What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland

Many of these poems start with conversations with particular people (“Sylvia said . . .”; “Joe says . . .”) which made the poems appear glib at first. Casual conversations seemed to me unlikely material for poetry. But then I came to appreciate the solid base that the exchanges provided for his reflections.

In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty the poetry professor sighs because her students and her public are less interested in her current poems about trees and water and mountains than in the wildly successful poems of her youth that were about emotional—usually sexual—encounters. Now, me, I love poems like those by Mary Oliver and Louise Gluck that start with a bear or a forest flower and then take me to some unexpected and true insight.

Poems that I like best are those that come from some wrenchingly honest place and, being the kind of person I am, it is hard for me to imagine getting to that place in a social situation such as a barbecue or a conversation about a blues song. Yet Hoagland in “Two Trains” turns that conversation on its head several times before bringing it to exactly that place. I don’t even want to quote it because, without the buildup, the images won’t have the full resonance.

Another poem I liked a lot was “Man Carrying Sofa”. It gets to the heart of Hoagland's conversational, seemingly casual style where it describes “this ordinary life of ours” and the depth and complexity behind it. He talks about his resistance to the passing of time: “It’s January and I’m still dating my checks November.” After telling a friend he is sad, ” . . . I discovered / I really was miserable / —which made me feel better about myself— / because, after all, I don’t want to go through time untouched.”

With these lines, Hoagland has brought to light a great, unacknowledged need: to be marked by time, so that you can feel that you have actually lived. An authentic life requires scars as proof. He has helped me understand something that has puzzled me: why some people magnify even the tiniest of tragedies—a dead battery, a spilled coffee—into great drama, with themselves as the poor, put-upon victim. I thought it was just wanting to be the center of attention. I couldn’t believe they had ever suffered a real loss.

For me, the legacy of great pain has been to make all other setbacks and sadnesses merely trivial. As Garrison Keillor said in a wonderful monologue about a boy and his horse (I’m quoting from memory here): “I know what bad is, and this isn’t it.”

Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Actually I read this book a few weeks ago for book club. If I remember correctly, everyone enjoyed the book, although some of us (myself included) found the beginning with its extended flashback a little slow. The main narrative takes place in 1948 and weaves together the stories of two couples: Hortense and Gilbert, who have emigrated from Jamaica, and Queenie and Bernard, whose English middle-class life has been disrupted by the war.

We found the treatment of race particularly interesting, the almost unconscious racism Hortense encountered in trying to find a teaching job, the contrast of Gilbert’s experience as a member of the RAF with his treatment after he was demobilised, the way U.S. soldiers behaved toward Gilbert as a British soldier versus the way they behaved toward their own compatriots of color, Hortense’s own prejudice against darker-skinned people.

What I liked best about this book was the language. Levy manages to capture the feeling of dialects—Jamaican and English—in a natural way, without mimicking them (something that will make me put down a book). She uses word choice, the rhythm of the language and occasional characteristic interjections to convey the peculiar voices of her characters.

Another area that we found interesting was the generational effects of war. Levy juxtaposes Bernard’s experience in WWII with his father’s in WWI. Both came back changed. This period—the end of WWII—is not one that I’ve read much about. However, I have thought a lot about what happens after a war is over. How do you come back? I think there is no way to come back from an experience like the Dust Bowl or the Somme except like Piero della Francesca’s Christ. That hard resurrection. That devastated face. You come back with something broken, something hardened. And the guilt of being the one who comes back.

How do you live among the ruins? At the end of WWII, England struggled with many challenges: the country’s impoverishment from the war effort, the destruction of London from the blitz, the loss of empire. As an American, I wonder where a country finds its identity when it is no longer the most powerful country in the world. I think about Spain and Turkey in the 16th century, The Netherlands in the 17th century, Austria in the 18th century, England in the 19th century. I think about Italy, what it must be like for a Roman citizen to go out in the morning and walk past the ruins of the forum, to live with the reminder of how great your country once was.

In The English Nation: The Great Myth Edwin Jones says that—despite its treasured images of bulldog individualism—England for centuries defined itself as part of a community of nations. Before Henry VIII cut ties with Catholicism and Catholic nations, England was fully integrated into the life and culture of Europe. Jones suggests that a return to community building could transform England. I have to echo his plea for a renewed commitment to the common good. It’s needed to balance the individualism that drives so much of the U.S. as well. It’s needed to check the capitalism that creates a Dust Bowl or writes people off as unnecessary in a post-industrial economy. It’s needed to find solutions for the extreme poverty that afflicts so much of the world and sends immigrants on journeys such as Hortense’s and Gilbert’s. We just have to look beyond our small selves.

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

The title of this book caught my attention. In wondering what could have been the worst of all the hard times people have suffered, the Depression years in the U.S. were the last thing on my mind. My parents were children of the Depression, and they always talked about it in the “in my day we walked ten miles to school barefoot in the snow” sort of way, which made me write off a lot of it as hyperbole.

This book shocked me. I’d read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school, but it had never occurred to me to wonder about the people who didn’t leave the Dust Bowl. Egan makes the book come alive by anchoring it with the stories of a handful of people, from the boom years through the years when it all turned to dust.

It’s a distressing story on many levels. Last week I mentioned the hucksters who drew homesteaders to the plains with false promises. There were also aggressive Government programs and incentives to settle more people in what had been previously designated the Great American Desert, fueled by “scientific” formulas for “dry farming” that swore prairie could be turned into productive farmland.

Another factor was unchecked capitalism: an international syndicate had been formed to set up the huge XIT cattle ranch and, when returns were not what the investors wanted, they started selling off the land, aggressively marketing it as farmland. Knowing what we know now about ecological systems, I found it physically painful to read about the grasslands that had evolved over thousands of years being recklessly torn up to plant wheat, wheat that later moldered in huge piles next to full silos because the bottom had dropped out of the wheat market.

When David Simon spoke last week at Loyola College on the future of American cities, he was pessimistic. He said that the core issue was that there was a whole group of people whom our post-industrial society had no need for—now that the factories were closed—and was therefore willing to write off. The same could be said of the sodbusters of the 30’s. Their land destroyed, their cows and horses choked to death by dust, their equipment repossessed by the bank, they struggled to survive on yucca roots and tumbleweed.

The difference was the response of the Government. Franklin Roosevelt emerges as a hero of this story, alongside the people who fought so hard to stay alive. His acceptance of the emerging ideas of conservation and ecology, his willingness to invest in efforts to reverse the damage, and his commitment to helping people survive made him an icon to his suffering citizens and a model for us.

The people weren’t just waiting for handouts; they pulled together, worked hard, helped each other out. Their story is as inspiring as the stories of polar expeditions such as Scott’s and Shackleton’s, but equally as distressing: great feats of endurance and courage that should never have been necessary if the people had not been led (or misled) into such peril. And the Dust Bowl was perilous: suffering drought, bankruptcy, duststorms and plagues of grasshoppers, the sodbusters surely earned the title of this book. But hard work and cooperation can only get you so far. Sometimes you need the safety net. Pure capitalism destroys societies; it needs social controls to keep it in balance.

The Last Good Chance, by Tom Barbash

Set in a dying town in upstate New York, The Last Good Chance is about that peculiarly American activity of reinventing yourself. Jack, who grew up in Lakeland and became famous as an urban planner by writing a book castigating the soulless urban environment, returns to Lakeland to spearhead a waterfront development that promises to re-invigorate the town. Anne, his fiancée, follows him, leaving behind the lively NYC art scene to paint in the barn of a house she and Jack rent outside of town. Steven reports on local news and longs to make his mark in the journalism world so he can get out of dead-end Lakeland. Harris is Jack’s brother who never left town. The story focuses on these characters and their struggle to create authentic selves.

Barbash captures the bleak hopelessness of a New England mill town where all the mills have closed and the jobs have evaporated. What Jack brings is hope. His plans for a festival waterfront development catch the imagination, not just of the townspeople but also the national media. Suddenly it seems possible that the town can indeed recreate itself as a desirable destination.

Reading about Jack’s ad campaign, featuring photos and stories of this future town, seemed eerily familiar to me. It echoed the false promises I’d been reading about in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl and the charlatans who lured unsuspecting homesteaders out to the High Plains with assurances—outright lies—of existing infrastructure, fertile farmland, and sufficient water.

Yet Jack seems like an honorable man, a man who genuinely wants to help his hometown. It takes so little to turn a place around. I’ve seen it in Baltimore: one person who was somehow able to make people believe in his vision for the city has actually gotten people to move back to the city. However, I’m not sure a festival marketplace is the way to go. I was not a fan of Harborplace when it was first suggested, feeling that the money could be better spent in improving city services. Although it has been more successful than I predicted at remaking Baltimore as a tourist destination, its prosperity has not spread beyond the harbor.

A few years ago I went to the Dover Fish Fest where my son and some friends had been hired to sing sea chanteys. Port Dover is a small town in Ontario on Lake Erie, known in the early 20th century for its lakeside ballroom. The Fish Fest was a wonderful quirky celebration that drew a lot of people. There were none of the booths I seem to see at every craft show and town festival, selling fried dough, pottery, wind chimes, etc. Instead, Dover gave us the best of itself. We wolfed down fish and chips with salt and vinegar that we got from shacks near the pier. We watched the tugboat pulls and cardboard boat races, cheering on our favorites. We ducked into pubs for a pint and some singing. Best of all was the Port Dover Harbour Museum. Although it may sound boring, it was anything but. The exhibits brought to life local legends and true stories related to Dover’s fishing industry, Lake Erie shipwrecks, and the War of 1812 that kept me fascinated for hours.

At the time, I had been reading Jane Jacobs and other urban planners, so I was curious about the way this town marketed itself. It seemed to me that the best thing was to stick to what was unique about your town. However, I think now that the false promises may have potential as well. After all, the settlers who arrived in Boise City to find only stakes in the dust went on to build the city anyway. Jack’s vision for Lakeland resonated with its citizens and gave them a reason to believe that they could shape their future.