Wednesday Aug. 24, 2016

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Portrait of Viola

They lived without electricity.
Their water came from a hand pump
at the base of the windmill.
A Nebraska farm, 1935.
She said, you can’t miss what you
never had. Drugstore goldfish
in the water tank turned into
giant orange and white carp,
Koi prized in another country,
another class. Her father threw them
out into the prairie claiming
they’d poison the cattle.
Rattlesnakes, a way of life,
careful checking before eggs
were gathered from the darkness
of nesting boxes. Everywhere, heat.
Gone with the Wind
in 1939. She was fourteen.
During the war, she looked like
one of the Andrews Sisters.
First child at twenty, last at thirty-nine.
All survived save one, gone
at thirty. The death of her daughter
turned her hair white.
Eighty-four and she’s lived alone
for longer than she was married,
her husband a man with a wild imagination
but a weak mind. He was born
the year the Titanic sank.
That should have told me something.
Now, central air for the worst
of the heat. In her lifetime:
organ transplants, space flight,
television, artificial hearts.
On still nights she sleeps with
just a sheet, the window open wide,
summer’s heat hard and dry.

“Portrait of Viola” by William Reichard from Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity. © Broadstone Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Rome was sacked by the Visigoths on this date in the year 410. It was the first time in 800 years that Rome was successfully invaded, and marked the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Alaric, a chieftain in his mid-30s, was the leader of the Visigoths. They came from what is now Germany, and were one of the many tribes who were suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. Roman leaders enforced higher and higher taxes on the people in their outer provinces, and corrupt local officials grew wealthy while the people stayed poor. Rebellions broke out, and the Visigoths started moving toward Rome.

The Visigoths began their siege of Rome in 408, and soon residents were starving. Alaric wanted land on which he and his people could settle. He also wanted a position of respect within the empire. He ended his first siege when the Roman Senate paid him off. But after his chief demands were repeatedly rebuffed, he returned to his siege on Rome, this time waging an all-out attack. Rebellious Roman slaves — many of whom had been captured from Germanic tribes — opened the gates to Alaric in the middle of the night. The Visigoths burned, looted, raped, and pillaged, but they treated Christian sites and relics with respect.

St. Jerome, one of the great Church leaders of the day, was living in Bethlehem when Rome fell. He wrote: “In one city, the whole world perished.” At its height, the Roman Empire had stretched from Britain and the Atlantic to North Africa and Mesopotamia.

It was on this day in 1456 that the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible was bound and completed in Mainz, Germany. The Gutenberg Bible was the first complete book printed with movable type. The press produced 180 copies of the Bible. Books had been printed on presses before, in China and Korea, with wood and bronze type; but Gutenberg used metal type, and made a press that could print many versions of the same text quickly. His contributions to printing were huge: he created an oil-based printing ink, he figured out how to cast individual pieces of type in metal so that they could be reused, and he designed a functioning printing press. But others before him had come up with similar ideas. Probably the most important thing that Gutenberg did was to develop the entire process of printing — he streamlined a system for assembling the type into a full book and then folding the pages into folios, which were then bound into an entire volume — and to do it all quickly. The techniques that Gutenberg refined were used for hundreds of years, and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible marked a turning point in the availability of knowledge to regular people.

Today is the birthday of Argentine poet, short-story writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires (1899), whose dreamlike, labyrinthian prose gave rise to the term “magical realism.”

Borges grew up comfortably, but not wealthily. His family was rich in literature, though, and he had access to over 1,000 books in his family’s large library. He began reading Shakespeare at 12 and always knew he would be a writer. At nine, he translated Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into Spanish. It was published in a newspaper and was so good that many people thought his father must have done it, not Borges.

Borges’s family moved to Switzerland when he was 15, traveling widely throughout Europe. He began writing poems in the fashion of Walt Whitman and reading the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which would influence his later writing.

His family returned to Buenos Aires and Borges published his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He got a job in a municipal library with a very small collection, which allowed him to finish his daily cataloguing duties quickly. He spent the rest of the day in the basement, writing. His first collection of short stories, A Universal History of Infamy (1935), which is a fictionalized account of real-life criminals, is considered to be the beginning of magical realism and Borges’s true style. After Borges suffered a serious head wound (1938), he wrote his most famous works, creating his own worlds, languages, and symbols. His second collection of short stories, El jardín desenderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of the Forking Paths, 1941), is a combination of book and maze, featuring stories about a library containing every possible 410-page text and a man who forgets nothing. He even wrote strange detective stories with a friend under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. They were published as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (1941). When dictator Juan Domingo Perón came to power in 1946, Borges was fired from the library for his support of the Allies during World War II. Perón made him head inspector of rabbit and poultry to punish him. Borges resigned the post.

Borges was famous in Argentina, but didn’t become famous in America until after his books began to be translated in 1961. He traveled and lectured frequently, but he also began to go blind, which he called “a slow, summer twilight.” He never learned to read Braille, and his mother — who lived into her 90s — became his secretary. He dictated his stories to her and, gradually, began writing only poetry. He said: “Blindness made me take up the writing of poetry again. Since rough drafts were denied me, I had to fall back on memory.” Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986. His books include Ficciones (1944), The Aleph (1949), Book of Imaginary Beings (1967), and The Book of Sand (1975).

It’s the birthday of the writer Oscar Hijuelos (books by this author) born in New York City in 1951. His parents were immigrants from Cuba, and his father supported the family by working in a hotel. Hijuelos went through the New York public schools, he went to City University, and then he got a job working in an advertising office. At night he would write fiction, and he began to publish short stories, and slowly, story by story, he started to win grants and fellowships that gave him more time to write. He published the novel Our House in the Last World (1983), and then seven more novels, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), and all of them are stories of Cuban-American life. Mambo Kings won the Pulitzer Prize, which made Hijuelos the first Latino novelist to receive that honor. His novel Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise (2015) was published posthumously last year.

It’s the birthday of American novelist John Green (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1977). He is best known for his blockbuster young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars (2012), about two adolescents with cancer who fall in love.

Green was bullied in middle school and his parents sent him to boarding school in Alabama, where he thrived. He started reading books by J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Michael Chabon and thinking that he could be a writer, too. At Kenyon College, he was devastated when he didn’t get into an advanced creative writing course, but the instructor told him: “Your writing isn’t that great. But the stories you tell during the smoke break — if you could write the way you told those stories, then you would write well.”

He spent seven years as a publishing assistant and production editor for Booklist in Chicago, writing reviews for books about conjoined twins and football. He was also working on his first young adult novel, Looking for Alaska (2005), which featured the first of what would become a Green trademark: a sweet, smart teenage boy with a crush on a charismatic, mercurial girl. The book has the distinction of being one of the top 10 most banned young adult books in the Unites States due to its depiction of teen sexuality. Green is adamant about portraying teens in a realistic light, saying, “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful.”

Looking for Alaska sold modestly, as did his next novels, An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008). But he and his brother, Hank, had also begun a successful YouTube channel together, calling themselves The Vlogbrothers. The channel now has subscribers in the millions and promotes education and humanitarianism. Green’s profile grew so rapidly that when his sixth novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was announced, it reached best-seller status on Amazon six months before it was released, due solely to preorders. Green was inspired to write the book from his time as a student chaplain at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Chicago. He worked with ill children for five months, intending to become an Episcopal priest. The book spent 45 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times Young Adult list and was made into a film (2015).

About writing for teenagers, Green says, “I love the intensity teenagers bring not just to first love, but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being — the first time you’re taking in why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life.”

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