Monday Apr. 20, 2015

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Widows

My mother’s playing cards with my aunt,
Spite and Malice, the family pastime, the game
my grandmother taught all her daughters.

Midsummer: too hot to go out.
Today, my aunt’s ahead; she’s getting the good cards.
My mother’s dragging, having trouble with her concentration.
She can’t get used to her own bed this summer.
She had no trouble last summer,
getting used to the floor. She learned to sleep there
to be near my father.
He was dying; he got a special bed.

My aunt doesn’t give an inch, doesn’t make
allowance for my mother’s weariness.
It’s how they were raised: you show respect by fighting.
To let up insults the opponent.

Each player has one pile to the left, five cards in the hand.
It’s good to stay inside on days like this,
to stay where it’s cool.
And this is better than other games, better than solitaire.

My grandmother thought ahead; she prepared her daughters.
They have cards; they have each other.
They don’t need any more companionship.

All afternoon the game goes on but the sun doesn’t move.
It just keeps beating down, turning the grass yellow.
That’s how it must seem to my mother.
And then, suddenly, something is over.

My aunt’s been at it longer; maybe that’s why she’s playing better.
Her cards evaporate: that’s what you want, that’s the object: in the end,
the one who has nothing wins.

“Widows” by Louise Glück from Poems: 1962-2012. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1914 that the Ludlow Massacre occurred in Ludlow, Colorado, after the National Guard opened fire on a group of striking coal miners. The miners worked for Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, which was owned by the Rockefeller family. The strike had begun in September of 1913. Eight thousand miners were protesting low pay, terrible working conditions, corrupt management, and towns that were completely controlled by the mining company. Some of the strikers’ demands for safety and legal protections were actually required by Colorado law, but were ignored by the company.

When the miners began striking, they were evicted from their homes, so they set up tents in makeshift camps. The Rockefellers hired an ad hoc local militia to patrol and raid the camps, and violent confrontations sprang up between the militia and the miners. In November, the company asked the Colorado governor to call in the National Guard, and he agreed. The Rockefellers paid the National Guard’s wages.

On April 20th, the militia fired at some of the strikers with machine guns. The miners fired back, and a daylong gunfight broke out. That evening, the National Guard set fire to the camp. Thirteen residents were shot and killed trying to escape. People dug pits in the ground to escape the shooting, and a group of 11 children and two women were burned to death in one of the pits. Dozens of people died in the days of rioting that followed.

Wallace Stegner called it “one of the bleakest and blackest episodes of American labor history.”

In an open letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr., Upton Sinclair wrote: “I intend to indict you for murder before the people of this country. The charges will be pressed, and I think the verdict will be ‘Guilty.’“

It’s the birthday of one of Britain’s most popular living novelists, Sebastian Faulks (books by this author), born in Newbury, England (1953). His first novel, A Trick of Light (1984), didn’t catch on with readers, but his next novel, The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989), sold better. Eventually his 1993 novel, Birdsong, flew off shelves and is still a favorite among contemporary readers.

To honor the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming (May 28, 1908), the man who created James Bond, Faulks was commissioned by the Fleming estate to write the next official Bond novel. He was surprised to be chosen, and since he hadn’t read any of the books since he was a young boy, he agreed to the project only if he enjoyed them as much again as an adult.

“On rereading, I was surprised by how well the books stood up,” Faulks said in a statement when his version, Devil May Care, was released. He credits three things with making the Bond novels so enduring: “the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero, a certain playfulness in the narrative details, and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated.”

Devil May Care picks up right where Fleming left off — with Bond in Paris at the height of the Cold War, a beautiful woman at his side, and danger around every corner. It was published in 2008 and became the fastest-selling hardcover novel in the publisher’s history.

It’s the birthday of fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle, born in New York City (1939). He attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he wrote poems and short stories. During his senior year, he submitted a poem to the Scholastic Writing Awards contest, without checking to see what the prizes were. His poem won first place, and it turned out that his prize was a college scholarship, so he went to the University of Pittsburgh. His first novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), was published when he was just 19.

Beagle is probably best known for The Last Unicorn (1968), the story of a unicorn who realizes she is the last unicorn who is not imprisoned, and sets out on a quest to free the others. He said: “It’s hard for me to do anything but marvel at the impact the story has had. It was the hardest, least fun thing I’ve ever had to write, and back when I finished it I was convinced I’d utterly failed to do justice to the idea.” The Last Unicorn has sold more than 5 million copies.

His other books include The Innkeeper’s Song (1993), The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances (1997), Mirror Kingdoms (2010), and Sweet Lightning (2014).

He said: “The best advice I know to give is to learn to put up with boredom and frustration. You have to sit through the dull times when nothing’s coming and stay there, for however much time you’ve given yourself to write, even then. It doesn’t have to be all day that you do this — it could be an hour, two hours maybe — but the ability to just stay there in the face of soul-wearying emptiness, that has to be developed just like any muscle. Because that’s what imagination is: a muscle, and it has to be worked out. So you sit there in the face of nothing, or you write gibberish you know you’re going to toss the next day. But you stay there. You work at it. You fill the time. And gradually, the empty days grow fewer, and the frustration periods shrink. You never lose them entirely, but they shrink.”

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

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