Aug. 17, 2011

At Summer's End

by John Engels

Early August, and the young butternut
is already dropping its leaves, the nuts
thud and ring on the tin roof,

the squirrels are everywhere.
Such richness! It means something to them
that this tree should seem so eager

to finish its business.
The voice softens, and word becomes air
the moment it is spoken. You finger the limp leaves.

Precisely to the degree that you have loved something:
a house, a woman, a bird, this tree, anything at all,
you are punished by time.

Like the tree,
I take myself by surprise.

"At Summer's End" by John Engels, from Sinking Creek. © The Lyons Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Irish writer and wit Oliver St. John Gogarty (books by this author), born in Dublin in 1878. Gogarty was a practicing surgeon and throat specialist, which is how he paid the bills, but he much preferred writing poetry, plays, and semi-autobiographical novels, like As I Was Going Down Sackville Street (1937), Tumbling in the Hay (1939), and It Isn't This Time of Year at All (1954). He was a contemporary and sometime friend of James Joyce and was the inspiration for the character Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, much to his annoyance. Their friendship had waned by that time, and he didn't take Joyce seriously as a writer, so he found his lifetime association with the character and the novel irksome. His friendship with W.B. Yeats was more productive and beneficial to him; Yeats produced three of Gogarty's plays at the Abbey Theatre, and the two maintained a close professional relationship and friendship for many years.

On this date in 1907, Pike Place Market opened in Seattle.It's the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in the United States, and it covers the waterfront: nine acres overlooking Elliott Bay. On opening day, eight farmers brought in their wagons full of produce, and they were met by about 10,000 eager shoppers. Now, more than a hundred years later, the merchants gather at nine o'clock every morning and a market master takes their shouted request for stalls: about 130 free spaces for 225 approved vendors. If your first choice is taken, you'd better have a second, or third, ready, because they don't wait. They manage to sort everything out in less than 20 minutes.

It's the birthday of novelist, poet, and short-story writer Evan S. Connell (1924) (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri. He's published 19 books in various genres. He's best known for his novels Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969), and his unconventional nonfiction book Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Big Horn (1984). In 2009, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement. Dorothy Parker called him "a writer of fine style and amazing variety." Critical acclaim notwithstanding, he's not widely known; he tends to elude easy categorization. "My own experience [as a writer] indicates that it is mostly a career of rejection and lost illusions," he wrote. He refuses to use a computer on principle, and rarely grants interviews.

It's the birthday of English poet Ted Hughes (books by this author), born in West Riding, Yorkshire (1930), in the small village of Mytholmroyd. He studied at Cambridge, first English, then archaeology and anthropology; even though he switched disciplines, he continued to read and write, and his interest in folklore informed his creative work. Robert Graves' The White Goddess was especially influential. He became noteworthy as a poet in 1957 with the publication of his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. During a time when most poets were confining themselves to quiet, domestic, and mildly ironic verses, Hughes wrote about dramatic mythological themes, and often tried to write from the point of view of animals, especially Crow, who features in several of his books.

In 1956, after he graduated, he moved to London, where he held a series of odd jobs like rose gardener, night watchman, and zoo worker. Some of his friends launched a literary journal, St. Botolph's Review. They only published one issue, but Ted had four poems in it, so he helped throw the launch party, and it was there that he met an American student and poet named Sylvia Plath. They were married four months later and moved to the States in 1957. They spent every free moment writing poetry; he later wrote, "It was all we were interested in, all we ever did." They had two children together, but separated in 1962 when Hughes had an affair. He came to be seen as a scapegoat after Plath's 1963 suicide, and he didn't write poetry at all for three years afterward. He administered her literary estate, but didn't talk about her publicly until Birthday Letters (1998), his collection of poems about Plath and their relationship. Hughes also wrote books for children, including The Iron Man (1968), which he wrote for his children after Plath's suicide. It was made into a film called The Iron Giant in 1999.

Hughes died of a heart attack in 1998 while being treated for colon cancer. At his funeral, fellow poet Seamus Heaney said: "No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft. No death in my lifetime has hurt poets more. He was a tower of tenderness and strength, a great arch under which the least of poetry's children could enter and feel secure."

Today is the birthday of V.S. Naipaul (1932) (books by this author). He was born in Trinidad, of Indian descent; his ancestors had immigrated to Trinidad as indentured servants. He went to Oxford in 1950 and subsequently settled in England, though he continued to travel widely, and many of his books are set in developing or newly independent countries. He's long been a celebrated author; he won the Nobel Prize in 2001 and has been called the greatest living writer of English prose. He's also no stranger to controversy, but that doesn't bother him. "I remain completely indifferent to how people think of me," he has said. He has had a long-standing public feud with travel writer Paul Theroux, and recently he has drawn ire for his dismissive statements about female authors, saying, "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

It's the birthday of Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller (1953) (books by this author), born in Nitzkydorf, Romania. She wrote her first collection of short stories in 1982 while working as a translator in a factory; the book was censored by authorities. She refused to become an informant for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's secret police, so she received death threats, lost her job, and eventually left the country in 1987. Themes of exile, oppression, and totalitarianism are common in her work. "The most overwhelming experience for me was living under the dictatorial regime in Romania. And simply living in Germany, hundreds of kilometres away, does not erase my past experience," Müller has said. "I packed up my past when I left, and remember that dictatorships are still a current topic in Germany." She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009, becoming only the 12th woman in 108 years to do so.

Author Jonathan Franzen (books by this author) was born in Western Springs, Illinois, on this date in 1959. He grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He studied German at Swarthmore College and then went to Berlin on a Fulbright fellowship. When he came home, he started on his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), writing eight hours a day during the week and working as a research assistant in a Harvard seismology lab on the weekends. His seismology experience provided material for his second novel, Strong Motion (1992).

His third novel, The Corrections (2001), took him eight years to write, and it was published just a couple of days before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Oprah named it to her book club, but Franzen made some disparaging remarks about the literary merit of some of her previous selections. He also worried that it would alienate male readers: "I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience," he told NPR's Fresh Air, "and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, 'If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.'" Oprah withdrew the invitation.

He's also written a collection of essays (How to Be Alone, 2002), and a memoir (The Discomfort Zone, 2006). His most recent novel, Freedom, was released in 2010.

Today is the birthday of mystery writer Steve Hockensmith (1968) (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky. His background is in journalism, and he's worked for the Chicago Tribune, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Newsday. He also served as editor for The X-Files Official Magazine and Cinescape magazine. He's best known for his Holmes on the Range series of cowboy mysteries, of which he has said, "I never set out to do Westerns, really, I set out to do a mystery series. So it was all this accident of my dimness. And I consider myself lucky that it worked out as well as it has, because boy, very easily that could have been buried and gone nowhere." He's also written two books in the Quirk Classics Pride and Prejudice and Zombies series: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (2010) and Dreadfully Ever After (2011).

It's the birthday of Nicola Kraus (1974) (books by this author), born in New York City. She went to New York University, where she met Emma McLaughlin; both were working part time as nannies while they were in school. Together, they co-wrote The Nanny Diaries (2002), a novel that satirizes the wealthy of Manhattan's Upper East Side, told from the point of view of the nanny. It was a commercial hit, and was made into a 2007 movie starring Scarlett Johansson. The pair has co-written four more books, including a sequel called The Nanny Returns (2009).

On this date in 1982, the first compact discs for commercial release were manufactured in Germany. CDs were originally designed to store and play back sound recordings, but later were modified to store data. The first test disc, which was pressed near Hannover, Germany, contained a recording of Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony, played by the Berlin Philharmonic. The first CD commercially produced at the new factory and sold on this date was ABBA's 1981 album The Visitors; the first new album to be released on CD was Billy Joel's 52nd Street, which hit the stores in Japan — alongside the new Sony CD player — on October 1. The event is known as the "Big Bang of digital audio."

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