Saturday Jun. 18, 2016

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On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love

Sometimes I think
we could have gone on.
All of us. Trying. Forever.

But they didn’t fill
the desert with pyramids.
They just built some. Some.

They’re not still out there,
building them now. Everyone,
everywhere, gets up, and goes home.

Yet we must not
diabolize time. Right?
We must not curse the passage of time.

“On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love” by Jennifer Michael Hecht from The Next Ancient World. © Tupelo Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. Napoleon and Michael Ney led the French army of around 69,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington and about 67,000 multinational — British, Dutch, Belgian, and German — troops, with the added forces of Gebhard von Blücher’s 48,000-strong Prussian army, which arrived near the end of the day. Napoleon had surrendered the previous year, and was exiled to the Island of Elba off the coast of Italy; he escaped in March 1815 and regained control of his empire, and the allied forces reassembled to depose him once again.

It had rained heavily on the night of June 17, so Napoleon delayed the start of the battle from early morning until midday, to give the ground time to dry out. That delay gave the Prussian army time to meet up with Wellington’s forces, and cost the French the battle.

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Jean McGarry (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1948). She grew up in a working-class Catholic family, and when she entered Harvard she became the first person in her family to attend college. She worked as a journalist for the Pawtucket Times and the Detroit Free Press. She said: “The main thing about a newspaper is what not to say. There is a vast area that is too personal, critical, or controversial. There’s probably more fiction in an obit than any other writing.” She went back to graduate school and became a professor and writer. Her books include Airs of Providence (1985), The Courage of Girls (1991), Dream Date (2002), and Ocean State (2010).

She said, “Bad men make for more interesting stories.”

It’s the birthday of writer Amy Bloom (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). Before she became a full-time writer, she worked for 20 years as a psychotherapist. She says some people think that her work history gives her an unfair advantage when it comes to developing fictional characters. She says: “When people say, did being a therapist help you become a writer, I say, no. Not really — although learning to listen to people is certainly a good thing if you’re going to write, as well as learning to shut up so they can finish their sentence.”

Bloom also believes that how people come to be the way they are isn’t really relevant to her — either in fiction or in therapy. “You say to them, ‘You seem to be carrying this little tin can left over from 1964 with you everywhere you go; maybe you’d like to put it down?’ And sometimes they go, no, it’s way too hard to put it down, I would like to ruin my relationships for the rest of my life, thank you very much. And you go OK, see you around.” When it comes to fiction, she says that if a writer does a good job presenting a character, it’s not necessary to write a lot of backstory.

The first book she wrote was a mystery novel called Them There Eyes. She wrote it because she enjoyed reading mysteries and felt that she understood the form. She didn’t publish it, but later, after she sold the rights to another book, the publisher bought the rights to the mystery, too. But when she looked over the mystery again, she realized that it wasn’t as good as it could be, and she didn’t want it to go out into the world as it was. “It wasn’t anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed,” she said. “But it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print.” She bought the rights back from the publisher, and she tinkers with it from time to time, “the way guys go into their wood-working shops,” she says.

She is often asked if she is related to the literary critic Harold Bloom; both of them like to encourage the assumption that they are cousins, but she admits that they are not related. “I have to say, the cousinhood is entirely artificial and volitional. We met a few years ago and adopted each other. We have made ourselves cousins. It is, for me, a great pleasure and it actually feels like an honor when Harold gets going and is reciting a poem and then talking about it. It’s like walking through the library at Alexandria.”

She’s published three novels and four short-story collections. She’s also written a nonfiction book called Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (2002). She drew upon her background in psychotherapy and social work for State of Mind, a TV series on the Lifetime network. It’s about the professional lives of psychotherapists. She’s written a children’s book, Little Sweet Potato (2012). Bloom’s most recent book is the novel Lucky Us (2014).

“If you love somebody, it’s like you get to go on this great picnic, but there will be ants and there will be rain at the end. That doesn’t mean you don’t go, but there will be rain. It’s not like maybe there will be rain. There will be rain.”

It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (books by this author), born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1949). He’s the author of the popular books Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985). His most recent book is The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie (2014), a children’s novel.

He wanted to study art in college, but he hadn’t taken any art classes in high school, so he lied and told the admissions officer he was so advanced that he was given private lessons on the weekends. The officer was impressed, but not convinced, and he asked Van Allsburg what he thought of Norman Rockwell. Van Allsburg didn’t really have an opinion, but he guessed that the admissions officer probably liked Rockwell, so he said: “I believe Norman Rockwell is unfairly criticized for being sentimental. I think he is a wonderful painter who captures America’s longings, America’s dreams, and presents American life with the drama and sensitivity of a great playwright.” The admissions officer approved him then and there, and he became an official art student at the University of Michigan.

His first book was The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), about a boy who chases a dog into the backyard of a magician. He said, “The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context of the ordinary is what’s kind of fascinating to me.”

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