Sunday Apr. 24, 2016

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Places to Return

There are landscapes one can own,
bright rooms which look out to the sea,
tall houses where beyond the window
day after day the same dark river
turns slowly through the hills, and there
are homesteads perched on mountaintops
whose cool white caps outlast the spring.

And there are other places which,
although we did not stay for long,
stick in the mind and call us back—
a valley visited one spring
where walking through an apple orchard
we breathed its blossom with the air.
Return seems like a sacrament.

Then there are landscapes one has lost—
the brown hills circling a wide bay
I watched each afternoon one summer
talking to friends who now are dead.
I like to think I could go back again
and stand out on the balcony,
dizzy with a sense of déjà vu.

But coming up these steps to you
at just that moment when the moon,
magnificently full and bright
behind the lattice-work of clouds,
seems almost set upon the rooftops
it illuminates, how shall I
ever summon it again?

“Places to Return” by Dana Gioia from The Gods of Winter. © Graywolf Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London, England (1815). As a young man, he got a job in London as a postal clerk. He struggled to pay his bills, he had a series of unhappy love affairs, and nothing came of his writing. Then, in 1841, he was offered a transfer to Ireland, and he saw it as a chance to get away from the scene of his failures. In Ireland, Trollope developed a social life for the first time. He went hunting and he went to pubs, and he fell in love and got married, all within a few years. Once he had settled down to his new life, he began to write about a fictional county called Barsetshire.

In just 11 years, between 1855 and 1866, Trollope published six novels about the extended families and parishioners and civil service workers living in that imaginary county, novels such as The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866), all of which were best-sellers.

For most of his writing life, he continued to work for the British postal service and even helped invent the street-corner mailbox. To turn out his novels, he woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours, producing about a thousand words an hour. In less than 40 years, he published 47 novels, as well as many other books of essays and sketches. He said, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Today is the birthday of American detective novelist Sue Grafton (1940) (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky. Grafton is the author of the best-selling series of “Alphabet” novels featuring tough-talking female private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Grafton began the series with A is for Alibi (1983) and has continued on ever since. She says the last book will be titled Z is for Zero. The Kinsey Millhone novels have been published in 28 countries in 28 languages. Grafton describes Kinsey Millhone as her alter ego, only “younger, smarter, and thinner.” When asked why she chose the genre of mystery, she said, “The mystery novel offers a world in which justice is served. Maybe not in a court of law, but people do get their just deserts.”

Grafton’s childhood was difficult. Both her parents were alcoholics and sometimes violent. She says, “From the age of five onward, I was left to raise myself, which I did as well as I could, having had no formal training in parenthood.” Her father was a lawyer and mystery novelist, himself, writing under the name C.W. Grafton. She began writing at 18 and finished her first novel four years later. Then she wrote six more. Two of them were published, but not to success, so she turned to writing for television. She worked on scripts for the television show Nurse (1981–1982), starring Michael Learned, and the movie Sex and the Single Parent (1979).

Writing screenplays taught her how to structure a story, create tension, plot action sequences, and hone her dialogue. While going through a bitter divorce and custody battle, Grafton found herself imagining ways to kill her ex-husband, so she began writing them down. She says, “Personally, I’m a fan of vengeance and I’m convinced forgiveness is overrated.” A few months after her father died, the first Kinsey Millhone book was published. After G is for Gumshoe (1990) was published, she quit Hollywood for good.

Of Kinsey Millhone, Grafton explains, “I think of us as one soul in two bodies and she got the good one.”

In N is for Noose (1998), Kinsey Millhone says: “Get close to someone and the next thing you know, you’ve given them the power to wound, betray, irritate, abandon you, or bore you senseless. My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion. In psychiatric circles, there are names for people like me.”

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (books by this author), born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905), America’s first poet laureate. He grew up in the South, but spent most of his career as a professor in northern universities. Before heading north in 1942, he joined his friend Cleanth Brooks in founding The Southern Review, which published work by Eudora Welty, W.H. Auden, and other major writers of the time. He and Brooks also wrote two college textbooks together, Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), both of which taught students in the post-War generation how to read literature. In 1947, he won the first of three Pulitzer Prizes, for his novel All the King’s Men (1946), based on the rise and fall of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. His other two Pulitzers were for poetry: in 1958 and 1979. His poetry collections include Promises: Poems 1954–1956 (1957), Audubon: A Vision (1969), and Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978 (1978). In all, he was the author of 16 collections of poetry and 10 novels.

It’s the birthday of novelist and journalist Clare Boylan (books by this author), born in Dublin (1948). She is best known for her work Emma Brown (2003), in which she set out to finish a novel that Charlotte Brontë had begun. Boylan had been fascinated with Charlotte Brontë for a long time, and she had even tried to write a play about the end of Brontë’s life. Then she found an 18-page fragment of a manuscript that Charlotte Brontë had begun writing in the 1850s, shortly before her death. It was two chapters of a novel featuring a protagonist named Emma, and Clare Boylan set out to finish the novel that Brontë had started.

She went through Brontë’s personal letters, all of her published works, and biographies. She wrote a first draft, but she was not satisfied with it. So she got out of the library and onto the streets, and wandered around the places in London that Charlotte Brontë would have walked: Euston, Soho, and the East End. She took notes and infused more life into her book, and in 2003 she published Emma Brown. One critic compared what Boylan had done to an artist taking an isolated sliver of a Renoir painting and then completing the painting perfectly.

Clare Boylan grew up in a suburb of Dublin, the youngest of three daughters. She wrote about her childhood: “A suffocating respectability combined with a feeling of being center-stage (for God and the neighbors saw all things) meant we lived in a constant state of fear and stasis. Behind lace curtains, eccentricities, failures, petty scandals, loomed like monsters. Family secrets, and the poignant and comic efforts of people to conceal them, have remained a strong force in my fiction.”

She died from ovarian cancer in 2006. Her novels include Last Resorts (1984), Black Baby (1988), and Beloved Stranger (1999).

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