Monday Mar. 28, 2016

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Don’t Look Now

It never dies:
the old gag where

Wile E. Coyote,
in hot pursuit

of his rocketing foe,
sprints off a cliff

and keeps running
on thin air till he

happens to look down,
nailing us every time

with that why-me look
in the drawn-out

second after fortune’s
yanked the rug;

and then we follow
the poor chump’s image

growing smaller and
smaller till the quiet

puff of dust
on the canyon floor.

“Don’t Look Now” by William Trowbridge from Put This On, Please. © Red Hen Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life’s work.” That’s Nelson Algren (books by this author), born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in 1909. He was born in Detroit, where his father was a machinist at the Packard plant. When Nelson was three years old, his family moved to Chicago, and that’s where he grew up. He became famous for writing about the seedier side of the city, because that was the world he loved to inhabit even when he was just a boy. He would hang out at billiard parlors, gambling dens, and speakeasies, where the cops only visited to collect their bribes.

But he went to college, paid for by his sister Bernice. He wanted to become a sociologist, but he knew he’d never be able to afford graduate school, so he became a journalist instead. He lived the life of a hobo after he graduated, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains, in the hope of finding a job as a newspaperman. But it was the Depression and jobs were scarce. He took up with some con artists in New Orleans for a while. He was running a dusty Texas gas station when he realized that he wanted to be a writer. He went back to Chicago, moved in with his parents, and started his new life.

His first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), didn’t sell all that well. His second, Never Come Morning (1942), received great reviews. The New York Times called it a “brilliant book and an unusual book,” and literary critic Malcolm Cowley called Algren “a poet of the Chicago slums.” His first big popular success was The Man With the Golden Arm (1949), about a poker dealer battling drug addiction. It won the National Book Award and was later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Russell Banks (1940) (books by this author), best known for his novels Affliction (1989) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), which were both made into feature films (1997). Banks was raised in New Hampshire, the son of a violent alcoholic who abandoned the family when Banks was 12. Banks turned to books and writing for solace. He says: “Storytelling was a way, just within the circle of the family, for me and my brothers, and for myself, to save ourselves. We could make sense of an otherwise incoherent life for children.”

Banks went to work in his teens to help provide for his family. He read voraciously, especially Whitman, whose poems astounded him. “It was the first time I had the sense that you could be a writer and it would be a lofty, noble position yet still connected to the reality around you.” He won a full scholarship to Colgate University, but dropped out after six weeks, hoping to join Castro’s insurgent army in Cuba, but instead he ended up working in a grocery store in Florida, where he began writing about the marginalized people he saw. He published his first novel, Family Life, in 1975.

Banks writes most often about human suffering, particularly for children. In Rule of the Bone (1995), a 14-year-old boy must escape his abusive parents and survive a brutal life on streets. In The Sweet Hereafter, the novel hinges on the aftermath of a deadly bus crash, in which several schoolchildren die. Banks has a fascination with school buses, which figure prominently in several of his novels. He says: “The school bus is a layered, multifaceted image. It is associated, at least for me, with the first time you give your children over to the state.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Lauren Weisberger (books by this author), born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1977. Weisberger majored in English, spent a summer backpacking around Europe and Asia after graduation, then moved back to the U.S. and landed a job as assistant to the editor in chief of Vogue magazine. After she left Vogue, she worked as an assistant editor at Departures magazine, then took some writing classes and started to work on a book. It became The Devil Wears Prada, which contains a pretty straightforward autobiographical narrative about Weisberger’s experiences as a personal assistant at Vogue: The main character Andy Sachs aspires to be a writer, moves to New York City, and gets a job at a fashion magazine working as the personal assistant to the despotic and domineering editor. The Devil Wears Prada spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in 2003.

Today is the birthday of Iris Chang (books by this author), author and journalist, born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968 and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her father, Shau-Jin, is a theoretical physicist, and her mother, Ying-Ying, is a biochemist. Iris, a talkative but serious child, began her writing career at a young age: inspired by “Dear Abby,” she started an advice column while in elementary school. At 10, she won first prize in a “young author” competition, and was always writing and publishing something in high school. She wrote volumes of poetry into red leather-bound books, each poem meticulously dated. In college, she studied journalism and embarked on a career first as a stringer for the New York Times, then worked for The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. She drove herself very hard, writing two or three articles a day, but not eating or sleeping well while she was working.

She earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate Writing Seminar, and got a book deal from Harper Collins while she was still at school, at the age of 22. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, about a Chinese physicist, was published in 1995. It was received well, but didn’t sell too many copies.

She is best known for her books about Asian and Chinese-American history. In 1994, at a conference in Cupertino, California, she was gripped by a display about the Nanking war crimes committed against a Chinese village by the Japanese army. She had heard much about the massacre from her grandparents, who had escaped it 60 years before, but the poster-sized pictures affected her deeply; she later wrote, “In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself […] I was suddenly in a panic that this […] reversion in human social evolution would be reduced to a footnote of history […] unless someone forced the world to remember it.” She threw herself into the project, not eating or sleeping, finding it hard to separate herself from the material. Her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was published in 1997, when Chang was only 29, and sold half a million copies. After that, she began an unsuccessful campaign to elicit an apology from the Japanese government for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army against the Chinese, even challenging the Japanese ambassador to a debate on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

She followed this book with another, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (2003), and even though many of the stories involved poverty and prejudice, she told her mother that working on it was like a vacation after The Rape of Nanking.

In 2004, deep in research for her fourth book on the Bataan Death March, Chang had a nervous breakdown, working obsessively while trying to be the perfect mother to her young son, and not sleeping for days at a time. Deeply affected by the nature of her research, she again found it difficult to separate herself from her subject. While in Louisville to interview Bataan survivors, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where they medicated her for transient psychosis and suspected bipolar disorder. Back home, she stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy, and though she was in therapy and had a plan to make herself well, she was unable to overcome her illness. She committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in November 2004.

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