Mar. 12, 2011


by Dorianne Laux

I wanted to be Cher, tall
as a glass of iced tea,
her bony shoulders draped
with a curtain of dark hair
that plunged straight down,
the cut tips brushing
her nonexistent butt.
I wanted to wear a lantern
for a hat, a cabbage, a piņata
and walk in thigh-high boots
with six-inch heels that buttoned
up the back. I wanted her
rouged cheek bones and her
throaty panache, her voice
of gravel and clover, the hokum
of her clothes: black fishnet
and pink pom-poms, fringed bells
and her thin strip of a waist
with the bullet-hole navel.
Cher standing with her skinny arm
slung around Sonny's thick neck,
posing in front of the Eiffel Tower,
The Leaning Tower of Pisa,
The Great Wall of China,
The Crumbling Pyramids, smiling
for the camera with her crooked
teeth, hit-and-miss beauty, the sun
bouncing off the bump on her nose.
Give me back the old Cher,
the gangly, imperfect girl
before the shaving knife
took her, before they shoved
pillows in her tits, injected
the lumpy gel into her lips.
Take me back to the woman
I wanted to be, stalwart
and silly, smart as her lion
tamer's whip, my body a torch
stretched the length of the polished
piano, legs bent at the knee, hair
cascading down over Sonny's blunt
fingers as he pummeled the keys,
singing in a sloppy alto
the oldest, saddest songs.

"Cher" by Dorianne Laux, from The Book of Men. © W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1987, the musical Les Misérables (The Miserable Ones) opened on Broadway. It's based on Victor Hugo's (books by this author) novel by the same name. Both follow the lives of several — mostly poor — characters in early 19th-century France.

French songwriter Alain Boublil got the idea to produce Les Mis in 1978, while attending the musical Oliver! in London. He shared his idea with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, who said, "Let's do it."

The 1980 Paris production was a success. When Les Mis opened in London in 1985, it was a blockbuster. It crossed the pond to New York two years later. Americans embraced the show with equal enthusiasm.

The New York production won eight Tony Awards in 1987. It ran 16 years, making it the third-longest-running Broadway musical. The London show has never stopped, and is now the world's longest-running musical.

On this day in 1916, Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (books by this author) died. She was born in 1830 to a noble family in a castle in Moravia (modern Czech Republic). She began writing as a child, much to her parents' dismay. Her stepmother thought a harsh critique might squash the girl's unseemly aspirations. So she asked Franz Grillparzer, a famous playwright, to evaluate Ebner's poetry. Grillparzer praised it warmly. This shut up the stepmother and freed the young lady to follow her dreams.

Ebner saw herself as a playwright. She wrote only dramas for the first 30 years of her career, eventually authoring a total of 26 plays, including Maria Stuart in Schottland (1860) and Marie Roland (1867). Her contemporaries ignored them. They saw drama as the highest literary genre — one that women couldn't possibly manage.

Later in her career, Ebner turned to writing novels and short stories, such as The District Doctor (1883) and Beyond Atonement (1889). Her novels and novellas detailed the daily lives of Moravia's nobility and peasantry, as well as the relationships among them. She described social injustices, but also focused on the idea that goodness exists in every social class. She eventually became one of the most famous German-language writers of her time.

In her 1883 work Aphorisms, Ebner wrote, "An interesting book is food that makes us hungry."

It's the birthday of children's author Virginia Hamilton (1934) (books by this author). She was the youngest of the five children Kenneth Hamilton and Etta Perry Hamilton raised on a farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Hamilton's grandfather, Levi Perry, was an escaped slave. He came to southern Ohio via the Underground Railroad in the late 1850s. Virginia was named for her grandfather's home state.

Virginia grew up in the embrace of a large extended family. The family was full of tale-weavers. Her grandfather "sat his ten children down every year and said, 'I'm going to tell you how I escaped from slavery, so slavery will never happen to you.'" Hamilton called her parents "unusually fine storytellers." They encouraged her to read — and were not surprised when the child began writing her own stories.

In 1958, after college, Hamilton moved to New York. She held a variety of jobs there, including accountant and nightclub singer, while she pursued her dream of writing. She also met and married poet Arnold Adoff and had two children. In 1969, the family settled permanently in Yellow Springs, on a corner of the old family farm.

Hamilton wrote 41 published books for children and young adults, including The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974), Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), and Her Stories (1995). M.C. Higgins, the Great, an Appalachian coming-of-age tale, was the first book ever to win the "grand slam" of children's literature: the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. During her career, Hamilton won almost every award that exists for children's literature.

Virginia Hamilton died of breast cancer on February 19, 2002.

Virginia Hamilton said: "There are three things I can remember always wanting: to go to New York, to go to Spain, and to be a writer. It feels nice to have done all three. I haven't had to want anything for some time."

It's the birthday of poet and author Naomi Shihab Nye (books by this author). She was born in 1952 in Saint Louis, Missouri, to Miriam and Aziz Shihab. Nye's late father was a Palestinian immigrant from Jerusalem, and her mother is German American.

Nye grew up in Saint Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. Nye's literary work reflects her travels and her experiences in a family of mixed religions and cultures. She explores diversity in all of her poetry and fiction. She weaves personal stories against backgrounds of cultural confrontation.

Nye has written and edited nearly 30 books of poetry and fiction for children and young adults, including the picture book Sitti's Secrets (1994), the poetry anthology This Same Sky (1996), the novel Habibi (1999), and the book of poems You and Yours (2005). She has won many awards and honors for her writing, including four Pushcart Prizes.

Nye wrote, "To me the world of poetry is a house with thousands of glittering windows. Our words and images, land to land, era to era, shed light on one another. Our words dissolve the shadows we imagine fall between."

On this day in 2001, author Robert Ludlum (books by this author) died of a heart attack in Naples, Florida. He was 73 years old.

Ludlum was born on May 25, 1927, in New York City. He grew up in New Jersey and attended private school in Connecticut. He began acting on Broadway at age 14, then joined the Marines at age 17. He obtained a fine arts degree — and a wife — from Wesleyan University in 1951.

Ludlum spent the next 20 years acting and producing. In the '50s, he played many minor roles onstage and on TV. People kept telling him what a great producer he'd make. He got the message ("get off the stage") and began producing plays. In 1956, he cast a then-unknown Alan Alda in the starring role of The Owl and the Pussycat.

By 1970, Ludlum was sick of the administrative headaches of producing. He had always dabbled in writing, and he wondered if he could make a living at it. He took some time off from producing to give writing a try. During the transition, he did TV and radio commercial voice-overs. He advertised everything from Tuna Helper to Tiparillos.

Ludlum's first novel, a thriller called The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), sold 75,000 copies. He was hooked, and so were his readers. He went on to publish more than twenty best-selling novels, all of them filled with spies and conspiracy theories. They include The Osterman Weekend (1972), The Holcroft Covenant (1978), and the Bourne trilogy (1980–1990).

The critics were hard on Ludlum, but even they admitted his novels were gripping. One Washington Post reviewer wrote, "It's a lousy book, so I stayed up till 3:00 a.m. to finish it."

Ludlum paid no heed to critics. He said, "The quality of an author's work is not usually determined until after his death. Dickens got some pretty bad reviews."

It's the birthday of writer, editor, and publisher Dave Eggers, (books by this author) born in Boston (1970). His father was a lawyer and his mother was a teacher. His family moved to the suburbs of Chicago. There, a fourth child, Christopher, joined Dave and his older siblings, Bill and Beth.

In 1991, while Eggers was a student at the University of Illinois, both his parents died of cancer. Christopher, or Toph, was only eight years old. Bill and Beth couldn't take care of him, so Dave did. He dropped out of college, moved with his little brother to California, and set out to raise him. Meanwhile, he made a living as a writer and a graphic designer — and rebelled against his responsibilities by leading a fairly wild social life. As it turned out, Dave and Toph raised each other.

Eggers described this experience in his creative memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). The book was a huge commercial and critical success. Among other honors, it became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.

Since then, Eggers has launched his own publishing company, founded a tutoring center and writing school, and written and edited dozens of books and screenplays. Among these are What Is the What (2006), the story of a Sudanese orphan who immigrates to the United States, and screenplays for Away We Go and Where the Wild Things Are (both released in 2009).

Together, Dave and Toph write humor books for children under the pseudonyms Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey. Introducing the series of fake reference books, the pair wrote: "For many years, the scientific and educational communities have wondered and worried about the possibility that semi-sane scholar-pretenders would find the means to put out a series of reference books filled with ludicrous misinformation and aimed at children. Well, sadly, that day is upon us."

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  • “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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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