Displaying articles for: August 2011

Passing the Pigeon

September 1: "Martha," the last passenger pigeon, died on this day in 1914. The decline of the passenger pigeon -- from an estimated 3-5 billion to Martha in 400 years -- is recounted in Andrew Blechman's Pigeons; in his poem "Passenger Pigeons," Robinson Jeffers goes beyond describing to blaming and warning.

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Shawn at The New Yorker

August 31: The legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn was born on this day in 1907. Most memoirs of Shawn's era are full of tributes to his care and craft, though Lillian Ross's Here but Not Here claims that Shawn's job made him feel "trapped, trapped forever, in what seemed to him was nonexistence."

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Cuba, Khrushchev & Kennedy

August 30: The Moscow-Washington "Hot Line" was established on this day in 1963. A Cold War icon, the Hot Line was the direct result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which exchanges between the Kremlin and the White House sometimes took dangerously long to send and decode. If the world was almost blown up by slow messaging, it may have been saved by having superpower leaders as "sane and level-headed" as JFK and Khrushchev.

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End of the Incas

August 29: Atahualpa, last ruler of the Incan Empire, was executed on this day in 1533. The storied details of Atahualpa's captivity and death—his failed attempts to save his life with rooms of gold, and then with a conversion to Christianity—and the subsequent decline of the Incas have inspired both treasure hunters and adventure seekers. Also city seekers: Hiram Bingham discovered the famous city-fortress of Machu Picchu a century ago this year.

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Krakatoa

August 27: Indonesia's Krakatoa volcano erupted on this day in 1883, killing 40,000 (perhaps many more) in elemental ways. Simon Winchester's 2003 bestseller, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded, takes the long view, starting with prehistoric evidence of earlier eruptions, but this only intensifies the impact of the short view, the day when the effusions that had been simmering for months reached their "paroxysmal phase."

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Mistress of Modernism

August 26: Peggy Guggenheim was born on this day in 1898. Guggenheim's biographers have mined her autobiography for its wealth of anecdotes and asides. Many of her stories have a sexual component—one capitalized upon in the titles of two recent biographies, Anton Gill's Art/Lover (2003) and Mary Dearborn's Mistress of Modernism (2004)—but her personality and her art place her at the twentieth century's cultural crossroads.

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Capote & Amis

August 25: Truman Capote died on this day in 1984, and Martin Amis was born on this day in 1949. The two meet, literally, in 1978, Amis arriving to Capote's Manhattan hotel to conduct a scheduled interview and finding his subject incapacitated, or worse: "For pity's sake, I wanted to say—never mind the interview. Let's call an ambulance."

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Jane Eyre & Jean Rhys

August 24: On this day in 1847, under the pseudonym Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë sent the manuscript of Jane Eyre to her eventual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co.; and on this day in 1890 the West Indian-British writer Jean Rhys was born. Rhys's most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, is a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre, its heroine eventually becoming the madwoman in the attic of Rochester's Thornfield Hall.

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Sacco & Vanzetti

August 23: Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on this day in 1927. The debate over their murder convictions seems irresolvable, and in some ways irrelevant to many of those books that have been inspired by the events. One of the more recent is Moshik Temkin's The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2009), which places the events in their largest possible political framework by examining European distaste for "this frightful America whose heart is made of stone."

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Little Orphan Dottie

August 22: Dorothy Parker was born on this day in 1893 in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Henry and Eliza Rothschild ("My God, no, dear! We'd never even heard of those Rothschilds..."). Parker was two months premature (allowing her to say that it was the last time she was early for anything); she was also late, in that her mother was forty-two years old, her closest sibling seven years older. These became the preliminary strokes in Parker's "Little Orphan Dottie" self-portrait.

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Trotsky & Bellow

August 20: Leon Trotsky was fatally wounded in Mexico on this day in 1940—struck by an ice axe while reading—and died in hospital the next day. Saul Bellow was among those who stayed loyal to Trotsky during his years in exile and disfavor. Bellow first learned of Trotsky "in the high-chair while eating my mashed potatoes"; in college he was a card-carrying Trotskyist; in 1940, he was in Mexico, arriving for his appointment with Trotsky just hours too late.

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The McCourt Memoirs

August 19: Frank McCourt was born on this day in 1930. Frank was the oldest of the four McCourt brothers and the first into print, with Angela's Ashes, but Malachy and Alphie have now added at least one volume apiece to the family's informal history of the twentieth-century Irish immigrant experience. Alphie's A Long Stone's Throw (2008) shows that he shares the McCourt talent for landing on your feet, and for the required blarney.

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"Hurricane Lolita"

August 18: On this day in 1958, the first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was published. Nabokov dubbed the events surrounding the publication "Hurricane Lolita," but it was a perfect storm. Within 4 days of publication in the U.S. the book was into a third printing; by September 13th it had become the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks; by the end of September, it was #1 on the bestseller lists.

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Becoming Naipaul

August 17: V. S. Naipaul was born on this day in 1932. Naipaul's father always had a handful of books on the go, and was always calling his sons over to listen to this or that passage from Shakespeare, Dickens or O. Henry—though perhaps not Jane Austen, given Naipaul's recent comments about her sentimentality and his own superiority as a writer.

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Praising Presley

August 16: Elvis Presley died on this day in 1977. The closing pages of Peter Guralnick's monumental two-volume biography -- Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love -- attempt to capture the King's freak-show funeral and to ignore the "cacophony of voices" that would drown the music in the legend.

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Woodstock Nation

August 15: "Woodstock Nation" was officially born on this day in 1969, when the legendary music festival opened in Upstate New York. Richie Havens recalls launching into his famous "FREE-dom!" improvisation, while Ravi Shankar describes the scene as "a terrifying experience" that "reminded me of the water buffaloes in India, submerged in the mud."

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Last Words from Wells

August 13: H. G. Wells died on this day in 1946, aged seventy-nine. Wells was active to the end, adding new books to a pile that already numbered over 100, seizing every new opportunity to air his pessimistic view that the human race seemed doomed by its "foolish dogmatisms and ultimate 'explanations' of life, the priestcrafts, presumptuous teachings, fears, arbitrary intolerances, tyrannies and mental muddles."

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Fordlandia

August 12: The first Model T car rolled off the assembly line on this day in 1908. The "Tin Lizzie," and the "Fordism" that came with it, have been featured in a range of literature, Huxley's "year of our Ford" in Brave New World perhaps the most famous instance. But there is nothing in fiction to rival the true story told in Fordlandia (2009), Greg Grandin's account of the company town Ford plunked down in the Brazilian rainforest.

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Life on the Rock

August 11: The first Federal prisoners arrived at Alcatraz on this day in 1934. Alcatraz may have been a jailbird's Harvard to some—in Alcatraz: the Gangster Years, David Ward says that hanging out with Al Capone and other members of the Most Wanted club was "akin to gaining admission to the most prestigious law school or graduate program in the nation"—but for many it was just another, and final, stop.

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Accepting "America's Attic"

August 10: The Smithsonian Institution was founded on this day in 1846. This was a decade after the fortune of British scientist James Smithson was offered "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." The delay was largely political, some balking at any gift horse which might "raise foreigners to immortality" in America.

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Leniency for Larkin

August 9: Philip Larkin, one of the preeminent twentieth-century British poets, was born on this day in 1922. Larkin's popularity has taken a tumble in recent decades, largely based on revelations about his personal life. The most recent biography of the poet wonders, "Can we claim to know the real Philip Larkin? He played different roles for different people…and all are curious combinations of candour, exaggeration and self-parody."

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The Elgins' Marbles

August 8: Panathenaea, the most important festival in ancient Athens, was held in mid-August, starting on August 8th according to some calculations. The festival is famous today for its closing pageant, as depicted in the marble friezes that Lord Elgin carted off to England in the early 1800s. According to her biographer, much of the praise or blame for the controversial crate-ship-sell scheme must go to Mary Nisbet, the newlywed countess of Elgin.

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Sitting with Shakers

August 6: Mother Ann Lee and a handful of Shaker followers arrived in America on this day in 1774. The Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) found many applications of Mother Ann's famous advice to "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God," one of them in furniture: "The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it" (Thomas Merton).

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Bearing the Agrarian Standard

August 5: Wendell Berry was born on this day in 1934. Berry's novels and poems often reflect the recurring themes of his famous nonfiction: family, environment, farming, and "The Agrarian Standard," the "accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency…for which we probably can find no better name than 'good farming.' "

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Finding the Franks

August 4: Anne Frank's family and the others hiding with them were discovered in their Amsterdam hideout on this day in 1944. Two new books have added a number of details and provocative speculations to the story of the Franks. Treasures from the Attic incorporates many recently discovered family documents and photos; Carol Ann Lee's controversial biography The Hidden Life of Otto Frank alleges that a young Dutch collaborator forced the Franks into hiding, eventually betrayed them, and blackmailed Otto Frank until his death in 1980.

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The Letters of Flannery O'Connor

August 3: Flannery O'Connor died on this day in 1964, from lupus and attendant problems. O'Connor's fiction continues to hold its place, but many readers rank her letters as highly. "There she stands," writes O'Connor scholar Sally Fitzgerald, "a phoenix risen from her own words: calm, slow, funny, courteous…occasionally fierce, and honest in a way that restores honor to the word."

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Carver & Carruth

August 2: Raymond Carver died on this day in 1988, aged fifty. Although Carver's stories are ranked far above his poems, he published a half-dozen collections of poetry and spent what he knew to be his last months on a new one. This last collection inspired Hayden Carruth, one of Carver's friends and colleagues, to write his elegiac poem "Ray."

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Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).