Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

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This 2016 bestseller has received lots of good reviews. It begins with an unexpected and uninvited guest arriving at the christening party for Franny, second daughter of Fix and Beverly Keating. Bert Cousins brings a bottle of gin as a present, something unexpected and unusual at a christening. As the party goes on, everyone gets drunk; most people behave badly; a priest gives up his vocation; and Bert, who has a pregnant wife and three children at home, falls in love with Beverly.

I was ready to stop halfway through this first chapter. I’m not a fan of stories of people behaving badly. I don’t find them funny, which is why I rarely watch any sitcoms. Yet many people have loved this book, according to Goodreads and various book reviews, and my book club had chosen it, so I plowed on.

In ten or so stand-alone vignettes like the first chapter, the story zigzags through the lives of the Keating and Cousins families. Two drawbacks of the book are the sheer number of main characters and the huge jumps in time and space from one chapter to the next. It was sometimes hard for me to figure out the chronology and also to keep track of which child belonged to which pair of parents.

The children’s lives are upended by the reckless decisions their parents make. The parents continue to neglect them, not just their emotional life but even their physical safety. At one point, the parents finally show up at the children’s motel room at 2 pm, saying that they “slept in”. What kind of parent does that?

Unsurprisingly, the children are little monsters. Left to their own devices and hating their parents, they entertain themselves by embarking on dangerous expeditions, drugging the youngest child with Benadryl, and carrying around Dad’s loaded gun.

I liked the vignettes where the children were older much better. Well, mostly. At least one, like some of the childhood vignettes, reminded me of a bad sitcom with things getting worse and worse, beyond the outer limit of credibility, with no humor to lighten it.

This is supposed to be a novel that explores blended families, which have become common as the divorce rate has soared. Yet the Keatings/Cousins families seem so cartoonishly awful that it is hard for me to see any useful insight into the concept. It’s not the blending of families that is the problem here; it is the selfishness of some of the four parents. It’s not as if we need another illustration of narcissism these days.

It’s also supposed to be a novel that explores the ownership of stories. Who gets to tell the story of your childhood? As a memoirist, this question is important to me. Patchett has said that she drew on her own memories to write it. And, to add some meta- to her fiction, she has included a much-older famous writer who becomes young Franny’s lover, listens to her stories, and then writes a novel based on them. The impact of the lover’s novel on the families is explored toward the end of the book, and was the part most interesting to me.

What kept me reading, besides my book club, was the structure. I was curious as to how these unconnected vignettes would hold up as a novel. For a long time it felt like a novel in stories, that is, a series of short stories only marginally related. But by the end, I did feel that the book cohered into a single novel.

Besides featuring the same eight characters throughout, Patchett accomplished that by her consistency of tone. One Goodreads reviewer complained about the tone, saying that it was distant and formal. I agree that it kept the reader at arm’s length. But I liked that. Usually I prefer to be immersed in a novel and live the story with the main character, but in this case, given these characters, I was happy to observe them from afar.

As always, these remarks are my own. Many, many people adored this book, and it got overwhelmingly positive reviews. To my surprise, most of these reviews talked of the humor the book, even citing some of the set-pieces that most horrified me as the most comical.

I think the difference is that I know parents like these and children like these, so I found the story heart-breaking rather than hilarious. I’m reminded of the time in my teens when a group of friends insisted I watch the sitcom All in the Family with them. I left at the first commercial break, near tears. To them, Archie Bunker and his family seemed so exaggerated as to be funny. To me, they were too close to my own family for me to be amused.

Have you read one of Patchett’s novels? What did you think of it?

The Melody, by Jim Crace

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Alfred Busi, a famous and beloved musician and singer, is awakened in the night by animals tipping over the garbage bins. His town has honored him by including a statue of him in their Avenue of Fame, and he is to speak at its unveiling the next day. In addition, he is to give a benefit concert in two days.

At “sixty-something”, Busi is comfortable with fame and with the declining quality of his voice. But since the recent death of his wife, he has had trouble sleeping and has let their villa deteriorate.

When he returns from chasing away the animals and righting the bins, he’s viciously attacked—his hands and face deeply bitten and scratched—by what he swears is a small boy, not a feral dog or cat. Other attacks follow, both physical and emotional, in this wrenching account of an aging man, who has been functioning well, suddenly falling off a cliff, as Atul Gawande describes it in Being Mortal.

We don’t discover until near the end the narrator’s identity. He seems to be speaking for the town throughout the long first part of the book. Once identified in the brief second part, he begins voicing individual opinions.

We are in a European town, apparently during the 1930s, a period whose unrest is mirrored in the town’s changes. Developers are buying up property, such as Busi’s aging villa, and clearing out areas that tradition has ceded to the poor and to wild animals. Busi’s account of the wild child who attacked him revives fears of an uncivilised people who according to legend live in the untamed forests. Such feral children are a staple of myth and folklore, sometimes raised by wolves or dogs or bears, but real cases have also been documented.

Our narrator, despite his claims of rationality, still senses “that something other than ourselves persists. Something wilder and more animated but still resembling us.” He goes on to speculate that these others are the ones who will survive “when we come tumbling down, our cities and our towns, as tumble down they must, when our apartments and our boulevards are tenanted by rats and weeds”.

As always with Crace, the language is subtly poetic, so that it is only on rereading that I notice the beauty of the sentences and the way information is conveyed. There is also much quiet humor, not only in the reference to nonexistent books in the acknowledgments, but also in the astute sketches of various characters that reveal their vanities and illusions.

There are other aspects of earlier Crace novels that I recognise. In Harvest, we see the fear of change, the scapegoating of those unlike us, and the issue of displaced people. In Being Dead, we see the unsentimental and dispassionate attention paid to the decomposing bodies that here describes Busi’s injuries and emotional deterioration. We also see a couple’s long and affectionate marriage, similar to Busi’s where the lobby of his house, “was meant only for coats and umbrellas and shoes, but it had witnessed their embraces and reunions a thousand times, and so, for Busi, it had tender memories.”

Books about aging and the changes that come with a longer life are of particular interest to me these days, such as Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I was saddened by much of this book, as we along with Busi discover his new limitations, learn that he is not the man he thought he still was, and have to give up treasured belongings. Yet, I found hope in his openness to what is new. All of the characters here seem like people I know, and their story compelling.

What book about aging has given you comfort or new insight?

I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

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I hadn’t read very much of Hafiz’s work when my poetry discussion group selected him for October. We meet once a month to read and discuss the work of a single poet. Taking turns reading the poems, we find that the discussion and the time that we take with each one helps us to appreciate them more deeply. Choosing a new poet each month introduces us to a range of authors, often ones we’ve never read before.

With Hafiz’s work, we found ourselves intrigued and moved by his humor and compassion. We talked less about craft than usual and more about our reactions. I often look at how authors invite the reader into their work, especially with poetry. Hafiz in particular throws open the doors with open arms and an open heart. Hafiz’s generous spirit is apparent in each poem.

Here is an example from I Heard God Laughing:

Awake Awhile

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,

Right now.

One step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.

Hafiz,

Awake awhile.

Just one True moment of Love
Will last for days.

Rest all your elaborate plans and tactics
For Knowing Him,

For they are all just frozen spring buds
Far,
So far from Summer’s Divine Gold.

Awake, my dear.

Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

Say,

“Love,

Give me back my wings.
Lift me,

Lift me nearer.”

Say to the sun and moon,
Say to our dear Friend,

“I will take You up now, Beloved,

On that wonderful Dance You promised!”

I found this collection of translations by Daniel Ladinsky especially welcoming. It lives up to its subtitle Poems of Hope and Joy.

Even the humorous lines contain a significant truth, such as this description of depression from “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing” as being dragged “Like a broken man / Behind a farting camel”. And every now and then a line would startle me with a new idea, such as this one from “All the Hemispheres”: “Change rooms in your mind for a day.”

In addition to these and other poems translated by Daniel Ladinsky, we read some that had been translated by others. One seemed to preserve the form of the original, but used archaic and high-flown language so that they were almost impossible to read. Another lacked the music and joy that we had begun to expect, but appeared to be a more literal translation. A third seemed nothing like any of the other work, but rather an anecdotal venture exploring a contradictory theme.

We did discuss translation, and how it translated poem is really the work of two people, a new work entirely. When I took a translation class once, I believed going into it that translators should try and stick as closely as possible to the original our of respect for the author. However, I quickly found that my desire to convey the sense of the original and to make a good poem overwhelmed my concern about fidelity to the original. Given the differences in sounds used by various languages, it’s extraordinarily difficult to retain both form and content while making a good poem.

So, while the translator we most appreciated was Daniel Ladinsky, I had noticed a comment on Goodreads criticizing the liberties he seems to take in his translations of Hafiz. However, these were the most interesting and moving poems that we read. I wished I could have heard them in the original Farsi, to hear the music of the words.

Though it’s hard to be sure, I think that most of the poems in this collection were originally ghazals. The ghazal form uses five or more couplets, each of which stands alone yet is related to the others in some way, perhaps an over-arching theme.

The two lines of the first couplet and the second line of each remaining couplet end with a refrain, a single word that is repeated. In all but the first couplet, Before the refrain there is usually a word that rhymes with it. I’m told that when ghazals are recited aloud the audience, hearing the rhyme, knows that the next word is going to be the refrain and joins in on it: a lovely thought.

The poems in this collection truly are about hope and joy. They are meant to comfort us and to invite us into the dance.

Have you read Hafiz’s poetry? Which poem is your favorite?

Tales from the House of Vasquez, by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

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The poems in this remarkable chapbook draw us into a woman’s inner life. They lure us into the realm of magical realism were spines dissolve and babies fall from trees, where bears can speak and impart magic, where your mother can reach out from the grave and comfort you.

Summoning mythology and remembered stories from childhood Gilliland tells us of her mama, her tía who left when the author was a baby, and her grandmother’s mother who married at 13 and had a dozen babies. She tells us of a river woman who is “greener than you’d think. Her skin, moss, her hair, waterweed, her eyes, stone.” We learn about the four eyes that women have been given.

It’s been a difficult week to be a woman. A post on writerunboxed.com helped me think about events of this week from the point of view of a writer. Heather Webb posted advice for “Writing the Authentic Modern Woman (especially if you’re a man)”.

She writes about the way we are conscious of our bodies, and not just the body issues that we all are aware of on some level and comparing ourselves to others. I don’t know a single woman who is not dissatisfied in some way with some aspect of her body. This area also includes the way we are simply aware of our bodies, of “hormonal surges and changes in both mood and physique due to these hormones.”

What it does not include is musing about how large and sexy our breasts are. I’ve set novels aside, thrown them across the room even, when male writers have had women do this or notice a man’s genital endowment before his general attractiveness, clothing, hair, etc.

Webb also writes about our spatial awareness: the wariness we carry no matter what environment we are in. “Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING. “

It’s different for men. So for a man trying to write about a female character, these are important insights into how to make their characters realistic. I’d love to see a similar post from a man to help us female authors make our men more realistic. Having raised two amazing sons, I think I’m on pretty solid ground, but always welcome more information.

Absorbing these poems would certainly help a male writer better understand the joys and fears and griefs that women carry, the things that their four eyes see. Women will feel at home in these poems, yet be startled and astounded by their unusual images and leaps of imagination.

While vivid details speak of a Latinx culture, the tales are universal. The power and strength of the women in the midst of their fear and grief is a comfort and a hope for us all. These are poems to read again and again.

What poetry have you read recently that has astounded you?