Wednesday Nov. 16, 2016

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The awful imbalance that occurs with age
when you suddenly see that more friends

have died, than remain alive. And at times
their memory seems so real that the latest

realization of a death can become a second,
smaller death. All those talks cut off in midsentence.

All those plans tossed in the trash.
What can you do but sit out on the porch

when evening comes? The day’s last light
reddens the leaves of the copper beach.

“Recognitions” by Stephen Dobyns from The Day’s Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2016. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of the "First Lady of Radio," mostly forgotten today, Mary Margaret McBride, born in Paris, Missouri (1899). She was one of the first radio interviewers to bring the techniques of newspaper journalism to the airwaves, and in the first 20 years of her syndicated program, she interviewed more than 30,000 guests from the world of politics, literature, arts, and entertainment. In the late 1940s, she had 6 million daily listeners.

She retained her Missouri twang despite spending most of her adult life in New York City. She was known for being an exceptionally well-prepared interviewer, and she stayed up late every night to read her guests' books. She never announced in advance the name of the guests who would appear on the show, so people tuned in each day not knowing whom to expect.

She made daytime radio profitable. She delivered the ads herself, and she only advertised products that she herself actually would want to use, and refused to endorse cigarettes or alcohol.

It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1954). She is known for writing fiction about botanists, oceanographers, and geologists. In order to finish her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), about a group of British scientists exploring the Arctic, Barrett traveled to the Arctic herself. Andrea Barrett said: "I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they're any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There's that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it."

It's the birthday of the blues composer W.C. Handy, born in Florence, Alabama (1873). His father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, and he grew up in a cabin on the Tennessee River. He showed musical promise very early. As a child, he could identify the notes and intervals of birdsongs and ferry whistles he heard from the river. His family expected him to become a minister. When his father discovered he'd bought a guitar, he took it from Handy and exchanged it for a dictionary.

Handy left home and went on the road with a number of bands before ending up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he set up his headquarters on Beale Street. He studied popular music and became the first person to write down the music that would become known as "the blues." His first song, "Memphis Blues," was written for E.H. Crump, who was running for Mayor of Memphis. Later, he wrote his most famous song, "St. Louis Blues." Handy was not the first person to play the blues, but he was the first person to write sheet music for it and make it accessible for mass consumption. For this he was called "The Father of the Blues." He compiled blues music and published a book called Blues: An Anthology in 1926. He also wrote Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (1935).

It's the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe (books by this author), born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). His great-uncle was the man who first received European missionaries into his village. His father became one of the village's early converts to Christianity. Achebe was baptized as a Christian and spent his childhood reading the Bible every day, going to church every Sunday. But he was drawn to the customs of the non-Christians in his community, their traditional festivals and the elaborate masks they wore during religious ceremonies.

He went to a school run by Europeans and read Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Conrad. While reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness, about the colonization of Africa, Achebe found himself identifying with the white colonizers against the African savages. He said, "Eventually I realized [...] I was not on Marlowe's boat steaming up the Congo [...] I was one of those strange beings jumping up and down on the river bank, making horrid faces." He decided to become a writer to give voice to those strange beings in Conrad's novel.

The result was his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people. The book is written in English, but weaves in traditional idioms and proverbs. Achebe said, "[P]roverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." Things Fall Apart is one of the most important works of a nationalist revival in Nigeria. It has become an international success, selling 8 million copies in the first 41 years it was published.

Chinua Achebe said: "It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have — otherwise their surviving would have no meaning."

It's the birthday of the novelist José Saramago (books by this author), born in a small village northeast of Lisbon, Portugal (1922). The child of peasants, he grew up on his family's pig farm. His family moved to Lisbon when he was a teenager, and since his parents couldn't afford an academic school, he went to a technical school and became an auto mechanic. The technical school did offer one literature course, though, and Saramago fell in love with books. Every night after work at the repair shop, he would go to the local public library and read.

He published his first novel, Land of Sin (1947), when he was 24, but after writing two more novels that he considered failures, he stopped writing fiction for the next 30 years. He supported himself as a metal worker, and slowly began to write book reviews and articles for local newspapers. When Portugal came under the rule of an oppressive dictator, he joined the revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. He became the editor of an opposition newspaper, but the government shut the paper down and he lost his job.

Saramago was in his mid-50s, unemployed, and blacklisted by the government. He decided he had no choice but to go back to writing fiction.

He went to live in one of the poorest villages in his country and wrote a novel, Raised from the Ground (1980), about three generations of a peasant family. He tried to write the novel the way a group of people would tell a story, so he didn't capitalize any letters, didn't indent any paragraphs, and he used no punctuation other than commas. When friends told him the book was almost impossible to read, he told them to read it aloud, and they suddenly found it easy to follow.

He went on writing political and fantastic novels through the '80s and '90s. His real international success came when he published Blindness (1997), a novel about a mysterious disease that causes all the people in a city to lose their sight. A year later, in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

José Saramago said: "If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®