Feb. 19, 2011


by Dorothy Parker

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I'd been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

"Inventory" by Dorothy Parker, from The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. © The Modern Library, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Siri Hustvedt, (books by this author) born in Northfield, Minnesota (1955). She is the author of four novels, The Blindfold (1992), The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), and The Sorrows of an American (2008). For years, her talent as a writer was often given less attention than her marriage to the novelist Paul Auster, a darling of the New York literary scene. After she published The Blindfold, one journalist even suggested that her husband had written it for her.

Her big breakthrough was the novel What I Loved, which got rave reviews. It took her six years to write. She said: "I redrafted it over and over. It just wasn't good enough; the tone wasn't right. Finally, in that last draft, I hit it. You feel it. It's a strange thing about writing fiction; there's a sense of rightness and wrongness."

Most recently, she turned away from novel writing and published a memoir, The Shaking Woman; or, A History of My Nerves (2010). A few years ago, she was speaking at a memorial service for her father at St. Olaf College in Northfield, where he had been chairman of the Norwegian department. In the middle of her speech, she suddenly started shaking uncontrollably, her knees knocking and arms flailing. Her skin turned a strange color. But her speech and thoughts remained completely clear. She was disturbed by this episode, and wondered if and how it connected to other dramatic health issues in her past. She said: "As a child I had what I called 'lifting feelings.' Every once in a while, I had a powerful internal sensation of being pulled upward, as if my head were rising, even though I knew my feet hadn't left the ground. This lift was accompanied by what can only be called awe — a feeling of transcendence." During her honeymoon, in a gallery in Paris, her arm had jerked suddenly and slammed her against a wall, and she spent a year in doctor's offices and was even hospitalized, taking every combination of drugs they could think to prescribe in an attempt to ward off terrible, constant headaches. There was the time she hallucinated and saw a tiny, pink version of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue (now pink) ox, sitting on her bed. In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt sorted through all the neurological and psychiatric disorders that might be at play in her own condition, and she wrote about the fuzzy lines in a disease that is, finally, impossible to diagnose, and that affects her mental world and her conception of herself as much as just her body.

She wrote:
"Every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evident in the language we use about it. No one says, 'I am cancer' or even 'I am cancerous,' despite the fact that there is no intruding virus or bacteria; it's the body's own cells that have run amok. One has cancer. Neurological and psychiatric illnesses are different, however, because they often attack the very source of what one imagines is one's self. 'He's an epileptic' doesn't sound strange to us. In the psychiatric clinic, the patients often say, 'Well, you see, I'm bipolar' or 'I'm schizophrenic.' The illness and the self are fully identified in these sentences. The shaking woman felt like me and not like me at the same time. From the chin up, I was my familiar self. From the neck down, I was a shuddering stranger. What ever had happened to me, what ever name would be assigned to my affliction, my strange seizure must have had an emotional component that was somehow connected to my father. The problem was that I hadn't felt emotional. I had felt entirely calm and reasonable. Something seemed to have gone terribly wrong with me, but what exactly? I decided to go in search of the shaking woman."

It was on this day in 1985 that the popular BBC soap opera EastEnders was first broadcast in the United States. Its British debut had been a few weeks earlier. It's a saga about a group of people living together in the fictional neighborhood of Walford in London's East End. The soap opera has been ongoing ever since, with more than 4,000 episodes, and continues to have a huge audience. It has gotten its share of both complaints and praise for tackling subjects like domestic abuse, rape, abortion, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, and mental illness on the show.

When the show debuted in America on this date, it was hosted by the British-American actress Tracey Ullman, who gave some context for the show and also translated some Cockney slang for American viewers.

It's the birthday of writer Homer Hickam, (books by this author) born in Coalwood, West Virginia (1943). His father worked in the coal mines. As a high schooler, he was good at physics, and he was inspired by the launching of Sputnik. His favorite teacher gave him a book on rocket design, and he and some friends built rockets, and they took them to the national science fair and won top honors. He studied Industrial Engineering at Virginia Tech, and then fought in Vietnam. When he came home, he decided to try writing a war novel — but instead of choosing Vietnam as his subject, he chose World War II. His first novel was Torpedo Junction (1989). He worked at NASA for 20 years.

In 1998, the same year he retired from NASA, he published a memoir called Rocket Boys, which was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller. It was made into a popular film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But they called the film October Sky (1999), which is an anagram of Rocket Boys. Hickam said: "Universal Studios wanted to change the name from Rocket Boys because they were afraid that women wouldn't watch a movie called Rocket Boys. My boss at NASA at the time was a woman who liked rockets and boys and I doubted that but ... anyway." They wouldn't change the title, he did manage to convince the filmmakers to take out the many swear words that filled the dialogue in the first draft of the script. He argued that he was the authority on his own life in Coalwood, West Virginia, in the 1950s, and that he and the boys he was friends with just didn't swear.

He's published many books since then, including Sky of Stone (2001), The Keeper's Son (2003), Red Helmet (2007), and most recently, The Dinosaur Hunter (2010).

He said, "I don't look for inspiration. If I did, I'd probably never sit down in front of the word processor. The first thing to do is to go ahead and write and not worry too much about the style and format or anything like that. Get the story down and then go back — what I really love is to go back and rewrite. I've made the mistake of faxing stuff when it was hot off the typewriter, and I've always regretted that. Every time."

He said, "It is better to confess ignorance than provide it."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Amy Tan, (books by this author) born in Oakland, California (1952). Her parents moved to the United States from China in the 1940s, and she grew up struggling to assimilate with other kids. As a teenager, she prayed for the minister's blond son to fall in love with her, and for her nose to become slimmer and look less Chinese. She fought with her mom, who wanted her to become a concert pianist or a doctor, and she switched her major from pre-med to English and Linguistics. She worked as a freelance writer, and then she wrote a short story for a writing workshop, and it got published in a magazine, and an agent saw it and asked her for another story. So she wrote one, and the agent was so impressed by those two stories that she asked Amy Tan to write a book proposal.

In just four months she had finished The Joy Luck Club (1989), which was a big best-seller. She went on to write The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005).

It's the birthday of novelist Jonathan Lethem, (books by this author) born in New York City (1964). His parents were bohemian idealists, and there were only a handful of other white kids in Jonathan's school. He was bullied a lot, and to escape, he became obsessed with comic books and science fiction novels.

When he became a novelist, he decided to write a book based on his own childhood, a story about a white kid named Dylan and a black kid named Mingus growing up together in 1970s Brooklyn. In the book, the friends find a magic ring that gives them superhero powers. That novel was The Fortress of Solitude (2003), a best-selling novel whose title comes from the name of Superman's headquarters.

The Fortress of Solitude begins: "Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July."

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




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