Saturday Feb. 18, 2017

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The Idea of Living

It has its attractions,
chiefly visual: all those

shapes and lines, hunks
of color and light (the way

the gold light falls across
the lawn in early summer,

the iridescent blue floating
on the lake at sunset),

and being alive seems
to be a necessity if you want

to sit in the sun or rub your
toes in the sand at the beach.

You need to be breathing
in order to eat paella and

drink sangria, and making love
is quite impossible without

a body, unless you are one
of those, given – like gold –
to spin in airy thinness forever.

“The Idea of Living” by Joyce Sutphen from Modern Love & Other Myths. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of writer Sholem Aleichem (books by this author), born Solomon Rabinowitz in Pereyaslav, Ukraine (1859). He’s known as the Mark Twain of Yiddish literature. He wrote five novels, many plays, and over 300 short stories.

Aleichem said, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). He wrote dozens of novels about the American West, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Angle of Repose (1973).

He said that to appreciate the West, “you have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.”

It’s the birthday of American writer Toni Morrison (books by this author), born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931), whose novels about the African-American experience have transformed literature. Her novel Beloved (1987), about an escaped slave and the strange drifter she thinks may be her deceased daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Morrison was divorced with two young sons and working at Random House, editing books by boxer Muhammad Ali and activist Angela Davis, when she began writing a story about a black girl named Pecola Breedlove who wants blue eyes. She woke up every day at 4 a.m. to work on the novel, which she called The Bluest Eye; she was 39 when The Bluest Eye (1970) was published. Morrison’s other books include Sula (1973), Jazz (1992), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015). Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993.

It’s the birthday of American novelist, producer, and scriptwriter George Pelecanos (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1957), and best known for his gritty, lyrical crime novels that explore the politics and seamy underbelly of Washington, D.C. He’s also written for television shows like The Wire and Treme. Esquire called him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.”

On writing, he says: “Either you want to tell a story or you don’t. Do you want to draw attention to yourself and your own writing and your beautiful style or do you want to be invisible and let the story and the characters take over for the reader. That’s what it comes down to for me. What comes into it with crime is just conflicts. I like conflict in any kind of popular art. There is no greater conflict than life versus death, so there it is. I’m not that interested in the crime aspect of my books. I am interested in the characters.”

George Pelecanos’s books include A Firing Offense (1992), The Night Gardener (2006), The Way Home (2009), and The Double (2013), and The Martini Shot (2015).

Today is the birthday of British novelist Len Deighton (books by this author), born in Marylebone, London (1929). In 1940, he witnessed the arrest of his next-door neighbor, a woman named Anna Wolkoff. Wolkoff, whose father was a former admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy, was arrested for espionage, after she had been caught trying to pass secret documents to the Germans. It must have made an impression on the 11-year-old Deighton, because he went on to become one of the top three spy novelists of his era, along with John le Carré and Ian Fleming.

His first novel is also his most famous: that’s The Ipcress File (1962). He had good timing, because the very first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962), had just come out, and it was a big hit. His first five books featured an unnamed, overweight, working-class intelligence officer. Michael Caine played the agent, now known as Harry Palmer, in the subsequent film of The Ipcress File (1965). Deighton also wrote a series of nine novels featuring a character named Bernard Sampson, which were published in the 1980s and 1990s.

Deighton doesn’t just write spy novels. He’s also written books about military history. In 1977, he published Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, which was praised by one of Hitler’s ministers. He wrote travel guides and even some cookbooks, including Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book (1965), which was aimed at men “unskilled at knowing their way around the kitchen.” For The Observer, he worked as the cookery editor, and penned a weekly cartoon that showed people how to cook.

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