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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Archive for the ‘biographies’ Category

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

November 9th was the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan , born in Brooklyn (1934). Sagan was a popular guest on TV shows, especially The Tonight Show, but he was also a serious scientist who worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions. Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”

Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos, which aired in 1980. Sagan originally planned to call the show Man and the Cosmos, but he considered himself a feminist, so he decided to leave off the “man.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, collaborated with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, to bring Cosmos back to television in 2014. MacFarlane also donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.

Sagan received a lot of fan mail over his career, many letters from people who shared their dreams and experiences, or their theories of extraterrestrial life, or simply thanked him for teaching them about astronomy. The more “out there” of the letters were filed in a box labeled “F/C,” which stood for “fissured ceramics” — Sagan’s code name for “crackpots.” People wrote to him about aliens that they had imprisoned in their basement, or the planets they had discovered. He was also approached by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor, and leader in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Leary wanted to build a kind of “space ark” and transport hundreds of people to a different star, and he consulted Sagan to find out which star he should aim for. Sagan had to tell him that the technology to pull off such a feat did not currently exist. Leary wrote back: “I am not impressed with your conclusions in these areas,” and suggested that all that was needed was “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”

Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

 

Kazuo Ishiguro/Superb Anglo-Japanese Writer

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

November 8th was the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (1954), one of my most favorite modern writers, best known for haunting, elegiac novels like Remains of the Day (1989), about an English butler working in a big house in the years before World War II, which won the Booker Prize.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five (1960). He didn’t go back for 29 years. Ishiguro says: “I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie. In England, I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan.” As a child in England, he pored over comic books and was obsessed with movies about cowboys and the American West, which influenced his later writing.

Ishiguro spent a gap year after university hitchhiking through America and working for the Queen Mother as a grouse beater in Balmoral, all the while hauling around his portable typewriter and guitar. He says, “I tried to be a songwriter, but the door never opened.” He decided to write a 30-minute radio play called Potatoes and Lovers, about two young people working in a fish-and-chips joint. They are both cross-eyed, and they fall in love. It was an odd plot, but he used it to apply to graduate school in creative writing, and he got in. His first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), was published to international acclaim.

Ishiguro’s novels include my favorite, Never Let Me Go (2005),  and             An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Buried Giant (2015), and The Unconsoled (1995), a 500-page book narrated by a pianist — a book that one critic said “invented its own category of badness.” It’s now considered a classic.

On his writing, Kazuo Ishiguro says: “You can think of me like an early aviator before airplanes were properly invented. I’m building some sort of flying machine in my back garden. I just need it to fly. And you know how odd some of those early flying machines looked? Well, my novels are a bit like that. I put them together out of anything I can think of according to my thinking to make the thing fly.”

In 2007 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

 

Ray Bradbury/Science Fiction Great

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

August 22 is the birthday of science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury , born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He spent a lot of his childhood in the Waukegan library, where he fell in love with L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. One summer he went to see a local carnival act named Mr. Electrico, a man who sat in an electrical chair and knighted audience members with a sword while electricity flowed through his body. When he reached Bradbury, he put the sword on his head and shouted at him, “Live Forever!” Bradbury couldn’t get that out of his head, and the next day he made his father drive him to the carnival again, even though his uncle had just died and he was supposed to be at the wake. Mr. Electrico introduced the boy to all the carnival performers and then sat with him on a sand dune and told Bradbury that the boy was the reincarnation of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, a man who had died in his arms during World War I. Ray Bradbury said that Mr. Electrico “gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past.” The next day his family moved cross-country, and as soon as they got to their new house, Ray Bradbury got out a piece of butcher paper and started to write. That was 1932, when Bradbury was 12 years old, and he said that he wrote every single day of his life from then on. His books include The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Farewell Summer (2006).

Ray Bradbury, who said: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

And: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

And: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”

H.P. Lovecraft/Genius of Horror

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Perhaps the most prolific writer of pure horror, H.P. Lovecraft Is still recognized not only for his imagination, but also for the elegance of his prose. He is a cult hero of the many writers in this genre.

August 20 was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft , born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called “weird fiction.” He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft’s work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, “There Are More Things,” in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: “I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

 

Anne Hathaway/A Shakespeare Moment

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

 

This is the brief story of a remarkable woman still shrouded in mystery. The wife of the man who was the greatest writer of all time in the English language. What role did she really play in his life and was she his only love?

Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare died on August 6, 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare’s child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only “my second-best bed.” Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it’s an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare’s sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns — a Shakespearian favorite — that could identify the subject as his wife: “hate away” for “Hathaway” and “And saved my life” for “Anne saved my life.”

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

 


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