Displaying articles for: August 2012

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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Making Schorr

August 31: Daniel Schorr was born on this day in 1916. In the opening chapter of Staying Tuned, perhaps the most highly praised of his handful of memoirs, Schorr suggests that his boyhood gave him some valuable training for his lifetime in journalism. One cautionary lesson in journalistic ethics and deadline management resulted from his decision to write a report of his high school prom before it even happened -- and then it never took place.

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James in America

August 30: Sixty-one-year-old Henry James returned to the U.S. after almost a quarter-century absence on this day in 1904. Although undertaken in "a passion of nostalgia," the ten-month trip aimed to take the pulse of the bustling nation and its "poetry of motion." In the resulting travel book, The American Scene (1907), James decries American materialism and bad manners in his customary high style.

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The Bird of Happiness

August 29: The Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck was born on this day in 1862. Though Maeterlinck won the 1911 Nobel, his writing is virtually unknown now, the one exception being his popular children's play The Blue Bird. The link between bluebirds and happiness recurs in myths and folktales around the world, and inspires Gretchen Rubin's recent bestseller, The Happiness Project.

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Wit Wisdom

August 28: The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was born on this day in 1913. Davies's Fifth Business and several of his other novels are set in the sort of small Ontario town in which the author grew up and learned several life lessons: "God grant that I may never be a Dry Wit. Let me ever be a Wet Wit! Let me pour forth what mirth I have until I am utterly empty -- a Nit Wit."

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Dreiser's Dawn

August 27: Theodore Dreiser was born on this day in 1871. Few critics have praised Dreiser's writing style -- F. R. Leavis famously observed that Dreiser wrote as if he did not have a native language -- but few have denied that his powerful novels raise important American themes. These, says Dreiser in his memoir Dawn, were born of hard-won experience.

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Oz-mania

August 25: The Wizard of Oz opened in movie theaters across America on this day in 1939. The movie is reportedly America's most popular film and the world's most watched film; the book's popularity, says the biographer of The Real Wizard of Oz, forced Baum to write thirteen sequel novels and "to serve the Land of Oz for the rest of his life."

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Borges in Buenos Aires

August 24: On this day in 1899 Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires. Borges can seem as elusive and labyrinth-hidden as his writing, but the biographies offer fascinating glimpses -- for example, the fact that, except for his brief first marriage, Borges lived with his mother until he was in his seventies, and that even after his mother's death, the housekeeper tells us, Borges maintained his habit of pausing each evening at her bedroom door to tell about his day.

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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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The Bradbury Universe

August 22: Ray Bradbury was born on this day in 1920. Bradbury wrote over 400 stories and novelettes, and significant quantities in almost every other genre. In The Bradbury Chronicles, Sam Weller describes a man with uncontainable energy, anecdotes, plans, and memorabilia: "Each room was jammed wall-to-wall with the run-off of Ray's staggering collection of everything under the sun and the moon and, for that matter, Mars…."

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Bearing Up

August 21: Christopher Robin Milne was born on this day in 1920, an only child to A. A. Milne. For his first birthday, Christopher received "Edward," literature's most famous teddy bear and, says Christopher, the focus of family dysfunction. But the bear birthed an industry of toys and spin-offs; and in one of them, the parodic Postmodern Pooh, Christopher Milne gets the "parentectomy" he might have wanted.

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The Modern Milton

August 20: On this day in 1667 John Milton's Paradise Lost was registered for publication. The poem was controversial -- nothing new for Milton, who had grown used to the "barbarous noise" made by the "owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs" who opposed him, or change. He was, says biographer David Hawkes, the seventeenth century's most important iconoclast and a "Hero of Our Time."

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Balzac & the Countess

August 18: On this day in 1850 Honoré de Balzac died at the age of fifty-one. Balzac's last months were as tumultuous as all the others, and as brimming with life as anything in his seventeen-volume Human Comedy. Most of the drama was related to the Polish countess with whom he had been corresponding for sixteen years.

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Orwell & the Gramophone Mind

August 17: George Orwell's Animal Farm was published on this day in 1945. Orwell hoped that his novel would help combat not only "the negative influence of the Soviet myth" but any politics driven by high-sounding, drum-banging slogans: "The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment."

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Lawrence, Arabia

August 16: T. E. Lawrence was born on this day in 1888. Hero, Michael Korda's 2010 biography, begins with an account of Lawrence's key role in the stunning Turkish defeat at Aqaba. Korda's first chapter, taken from a comment by one of Lawrence's military superiors, is titled "Who is this extraordinary pip-squeak?" -- an allusion to the fact that Lawrence was under five and a half feet tall and a handful for any commanding officer.

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Rushdie, Nehru, India

August 15: India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain sixty-five years ago today. Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay two months earlier, took the title for his 1980 novel, Midnight's Children, from a speech by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru -- though Rushdie's exuberant, tell-all hero was born "handcuffed to history" and fated to yank everybody's chains.

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Baker Times

August 14: Russell Baker was born on this day in 1925. One of Baker's two Pulitzer Prizes was awarded in 1979 for commentary -- the New York Times column Baker began in 1962 and maintained for the next quarter century. The popular columns were later collected in Looking Back and There's a Country in My Cellar, still highly regarded for their witty and wise perspective upon the second half of the twentieth century.

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Stone & Sisters

August 13: The American feminist and abolitionist Lucy Stone was born on this day in 1818. Though older than Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by just a few years, Stone was "the morning star" of nineteenth-century American feminism, her provocative speeches making her "the first person by whom the heart of the American public was deeply stirred on the woman question."

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Alex Haley, Watts & Malcolm X

August 11: The week-long Watts Riots began on this day in 1965, and Alex Haley was born on this day in 1921. Haley's roots as a writer were in journalism, and among his first major interviews for Playboy was one with Martin Luther King, Jr., published seven months before Watts and predicting violence; seven months after Watts, Haley published his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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Milton, Wolfe, and the Angels

August 10: On this day in 1637 Edward King, college friend of John Milton, drowned at sea. Milton published "Lycidas" three months later, giving the elegiac tradition one of its most famous poems and, three centuries later, giving Thomas Wolfe the title to his first and most famous novel: "Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth; / And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."

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Saluting the Sistine

August 9: The Sistine Chapel opened on this day in 1483, its magnificent new frescoes, eight years' work by Botticelli and other leading Florentine artists, on display for Mass. A quarter century later, Michelangelo began his work to extend the chapel artwork from walls to ceiling; completed 500 years ago this year, his paintings continue to inspire and provoke.

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Liars & Flyers

August 8: The Wright brothers made their first public flight on this day in 1908, a spin by Wilbur around a racecourse in Le Mans, France. It had been almost five years since the Wrights' first, history-setting flight; over that period, as they tried to secure patents and protect their ideas from rival aviators, the Wrights had refused to demonstrate their flying claims. This had frustrated an expectant world and raised doubts that they were bluffeurs and "more liars than fliers."

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Heyerdahl & the Kon-Tiki

Auguest 7: Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki raft ran aground in French Polynesia on this day in 1947. Heyerdahl's 101-day, 5,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean captured the imagination of a generation, and his book describing the adventure was a bestseller; the theory that Heyerdahl believed he had helped to validate -- that a vast area of Polynesia was settled east to west -- has not fared as well.

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Austen Unpersuaded

August 6: Jane Austen completed Persuasion on this day in 1816 -- a date lamented by all Janeites, as she died not quite a year later and this last novel, published posthumously, marks the close of her career. Family and friends were always trying to persuade Austen to give up her fine brush and sharp scalpel for High Romance. Her letters seem to have given answer -- "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked."

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The Gospel of Cleanliness

August 4: On this day in 1821 the first issue of the Saturday Evening Post appeared, reincarnated from Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post gave itself a double mandate that was sometimes difficult to exercise -- both "the best and worthiest of contemporaneous literature" and "the gospel of cleanliness" which "appeals to the great mass of intelligent people who make homes and love them, who choose good lives and live them…."

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Owens in Berlin

August 3: Jesse Owens won the 100-meter dash at the Berlin Olympics on this day in 1936. Over the next few days he added victories in the 200 meters, the 4x100 relay, and the long jump, the achievement of four gold medals in track events matched only by Carl Lewis in 1984 (in the same four events). History has also credited Owens with a qualified victory in the racial-political battle against the Nazi propaganda machine.

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The Allende Magic

August 2: Isabel Allende was born on this day in 1942. Allende's nineteen books fall into the interweaving, sometimes competing categories of fiction and memoir. In her interviews, she has admitted her capacity for invention -- "I made up my memories, most of them. I no longer know what is true, what is not" -- and accepted the label of magic realist only with the qualification that "magic, in my case, stands for emotions."

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Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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The Good Inn

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