Dec. 21, 2011


by Mary Oliver

Unfortunately, we don't have permission to display today's poem online. Please listen to today's episode or purchase Owls and Other Fantasies to read it.

"Crow" by Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies. © Beacon Press, 2003. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist Rebecca West (books by this author), who was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London in 1892. As a young woman, West began writing for a suffragist weekly as well as penning reviews, including a scathing assessment of an H.G. Wells novel that prompted the middle-aged Wells to seek out the young journalist and seduce her. They fell in love, had a son together and, soon after, West began producing books of her own, novels such as The Return of the Soldier (1918) and her personal favorite, Harriet Hume (1929).

Already interested in cultures and social reform, in 1937 West traveled to what was then Yugoslavia and wrote the book for which she is best remembered, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942), a detailed account of Yugoslavia's past and present, its people, art, and politics. This and later journalistic books such as The Meaning of Treason (1947) prompted critics to describe her work as "reporting raised to the level of literature."

Writing and foreign travel remained among West's greatest joys and she continued to express her views of politics and interest in historical change and politics in her writing, although she conceded that, "After any disturbance ... we find our old concepts inadequate and look for new ones. But it unfortunately happens that the troubled times which produce an appetite for new ideas are the least propitious for clear thinking."

It's the birthday of the man who said "Country people do not behave as if they think life is short; they live on the principle that it is long, and savor variations of the kind best appreciated if most days are the same." That's Edward Hoagland (books by this author), born in New York City (1932), who began his literary career as a novelist but is best known for his nature and travel writing. His first books were what he called "documentary novels," books like Cat Man (1956), which was based on what he had seen working as a lion keeper for a traveling circus, and The Circle Home (1960), about a washed-up boxer.

Hoagland refers to himself as peripatetic and happy when going about with Mississippi muskrat trappers or riding mules down the Rio Grande. So in the mid-1960s, he set out for British Columbia to ride the rivers, follow the trails, and talk with old-timers about the heyday of the homesteaders and prospectors. He began keeping a journal of his trip, which became the nonfiction book Notes from the Century Before (1969) and led him to writing essays instead of novels.

For Hoagland, the essay was a freer form than fiction and he wrote on everything from tugboats and taxidermy to jury duty and suicide, to go-go dancers and the time he mailed his mutilated draft card to President Johnson. His first collection was The Courage of Turtles (1971), followed by Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973) and numerous others. His most recent book of essays is Sex and the River Styx, which was published earlier this year.

He said, "Many divorces are not really the result of irreparable injury but involve, instead, a desire on the part of the man or woman to shatter the setup, start out from scratch alone, and make life work for them all over again. They want the risk of disaster, want to touch bottom, see where bottom is, and, coming up, to breathe the air with relief and relish again."

On this day in 1937, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in Los Angeles, California. The film was groundbreaking in just about every respect. It was the first feature-length cartoon, which critics believed no one would be able to sit through, and the first to be produced in the new Technicolor, even though many feared the bright, saturated colors would hurt people's eyes. The story was a classic European fairy tale, which also had critics wondering if anyone could possibly be interested in the subject matter; even Disney's own wife told him, "No one's ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture." But on its opening night, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received a standing ovation and went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year, winning awards and the highest of praise from critics. As one reviewer put it: "Nothing quite like it has been done before; and already we have grown impolite enough to clamor for an encore. Another helping, please!"

Today is the birthday of the English Proust, Anthony Powell (books by this author), born in Westminster, England (1932). Powell is famous for having written what is often called the longest work of fiction in the English language, the 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975).

Powell's masterwork, usually just referred to as Dance, takes a million words to create a panoramic picture of upper-class English life that spans more than half a century. He published the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, in 1951, with a new book in the sequence appearing about every two years.

Perhaps because reading Dance is a massive undertaking, it is less known among readers than Powell's final two novels, O, How the Wheel Becomes It! (1983) and The Fisher King (1986).

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




  • “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
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