My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

Playlist 2017

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. In this year of much darkness and much light, I turned to true stories, songs that gave me courage, and old favorites. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Blues Run the Game, Jackson C. Frank
Mill Towns, David Francey
Far End of Summer, David Francey
Get Behind the Mule, Tom Waits
Hold On, Tom Waits
House Where Nobody Lives, Tom Waits
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Jacqueline Schwab
Lately, Aengus Finnan
Lass Among the Heather, Keith Murphy
C’est Aujoud’hui Grande Fete, Keith Murphy
Waves, Margie Adam
Lighthouse, Cris Williamson
Morning Glory, Terry Garthwaite
Doc Con Xa, Pham Van Ty
Le Morvandiaux Cesar’s The Sound of Sleet, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Bourees 3 Temps, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Keys Meadowhawk Mstr V2, Jeremiah McLane & Timothy Cummings
Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s, Keith Murphy
A Psalm of Life, Jacqueline Schwab
Loftiδ verδ ur skyndilega kalt, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Sólin, Ólafur Arnalds
ρu Ert Jöδin, Ólafur Arnalds

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

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What a treat to reread Clifton’s poems, not to mention finding some new to me! I was thrilled when she was nominated as our poet of the month in my poetry discussion group. I’ve loved her work and been profoundly influenced by it since I first encountered it in the early 1970s.

What makes her work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion.

Many of her poems are sheer delight, simply celebrating being alive. These sing with jazz rhythms and the melodies of speech. Good examples are the well-known “homage to my hips” and the lesser-known “homage to my hair” that starts:

when i feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!

Another aspect of her work that astonishes me is how she holds her rage in check. It is there, in the poems about injustice and racism. But she finds ways to present it that enable us, even those of us with privilege, to participate in. There is, to me at least, always love in her poems as well, even the darkest ones.

Her sense of injustice may lurk under humor, as in this untitled poem that starts her first collection that begins:

in the inner city
or
like we call
it home

Another technique she uses is repetition. The lines quoted above are repeated at the end of that short poem, but by then we have a different slant on them. Or several different slants: as we discussed the poems, we found different meanings in them, sometimes because of the diverse life experiences we brought to them and often because Clifton’s lines are simply open to multiple interpretations.

She sometimes uses questions to enhance that openness and to invite the reader to participate in the poem. Sometime the questions even feel like a call-and-response, creating an unexpected resonance. For instance, each of the three stanzas in “the photograph: a lynching” is a question. Details, such as the woman who smiles and fingers a cross as she watches, arouse rage and a burning desire for justice but Clifton ends by asking:

is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album/ will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

Note the ambiguity in these lines as well. In our group we discussed various interpretations of “us” and “we” and “a gathering sky”. And if the latter portends a storm, what might that be? Also, the lynching itself is never described, only the audience’s reaction before the final question.

Her persona poems sometimes function as a container for rage or other complicated emotions. Another famous poem “jasper texas 1998” speaks from the point of view of a man’s head. Again, she does not describe the tragedy, leaving us the title and the dedication “for j. byrd” as sufficient clues. But speaking as the head in a voice that is measured and resigned gives us the opportunity to summon our own grief and outrage.

Many of the poems here are full of love and sometimes a wry understanding, especially those about her parents, husband, and children. This is also true of some addressed to all of us, such as her famous “blessing the boats” and this section from “the message from The Ones”:

the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes

they have learned to love you
and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings

Finally I am astounded by her prolific output. Parenting six children is no joke, even without the financial struggles. I know, too, from colleagues how generous Clifton always was with other poets, especially those just starting out.

As one person in my poetry discussion group said, holding this hefty volume—it is 720 pages—is like holding a life. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

What is your favorite Lucille Clifton poem?

Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Rossana Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages.

Earlier this week someone mentioned a history professor she once had who hated the sentence: “Things were different back then.” When I read these works of Dante’s back in my schooldays, that’s probably why I didn’t question all the weeping that goes on in them. As it turns out, though, the cultural context for tears really was different from today’s.

I haven’t read Dante since then, though of course I’ve encountered references and bits and pieces of his work over the years. Still, I had no trouble following Dr. Barbera’s explanations of the various meanings of tears during that time and how this understanding illuminates Dante’s most famous works. (Full disclosure: I have known the author for over ten years, first as a teacher and then as a friend.)

By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the 26 or so years he spent writing these works. In Vita Nuova, where he first meets Beatrice,:

Dante’s confused and distressed state of mind is not merely emotional or decorative. It embraces the very essence of the book, the writing of which seems to be motivated by Dante’s finding a new path in life, finding his new life . . . Vita Nuova is the stage on which Dante represents his struggle to define the truth of Love, to test positive and negative behavior. Vita Nuova was the occasion, in Dante’s life, to discover a new poetic; in a way, it is the paradise and wood where Dante gets lost.

The Commedia, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, demonstrates Dante’s evolution to a more nuanced understanding of love and death, sin and redemption, and to a new poetics to express them. He more subtly uses different kinds of weeping to describe whom he meets and what he learns during his time in Hell and Purgatory. For some he meets, tears are a relief or a means of atonement. For others, they are a terrible punishment.

For example, Dante reserves the ninth and lowest circle of his Hell for traitors, those who broke the political order or society’s rules, which to him meant betraying the community itself. I was struck by the current relevance of this verdict, centuries before Rousseau published The Social Contract, which describes how citizens are willing to surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Confined with Lucifer in a frozen lake of tears, these traitors are not allowed to weep, and therefore not given any way to relieve their sorrow or to petition God for forgiveness. If they do cry, their tears are frozen in their eye sockets, their heads tilted back. By delving into the significance of tears and Dante’s poetic use of them, the author brings home the true horror of these punishments and the depth of Dante’s scorn for these traitors.

I was also particularly interested in the history and meaning of the sin of acedia, better known today as sloth. However, it is more complicated than laziness. What we now call sloth was understood as a medical problem related to melancholia and tristitia (sorrow) until the “first Christian thinkers . . . began to associate diseases with or to explain them as a product of vice and sin.” When first identified as one of the seven deadly sins, it was considered “an inertia of the spirit” seen among monks who shifted their attention “from spiritual aspirations to earthly appetite.”

The relevance to today is obvious. As massive problems beset our society—problems we feel powerless to solve—it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand, whether by binge-watching television shows, video games, retail therapy, or focusing on personal ambition. Even though Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive” has been my motto since my teens, I am not immune; the lure of my book-lined room is sometimes irresistible.

In Dante’s Purgatory, acedia is the middle of the seven plateaus, separating the sins “that cause harm to others (Pride, Envy, and Wrath)” from the sins of “excessive love of earthly goods (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).” It is “intended as the mother of all temptations”. The exploration of Dante’s uses of weeping helps us better understand Dante’s struggle in this crucial area, the centerpoint of the entire Commedia and how we ourselves might move forward with open eyes.

Drawing on over a hundred sources, the author summarizes research and scholarship. She goes further and adds her own conclusions, clearly expressed and supported by the journey she has taken us on through the beliefs and worldview of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Like the most satisfying of jigsaw puzzles, the pieces of the author’s argument slot together and yield a fascinating new portrait of Dante, his times, and his works.

Nearly all of the academic writers I know loathe tangled academic prose. What makes this book such a joy is not just the breadth of scholarship and the shrewd conclusions, but also the clarity of the prose. Even if you are not familiar with Dante’s works, the liberal quotations here will bring it to life and perhaps inspire you to explore these two works armed with your new understanding.

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

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

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Tartt’s first novel begins with a quiet bang. I am no fan of prologues, but this one shows how powerful they can be. By mentioning a murder in the first sentence, this first section of the Introduction raises a huge story question and creates suspense that carries through the first half of the book. Tartt doesn’t stop there, but infuses each page with what Donald Maass, literary agent and writing guru, calls micro-tension. Sometimes it is out and out conflict and other times a vague sense of unease, but it is always there.

The prologue also immerses us in the voice of our narrator, Richard Papen, a young man from a working class family in southern California, who transfers to the fictional Hampden College in Hampden, Vermont.

Wanting to continue his Greek studies, Richard makes a huge effort to join the only Greek class. The professor, Julian Morrow, accepts students according to his own whim and then requires them to take all of their classes with him. One of Tartt’s strengths is her descriptions of people and places. With just a few phrases she conjures her characters.

It was a small, wise face, as alert and poised as a question, and though certain features of it were suggestive of youth—the elfin upsweep of the eyebrows, the depth lines of nose and jaw and mouth—it was by no means a young face, and the hair was snow white . . . He put his head to the other side and blinked again, bright-eyed, amiable as a sparrow.

Julian’s appeal for Richard is not only the entrée to an exclusive club, but also the image of Richard himself that Julian makes him believe in. Julian treats all of his students as serious scholars who care, not only about the language, but Greek culture itself, including its love of beauty and its attempt to balance Apollonian rationality with Dionysian ecstasy.

In this class, Richard joins the select few: Henry, brilliant and wealthy, the quiet leader of the group; Francis, also wealthy, prone to melodrama and attracted to men; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, whose relationship is a clique within the clique; and Bunny, a narcissist from a destitute Brahmin family, who believes it is his right to take whatever he wants. Aristocrats all, they include Richard in their secret society, though he never feels entirely confident that he is one of them.

In this story of a middle-class youth fascinated by the beauty and nonchalant grace of his new aristocratic friends, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite books: Brideshead Revisited. This novel has some of the charm of Brideshead, but lacks its serious underpinnings. Stretching over several decades, the Brideshead story embodies the massive cultural changes in Britain, asking what remains when so much has been stripped away. The Secret History, though, has the much smaller scope of a single school year and only addresses the coldness and carelessness of privileged youth.

While the prose was often entrancing, I felt that the book did not need to be so long. For example, the Christmas vacation section is one that could have been cut down. Richard’s situation, living in an unheated attic with a hole in the roof, and what followed taxed my credulity and threw me out of the story. The narrative function of that section, to bring Henry home and endear him to Richard, could have easily been achieved with a more believable way of giving Richard pneumonia.

The novel reminded me of Diana Gabaldon’s books which seem less like compelling stories and more like an opportunity to sink into another world. Luckily I was listening to it as an audio book, so my “reading” stretched out over a couple of long car trips and many walks. If I’d been trying to read it as a book, I would probably have grown tired of it by the middle, where we finally get to the murder.

That felt like a logical stopping place, but as it turns out, the rest of the book, which is about the aftermath, is interesting in a different way. We may have the answer to the question of how and why the murder happens, but now we wonder what its effect will be on these characters.

Richard, like similar narrators of other lives (Charles Ryder and Nick Carraway, for instance), speaks in a careful and thoughtful, almost detached, tone of voice, as though answering an oral exam question. He is looking back on these events from the advanced age of 28, hence the detachment. While it might seem that such a tone might be boring, I actually found it engaging and more effective than an emotional tone might have been. Repressed emotion, if done as well as it is here, gives the story more power.

Since the book was narrated by the author, I was disoriented by the sound of this southern California boy’s voice being so high and having an accent redolent of the deep South. The other characters being New Englanders were equally jarring. However, I eventually got used to Tartt’s voice and even found it soothing. It was so soothing, in fact, that I began putting on the sleep timer and listening to it as I fell asleep, which was always within a few minutes.

Some of the reviews on Goodreads indicated that the book was most popular among high school students, one even saying that fifteen was the best age to appreciate it. I can see that older teens and college students, being of an age with the protagonist, would take a special interest in it, but the deluge of praise and awards seem proof that it is equally popular among older adults.

However, I found it ultimately shallow. I was certainly as charmed as Richard by this coterie of people, their old-fashioned formal dress, their erudite conversation, and literary references. But none, except perhaps Henry, seemed to have gone beyond these superficial attributes.

Thus, unexpectedly, my reaction to this book reminds me again of Brideshead, where Anthony Blanche says that Sebastian, while undeniably charming, reminds him of “‘that in some ways nauseating picture of Bubbles. . . when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then—phut! vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.’”

What books have worked well for you as audio books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

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The winner of several awards and places on best books of the year lists, this second novel from Mahajan examines the results of a bombing. Not some large, well-publicised terrorist attack, the event that starts the novel is a small bomb set off in a marketplace in New Delhi, killing—among others—two brothers and seriously injuring their friend.

The story examines the repercussions of this event on the parents of the two boys, the friend, and the terrorists themselves, including one who is drawn into their orbit later. By adopting this structure, Mahajan sets himself a serious challenge.

In my opinion and despite the fervent praise heaped on this book, he fails to meet this challenge. Confining the different stories to separate and clearly defined sections keeps the reader from getting confused. However, the lack of a single protagonist leaves the book empty at its core. As soon as we start to get interested in a character, the father for example or the bomb maker, his story is dropped entirely. It may be picked up again a hundred pages later or it may not.

As a result, the novel is interesting and informative, but not engaging. Contrary to the frenzied reviews, the book is neither thrilling nor urgent. Most of the people in one of my new book groups found it boring and had to force themselves to read on. Contributing to their malaise was the trajectory of the characters: they start off miserable and go downhill from there.

Of course, it is possible that the author intended for the book to be empty at its core, as though the center had exploded and destroyed everything, including our notions of narrative.

There are also some continuity problems that an editor should have picked up, a few inconsistencies that are jarring. And the ending is disappointing. Like too many books these days, it felt as though the author got tired of writing but didn’t know how to end it, so we get a series of brief this-is-what-happened capsules for the major characters.

It’s a shame because the novel brings to light an important subject. While we hear in the news about shocking terrorist attacks, I for one had no idea that so many of these small events were happening. Since 1970 there have been nearly 10,000 in India alone. In the single month of May, 2016, there were 207 terrorist incidents around the world, in countries in the news such as Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places like Yemen, Egypt, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

Mahajan does a great service by bringing these to light and demonstrating that, despite their smaller scale, their impact is no less tragic. My book group wondered what purpose could be achieved with this barrage of terror. Of the three terrorists in this book, one was said to be motivated by nationalist concerns (Kashmiri independence), one by religious discrimination, and one by rage at a politician.

Yet, as we have seen, such actions do not convert anyone to their cause and are too small to be remarked upon in the media or remembered by those not immediately affected. Some wondered if a deeper cause might lie in the mix of rage and fear and powerlessness that in the U.S. leads single white men and boys to pick up a gun and shoot up a restaurant or concert or school. There is no logical plan to achieve anything. Rather it is an explosive desire to be seen and heard. One person compared it to a toddler’s tantrum.

I urge people to read this book because it is important subject that most of us know little about. Don’t look for what you might normally expect in a novel, though the settings are beautifully described, both the places and the communities. Look instead for new insights into one of our greatest challenges: how to live together in peace.

Did you know about the number of terrorist incidents occurring every day around the world?

Collected Poems, by James Wright

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If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.

The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.

If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.

As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.

The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.

A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.

Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.

Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:

James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.

I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.

Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?

Hard Truth, by Nevada Barr

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I’ve enjoyed the Anna Pigeon mysteries by Nevada Barr ever since they first came out. Anna is a park ranger, and each book takes place in a different national park. Barr herself worked in national parks during the summer, so she brings experience to her stories.

I know she also does extensive research for each book. One of her books, Blind Descent, is based on an actual incident in Lechuguilla, one in which my brother was involved. He was shocked by how accurate her details were, not just of the cave itself, but caving technology, and the kinds of people who would be on such expeditions (though there were no murderers on his descent!).

I heard her speak once, and loved her description of how she learned to write mysteries. Her first book was surprisingly accomplished. It deservedly won both the Agatha and Anthony awards for best first mystery. Barr said she learned by taking a few favorite mysteries and taking them apart. She studied them for months trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. I think this is a great way to learn how to write! After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t MFAs in creative writing.

Hard Truth is the 13th book in the series and finds Anna working in as District Ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. When she arrives, she finds a team that has been traumatized by a six-week search for three missing girls. They come camping with a group of young people under the guidance of their pastor. The girls have never been found, and the active search called off.

Oddly, the parents did not participate in the search. Instead, they prayed. Part of what I would call a cult, their home is a compound run by a large bully of a man whom everyone is afraid of. Anna hears that the sect has broken off from the Mormons, finding them too worldly and liberal.

A parallel story gives us a young woman, Heath Jarrod, who has come camping with her aunt. They are staying in the “handicamp” because Heath is confined to a wheelchair since a climbing accident, leaving her bitter and angry.

Barr mixes up these characters in events so suspenseful that a long car ride passed in a flash. I like Barr’s writing, her detail about the life of a park ranger, and her descriptions of the parks. This book, sadly, had less about the park and more about the evil on the loose.

One of my friends told me she stopped reading Barr’s books because she finds them too violent. I’ve thought about her comment while I’m working my way through them again; I find it interesting to read a series consecutively sometimes. I have to say, this book is particularly gruesome. In fact, the last few have been quite violent near the end, but this one verges on being a horror story. I’m almost afraid to read the next. My friend might be right.

What mystery series have you enjoyed?