Nov. 21, 2010

In the Bus

by Grace Paley

Somewhere between Greenfield and Holyoke
snow became rain
and a child passed through me
as a person moves through mist
as the moon moves through
a dense cloud at night
as though I were cloud or mist
a child passed through me

On the highway that lies
across miles of stubble
and tobacco barns our bus speeding
speeding disordered the slanty rain
and a girl with no name      naked
wearing the last nakedness of
childhood breathed in me
                   once    no
                   once    two breaths
a sigh    she whispered    Hey you
begin again
again     again    you'll see
it's easy    begin again    long ago

"In the Bus" by Grace Paley, from Begin Again Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Elizabeth George Speare, (books by this author) born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on this day in 1908. She wrote articles for Better Homes and Gardens and Women's Day and then turned to writing historical novels for children because, she said, she liked sharing with kids her "ever-fresh astonishment at finding that men and women and boys and girls who lived through the great events of the past were exactly like ourselves, and that they faced every day the same choices, large and small, which daily confront us.

Her books are mandatory reading in many grade schools across the country, and she's been ranked as one of America's 100 most popular children's book writers. Her second novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958), won the 1959 Newbery Medal, and her third novel, The Bronze Bow (1961), earned her another Newbery Medal. Other books include Life in Colonial America (1964), The Prospering (1967), and The Sign of the Beaver (1983).

It's the birthday of English novelist Beryl Bainbridge, (books by this author) born in Liverpool on this day in 1932. Five of her novels were nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize: The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), Every Man for Himself (1996), and Master Georgie (1998).

She was kicked out of school when she was 14, fell in love with a German prisoner of war she met on a beach near Liverpool that same year, and spent the summer with him as he waited to be repatriated to Germany. She joined the Young Communist League, auditioned in stage productions around Dundee, and became Catholic; she'd really wanted to be Jewish, but didn't manage to successfully convert.

When she was young, her parents used to turn the radio up loud to cover up their fighting. She began writing, she said, in order "to make sense of my upbringing. I wanted to discover what was going on in my family." In her 20s she tried writing about her family in a book called Harriet Said. But her parents were still alive, and she knew the book would hurt them. She didn't want to hurt them, and so she waited more than 20 years to publish the book, until after they died. She once said, "Everything else you grow out of, but you never recover from childhood."

In addition to more than a dozen novels, she wrote the nonfiction books English Journey (1984), Forever England: North and South (1987), Something Happened Yesterday (1993), and Front Row: Evenings at the Theatre (2005). She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2000. She died just this past summer at the age of 75.

She said: "I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books and I never understand why they don't. After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say."

It's the birthday of writer Marilyn French, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn New York (1929), who wrote her first book on James Joyce and then switched her focus to women's history and radical literary feminism. She had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and was a nearly 50-year-old college English professor when she published her novel The Women's Room (1977), about a middle-aged housewife who divorces her husband and starts a Ph.D. in literature at Harvard. It sold more than 20 million copies and was translated into 20 languages, and it's considered one of the most influential novels in the modern-day feminist movement. Marilyn French also published a four-volume work on women's history, From Eve to Dawn, and a memoir that talked about her time battling esophageal cancer (she was in a coma for 10 days as part of it) called A Season in Hell (1998).

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Voltaire, (books by this author) the man who helped spark the Enlightenment in France, born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He was a well-known playwright and poet. He spent most of his late life in exile, and he wrote most of his work from England. In the last year of his life, 1778, he was allowed to return home to Paris. More than 300 people came to visit him his first day in the city, including Benjamin Franklin.

Voltaire wrote, "To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered."

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