Mississippi Review

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One of the controversies circulating in the writing world has to do with cultural appropriation. What this buzz word boils down to is writing a story in which the protagonist is from a culture other than your own, one that is underrepresented in the publishing world. It could be a man writing from a female protagonist’s point of view, or a white writer with an Asian, Black, Native American, etc. protagonist.

One side argues that as writers we use our imagination and routinely imagine ourselves into characters unlike ourselves. Not every writer of crime fiction is a serial murderer. E. B. White didn’t have to be a pig to write Charlotte’s Web. Plus creating stories with characters from other cultures increases literary diversity.

The other side argues that you cannot understand someone from another culture as well as a member of that culture can. And by taking advantage of your privileged position to submit stories about already underrepresented cultures, you make it harder for members of those cultures to have their own, more genuine stories published.

I think both sides are right. We writers do use our imagination. We do need more diversity. At the same time, as I said in my review of The Help, I have little patience for unrealistic characters created by someone who obviously knows little about their experience. Of course, writers are free to write about whomever they choose. But I also remember my fury at the way famous white male authors of the last century—Roth, Mailer, etc.—felt free to define not only how a woman felt and thought, but also how she ought to behave. I still remember tearing up a Philip Roth book whose premise was that if the female lead refused sex with the male protagonist, then she must be insane and should be locked up; therefore the man must gaslight her.

Of course we ought to include diverse characters in our cast to reflect the diversity of people in our lives. When we do, it makes sense to do our research: read books by authors from that culture, talk with people from that culture whom we know, find beta readers who can alert us to our mistakes.

This brings us to the Mississippi Review and its Summer 2018 issue (Vol 46 No.s 1 & 2). While most of the stories are pretty good and a couple excellent, there is one that is laughably bad. The male author has his female protagonist, forty-nine and newly widowed, be reminded by washing dishes that she’s not going to be having sex anymore. Doesn’t every woman think about sex while washing dishes? To make things worse, he has her describe the sex she would be missing using slang that no woman would use, an extremely derogatory phrase used by men to describe women they’ve made use of as less than human.

Now if the author were trying to present a sex-obsessed, self-hating woman, such a phrase might work. But no, she is meant to be Everywoman; well, perhaps a not terribly bright Everywoman. When the second such mistake erupted by page four, I gave up on the story. These mistakes are similar to a goof a white writer I know owned up to recently: having her black protagonist’s teenager complain that her mother is “such a slavedriver”. Nope. Wouldn’t happen.

These errors should have disqualified the story, but the editor and associate editors listed in the magazine are all male. Yet another argument for more diversity in the publishing world. The VIDA count is a good way to track gender, race and other factors in publishing.

My intention, though, is to pick on the story, not the magazine. As I said, there are some excellent pieces in this issue. One that I loved transposed the film Chinatown to a circus and the Jack Nicholson character to a clown, which makes sense when you think about it. Another accurately conveys a woman’s struggle with overwhelming grief. Ironically, the story that won their 2018 fiction prize is written from the point of view of a rodeo bull. I have no idea how a bull actually thinks, but I found the story interesting. I hope the author did his research. Perhaps he works with bulls or interviewed those who do.

There is no doubt that we writers are going to write the stories we need to, the ones that grab hold of us and won’t let go. How we weigh their demands against other issues is up to each one of us. But what writer doesn’t want to create the most authentic characters possible, the ones who draw the reader in? Doing our research, learning all we can about each character’s world, consulting experts: these are all part of the writer’s job.

Have you ever been shocked or dismayed by an absurdly unrealistic character in a story?

Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland

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I have long been a fan of Tony Hoagland’s poetry and have written before about his books here and here. He brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment.

I used the present tense. It’s hard even now to admit that he is gone, even after following some of his journey through his poems and essays in The Sun Magazine, such as “The Cure for Racism is Cancer“. “Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the cold radiology units and the ICU cubicles,” he says.

This strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy — one more real than the nation that lies outside these walls and more authentic than the lofty statements of politicians; a democracy more incontrovertible than platitudes or aspiration.

Tony Hoagland died on 23 October 2018. We are lucky to have his work to turn to.

Lately I’ve been reading his essays on the craft of poetry. Like his poems they are accessible, even to someone tired out after chasing a toddler all day. I’ve learned so much from these essays, not only for my own craft, but also for appreciating other poets’ work.

In this new volume of poems, there is plenty of Hoagland’s wry humor: “I will tell you this right now: Cincinnati / has not been a great success for me. / My allergic reaction to small talk has ensured / that I don’t get asked to parties anymore.” There is satire and wit, as you can tell from the volume’s title, taken from one of the poems inside.

But most of all there is an unsentimental poignancy in poems such as “Examples” where in giving examples of things like justice and remembering and fortune, he combines irreverent images of Joseph McCarthy and dental hygienists with seemingly unimportant moments, such as a woman removing her sunglasses. Yet in the end, through stunningly apt use of metaphor, he takes us deeply into the joy and privilege of life itself.

He’s been called the poet of the human condition. Even when recounting his own experience, as in “Trying to Keep You Happy”, he invites us to participate in his everyday yet unexpected plans, his “selfish master strategy / to shackle you to me with happiness.”

And the final poem in the volume “Into the Mystery” I cannot even talk about, so overwhelming are these seemingly simple lines. Get the book. Read it. Even if you think you don’t like poetry.

What’s your favorite poem by Tony Hoagland?

“The Tower”, by Andrew O’Hagan

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I subscribed to the London Review of Books for the book reviews. I liked that they were longer than the couple of paragraphs usually allotted to a book review, and that they often placed the book in the context of the author’s oeuvre. Sometimes the long-form reviews told too much of the story, but that wasn’t a deterrence if I was truly interested in the book. I also became adept at skipping over those parts.

Over the couple of decades I’ve been reading the LRB, I’ve been a little dismayed at the increasing number of political essays they’ve been including. Sometimes I skip over them, but others have been useful in delivering in-depth portraits and histories of what is going on in the rest of the world, sadly neglected these days in U.S. news sources.

Still, I was surprised to find that an entire issue (Volume 40, Number 11, 7 June 2018) was devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’d heard of the fire, of course. Managed by the local council, London’s Grenfell Tower provided high-rise low-income housing. On 14 June 2017, safety measures intended to isolate fire failed, and a fire in one apartment quickly spread through the 24-story tower. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze, and 72 people died.

Accusations came thick and fast. Most people blamed the council, saying that they only cared about the predominantly wealthy neighborhood and not the poorer people, especially those in the tower. Some residents had been complaining for years about various problems and, as a result, the council had conducted a major renovation, completed the previous year, 2016, that among other things installed new windows and a new composite cladding on the exterior of the building.

In England, local councils provide some of the functions of local government. Elected councilors are responsible for overseeing things like education, libraries, social services, waste collection, and housing; but hire contractors to actually perform the work.

O’Hagan’s piece, researched intensively for a year, tells the story of some of the people who lived there. With six flats on 23 of the floors, you would think people would be strangers to each other, but as resident Alison Moses says, “‘It’s a funny little community . . . Everybody knows everybody, at least by sight.’” It was also a remarkably multicultural community. O’Hagan says, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”

I found the individual stories which make up the bulk of the article fascinating: their backgrounds, their joy and pride in their homes in Grenfell. But what really struck me about this piece was the political fallout.

Activist groups immediately blamed the council, claiming that they had cut costs by having defective cladding installed; they hadn’t responded to tenant complaints, and they did nothing to help tenants during and after the fire. These cries were taken up by the media swarming the site and quickly became the dominant story about the fire. However, when O’Hagan interviewed these activists, they provided pages of accusations, but no actual proof.

When he interviewed council members, he found that they were on the ground immediately and in force, setting up shelters and getting people there. As one council officer said,

We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything.

The problem was that they hadn’t identified themselves as council, their philosophy being to just get the job done and not make a fuss about it. As a result, no one realised who they were. A senior council officer said,

The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”

And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”

Similarly, the issue of the cladding—the culprit in the spread of the fire—was hardly the council’s fault. It is not their job to verify it met safety standards; that had been privatised to a company that “both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing.” The blame lies with the lack of industry regulations, the lack of independent testing, and the contractor’s omission of a fire safety inspection—it turns out the cladding had been tested “on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” Also, this cladding was already in common use, installed on many other low-income housing around the country.

The government, eager to distance themselves from the catastrophe, put the blame on the council as well. They made things worse by promising the public things that they knew the council couldn’t deliver.

I could go on, but the chilling thing for me, in this era of fake news and hollowed-out journalism, is how quickly a false story can become “the truth”, not just among the chanting crowds who ignore right-wing politicians’ lies, but among progressives as well. We need responsible journalism more than ever. And we need to attend to our social reputation, the only thing the council neglected. Your reputation is everything, as my mother used to say.

How can we best manage our reputation in this age of social media and devolved journalism?

Hawke’s Discovery, by Mark Willen

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Last week I described Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, as a restorative read, much needed after a series of books with unpleasant and untrustworthy protagonists. This week I’ve struck gold again.

Jonas Hawke, a retired lawyer in Beacon Junction, Vermont, finds himself in a moral and ethical dilemma when his son Nathan, editor of the local paper, begins investigating one of Jonas’s old cases. Nathan is intrigued by the possibility of a coverup involving the leading contender for governor in the upcoming election. A big scoop like that could lead to a job offer from a large city paper, something Nathan has been seeking for a while.

However, Jonas’s client confidentiality severely limits how far he can go in answering Nathan’s questions, much to his son’s frustration. Nathan points out Jonas’s responsibility to his fellow citizens: what if Martha Bennett wins the gubernatorial election and then is indicted for obstruction of justice?

This is just the sort of story I needed right now. I love to see ordinary people with a strong sense of integrity navigate the tricky waters of an ethical dilemma. Nathan and Jonas are not the only ones in this story with competing personal and professional responsibilities.

The mystery of what happened in that long-ago case and the various interpersonal conflicts provide tension, but the real suspense is about the characters. What course will they choose? What will the outcome be?

What I like most about this book is its subtlety. All of the characters mean well. They want to do the right thing, if they could only be sure what that is. They seem like people I know. You don’t need a villain in a story like this. We are our own worst antagonists, drifting in the dark without a map.

I recently participated in a book dissection of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My fellow authors and I couldn’t understand why it became such a big bestseller. There were things we appreciated: a quirky and charming cast of characters and an unusual real-life setting, for example. There were things we didn’t like: such as the misleading title and the epistolary format that made all the action happen off-stage.

What we finally concluded was that it was the heart of the book that made it appeal to so many people. To quote from John J. Kelley’s summary of our discussion, while “the novel never shies away from the tragedies of life” it has “an enduring optimism that many in the group found refreshing in these uncertain times. It was an unexpected charm that surprised many of us.”

Mark Willen’s novel has the same sort of heart. While exploring the murky regions where integrity is put to the test and competing responsibilities rend us, Hawke’s Discovery gives us characters who despite their flaws are essentially good. If you’re suffering from too many stories of sociopaths, serial killers and rapists, pick up this novel. It will refresh you with its enduring optimism.

What books have you read that feature characters who seem like people you know?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

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I’ve had a string of books filled with unpleasant and untrustworthy characters. Likeability is not a requirement for me as a reader. Stories of people from whom I’d run screaming in real life can yield psychological insights, an engaging puzzle, or the sheer pleasure of nuanced characterisation. However, sometimes I need a break.

This gentle book, by an author recommended by my friend Christine, fit the bill.

Lillian taught herself to cook at a young age when her mother, shocked by her husband’s departure, disappeared into books. Proceeding by trial and error, eschewing cookbooks, Lillian became adept at assessing what sort of food a person needs and providing it.

The school of the title is a class Lillian teaches regularly at her restaurant on Monday nights when the restaurant is closed. As she gets to know her students, she is able to concoct lessons suited to their individual needs.

They range in age from a girl with heavy black eyeliner to a “fragile-looking” elderly woman. In between are an older couple, a young stay-at-home mother, a man clouded with sadness, a computer scientist, and a gorgeous Italian woman.

Each chapter takes one student, exploring their background, their wounds and gifts, through the particular dish or dishes being prepared that night. For example, Antonia is a kitchen designer, stumped by her current task. Her clients are restoring a beautiful old house, but their vision of a sleek modern kitchen with concrete floors and black cabinets fills Antonia with dismay. Not only is it wrong for the house, but it would mean destroying everything that is lovely about the room now.

For Antonia, the scarred wooden table, the window seat overlooking a kitchen garden, and the warm and welcoming open fireplace remind her of grandmother’s kitchen. So Lillian has the class make Thanksgiving dinner that night. At first that seems cruelly calculated to drive home the distance between that Italian village where Antonia’s grandmother lives and this new country with its baffling custom of celebrating by stuffing themselves and then falling asleep.

However, the menu is not a traditional one. While keeping traditional Thanksgiving foods such as turkey, cranberries, corn, and green beans, Lillian’s dishes rearrange and combine them with ingredients Antonia’s grandmother would use: rosemary, pancetta, gorgonzola, pine nuts.

More than these portraits, which make the book seem more like a connected series of short stories, what I loved was the sensuality of the writing. Not surprising, I guess, when you’re writing about food, but Bauermeister truly had me smelling the rosemary, tasting the heirloom tomato, feeling for the pieces of crabmeat in their tiny shell chambers.

It’s a lovely book, and one I highly recommend if you need a restorative break.

What book do you turn to when you need a rest?

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

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This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was my book club’s selection this month. What’s it about? Well, imagine Eat, Pray, Love with an insecure gay man, an author who visits double the number of countries trying to outrun his anxieties.

Arthur Less—no subtlety there, so I should have been warned—is our protagonist. About to turn 50, his latest book has been rejected by his publisher, and the much-younger man who has been his occasional bedfellow is about to get married.

Less is a sad, colorless person. Alone, he’s still riding on the fame of his long-ago first novel and memories of his early long affair with a much older famous poet. In those days, he was the youngster staying quietly in the background while his lover and his famous friends carried on.

Sounds a lot like Franny in Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. As in that novel, the characters here are unpleasant—especially needy, insecure Less—and are played for laughs. His bumbling missteps and failures, together with random blows of fate, leave him suffering even more anxiety. It is all meant to be funny, but it’s still not a kind of humor that appeals to me.

Normally I’d have stopped reading, but was looking forward to meeting with my book club. Also, I kept wondering why in the world it won the Pulitzer. Some members of my book club found it amusing and agreeable, but all found it light-weight and definitely not worth a Pulitzer. One person suggested it was chick lit for gay men.

Certainly it’s well-written. Greer’s sentences are terrific, and the story is clear and consistent. Also, the descriptions of the various countries are superb. A device Greer uses is a narrator who seems to know Less. The narrator isn’t identified till the end, but it’s pretty obvious long before that. One person pointed out the clever allusions in the text to other books. We thought there must be more we didn’t recognise, but certainly enjoyed the ones we found.

So, not a bad book if this sort of character and this sort of humor appeal to you. Most of the reviews I saw were positive. It might be a book you’d enjoy. Just don’t expect there to be much to it.

When choosing your next read, are you influenced by prizes it’s won, the endorsements on the cover, or by reviews?

Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

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Pauline leaves her family at the beach and returns to their rented apartment to pack her bag. Inspired by Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, she has decided to simply walk away from her life.

Though Tyler’s book isn’t named, I knew immediately which one was meant. Who could forget Delia on Bethany Beach, walking away from her family, carrying only a straw tote decorated with a large flower? For all of us overburdened mothers with our unrealised dreams—often undefined even to ourselves—it was as though Tyler had revealed our most secret fantasy. Can you really do that? we wondered.

Lippman takes that fantasy and spirals deeper and deeper into it. What would make a woman leave her husband and three-year-old daughter?

Pauline doesn’t get very far. She hitches a ride to Washington D.C. with an elderly man whose wandering hands force her to abandon him in Belleville, a small Delaware town, only an hour away from where she started.

She decides to stay. Introducing herself as Polly, she persuades the owner of a bar/cafe to hire her as a second part-time waitress/bartender. What she doesn’t know is that the man sitting at the bar with her that first night is a private investigator hired to find her.

Adam wasn’t hired by her husband, who is only that night realising she is gone, but by a shady lawyer whose connection to her in unclear.

Much is unclear, to Pauline/Polly and Adam, and to us. Lippman seduces us, revealing bits of information while spinning out new webs of suspicion. We try to decide which of the stories these characters tell are true and which are lies, even as the characters themselves do the same.

It’s like a game of three-dimensional chess. There’s what Adam knows and doesn’t know, what Pauline knows he knows, and what she doesn’t know he knows. Same with Pauline: what she knows and doesn’t know, what Adam knows and doesn’t know she knows. And then there’s the reader. For all our insight into both characters, there’s plenty we know we don’t know, not to mention what we don’t know we don’t know.

It all unfolds naturally, the twists and turns easy to follow. The puzzle is embedded in an engrossing story: a love story, a change-your-life story, a mysterious-death story. Adam, Pauline, and the other characters make their moves based on their limited understanding of the others’ knowledge and motivations, just as we all do.

I especially liked Lippman’s reimagining of the classic noir femme fatale. She pries open the stereotype and takes us on an unexpectedly deep dive into Pauline, her history, her motives, her dreams and weaknesses.

I was also captivated by Lippman’s setting this noir tale in the tiny fictional town of Belleville in rural Delaware in the 1990s. True, there are forays into Baltimore and Wilmington, but the confines of a small town add intriguing nuances to the atmosphere. There is suspense for sure, but the book isn’t a thrill ride. It’s a measured unfolding over the course of one summer of a multi-layered story.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

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?