Wednesday Apr. 20, 2016

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The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska

Too bad you weren’t here six months ago,
was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska.
You could have seen the astonishing spectacle
of the sandhill cranes, thousands of them
feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River.

There was no point in pointing out
the impossibility of my being there then
because I happened to be somewhere else,
so I nodded and put on a look of mild disappointment
if only to be part of the commiseration.

It was the same look I remember wearing
about six months ago in Georgia
when I was told that I had just missed
the spectacular annual outburst of azaleas,
brilliant against the green backdrop of spring

and the same in Vermont six months before that
when I arrived shortly after
the magnificent foliage had gloriously peaked,
Mother Nature, as she is called,
having touched the hills with her many-colored brush,

a phenomenon that occurs, like the others,
around the same time every year when I am apparently off
in another state, stuck in a motel lobby
with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee,
busily missing God knows what.

“The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska” by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The first modern detective story was published on this date in 1841. That’s Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (books by this author). It first appeared in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, and Poe had been serving as the magazine’s editor since February. He received $56 over and above his salary, which was a high price at the time.

In the story, a mother and daughter have been brutally murdered in a fourth-floor room that has been locked from the inside. Witness accounts are contradictory, but all recall overhearing a voice in a language that they didn’t speak or even recognize. An arrest is made, but the suspect clearly has had nothing to do with the murders. A clever and eccentric young man hears of the murders and offers his services to the bumbling prefect of police.

Poe’s narrator describes the detective in question, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin: “This young gentleman was of an excellent — indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes. By courtesy of his creditors, there still remained in his possession a small remnant of his patrimony; and, upon the income arising from this, he managed, by means of a rigorous economy, to procure the necessaries of life, without troubling himself about its superfluities. Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.” Dupin eventually solves the crime: an orangutan, armed with a straight razor, had committed the murders. The ape had entered the locked room by scaling the building and coming in through the window.

Dupin appeared again in two more Poe stories: “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). He also inspired many of the famous literary detectives we’re familiar with today, including Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Some readers felt that Holmes was a little too much like Dupin, in fact. In the preface to an 1899 edition of the story, Henry Austin takes the opportunity to call out Poe’s imitators: “Perhaps the most gaudy example of this kind of freebooter is furnished by Dr. A. Conan Doyle. His alleged detective, Sherlock Holmes, out of whom he has made so undeserved a reputation, will be found, by anyone who takes the trouble to compare Holmes’s exploits and methods with those of Dupin, about the crudest and most contemptible imitation of a strong original in all literary annals. Not satisfied with taking the general outlines of this character, Dr. Doyle has even reproduced some of the minor incidents of his methods, thereby showing a paucity of invention that would have brought a blush to the cheek of that prince of dime novelists, the late Harlan P. Halsey.”

After Poe left Graham’s, Rufus Wilmot Griswold succeeded him as editor. Griswold and Poe had a complicated and adversarial relationship, and the magazine rejected Poe’s next submission, his poem “The Raven.”

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” has been adapted for the movie screen, radio, video game, and has even inspired a song by Iron Maiden.

It is the birthday of self-taught sculptor Daniel Chester French, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1850). When he was only 23, he was commissioned to make the statue of the minute man for the Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts. His most famous piece is the marble, seated figure of Abraham Lincoln, larger than life-size, which he created for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It's the birthday of novelist Sebastian Faulks (books by this author), born in Donnington, England (1953). He said: “I had a very happy childhood. My parents were kind, humorous and affectionate. My brother, Edward, was a great companion. [...] There was a sense that everything was beginning again — a fresh start after the War. Edward and I were both obsessed by ball games, and in the summer we played cricket for about eight hours a days. I was shy, a loner, but quite content. I think the 1950s were a bit austere if you were grown up, but for a child it was a good time.”

When he was 14, he read novels by Dickens and D.H. Lawrence and decided that he would be a novelist. He graduated early from high school, and before he went on to Cambridge, he spent a year studying in Paris. He said: “It inspired this strange romantic yearning in me. I couldn't understand it for a long time but I know now that it was a yearning for the past. At that time France was a terribly old-fashioned, unmodernized country. You could branch off any main road in any of the provinces and in five minutes you would be back in the 1930s. I have this tremendous greed for the experience of the near past. I never wanted to be a centurion on Hadrian's Wall or to live in 18th-century London, but I would fantastically like to be alive in the 1930s and ’40s and France offered me that imaginative access to the past.” So when he started writing novels, he wrote a trilogy set in France, mostly in the era between World War I and World War II: The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989), Birdsong (1993), and Charlotte Gray (1999). Birdsong and Charlotte Gray were both best-sellers, and in 2003, when the BBC took a poll to determine Britain's favorite book, Birdsong was chosen as number 13.

Faulks was chosen by Ian Fleming’s estate to write a new James Bond book, and it took him just six weeks to write Devil May Care (2008). It sold almost 45,000 copies in its first four days. His other books include Engleby (2007), A Week in December (2009), and Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015).

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