Louisa May Alcott's classic story, and Triangle (2006), about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

It's the birthday of DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889) who got an idea to publish a magazine that just reprinted condensed versions of the best articles from all the major publications of the day. The first issue came out in February 1922, and it went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, Reader's Digest.

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




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