Las Vegas, NV
May 20, 2020
Garrison Keillor hits Las Vegas with a new solo show!
April 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor comes to the Rochester Civic Theatre for a night of stories, songs, poetry, and humor. Tickets $50 and up
February 19, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 2 of 2. Tickets $30+
February 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 1 of 2. Tickets $30+
by Joyce Sutphen
I wrote it over and over—
the way a junior high girl writes
the name of a crush in her notebook
using a different style each time:
first, slanting to the right—the way I
learned from the nuns—then leaning
left to annoy them, then in block letters,
all caps, then in the most perfect cursive:
COVID-19, covid-19, covid-19,
corona virus, COVId-19 Covid . . . 19.
Next day—or sometimes even the next
hour—I’d forgotten. That’s how much I
hated it; that’s how much I wanted it to
disappear. Besides, I thought, History
will give it another name, but no
one will remember mine.
Joyce Sutphen, “Another Name.” © Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission.
Today is May Day, the first of May, a date that may have more holidays than any other. It’s the date when many countries celebrate Labor Day, a tradition with its roots in the 19th-century labor movement in the United States. In 1886 unions around the country went on strike in support of an eight-hour workday. Since many of the organizers of the strikes were communists, socialists, and anarchists, May Day has also come to be associated with communism, and was a big national holiday in the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower tried to take back May Day during the Cold War by declaring it Law Day and Loyalty Day. It remains a day of rallies and protests in many parts of the world, and in 2006 protest returned to the United States on May 1st to call attention to immigrants’ rights.
Its roots as a holiday run much deeper than the labor movement however. It’s been a celebration of spring and fertility in places like Egypt and India, and in pre-Christian Rome it was the time of the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers. In medieval England people gathered flowers to “bring in the May” and erected a maypole bedecked with garlands. It’s also the date of Beltane, a Celtic calendar festival celebrating the start of summer. Beltane was known for its bonfires and has been revived by neo-pagans all over the world as a major religious holiday. In Germany, May 1st was the date of a pagan festival that was assimilated by the Christians and turned into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine’s Day, with the delivery of a tree, wrapped in streamers, to one’s beloved. It’s also a day to celebrate Hawaiian history and culture, and it’s known as Lei Day in Hawaii. One of the largest contemporary May Day celebrations in the United States takes place in Minneapolis, with a parade and pageant staged by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre. It’s been going on since 1975 and attracts about 35,000 people every year.
It’s the birthday of novelist Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1923) and best known for the novel Catch-22 (1961) about an American bombardier named John Yossarian. During World War II, Yossarian attempts to get out of the Army by faking a liver ailment, sabotaging his plane, and trying to get himself declared insane. It became an international best-seller, with the title entering the lexicon to refer to an absurd, no-win situation.
Heller’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father drove a delivery truck and died from a ruptured stomach ulcer when Heller was five. Heller had no memory of him until he entered therapy in his 50s. He said, “In my house, we didn’t often talk about sad things.” He remembered only a happy childhood of corned-beef sandwiches, goofing on Coney Island roller coasters with his friends, and going to the public library to pick up the Yiddish versions of books by Tolstoy for his mother, Lena. Heller loved to read too, especially the Rover Boys series. When he was 10 a cousin gave him the children’s version of Homer’s The Iliad, and right after finishing he decided he wanted to be a writer.
After high school Heller worked as file clerk, a messenger, and a blacksmith’s apprentice. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 and found himself in Italy as a bombardier during World War II where he flew over 60 missions, which was more than twice the normal amount. He did his best, and kept a meticulous diary. Heller said war was “fun in the beginning […] you got the feeling that there was something glorious about it,” but he endured several harrowing episodes that he later used while writing Catch-22, and he became a lifelong anti-war activist.
After he was discharged he went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Columbia and Oxford. He worked as a copywriter at Time and wrote on the side, with short stories appearing in The Atlantic, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan.
One night, or one morning, no one is quite sure, the first lines of what would become Catch-22 came to him: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him.” He finished the first chapter in a week and sent it to his agent, but he didn’t write again for a year — he spent that time planning the book in his head. Eventually, Simon and Schuster gave him $750 for the book and promised $750 more when he was done, which turned out to be eight years later. The book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, discovered that Leon Uris also had a war book coming out the same month as Heller’s, called Mila 18. Gottlieb and Heller brainstormed which numbers sounded funnier: 11 or 14. They settled on 22.
When the book came out in 1961 it received mixed reviews in America but was a best-seller overseas. Gradually, through word of mouth and the escalating situation in Vietnam, young people in the U.S. began to buy the book in droves. It eventually sold 10 million copies and is considered a classic of post-war literature. Heller spent the 1960s traveling the U.S. and speaking out against the Vietnam War at college campuses. “Yossarian Lives” bumper stickers appeared on cars and students against the draft wore Army field jackets with John Yossarian name tags.
Catch-22 was made into a film (1970) by Mike Nichols and starred Jon Voigt, Orson Welles, and Alan Arkin. Heller also worked as an uncredited scriptwriter for the James Bond film Casino Royale (1967).
Heller took 13 years to write his second novel, Something Happened (1974), which one critic summarized as, “Nothing happens.” His other books include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), and Closing Time (1994). None sold as well as Catch-22. When an acquaintance told him he’d never matched the greatness of Catch-22, he answered, “Who has?”
Joseph Heller died in 1999. About death, he said, “Everyone else seems to get through it all right, so it couldn’t be too difficult for me.”
It’s the birthday of novelist and short story author Bobbie Ann Mason (books by this author), born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Nabokov and set out to write something completely different. She said: “Since Huckleberry Finn, or thereabouts, it seemed that all American literature was about the alienated hero. I had a vague sense that I wanted to violate that somehow, that I was sick of reading about the alienated hero. I think where I wind up now is writing about people who are trying to get into the mainstream, or they’re in the mainstream, just trying to live their lives the best they can. Because the mainstream itself is the arena of action.”
So, because she was raised on a Kentucky dairy farm, she decided to write about rural and small-town people in Kentucky. She published her first collection of stories (Shiloh and Other Stories) in 1982, and her first novel, In Country, came out in 1986. She’s been praised for her authentic western Kentucky dialogue.
The Girl in the Blue Beret, was published in 2011. It’s based on the experiences of Mason’s father-in-law, who was an airman during World War II. His plane was shot down in Belgium and he was spirited out of occupied Europe by the coordinated efforts of the Resistance.
Her most recent novel is Dear Ann (2020).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®