Monday Aug. 15, 2016

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Mr Daley

Mr Daley could whistle between his teeth
but just the one phrase over and over
it was in the good old summertime
and it made my mother sniff and shake her head
as he pushed the big wooden spoon around
and around the pot of flour paste he was mixing
on the old coal range in the back kitchen
near the laundry tubs that smelled of laundry tubs
as the flour paste smelled of flour paste
and Mr Daley smelled of Mr Daley
in a stale shirt he was old in his fifties
with a hump between his shoulders and it was
still summertime and he would carry the pot
up the back stairs to the heat of the attic
where he had already carried the truckload
of mattress cartons one at a time
got for nothing from the Furniture Store
& Funeral Parlor on South Main Street
and he had nailed them up under the attic beams
and then would paper them end to end with old
church bulletins as insulation
because the house was so cold in winter
he kept laughing to himself about something
while he worked and whistled they said he was not
like his daughter Isabel whom they admired
who worked in Thomas’s Piano Store
that would burn down one winter with icicles
forming from the jets of the fire hoses
and the flames racing up inside the rooms until
the top floors stacked high with pianos
crashed slowly together through icicles
and piano chords chiming in chorus
while I stood watching from across the street
on the stone steps of the Methodist church
remembering Mr Daley whistling
between his teeth in the good old summertime

“Mr Daley” by W.S. Merwin from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (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!"

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