Nov. 5, 2011

The Husband

by Joseph Mills

He comes every day to eat lunch and sit
with her in the sun room. Sometimes he reads
letters out loud from their children or friends;
sometimes he reads the paper as she sleeps.
One day the staff makes her favorite cake
to celebrate their anniversary,
and he tells how, to buy her ring, he worked
months of overtime at the factory,
so she thought he was seeing someone else.
"As if I would look at other women
when I have Pearl," he says, shaking his head.
She begins to cry and tells him, "You're sweet,
but I miss my husband." He pats her hand.
"I know," he says, "It's all right. Try some cake."

"The Husband" by Joseph Mills, from Love and Other Collisions. © Press, 53, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, in the United Kingdom. It commemorates the failure of conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. At issue was the anger of Roman Catholics toward King James I, who refused to extend religious tolerance to the Catholics. The conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, planned to target Parliament at its opening ceremony, thereby killing the king and queen and clearing the way for a new era of Catholicism in England. Someone tipped off the authorities, and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught red-handed stashing explosives in the cellar on the night before the planned attack. Fawkes was tortured, tried, convicted, and executed for treason, along with any other conspirators who weren't killed when they resisted arrest.

The first observation of Guy Fawkes Day took place that same year, when bonfires were lit to celebrate the safety of the king, and has been going on ever since. It features fireworks, to represent the explosives, and bonfires, at which Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy. The Yeomen of the Guard also perform a ceremonial search of the Parliament buildings. Children carry the effigies around town for several days prior to the bonfire, asking passersby for "a penny for the Guy." They use their collection to buy fireworks.

Ironically, Guy Fawkes was really just a peripheral figure to the conspiracy. Born a Protestant in 1570, he had converted to Catholicism when he was 23. Catesby and the other leaders of the plot recruited Fawkes because he was a military man, and they thought his experience would serve them well. He was nowhere near the mastermind that tradition has made him out to be.

It's the birthday of Uzodinma Iweala (1982) (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C., to Nigerian parents. He wrote Beasts of No Nation (2005) while he was going to school at Harvard. Published the year after he graduated with an English literature degree, the novel hit bookstores the week of his 23rd birthday. It was his first novel, and it garnered glowing reviews from The New York Times, The London Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker magazine, and many others. Iweala was selected as one of America's 20 Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine.

Beasts of No Nation is about a boy from West Africa whose father, a village schoolteacher, is killed by guerilla fighters who come to town. The boy, Agu, is forced to become a child soldier with those guerilla fighters. He narrates the brutalities of war, and his gradual embrace and enthusiasm for violence, his experiences coming of age in such conditions, his faltering belief in God, his deferred dream of becoming a doctor. The book is written in the first person, in an English cadenced in the idiom of Iweala's parents' native Nigerian languages. At the beginning, the child narrates: "I am not wanting to fight. I am not liking to hear people scream or to be looking at blood. I am not liking any of these thing."

He has also decried the West's fascination with aid to Africa. In a 2007 Washington Post article called "Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa," he writes: "Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West's fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West's prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems."

This year (2011), Iweala graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He's currently working on a book of nonfiction about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, but he plans to return to fiction when he's done. He intends to maintain a dual career as a doctor and a writer.

It's the birthday of playwright Sam Shepard (books by this author), born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). His dad flew a bomber for the Army Air Force during World War II, and the family moved around a lot, finally settling for a while on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California. Shepard said, "It was in this place," surrounded by farms and trailer parks and tenement camps, ranchers and migrant laborers, "that I first began to smell the real adventure of my life."

But after one of his father's drunken rampages, Sam took everything he owned, put it in his car, and left. He ended up in a traveling theater troupe on the East Coast, and he said, "We crisscrossed New England, up into Maine and Vermont. The country amazed me, having come from a place that was brown and hot and covered with taco stands. Finally, we hit New York City and I couldn't believe it. I'd always thought of the 'big city' as Pasadena and the Rose Parade. I was mesmerized by this place." So he got a job as a busboy, and the headwaiter at the restaurant was Ralph Cook, founder of Theatre Genesis, an off-off-Broadway theater doing experimental work. They needed some new one-acts, so Cook encouraged the enthusiastic busboy to submit work, and Shepard wrote play after play, sometimes writing an entire play in one sitting. In 1964, his first plays were produced, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, at a church in the East Village, St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. Sam Shepard was 20 years old.

He has written more than 40 plays, including Buried Child (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize, True West (1980), A Lie of the Mind (1985), and most recently, Ages of the Moon (2009). His early plays tended to be much longer, but now they average about 90 minutes. He said, "I've come to feel that if I can't make something happen in under an hour and a half, it's not going to happen in a compelling way in a three-hour play." Last year, he published a collection of short stories, Day Out of Days (2010), and he's currently starring in the new movie Blackthorn (2011), a Western that re-examines the Butch Cassidy myth. It's not his first time before the movie camera — he played pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983's The Right Stuff,as well as supporting roles in other films, including Days of Heaven (1978), Black Hawk Down (2001), and The Notebook (2004) — but it is a rare starring role. "I don't get offered leading parts," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I suppose I've become a kind of character actor or sideman. I think it had to do with probably in the '90s, I refused so many leading roles that they gave up on me, or I just became unpopular, or I became old. All those reasons."

He writes on a typewriter and refuses to do any research online. He said, "The things that I wonder about most are not on the Internet, I promise you that."

Today is the birthday of Joyce Maynard (1953) (books by this author), born in Durham, New Hampshire. An essay that she wrote in 1972 called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back at Life" set into play a chain of events that culminated in her having a nine-month affair with 53-year-old author and notable recluse J.D. Salinger. He wrote her a letter after reading her essay in The New York Times Magazine; the two began corresponding, and she dropped out of Yale to move in with him. She wrote about the affair in her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World. It was her second memoir; her first, Looking Back, was written when she was just 19. She took a lot of heat for the Salinger memoir, and was called, among other things, shameless and mercenary. She's worked as a columnist and written several novels and a book of true crime in addition to her memoirs. Her latest book, The Good Daughters (2010), is a novel about two women who were born on the same day in the same small New Hampshire hospital.

Today is the birthday of Jordanian-American author Diana Abu-Jaber (books by this author), born in Syracuse, New York, in 1959 to a Jordanian father and an Irish Catholic mother. She's written four novels, including Arabian Jazz (2003) and Origin (2007). She's also published a food memoir — The Language of Baklava (2005) — about Middle Eastern food and culture, including her aunt's "three-pastry solution" to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Her most recent book is Birds of Paradise (2011).

In an interview with Powell's Book Store, Abu-Jaber was asked which section of the newspaper she typically reads first. She responded: "I'm quite partial to advice columns. I don't especially care who's writing it, I just love the whole idea of advice — getting it, giving it out, ignoring it, letting other people get all tangled up in your private affairs. It's very Old Country. I grew up swamped in my family's chronic advice-giving and now I can barely button my sweater without consulting six people first."

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Wolff (1937) (books by this author). He was born in Hollywood, California; his parents, Duke and Rosemary, split when he was 12. Geoffrey chose to go with his father, while his younger brother Tobias decided to stay with their mother. Years later, the two would write parallel — one could also say "dueling" — memoirs about their itinerant and separate childhoods: Geoffrey wrote Duke of Deception (1979), and Tobias wrote This Boy's Life (1989). Wolff has also written six novels, including Providence (1985), The Final Club (1990), and The Age of Consent (1995), as well as three biographies and numerous essays.

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




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