The Writer’s Almanac for June 7, 2018

“A Green Cornfield” by Christina Rossetti. Public domain. (buy now)

The earth was green, the sky was blue:
I saw and heard one sunny morn
A skylark hang between the two,
A singing speck above the corn;

A stage below, in gay accord,
White butterflies danced on the wing,
And still the singing skylark soared,
And silent sank and soared to sing.

The cornfield stretched a tender green
To right and left beside my walks;
I knew he had a nest unseen
Somewhere among the million stalks.

And as I paused to hear his song
While swift the sunny moments slid,
Perhaps his mate sat listening long,
And listened longer than I did.


 It’s the birthday of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, (books by this author) born in Istanbul (1952). He grew up in a wealthy family in a nice house. He wanted to be a painter but it wasn’t quite respectable enough, so he went to Istanbul Technical University to study architecture. It had a radical, Marxist political climate. Pamuk said: “Although I was reading the literature of all these little Marxist factions, I never joined any, and I would go home and read Virginia Woolf. Although I had my sympathies, I saved my spirits by reading Woolf and Faulkner and Mann and Proust.” He decided to leave school, but to be a writer, not a painter.

His first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), sold 2,000 copies its first year. But his second novel sold 8,000 copies in its first year; his third, 16,000; his fourth, 32,000; and his fifth, 164,000. His sixth novel, My Name is Red (1998), had the largest print run of any novel in Turkey’s history.

In 2005, he said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, talking about Turkey: “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” He was arrested and charged with “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” The trial got full media coverage, and important people from all over the world showed up for it. The case was dropped on a legal technicality, but it got him a lot of publicity, good and bad. Internationally, Pamuk’s book sales were skyrocketing, and he was winning awards and getting rave reviews. But at home in Turkey, he was selling less and the critics complained about everything he wrote. In 2004, he published the novel Snow, and in 2005, a memoir, Istanbul. The next year, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Last year, The Museum of Innocence (2008), was translated into English. Many of his novels are political, but this one is mostly about unrequited love, set in 1970s Istanbul. The main character, Kemal, becomes obsessed with a lover, Füsun, when she refuses to become his mistress. So he gives up his well-connected fiancée and all his friends and devotes himself exclusively to ingratiating himself with Füsun in every way. The Museum of Innocence did as well in Turkey as everywhere else. Pamuk said, “It washed — whoosh — all my political problems away, at least for the time being.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist Louise Erdrich, (books by this author) born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her mother was French-Ojibwe, and her father was German; she and her six brothers and sisters were raised in a close, loving family. Instead of watching TV—they didn’t own one—the children were encouraged to write and to memorize poems.

She went off to Dartmouth in 1972, the same year the university started admitting women and the first year of its new Native American Studies program. The program’s director was Michael Dorris. Years after she graduated, Erdrich was invited back to Dartmouth to read some of her poetry, and she became re-acquainted with Dorris, and they ended up getting married.

She started off as a poet. Her first book was Jacklight (1984), a book of poems based on the thesis she wrote for her master’s degree in 1979. She said, “I began to tell stories in the poems and then realized that there was not enough room.” So she moved on to fiction. She published her first short story, “The Red Convertible,” in 1981, and “Scales” in 1982. Later that year, Dorris convinced her to enter a new fiction writing contest, so in the space of two weeks she wrote “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” and she won the $5,000 prize. Two years later, she published Love Medicine (1984),a novel made up of 14 interrelated stories.

Love Medicine is populated with characters who live in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, or its nearby reservation. There is Marie Lazarre, who starts out life convinced she wants to be a nun—”I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me.” And her rival Lulu Lamartine—”Lulu Lamartine was usually controlled as a cat, and got her way through coaxing, cajoling, rubbing against your leg. An old woman who remained infuriatingly pretty, she bent others to her will before they knew what was happening.” And Nector Kashpaw, the man who loved Lulu but married Marie anyway: “Here is what I do not understand: how instantly the course of your life can be changed. I only know that I went up the convent hill intending to sell geese and came down the hill with the geese still on my arm. Beside me walked a young girl with a mouth on her like a flophouse, although she was innocent. She grudged me to hold her hand. And yet I would not drop the hand and let her walk alone. Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness.” After Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich wrote many novels set in the same fictional universe, and Marie, Lulu, and Nector all reappeared, along with others connected to them. Her novels include Tracks (1988), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and Shadow Tag (2010).

She said, “We have a lot of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif—books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the boxes waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench. Advance Reading Copies collect at beside, to be dutifully examined—to ignore them and read Henry James or Barbara Pym instead becomes a guilty pleasure. I can’t imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough, or the right one at the right moment, but then sometimes to find you’d longed to fall asleep reading The Aspern Papers, and there it is.”

She said, “By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. […] With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. No running with the bulls at Pamplona. If you value your relationships with your children, you can’t write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.”


Today is the birthday of the woman who’s been called “the world’s most famous linguist”: best-selling author Deborah Tannen (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1945). She became interested by the different ways people communicate, so she studied linguistics and wrote a book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990). It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for almost four years.

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

From Charlotte, NC with legendary blues singer Nappy Brown, big time country artist Suzy Bogguss, prodigious ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, and national banjo champion Charles Wood.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941), who played the last show of his farewell tour last month in his hometown of Queens, New York.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.” ––Alice Childress, born this day in 1916

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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