Friday Jan. 9, 2015

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Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know

At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter
did, that slender body, that thin face, the grace

with which she moves. When she visits, she sits
with my daughter; they have hot chocolate together

and talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hands,
the concentration with which she does everything,

knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter
at this table and we talked and I watched the grace

with which she moved her hands, the delicate way
she lifted the heavy hair back behind her ear.

My daughter is grown now, married
in a fairy-tale wedding, divorced, something inside

her broken, healing slowly. I look at my granddaughter
and I want to save her, as I was not able

to save my daughter. Nothing is that simple,
all our plans, carefully made, thrown into a cracked

pile by the way love betrays us.

“Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009. © Guernica Editions, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of President Richard Milhous Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California (1913). He grew up poor in a Quaker family in the town of Whittier, where his family ran a grocery store and gas station. He won a scholarship to Harvard, but his parents needed his help in the store, so he attended a local college. He went on to Duke University School of Law, then returned to Whittier to work as an attorney. During an audition for a community theater production, he met a high school stenography teacher named Pat Ryan. He was immediately smitten, although it took her longer to come around; at first she was uninterested, but he was so determined that he even drove her to dates with other men. After they started dating, it was another two years before she finally agreed to marry him. He called her his “Irish gypsy.” In one letter, Nixon wrote: “Every day and every night I want to see you and be with you. Yet I have no feeling of selfish ownership or jealousy. Let’s go for a long ride Sunday; let’s go to the mountains weekends; let’s read books in front of fires; most of all, let’s really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours.”

He served in the Navy during World War II, and he learned to play poker, which was forbidden under his strict Quaker upbringing. He asked a friend for a guaranteed way to win, and the friend said sure, but it’s a boring way to play: drop out of every hand unless you’re sure you have the best one. Nixon did just that, staying away from high-stakes hands, winning $20 here and $40 there. By the end of the war, he had made almost $10,000, and he used his poker earnings to fund his first political campaign. He unseated a five-time Democratic congressman and was elected to Congress with 60 percent of the vote.

It’s the birthday of French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (books by this author), born in Paris (1908). She’s the author of novels and autobiographical works, including Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), but she is best known for her influential study of women in society, The Second Sex (1949). Gloria Steinem said: “If any single human being can be credited with inspiring the woman’s movement, it’s Simone de Beauvoir.

It’s the birthday of playwright Brian Friel (books by this author), born Bernard Patrick Friel, near Omagh, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). In 1959, his short stories began to appear in The New Yorker magazine, which gave him the courage to give up his teaching and start writing full time. His first major play was Philadelphia, Here I Come! — produced on Broadway in 1966. Other major works include Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

It’s the 60th birthday of the New York Times lead fiction critic Michiko Kakutani, born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955. The daughter of a Yale mathematician and herself a Yale graduate, Kakutani worked as a reporter before becoming a book critic at the Times in 1983. Since then she has made a reputation for herself as a fearsome reviewer, one who is unafraid to take on the famous and distinguished, as she did recently in a scathing review of an Ann Beattie novel, which Kakutani described as a “pretentious ... narcissistic, self-indulgent, hot-air-filled tome that wastes the reader’s time with silly creative-writing-class exercises."

Many writers whose work has been the subject of Kakutani’s stricture have had a few words to say about her, including Salman Rushdie who called her “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank.” Susan Sontag said, “Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point,” and Jonathan Franzen called Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York City.”

The Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees, having given Kakutani the award for criticism in 1998.

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