Aug. 15, 2011


by Jennifer O'Grady

Adrift in the liberating, late light
of August, delicate, frivolous,
they make their way to my front porch
and flutter near the glassed-in bulb,
translucent as a thought suddenly
wondered aloud, illumining the air
that's thick with honeysuckle and dusk.
You and I are doing our best
at conversation, keeping it light, steering clear
of what we'd like to say.
You leave, and the night becomes
cluttered with moths, some tattered,
their dumbly curious filaments
startling against my cheek. How quickly,
instinctively, I brush them away.
Dazed, they cling to the outer darkness
like pale reminders of ourselves.
Others seem to want so desperately
to get inside. Months later, I'll find
the woolens, snug in their resting places,
full of missing pieces.

"Moths" by Jennifer O'Grady, from White. © Mid-list Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the father of the historical novel: Sir Walter Scott (books by this author). He was born in Edinburgh in 1771 and grew up listening to his family's tales of life on the Scottish border. He started off writing narrative romances in verse, and in 1805 he began a novel about the Jacobite revolt of 1745, but didn't finish it. He contributed articles on "Chivalry," "Romance," and "Drama" to the fourth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1801 to 1809. He became a partner in a printing firm and saved it from bankruptcy in 1813, but between paying the firm's debts and building his country house at Abbotsford, Scott nearly went under himself. In search of capital, he dusted off his unfinished novel and completed it in the summer of 1814. Waverly was published anonymously, and it was a critical and commercial success. He followed it with several more historical novels, among them Rob Roy (1817), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and Ivanhoe (1819).

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Edna Ferber (1885) (books by this author). She was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was known for her detailed, but not especially deep, stories of Midwestern life. She began her career as a journalist in Appleton, Wisconsin, when she was only 17; she earned three dollars a week. She later became part of the Algonquin Round Table, an assortment of clever writers who met daily for lunch at New York's Algonquin Hotel. She never married, nor did she have any known affairs with anyone of either gender. In one of her early novels, a character observes, "Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning — a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling."

She's best known for So Big (1924), a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize; Show Boat (1926), which was made into a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II; and Giant (1952), which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. She also wrote plays with George S. Kaufman, like Stage Door (1926) and Dinner at Eight (1932). Her obituary, which appeared on the front page of The New York Times, read, "Her books were not profound, but they were vivid."

She said: "Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!"

Today is the birthday of playwright and novelist Denise Chávez (1948) (books by this author). She was born in Las Cruces, near the southern border of New Mexico. Her father was a lawyer, and he left the family when Chávez was a child, so her mother, a teacher, raised her with the help of a strong community of women from both sides of the border. She was born in the back room of a house her uncle built; she still lives there, and the room she was born in is now the room she writes in. She's written several plays, two novels (Face of an Angel [1994] and Loving Pedro Infante [2001]), a collection of short stories (The Last of the Menu Girls, 1986), and a children's book (The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals, 1992). She also wrote a memoir with recipes, A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture (2006). She is the founder and director of the annual Border Book Festival in Las Cruces.

She wrote: "Anybody that has eaten chile in New Mexico knows why we love our chile and why we love our land so much, because our writing is spicy and pungent, it's of the earth and of the people; and when you eat the earth and eat the sweat of the people that have worked there, it's like my grandmother says, 'como chile colorado,' like red chile. It goes through your whole system and becomes part of you."

It's the birthday of poet, playwright, and essayist Mary Jo Salter (1954) (books by this author), born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She grew up primarily in Detroit and Baltimore; her father was an advertising executive, and her mother, who died young, was an artist. Salter's married to fellow poet Brad Leithauser; they met at Harvard, in a poetry class taught by Elizabeth Bishop. She counts Emily Dickinson as one of her poetic models, and considers herself a formalist, working with meter and rhyme rather than free verse, crafting quatrains and sonnets and villanelles. She's published several poetry collections, including A Phone Call to the Future (2008), Open Shutters (2005), A Kiss in Space (1999), and Henry Purcell in Japan (1985).

It's the birthday of Swedish journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson (1954) (books by this author), born Karl Stig-Erland Larsson in Skelleftehamn. He lived with his grandparents in the north of Sweden, "godforsaken places at the back of beyond," as his partner Eva Gabrielsson described it, until he was nine years old. He used cross-country skis to get to school, and absorbed his grandfather's strong anti-fascist views. He became a muckraking journalist and founded the Swedish Expo Foundation in 1995 to "counteract the growth of the extreme right and the white power-culture in schools and among young people."

He originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. He approached an editor in 2003 after he'd written two novels and started on a third; he planned 10 detective thrillers, called the Millennium Series, but he died of a heart attack the following year. His three novels were published posthumously; the Swedish title of the first volume translates as Men Who Hate Women (2005), but it's better known in the English-speaking world as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Today is the birthday of novelist A. Manette Ansay (1964) (books by this author). Her books include Good Things I Wish You (2009), Limbo (2001), Midnight Champagne (1999), and Read This and Tell Me What It Says (1995). She was born in Lapeer, Michigan, outside Detroit, but moved to Port Washington, Wisconsin, when she was five. She studied piano from early childhood and seemed destined for a musical career, but suffered she from increasing health problems; by the time she was 21, she was unable to walk. She was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis and ended up bedridden at her parents' house for two years. Her health gradually improved to the point where she could use a wheelchair, and has stabilized, but doctors still don't know what happened to her. She knew she'd have to choose a career that enabled her to work while seated, so she adapted her strict piano-practicing schedule to the practice of fiction instead. "I needed to find a way beyond the body, to live a life bigger than I was," she said. "This is the way I found to do that, to have access to many experiences and many lives, to do things through my characters that I couldn't do myself."

Her first novel, Vinegar Hill, was published in 1994; five more novels, a collection of stories, and a memoir followed. Vinegar Hill was named an "Oprah's Book Club" selection in 1999, and the financial windfall that occurred as a result enabled Ansay to focus on improving her health through meditation and acupuncture. She lives in Miami with her daughter Genevieve.

It's the birthday of British nature writer and literary critic Robert Macfarlane (1976) (books by this author), born in Halam, Nottinghamshire. He spent many childhood holidays exploring the Scottish Highlands with his grandparents, and cultivated a love of mountains that inspired his first book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), which the Cambridge University website describes as "a study of landscape aesthetics" and the author describes as "part history, part a personal story of [his] relationship with the mountains." He told Cabinet magazine, "What is extraordinary about being on a mountain summit ... is that you can see different seasons, different countries, and sometimes even the curvature of the earth ... you see backwards in time, outwards in space, and are both uplifted and diminished by that experience."

He's also the author of The Wild Places (2007) and Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth Century Literature (2007).

On this date in 1977, the Big Ear telescope in Ohio picked up a deep-space radio signal from the middle of the constellation Sagittarius. Ohio State University professor Jerry Ehman was volunteering with SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — and every few days a messenger would bring him the latest printouts from the Big Ear. What he saw on this day impressed him so much that he circled the reading in red pen and wrote the word "Wow!" in the margin; since then, it's been known as the Wow! signal.

Almost two decades earlier, Cornell physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi had reckoned that alien communication would most likely take the form of a radio signal, since they were cheap and easy to produce, and could travel long distances. They also figured that extraterrestrials would choose a message that had some significance to anyone who understood science or math. The Wow! signal's frequency was determined to be about 1420 megahertz, the same resonance frequency as hydrogen, which is the most common element in the universe. This led to speculation that some extraterrestrial entity had chosen that particular frequency deliberately, to send a strong signal. The Wow! signal was recorded for 72 seconds, which was the full length of time that the Big Ear was scanning that particular section of sky before the Earth's rotation moved it out of range. Astronomers have never been able to explain what caused the signal and, try as they might, they've have never been able to pick it up again.

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