Thursday Apr. 30, 2015

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Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night

I’ve always liked the view from my mother-in-law’s house at night,
Oil rigs off Long Beach
Like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific,
Stars in the eucalyptus,
Lights of airplanes arriving from Asia, and town lights
Littered like broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.

In summer, dance music is borne up
On the sea winds from the hotel’s beach deck far below,
“Twist and Shout,” or “Begin the Beguine.”
It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,
And pleasant to picture them down there
Turned out, tipsy and flushed, in their white shorts and their turquoise

Later, I like to sit and look up
At the mythic history of Western civilization,
Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac.
I’d like to be able to name them, say what’s what and how who got
Curry the physics of metamorphosis and its endgame,
But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.

“Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night” by Charles Wright from Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. ©Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (books by this author) was first published in serial form on this date in 1859. It appeared in the first issue of a new weekly journal, All the Year Round, which Dickens founded himself.

A Tale of Two Cities was on the front page of the first issue, and thanks to Dickens' popularity, it sold 125,000 copies. At the end of the journal's first quarter, Dickens wrote in a letter, "So well has All the Year Round gone that it was yesterday able to repay me, with five per cent. interest, all the money I advanced for its establishment (paper, print etc. all paid, down to the last number), and yet to leave a good £500 balance at the banker's!" Dickens was so encouraged by its success that he also serialized Great Expectations in the journal, beginning in December of 1860.

Dickens published All the Year Round until his death in 1870. After that time, his son, Charles Dickens Jr., took up the reins, editing the journal until 1895. During its 36-year run, it featured the work of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and several others.

A Tale of Two Cities begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..."

Today is the birthday of Annie Dillard (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). She began writing poetry in high school, and then studied English in college. After writing a master's thesis on Thoreau's Walden, she moved to a cabin in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. There she wrote poetry and also kept a daily journal of her observations of nature and her thoughts about God and religion. She wrote in old notebooks and on four-by-six-inch index cards, and when she was ready to transform the journal into a book, she had 1,100 entries. "By the time I finished the book, I weighed about 98 pounds," Dillard said. "I never went to bed. I would write all night until the sun was almost coming up."

The result, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was published in 1974, and Annie Dillard received her first literary award the following year: the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. She was only 29 years old. She has published collections of essays and of poetry, as well as an autobiography. Her most recent work is a novel, The Maytrees (2007). When it comes to writing, she says: "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark."

On this day in 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from the French. More specifically, the United States bought France's "claim" to the Louisiana Territory. The actual land belonged to the various Indian nations that lived on it, and the U.S. government acquired it gradually, through purchase and war, over the rest of the 19th century.

The Louisiana Purchase cost $15 million — less than three cents an acre — which we borrowed from European banks at 6 percent interest. It was a smoking deal, since Jefferson had been willing to pay $10 million for the port of New Orleans alone. The territory covered 828,000 square miles, stretching from present-day Louisiana north to Canada, and as far west as the border of Idaho, doubling the geographical area of the United States.

Today is the birthday of Alice B. (for Babette) Toklas (1877) (books by this author). Though she is best known as Gertrude Stein's partner, she also wrote three books, none of which is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — that was the title Gertrude Stein gave her own autobiography, written from the point of view of her lover. And the term "lover" is unduly limiting: Toklas was also Stein's typist, cook, secretary, editor, critic, housekeeper, and co-host of a series of salons that included such luminaries as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Matisse.

A love of Henry James inspired her to visit Europe, and that's where she met Stein, who was living in Paris, in 1907. They were together until Stein's death in 1946. Toklas published The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954; it was a collection of recipes gleaned from her friends, seasoned liberally with reminiscences of her life with Stein. Its most notorious recipe was donated by avant-garde artist and poet Brion Gysin, and in his introduction to the recipe he promises "euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one's personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better." The recipe was for "Haschich Fudge," and though Toklas claimed she never tested it, it led some readers to speculate about the role that cannabis had played in Stein's more abstract verses."

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