Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Another short novel from Fitzgerald, this is easily my favorite of her books so far. Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel introduces us to the unfailingly affable Maurice, a young male prostitute; Willis, an elderly marine artist and former longshoreman; Richard, who presides over meetings of the boat owners with military precision learned in the Navy; and his dissatisfied wife Laura, who dreams of country estates.

The story mainly follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. As always, with Fitzgerald, the children are beautifully drawn. More of an adult than most girls her age, Martha tries to assert her practical knowledge of the world, while young Tilda knows only the boating life and what she’s learned from their neighbors. Tilda’s knowledge of tides and knots does not do her much good, though, since the barges never set sail, remaining moored with a complicated system of gangplanks between them.

This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. Nenna is neither married nor unmarried, her husband living in a flat in the city since returning from a job in South America and refusing to see her. The girls are neither in school nor out; they have been skipping school ever since the Sisters started making the other children pray for Martha and Tilda that their father would return. The characters sometimes stray onto the edges of the just-starting-to-explode social scene of early 1960s London, with its coffeebars and boutiques and new music, yet they are as outside of that scene as they are of Partisan Street near their moorings, with its physically damaged inhabitants.

All of the barges’ inhabitants live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Willis is trying to sell his disastrously leaking barge. Richard does not understand why he is so drawn to life on the river, particularly in the face of his wife’s opposition. Maurice, who talks of selling his boat and going abroad, has long middle-of-the-night talks with Nenna. In one, he tells her:

“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can . . . They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.”

This fear of making a decision reminded me of reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a teenager. The two courtiers—also on a boat, prey to shifting tides—try to work out what decision they made, not realising they were making one, that has led to their current predicament. I have always been afraid of making a wrong choice, some irrevocable decision that takes me down a dark tunnel. Making lists of pros and cons never works for me, because the outcome of my decisions never matches any of them. The decisions I make on the spur of the moment seem to work out better than those I labor over.

Fitzgerald uses an effective technique I’d not seen before to convey Nenna’s attempts to sort out what is going on with her husband and what she should do about it: “Nenna’s thoughts, whenever she was alone, took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrate’s hearing.” And then we get those thoughts, the relentless questioning by a magistrate who turns into a judge, her shifting attempts to explain and justify her actions. It’s brilliantly done. I recognised the tone of conversations I’ve had with myself, though I’ve never actually imagined myself in the witness box.

Fitzgerald is often quite funny. Her humor comes from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, she doesn’t satirise those whom Hermione Lee, in her biography of Fitzgerald, calls “characters at odds with their world: the depressive, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.” Instead, Fitzgerald treats them with compassion and respect. In an essay called “Why I Write”, she says:

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost. They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts. They are not envious, simply compassless. When I write it is to give these people a voice.

I think this assertion is beautiful and a good part of why I love her books.

What decision have you made that didn’t turn out the way you expected?

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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It’s 1959 in Hardborough, a town on the East Anglian coast. Florence Green is trying to reach a decision about purchasing a run-down building and opening a bookstore. She doesn’t have to worry about competition—there are no bookstores for miles around—but will she be able to find readers?

Small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, Hardborough doesn’t have much going for it. There is no fish and chip shop, no laundrette and no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights. “Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought—either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.”

Since Florence has been living on a small legacy from her husband, she must apply to a bank to purchase even the abandoned and decrepit Old House on which she has her eye. From Mr. Keble at the bank to Raven the marshman to a family of self-sufficient and extraordinarily practical children, Fitzgerald presents her assortment of odd characters in pithy, yet memorable, scenes.

Hardborough is loosely based on Southwold, where Fitzgerald lived for a while, where she became friends with the owner of a small, less than prosperous bookstore. I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Fitzgerald which not only explores the influences that shaped her philosophy and choices, but also gives the lived background of the books.

As any writer knows, in the process of crafting fiction, the materials of our lives—people, places, events—are transmuted. Bits here and there are recombined to create a desired effect.

The effect here is of isolation and endurance. The basement of the Old House still has seawater from the 1953 flood; the house has a resident poltergeist, locally called a rapper; and Florence has no retail experience other than a brief stint in a bookstore in her teens. As she tries to balance her vision with her neighbors’ expectations, she inadvertently antagonises Mrs. Gamart, the local society maven. Florence’s choices—of location, of stock, of allies—come back to haunt her.

Hardborough itself acts as a character in this short novel, a bleak battleground where Florence makes her stand. At the edge of the sea, sometimes cut off by tides and floods, clinging to the barest edge of land, Hardborough’s dogged persistence and occasional defeat inform Florence’s story.

I recently read The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald, his record of a walking tour along the Suffolk coast, partly about the physical world he encounters, but much more about the intellectual landscape, the associations and intricate histories aroused by these places. That book gave me a deep appreciation for East Anglia.

We are often told, as writers, to make every word count. We are to “kill our darlings”, as Faulkner famously said, to ensure that everything that remains moves the story forward. This brilliant short novel demonstrates how it is done.

What short novel would you recommend?

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

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The Post family is going on a long-planned vacation to Mallorca. Jim and Franny originally meant the trip to be a celebration of their thirty-fifth anniversary, but given the recent tensions, they are calling it a last family vacation before Sylvia heads off to college. Sylvia’s older brother, Bobby, and his even older girlfriend, Carmen, are invited, as well as Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence.

On this blog my intention is to discuss books from a writer’s point of view, that is, describing what I can learn about this craft of wordsmithing by examining what works and doesn’t work in a particular book, looking at what tools and techniques the author uses. If my response to a book is overwhelmingly negative, I normally do not discuss it here. Today, though, I am making an exception. I can learn much from even a poorly crafted book.

I’ve mentioned the way one of my book clubs operates. In another book club, we select all of the year’s books at one meeting. We discuss a number of proposed books and then each of us selects one book. While there are some authors who are consistent favorites, this process has given us a fair number of books most of us might never have read, plus a few stinkers.

I don’t recall who chose this one, but I believe the motivation was to include something light to balance our heavier choices. The glowing cover blurbs promising wisdom and insight and true-to-life characters also swayed her choice.

Unfortunately, as so often happens with books that trumpet on the cover that they are New York Times bestsellers, this novel does not live up to its promise. Sure, the prose is smooth and uncomplicated, as you would expect from a book touted as a beach read. And Straub conveys the Mallorcan setting beautifully—we are ready to book our trips!—including some expected references such as to a slightly disguised Rafael Nadal. Although the plot is predictable, this too is not unusual for a beach read.

Where Straub goes wrong is with her characters. One book club member said it was as though the author went down a checklist of stereotypes: middle-aged man having an affair with a “girl” near his daughter’s age: check; woman who shows love by feeding people and her boho credentials by having a gay best friend: check; adolescent girl discovering her sexuality: check; grown son who is still emotionally a child: check; girlfriend who hangs on hoping Peter Pan will grow up: check; a couple trying to adopt a baby, one in love with the idea, the other not so much: check.

By the end of the book we don’t know any more about these characters than these masks. One technique that would have helped Straub go beyond the superficial would have been choosing a different point of view. She hops from one person’s head to another constantly, even in the same scene, never alighting for long enough to examine any layers of complexity. If Straub had chosen to stay with one character’s point of view throughout the story, at least she would have been forced to discover more about that character.

As I’ve said before, the best fiction opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from inside someone else’s skin. To make this work, the writer has to give us characters in all their contradictions and convoluted motives. Such rich characters will drive a story that is anything but predictable and, yes, possibly convey some of the promised wisdom.

There is a place for novels that are essentially fluff. We all agreed that there are times when we want the distraction of a such a book; for example, one person who enjoyed the book read it at two in the morning when she couldn’t get back to sleep. However, as another person said, there is good fluff and bad fluff.

What book have you read that you’d call “good fluff”?

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

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I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. As I’ve described in an earlier blog post, it seemed to me the moment when everything changed for western civilization. Of course the more I read about earlier eras, the more I see that such cataclysms were nothing new. Yet, there is something peculiarly wrenching for me when I think of the ranks of young men, blinded by visions of patriotic glory, being mown down into the mud of the Somme and Ypres.

What I haven’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead.

Vera Brittain’s memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became. Brittain generously quotes from her journals and letters, both her own and those received, to give us the genuine flavor of the time. She also includes a few poems written at the time by her and by her fiancé, Roland. I think it was the poems that moved me the most, with their distillation of emotion.

While the book is a daunting 600+ pages, I was irresistibly drawn forward by this mix of voices.


(from a letter to Roland) “One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation–with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”

No sudden gift of second sight showed me the future months in which I should not only contemplate and hold, but dress unaided and without emotion, the quivering stump of a newly amputated limb–than which a more pitiable spectacle hardly exists on this side of death.

For contrast, she gives us a bit of her early life, growing up in Macclesfield and Buxton. Desperate to escape the provinces and have a career, she resists the strong pressure of family and neighbors to leave school and marry young. Instead she sits for admission to Oxford, although by the time she gets in, the war has started; her fiancé and beloved younger brother have enlisted; and Oxford no longer seems relevant.

She becomes a nurse, and it is through the lense of her nursing career in London, Malta and France that we experience the war. In 1918 soldiers from the front tell her of seeing their mates who’d died on the Somme in 1916, saying “‘And it’s our belief they’re fightin’ with us still.'” She responds:


But at the time I merely felt cold and rather sick, and when I had finished the dressing I put down my tray and stood for a moment at the open door of the hut. I saw the Sisters in their white overalls hurrying between the wards, the tired orderlies toiling along the paths with their loaded stretchers, the usual crowd of Red Cross ambulances outside the reception hut, and I recognised my world for a kingdom of death, in which the poor ghosts of the victims had no power to help their comrades by breaking nature’s laws.

After the war, stunned by grief, going mechanically through her days, she finds meaning in working for peace, both as a journalist and for the League of Nations. She calls this the terrible responsibility of the survivors.


Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.

In this strong memoir, Brittain fulfills that goal. I look forward to finding the two sequels to it.

What book have you read that might teach our children to take the courage that has in the past been dedicated to war instead devote it to peace?

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland

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First off, how great is that title? I laughed out loud when I saw it. Such a wonderful combination of humor, ordinary things, and Japanese poetic traditions. Plus, my #1 son is finally getting a Honda like the rest of us, so I guess I’ve founded a Honda dynasty of my own, however late he is coming to it.

I love Hoagland’s poems. He uses the things of this world to craft seemingly simple poems, poems that always leave me staring off into the distance thinking new thoughts. I’ve written before about his work.

Here we have a stroll through a mall food court, a cement truck, and “A middle-aged man / who cannot make love to his wife”. We have fathers and foghorns and teaching children to eat slugs. But what we really have are our buried emotions surprised into the light, like the grubs and bugs revealed when a “slab of bark” is “pried off”.

In “Plastics” he takes us through many manifestations of our relationship with plastic, throwing in these thought-provoking lines: “you could mull over the ethics of enslaving matter / even while feeling admiration for the genius it takes / to persuade a molecule to become part of a casserole container.” Then he brings it in to the personal, to a couple at a table in the park, and the insinuation of the nature of plastic into our relationships.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Demolition”. I love the way it starts off, with men watching a building being demolished, “swivel chairs and lathe / crashing and bashing into giant bins five floors below.” Having a fun relationship with a three-year-old boy these days, I totally get how the crowd of men stands “in a little cluster of hypnotized testosterone.”

But it’s really where he goes from there, the emotions he pulls up and the images he uses to push them into not just my brain but my heart.

We are all unincorporated, walking the line between loneliness and linked. I love getting the man’s point of view, a man who is respectful of women but not above calling out the changes in an aging beloved. I love the path he has found between feminism and manhood, between this world and what might transcend it.

In poems I look for mystery just as much as the next person. I want the condensed discernment of haiku and tanka. But there is a place in the poetic firmament for Hoagland’s work as well. These are poems that anyone may find themselves in, man or woman, poetry novice or expert. Check them out.

Who is your favorite poet?

After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

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A new novel from Lippman is always cause for rejoicing. She has a series of crime novels featuring Tess Monaghan and almost as many stand-alone crime novels, all of them excellent reads. I call them crime novels; they are certainly mysteries, and I make no apologies for loving that genre. However, in these books, what I value more than the puzzle demanding a solution are the story structure and psychological depth. Well, also that they usually take place in Baltimore, a city I know well.

Here, we meet five women who are circling around an empty space in the center of their lives. Felix Brewer, a bookmaker with an office above a club on Baltimore’s notorious Block, has vanished. He’s a self-made man, bursting with confidence and entrepreneurial energy who has run into legal trouble and, facing a prison sentence, disappears in 1976.

He leaves behind his beloved wife, Bambi, and three daughters, as well as his young mistress, Julie, a dancer at the club. As one character remarks, it is the wife who has the stripper name and the stripper who has the country club name, though of course Julie calls herself a hostess. I may not have the reference exactly right. Acing the Bechdel Test, Lippman’s main concern is these five women and how they fare in Felix’s absence, all of them expecting him to return any moment.

The story moves around in time, part of it set in the present of 2012 when Sandy Sanchez, a retired detective who acts as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department, is given Julie’s murder as a cold case. Julie had disappeared in 1986 and her remains were found in 2001 in Leakin Park, a popular dumping ground due to its many rough and overgrown areas.

The rest of the story takes us back to Felix and Bambi’s meeting, to the events around Felix’s disappearance, and other touchpoints. It should be confusing, but isn’t. Lippman always comes back to Sandy’s investigation, our understanding enriched by whatever story from the past we’ve been treated to.

I loved getting to know these characters. While it raises my ire, I completely understood Felix’s adoration of Bambi and his daughters while having many girlfriends on the side, including a long-term relationship with Julie. I also felt Julie’s pain as she drives past the home Felix shares with Bambi, and her hopes for the future. I loved the daughters: Linda who is practical and bossy, Rachel who keeps everyone’s secrets, and Michelle, the baby who has her mother’s beauty. As we move around in time, we see the women these girls become, and that to me was the most fascinating, the changes they go through.

I was also interested by some of the insights into what it might mean for a woman to be outstandingly beautiful, as Bambi and Michelle are, and what elements other than the physical contribute to that beauty. And, being always interested in friendships between women, I appreciated the subtle movements in Bambi’s relationship with her best friend, Lorraine.

Having recently read Margo Christie’s excellent novel These Days, based on her own experiences working at a club on the Block, I was hoping for more detail about Julie’s and Felix’s work. However, I understand why Lippman chose not to go there, and certainly her choice makes for a better, tighter story.

I’ve learned that if there’s a new Lippman novel in the house, I can forget about getting anything else done until I’ve finished it. I highly recommend this, as well as all of Lippman’s novels.

Have you read any novels recently that passed the Bechdel Test?

West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

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The curse of early success: we may say we’re willing to risk it, but there are certainly plenty of cautionary tales. The prime example may be the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The immense success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, made him the golden boy of the 1920s. Along with his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald danced and drank and partied up a storm.

The two were known for crazy, reckless stunts. But all of those drunken escapades left little time for writing. For a while, he kept going by selling stories to magazines, but that market almost completely dried up after the economy crashed in 1929. His other novels, including The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell well at the time.

This novel starts in 1937 with Scott holed up in a rundown hotel near the North Carolina asylum where Zelda resides. I’ve read and speculated a lot about Zelda’s supposed schizophrenia–there have been too many women diagnosed as insane for nothing more than independent thinking–but O’Nan doesn’t go there. His Zelda sees visions of Michael the Archangel and alternates periods of clarity with violent attacks on those around her.

O’Nan doesn’t let her husband off the hook either. Scott cannot escape from his alcoholism; worse than that, he is a mean drunk.

Scott can’t afford Zelda’s hospital fees, so, like many other writers at the time like his friend Dorothy Parker, he gives in and moves to Hollywood to write for MGM. However, the film work isn’t steady, and Zelda is not well enough to leave the hospital where the bills continue to mount. Worry about money percolates throughout this novel of Fitzgerald’s final three years.

Then at a party he sees a woman who reminds him so much of Zelda that he thinks his friends are playing a trick on him. Sheilah Graham is a gossip columnist, engaged to an English aristocrat. The portrait of her that eventually emerges helps me finally understand why she would fall for his faded charms.

O’Nan is a captivating writer, long one of my favorites. I first encountered his writing when I casually picked up a book a friend had left on a table, the bookmark clear proof that he hadn’t finished it. Yet, I’m ashamed to say that I was so mesmerized by the first page that I stole the book and only returned it to my mystified friend the next day, confessing my disgraceful crime.

Though I was already familiar with the story of those years from biographies, memoirs, and other research, O’Nan brings the writer and his friends to life. It’s all here: parties with Bogart and other stars, trial reunions with Zelda, attempts at normalcy for visits by daughter Scottie, drunken fights, determined “cures”. O’Nan walks a delicate tightrope, never excusing Scott’s excesses, but convincingly showing us the world from Scott’s point of view. After every failure, he returns to writing, trying to earn the necessary money, and drinking only cola.

Sometimes I wonder if his success did have much to do with the disastrous arc of his 44 years. His one-time friend, Hemingway, blamed Zelda for Scott’s drinking and reckless behavior However, Scott’s alcoholism started before that, when he was in college. Others have blamed the times: for many people Scott and Zelda epitomized the Jazz Age. I wonder, though, if his appetite for a wild and hedonistic life would have carried him to the same end no matter when he’d been born.

What can we know of another person? A good writer helps unravel the mystery. Read O’Nan’s absorbing novel, even if you think you already know the story.

What did you think of The Great Gatsby the first time you read it?

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

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This very short novel begins with a crisis in the stable and ordered life of High Court Judge Fiona Maye, a specialist in Family Law. Childless herself and partner in a long and comfortably loving marriage, Fiona finds the deep pleasure of her life, the moments when she loses herself, in sorting out tangled cases and writing opinions that can themselves become standard references for later cases.

Her superior view from the bench is challenged when her husband informs her that he is embarking on an affair. He says that he still loves her but wants one more passionate adventure before he dies, complaining that their sex life has waned. Indeed, when challenged, she cannot remember when they last had sex. When she refuses to go along with his scheme, he sneaks out of the house with a suitcase he’d packed before talking with her, thus giving the lie to his grand protestations of honesty and openness.

At the same time, Fiona is confronted with a challenging case of a young man only a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday stricken with leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and thus are refusing the blood transfusions that are almost certainly required to save his life. The hospital asks the court, in the person of Fiona, to intervene.

I think that McEwan is a marvelous writer, though I’ve found his books to be uneven, some excellent and some duds. Yet, while I appreciate his plotting and his prose, I cannot warm to his characters. Some I actively dislike while some, like Fiona, seem held at such a distance, perhaps from themselves as well as from me, that I cannot begin to care what happens to them.

In this case, I rather wanted to cheer for Fiona in her new single life, but she quickly knuckles under, allowing Peter to return after mere days. I enjoyed reading about the various court cases, but found the story of the Jehovah’s Witness boy and his reaction to her ruling unrealistic. I felt that the characters were being moved about like chess pieces to suit the plot rather than the plot growing out of the characters.

I will say that I was happy the story did not start off with a show-off set piece, like a home invasion or balloon accident. I also loved the descriptions of the various musical bits, whether a performance or an appreciation of a recording. And I appreciated the tightness of the prose. I’ve become rather annoyed with sprawling novels that betray the lack of an editor’s hand. Here, we charge through the story and a variety of cases with alacrity yet without sacrificing necessary detail.

I feared this would become a story about religion, but it is not. It is a story about the degree of responsibility we bear for those whom we encounter in our lives, whether chosen or accidental. It is a story about work, which I love to see, work that absorbs us and brings out the best in us.

Have you read a novel centered on the protagonist’s working life?

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

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I read a lot of mysteries. It’s not that I am bloodthirsty, but rather that I love the puzzle of the plot and the psychological depth of the characters. Plus a lot of the best novel writing today is being done in mysteries. I especially like finding a good series. When the same handful of characters return in book after book, the author has the opportunity to dig ever more deeply into them, revealing so much more of them over time, allowing them to change in unexpected ways.

Not every author takes advantage of that opportunity, of course. I’m pleased to say that Louise Penny does.

I enjoyed Penny’s first book, Still Life, featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec. However, the real star of that book is the small village of Three Pines, a peaceful place near the Vermont border, not shown on any map, full of artists and eccentrics.

Although wary of the Murder She Wrote pitfall, where way too many murders must happen in small town to keep the detective busy, I thought the book promising enough to read on. I blogged about her second and third books, chronicling my increasing disappointment with the flat characters. Great suspense, wonderful plots, but the characters were too simplistic—all good or all bad—and unchanging.

Then a friend encouraged me to try some of the more recent books. I’m thrilled to report that my friend was right. The later books have the psychological shading that I crave. The core characters are each given a chance to step into the spotlight and reveal their dark corners, their secrets and dreams.

This book in particular, Bury Your Dead, is a masterpiece. Penny takes on the incredible challenge of weaving together three stories and succeeds in playing them off against each other and bringing each to a satisfactory conclusion.

Gamache is visiting Quebec City during the Winter Carnival, recovering physically and emotionally from a recent investigation. Each day he visits the quiet, almost deserted Literary and Historical Society, a bastion of Quebec City’s English-speaking residents, where he examines the dusty tomes pursuing a theory he has about the 1759 Battle of Quebec. However, when a body is found in the basement, a murder that could reignite the fury of Francophone Quebec, he is pulled into the investigation.

At the same time, he is receiving daily letters from one of his friends back in Three Pines, begging him to reopen the case solved in the previous book, The Brutal Telling. And finally, there is the recent investigation, the one that went so wrong. I confess it was this third story that kept me up all night finishing the book. The events took place in the gap between the two books, and I was desperate to find out what had happened.

Even better than this masterful intertwining of three plots are the subtleties of characterisation. Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, reveal unexpected sides of themselves. This is most effectively done through their interactions with others. We see Gamache not only with his team and the suspects, but also with his own mentor, Émile Comeau. We see Jean-Guy take on the inhabitants of Three Pines without Gamache to run interference.

Altogether, a most satisfying read and one I highly recommend. While it is generally best to read a series in order, I give you permission to jump around a bit. But don’t skip over this book.

Is there a mystery series that you particularly like?

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield

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I’ve been trying to make a dent in the stack of writing craft books that threaten to overwhelm my bookshelves despite all my resolutions not to acquire any more of them. However, this week I’ve gone back to reread this lovely book by Jane Hirschfield. The nine essays contain so much depth and beauty that I’m sure I’ll be back to savor them many more times.

Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.

In the first essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”, she looks at concentration as the starting point of a good poem, calling it “a particular state of awareness”. She goes deeper and deeper into that concept, looking at how we invite concentration, the paths we follow, what we find. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere.” She speaks of the role of difficulty, the way resistance and tension shape the work, and goes on to examine six essential forms of concentration: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Using poems by Yeats, Olds, Cavafy, and others, Hirshfield seduces our understanding.

Since trying my hand at translation, I was fascinated by “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”. Lauding the curiosity and open heart that makes us “desire to learn what lives within the incomprehensible speech of others”, Hirshfield looks at the central issue: “where does a poem’s true being reside?” I initially wanted to keep my translations as close to the literal meaning of the original as possible rather than writing my own poem inspired by it. However, I found my poetic sensibility taking over and leading me irresistibly to a middle ground. Her care in this essay to show the spectrum and journey of translation reminds me of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.

My favorite essay is “The Myriad Leaves of Words”. I’m grateful to Hirshfield for sharing her insights into Japanese poetry, especially the way she draws out the cultural differences and their effects. I keep coming back to some of the Japanese concepts she describes, like shin which “includes both the realms of the mind and that of the feeling heart”, and some of the techniques, such as the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings. Lately I’ve been working a lot with haiku and tanka. I appreciate learning the Japanese words for some of the concepts, such as kigo for the season-indicating word and mujō for transience.

Most of all, though, Hirshfield has helped my understand the source of my obsession with these forms and why they–and poetry in general–occupy a central space in my life.

What book have you read that has made you enthusiastic about reading poetry?