Mar. 28, 2011

I lay down in my bed and went to sleep
but only after worrying that the pain
that came up in my chest, seemingly deep
inside it where my heart was, was a plain
signal that I might not survive the night
and could be lying cold beside my wife
when she got up, as she does, with the light,
to start another day in her own life,
while mine was over, unbeknown to us,
including me. As I was worrying
I went to sleep and woke up in four hours
to use the bathroom. Birds had begun to sing.
Two dogs were barking. Nothing perilous
had come to find us. What was ours was ours.

"Awake" by Michael Heffernan, from At The Bureau of Divine Music. © Wayne State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of writer and teacher Christianne Meneses Jacobs (books by this author). Born in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1971, her mother was a legal secretary, and her father was a lawyer. Because her father was on the defense team for an American pilot who had been shot down by Sandinistas, conditions became dangerous for the family, and they fled Nicaragua in 1988. They left behind a life of privilege and arrived in Los Angeles with only $500, which was all they were allowed to take with them. Christianne's parents got jobs checking luggage at LAX, and Christianne enrolled at Los Angeles High School, where she served as editor-in-chief of both the Spanish and English school newspapers.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, she returned to Los Angeles to begin her career as a second-grade teacher. She married graphic artist Marc Jacobs, and they had two daughters, and because she wanted her children to learn to read Spanish, she was distressed at the lack of original Spanish-language kids' literature in the United States. Selection was limited to poor translations of Dr. Seuss and other popular titles. She and her husband did their research, and saved their money, and in 2005 they launched Iguana, an educational magazine for Spanish-speaking children ages seven to 12. Iguana was followed in 2008 by ¡YO SÉ! ("I know!"), a pop culture/Latino celebrity magazine for kids.

Today is the birthday of Iris Chang, (books by this author) author and journalist, born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968 and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her father, Shau-Jin, is a theoretical physicist, and her mother, Ying-Ying, is a biochemist. Iris, a talkative but serious child, began her writing career at a young age: inspired by "Dear Abby," she started an advice column while in elementary school. At 10, she won first prize in a "young author" competition, and was always writing and publishing something in high school. She wrote volumes of poetry into red leather-bound books, each poem meticulously dated. In college, she studied journalism and embarked on a career first as a stringer for The New York Times, then worked for Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. She drove herself very hard, writing two or three articles a day, but not eating or sleeping well while she was working.

She earned a master's degree at Johns Hopkins University's Graduate Writing Seminar, and got a book deal from Harper Collins while she was still at school, at the age of 22. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, about a Chinese physicist, was published in 1995. It was received well, but didn't sell too many copies.

She is best known for her books about Asian and Chinese-American history. In 1994, at a conference in Cupertino, California, she was gripped by a display about the Nanking war crimes committed against a Chinese village by the Japanese army. She had heard much about the massacre from her grandparents, who had escaped it 60 years before, but the poster-sized pictures affected her deeply; she later wrote: "In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself … I was suddenly in a panic that this … reversion in human social evolution would be reduced to a footnote of history … unless someone forced the world to remember it." She threw herself into the project, not eating or sleeping, finding it hard to separate herself from the material. Her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was published in 1997, when Chang was only 29, and sold half a million copies. After that, she began an unsuccessful campaign to elicit an apology from the Japanese government for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army against the Chinese, even challenging the Japanese ambassador to a debate on The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

She followed this book with another, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003), and even though many of the stories involved poverty and prejudice, she told her mother that working on it was like a vacation after The Rape of Nanking.

In 2004, deep in research for her fourth book on the Bataan Death March, Chang had a nervous breakdown, working obsessively while trying to be the perfect mother to her young son, and not sleeping for days at a time. Deeply affected by the nature of her research, she again found it difficult to separate herself from her subject. While in Louisville to interview Bataan survivors, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where they medicated her for transient psychosis and suspected bipolar disorder. Back home, she stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy, and though she was in therapy and had a plan to make herself well, she was unable to overcome her illness. She committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in November 2004.

It is the birthday of British director Mike Newell, born in 1942 in St. Albans, England, to parents who were amateur actors. Educated at Cambridge, he intended to work in the theater, but was soon sidetracked into television as a trainee director for Granada. Making his first foray into film with The Man in the Iron Mask in 1977, his choice of projects has since been eclectic: his 1990s catalog alone includes a chick flick, Enchanted April (1992); a magical Irish Western, Into the West (1992); a romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); a bleak coming-of-age drama, An Awfully Big Adventure (1995); and a downbeat Mafia drama, Donnie Brasco (1997).

His diverse résumé served him well when he took the reins of the Harry Potter franchise, directing the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). He brought a more mature tone to the series, and said: "I was very anxious to break the franchise out of this goody-two-shoes feel. It's my view that children are violent, dirty, corrupt anarchists. Just adults-in-waiting, basically."

On this day in 1941, Virginia Woolf (books by this author) committed suicide. It's unfortunate that her death has overshadowed so much of her life, for, while she did attempt suicide a number of times and suffer crippling bouts of depression and insomnia, hallucination and headache, in between these episodes she was lively, witty, creative, and amusing. For much of the decade of the 1920s, she was active and productive, writing three of her most famous books — Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928). She often fell into a kind of trough upon completion of a project, however, as if the process exhausted her mentally, physically, and emotionally. She associated her worst major depressive episode — which lasted two years — with World War I, even though her depression began the year before the war began, and in 1940 she was shaken by the German Blitz in World War II. Bombed out of two London houses, she and her husband retreated to the country, and it may have been the destruction of her beloved city coupled with the constant threat of German invasion that triggered her final, fatal attack.

The chief treatment prescribed for Woolf when she suffered from depression was something known then as the "rest cure." She would be confined to her home, or to a nursing home, and not allowed to read or write, the two things she found most therapeutic and restorative to her troubled mind. She was giving sleeping draughts for her insomnia, but they didn't work and only increased her headaches. She grew to fear the dreaded rest cure, which felt like torture, and would try to soldier on and keep her suffering a secret, so that she might be allowed to keep writing. She wrote, "You can't think what a raging furnace it still is to me — madness and doctors and being forced."

Late in 1940, she completed Between the Acts, which would be published after her death. She tried to absorb herself in a new project, a book about literature, but found herself struggling, unable to write, which was the only therapy that worked for her. She wrote in her diary, "Shall I ever write again one of those sentences that gives me intense pleasure?"

Shortly before her death, she wrote the following to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and left it for him to find: "Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do."

Then a little before noon, she walked out, taking her hat and her walking stick and her overcoat, in the pocket of which she placed a large stone, and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near their home in Sussex.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Russell Banks (books by this author), born to a working-class family in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1940. His father, a plumber and an abusive alcoholic, left when Russell was 12. He was the first of his family to go to college, and won a full scholarship to Colgate University, but he dropped out after a couple of months, actually snuck out in the middle of the night, with the intention to fight with Castro's army in Cuba. He made it as far south as Lakeland, Florida, where he worked in a department store for a while. Eventually, he went back to college, this time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he co-founded Lillabulero, a literary magazine and small press.

In 1967, while he was still in Chapel Hill, a friend called him from a bar to tell him that Jack Kerouac was passing through town and wanted to throw a party. Since Banks was the only one of their circle with a house, he offered it as a venue. Kerouac and his companions stayed for the weekend, and, as Banks told The Paris Review: "He brought with him a disruptiveness and wild disorder, and moments of brilliance too ... It was a very strange and strenuous weekend. And very moving. It was the first time I had seen one of my literary heroes seem fragile and vulnerable."

True to his roots, much of Russell's work focuses on the harsh realities of the working-class experience, and his books feature struggles of race, class, religion, economic hardship, and violence. He also finds the school bus a powerful image, and he has returned to it again and again in much the same way a poet would: The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a school bus accident that devastates a town, and the same bus, now abandoned, turns up in Rule of the Bone to provide shelter for the main character, a homeless teenaged boy. Banks has a collection of toy school buses from around the world, and explains his obsession: "It is associated, at least for me, with the first time you give your children over to the state. From the child's point of view, it is the first time he leaves home and goes out into the larger world. It is the connecting cord between the family and the outside world and has both positive and negative implications."

And speaking of Russell Banks, it's also the birthday of his mentor, Nelson Algren (books by this author), in 1909. Born Nelson Algren Abraham to working-class parents in Detroit, he grew up in Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods. During the Depression, he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and wrote his first story, So Help Me, two years later, while working at a gas station in Texas. His life — and work — changed dramatically when he was caught stealing a typewriter and spent five months in jail. His later novels and stories would feature the down-and-out, the loser, and the reject.

Algren had a long affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and she dedicated her novel The Mandarins (1957) to him. She also modeled the heroine's lover, an American writer called Lewis Brogan, on Algren.

He became known as a writer of Chicago; he wrote: "People ask me why I don't write about nature or the suburbs. If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

In A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), set in the world of pimps and prostitutes in New Orleans, Algren gives his three rules for life: "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." The novel is, in many ways, about the contempt of a nation for its dispossessed, and in it he wrote: "When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough." Reviews of the novel were savage, and he was attacked for his "vulgarity" and his "boozy sentimentality." His career received a blow from which it never fully recovered. Lou Reed was approached to turn the novel into a musical; he declined, but he did turn the title into what would be his best-known song.

Russell Banks said of Algren, "He was a man of principle and great character, he was kind of an outlaw in his own way, a stubborn and soulful man, and so I thought, 'Okay, when I grow up, I'd like to be like him.'"

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




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