Tuesday Aug. 15, 2017

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The Sound of Summer

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.

David Budbill, “The Sound of Summer” from Tumbling Toward the End. Copyright © 2017 by David Budbill. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Swedish journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson (books by this author), born in Skelleftehamn (1954). He originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. He approached an editor in 2003 after he'd written two novels and started on a third; he planned 10 detective thrillers, called the Millennium Series, but he died of a heart attack the following year. His three novels were published posthumously; the Swedish title of the first volume translates as Men Who Hate Women (2005), but it's better known in the English-speaking world as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That book and its sequels — The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007) — have sold about 30 million copies in 40 countries around the world.

Today is the birthday of the father of the historical novel: Sir Walter Scott (books by this author). He was born in Edinburgh in 1771 and grew up listening to his family's tales of life on the Scottish border. He started off writing narrative romances in verse, and in 1805 he began a novel about the Jacobite revolt of 1745, but didn't finish it. He contributed articles on "Chivalry," "Romance," and "Drama" to the fourth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1801 to 1809. He became a partner in a printing firm and saved it from bankruptcy in 1813, but between paying the firm's debts and building his country house at Abbotsford, Scott nearly went under himself. In search of capital, he dusted off his unfinished novel and completed it in the summer of 1814. Waverly was published anonymously, and it was a critical and commercial success. He followed it with several more historical novels, among them Rob Roy (1817), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and Ivanhoe (1819).

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Edna Ferber (1885) (books by this author). She was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was known for her detailed, but not especially deep, stories of Midwestern life. She began her career as a journalist in Appleton, Wisconsin, when she was only 17; she earned three dollars a week. She later became part of the Algonquin Round Table, an assortment of clever writers who met daily for lunch at New York's Algonquin Hotel. She never married, nor did she have any known affairs with anyone of either gender. In one of her early novels, a character observes, "Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning — a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling."

She's best known for So Big (1924), a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize; Show Boat (1926), which was made into a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II; and Giant (1952), which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. She also wrote plays with George S. Kaufman, like Stage Door (1926) and Dinner at Eight (1932). Her obituary, which appeared on the front page of The New York Times, read, "Her books were not profound, but they were vivid."

She said: "Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!"

Permanent construction began on the Berlin Wall on this date in 1961. After World War II, Germany had been divided up by British, French, Soviet, and American occupying forces. The city of Berlin lay completely within Soviet territory, but it was also divided. Soviet forces controlled the eastern part of the city and the country, and they were increasingly concerned about locking it down against the democratic West. The border was porous after the war, and millions of East Germans emigrated west in search of greater opportunities. By 1961, they were leaving at a rate of a thousand per day.

So in the early hours of August 13, 1961, East German soldiers quietly began laying down barbed wire: a hundred miles of it just inside the border of East Berlin. People woke up and discovered that they had been separated from families and jobs, with no advance warning. And two days later, on this date, the government of East Germany began to replace the wire with a six-foot block wall. The mayor of West Berlin dubbed it the "Wall of Shame"; East German authorities, on the other hand, called it an "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart," and they placed sentry towers and minefields all along the wall. People still tried to escape, even after the wall was raised to ten feet. About half of them made it. West Germany wanted the United States to do something, but President Kennedy was reluctant to act. He told his staff, "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."

Finally, in 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the gates between East and West Berlin were opened again. Over the next year, souvenir hunters known as Mauerspechte, or "Wallpeckers," began chipping away at the wall, knocking off blocks with sledgehammers and climbing back and forth over it. The wall was formally dismantled, and Germany reunified, in 1990.

It's the birthday of Denise Chávez (books by this author), born in Las Cruces, New Mexico (1948), a town just 40 miles from the Mexican border. Her father was a lawyer, and he left the family when Chávez was a child, so her mother, a teacher, raised her with the help of a strong community of women from both sides of the border.

After earning two master's degrees, Chávez went to work on her first novel, the draft of which was 1,200 pages. She and her editor whittled it down to 456 pages, and the resulting book, Face of an Angel, was published in 1994 to high critical acclaim. The novel includes excerpts from the diary of the protagonist, who is a career waitress, as well as a waitress etiquette and philosophy manual. Chávez herself had spent more than 30 years waiting tables.

She grew up in a family that loved to tell stories, and she acknowledges her roots in the oral storytelling tradition, calling herself a "performance writer." In her writing, she also incorporates her bilingual background, and she does not italicize Spanish words in her works, which has caused conflicts with editors who think that the words should be differentiated in the type or set apart somehow.

Chávez has written several plays, three novels — Face of an Angel (1994), Loving Pedro Infante (2001), and The King and Queen of Comezón (2014) — and a children's book, The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals (1992). She also wrote a memoir with recipes, A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture (2006). She is the founder and director of the annual Border Book Festival in Las Cruces.

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