Thursday, June 25, 2009

Today's News from The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keilllor

It's the birthday of the man who wrote a big best seller about a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat: Yann Martel, (books by this author) born on this day in Salamanca, Spain (1963). His father was a Canadian diplomat, and he grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario, and Mexico.

He studied philosophy, and then worked odd jobs — as a tree planter, a dishwasher, and a security guard — and he started to write. He wrote some stories, and then a novel, Self (1996), about a man who turns into a woman on his 18th birthday. It won plenty of awards, but it didn't sell very well.

He was feeling burnt out and had no idea what to do with his life, so he went to India, where he felt even worse. He was lonely, and he tried to write a novel but it failed. He left Bombay for Matheran, a quiet hill station where all motor vehicles were outlawed. And it was there, sitting on a boulder, that he suddenly thought of a book review he had read many years ago. The book was by a Brazilian writer, and its premise was that a German Jewish family who owned a zoo tried to escape to Brazil, but the ship ended up sinking and one family member was left alone in a lifeboat with a black panther. Martel loved the premise, and so he made it his own.He spent the next six months researching Indian zoos, churches and mosques, and cities. He went back to Canada and wrote a story about an Indian teenager named Pi Patel, who calls himself a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Pi is the son of a zookeeper, and his family leaves India for Canada to begin life there. They are shipwrecked, and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a few animals, and eventually, only a tiger named Richard Parker. Yann Martel said, "The idea of a religious boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal struck me as a perfect metaphor for the human condition. Humans aspire to really high things, right, like religion, justice, democracy. At the same time, we're rooted in our human, animal condition. And so, all of those brought together in a lifeboat struck me as being … as a perfect metaphor."

The novel ends with a surprise twist that asks the reader to rethink the entire plot. In 2001, Martel published the book, Life of Pi, which became a best seller and won the Booker Prize.

It's the birthday of best-selling children's author and illustrator Eric Carle, (books by this author) born on this day in Syracuse, New York (1929), who has written and illustrated more than 70 books, including Do You Want to Be My Friend? (1971), The Grouchy Ladybug (1977), and his most famous, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), which has sold almost 30 million copies.He said, "We have eyes, and we're looking at stuff all the time, all day long. And I just think that whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, and important."

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist George Orwell, (books by this author) born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India (1903). He grew up in England in what he described as the "lower-upper-middle class," in a family that acted as if it were from the upper class but didn't really have much money. He was sent off to private boarding schools, which he hated. After graduation, he wanted to get as far away from England as possible, so he joined the British Imperial Police in Burma, which he hated just as much. He saw that the system was unjust, and he was forced to act as one of the oppressors. So he went back to England, and he said, "I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants."

He worked for a while as a dishwasher, then a teacher, and then he decided to try writing. He used his experiences of being poor and unemployed, and he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).He worked as a journalist, and he was sent to cover the Spanish Civil War. In Barcelona, he observed a communist utopia, and he said, "Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. … I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."

But then he watched communism and fascism turn into extremist ideologies, and he decided that idealism was always dangerous in the extreme. He continued as a journalist, but he said, "Only the mentally dead are capable of sitting down and writing novels while this nightmare is on."

But then one day he saw a boy leading a horse down the road, and he wondered what would happen if domesticated animals banded together to stage a revolution, and he wrote one of his most famous novels, Animal Farm (1945), modeled on the Bolshevik Revolution.

Over the next few years, while he was suffering from tuberculosis, he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He died a few months after it was published, and today it is considered one of the best dystopian novels ever written, and even people who have never read Nineteen Eighty-Four probably use the phrase "Big Brother is watching you."He said, "Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers."

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