Tuesday June 9, 2015

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Gender Studies

A cricket chirps in the grass.
Another cricket, all ears,
joins him. Now there are two.
Up above, birds shriek
like drunken gods, the air
is atizzy with the melodrama
of what is about to be.
The two crickets
eye each other
out of the corner
of their cricket eyes.
Each desires something
the other has, each
abhors its own desire.
After a brief silence,
there will be a little
cricket mating, a little
cricket love. Soon,
the air will be abuzz
with the sounds
of heavy cricket breathing,
legs rubbing together,
the sound of war in the air
in crickatese,
a subject for specialists.

“Gender Studies” by Michael C. Blumenthal from Dusty Angel (BOA Editions, 1999). Used with permission by author.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote the songs “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” and “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”: Cole Porter, born in Peru, Indiana (1891). Most of his great songs were written within a 10-year period: between his first popular Broadway musical, Paris (1928) — his first musicals had been complete flops — and a terrible riding accident in 1937. Porter was at a party at the New York home of the Countess Edith di Zoppola when his horse rolled and crushed his legs. He claimed that he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt and that while someone ran for help he finished up the lyrics to “You Never Know.” But he was in fact seriously injured — the doctors insisted that his right leg be amputated, maybe his left as well. Porter refused. He preferred to be in intense pain than be missing a leg.

He lived with the pain for more than 20 years, and he continued to write songs, but never at the same rate of success as he had before his accident. In 1958, after 34 operations on his leg, he finally agreed to have the leg amputated. Porter never recovered from the trauma of the operation. He told friends, “I am only half a man now,” and never wrote another song. He died in 1964 at the age of 73.

He wrote “I Hate Men” for his musical Kiss Me Kate (1948):

Of all the types of men I’ve met in our democracy,
I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy.
He may have hair upon his chest, but sister, so has Lassie!
Oh, I hate men!

It’s the birthday of American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell (books by this author), born in Miami, Florida (1956). Cornwell is the creator of a wildly popular series of crime novels featuring feisty forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell’s first job after college was as a crime reporter, where she developed what some reviewers have called a “masculine” prose style. She said: “I would be riding with policemen in a patrol car, [and] I learned to be very comfortable in the company of men. I have never been accused of having a feminine prose style, it’s true.”

For six years she toiled as a computer analyst at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, before dreaming up the character of Kay Scarpetta and writing a novel titled Postmortem (1990). The book was rejected three times before being published. During the first public reading for the book, Cornwell sold one copy and answered one question: an elderly woman asked where to find the cookbooks. Postmortem went on to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and the French Prix du Roman d’Adventure prizes.

The Kay Scarpetta series, with its gory attention to serial killers and the science of forensics, ushered in a popular wave of forensic fiction and television shows like CSI, Dexter, and Silent Witness. “A lot of components go into creating a monster,” Cornwell says. “Cruelty, savagery, callousness. Do we all have that in us? I suspect we do. We can all do pretty bad things if we don’t pay attention.”

Her fascination with dark material began in her turbulent childhood: her father, who once served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, abandoned the family on Christmas Day in 1961, when she was five. Her mother suffered severe depression and was hospitalized so frequently that Cornwell and her two brothers spent their adolescence impoverished, in foster care in North Carolina. She said: “I learned to escape into my creativity at a really young age. There was so much unhappiness around me and a lot of things were really scary. I found that creating stories made the world safer. I felt more in control. Writing makes me feel better.” In adulthood, she has battled alcoholism, depression, a cyberstalker, and embezzlement by her financial advisor, lamenting, “Real life is so much crazier than anything you could make up.”

On writing the character of Kay Scarpetta for more than years, Cornwell says: “I chastise her! I say to her, Dammit, do something! Why is it always me who has to sit in this chair and solve this case?” She’s meticulous about the research involved for her novels, often visiting morgues to witness autopsies, though she’s never gotten used to the experience. “I find it difficult,” she says. “It’s the little things that get you, like what someone had in their pocket, the photograph of a loved one or a good luck trinket.”

The Kay Scarpetta series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, in 36 languages in 120 countries, and hit the New York Times best-seller list with every publication. Cornwell is the second-biggest-selling female writer in any genre, behind J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter.

It was on this day in 1860 that the first dime novel was published. It was called Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens (books by this author), and it was the first of 321 novels published by Beadle & Adams in their series Beadle’s Dime Novels. The early dime novels were wrapped in a salmon-colored cover, and they actually cost 10 cents. Before long, the phrase “dime novel” was used to mean any cheap, melodramatic pulp fiction, some of which actually cost 15 cents.

Many authors of dime novels wrote nothing else, but there were some established writers who tried their hands at writing pulp fiction. Theodore Dreiser may have helped write the Diamond Dick dime novels. Louisa May Alcott published more than 30 dime novels under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. She wrote to her friend Alfred Whitman: “I intend to illuminate the Ledger with a blood and thunder tale as they are easy to ‘compoze’ and are better paid than moral and elaborate works of Shakespeare, so don’t be shocked if I send you a paper containing a picture of Indians, pirates, wolves, bears and distressed damsels in a grand tableau over a title like this: ‘The Maniac Bride’ or ‘The Bath of blood, A Thrilling Tale of Passion.’” Upton Sinclair wrote boys’ adventure novels; he would dictate about 6,000 to 8,000 words a day to a stenographer.

It was on this day in 1870 that the novelist Charles Dickens died (books by this author); he had a stroke and fell off his chair at the dinner table.

Dickens asked to be buried “in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner,” so even though he was buried in Westminster Abbey, it was a secret funeral, early in the morning, with only 12 mourners. But the grave was left open for a week and thousands of people, all types of people, came to throw in flowers for the man whose tomb is inscribed with the words “He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”

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