This Week’s Hot Reads: October 28, 2013

This week, from stories about the streets of Tehran to the quest to bring a lost World War II pilot home.

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi.

Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons are hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop of the transformations of her characters, young and old. The adolescent girls of “Flowers of Shiraz” can hardly comprehend the change underway in their country: In the run-up to Mossadeq’s ouster, they ride their bikes through the city, meeting for ice cream, flirting with boys, and racing through the hills, despite the protests on the streets. Mitra, Gol-Maryam and Parivash wear their political allegiances as lightly as their crushes. That’s not to say Taraghi isn’t interested in history’s course; she plays a long game in many of her stories, following the fates of characters across decades and continents. In “The Gentleman Thief,” a math teacher-turned-smalltime-burglar sneaks into the narrator’s house. “Excuse me,” he says. “With your permission I will take this bowl and clock and I will leave.” (Before escaping out the window, he asks for a glass of water, too.) Only many years later does his full story emerge, when the narrator returns from Paris to visit her ailing uncle. Much to her surprise, the former thief is now her uncle’s caretaker and loyal companion. A similarly complicated fate unfolds in “Amina’s Great Journey,” the tale of a big-eyed Bangladeshi maid named Amina who spends her days daydreaming of movie stars. The story charts Amina’s slow transformation from a gullible young girl who is complicit in her greedy husband’s abuse to a confident woman intent on educating her children. Taraghi carves out space for mysterious forces—powerful coincidences, supernatural spirits and uncontrollable compulsions—in her stories. But at the heart of these tales are just ordinary people, caught in strange times.

Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James.

In the title poem of this new collection from Australian writer Clive James, the statue of the regal Nefertiti (“That neck, that pretty hat, those film-star features”) weathers war in a Nazi Germany anti-aircraft bunker with a look. “The Look that says: ‘You’ve seen one tomb, you’ve seen / them all.’” That startling image of elegant Nefertiti held captive by history epitomizes James’s uncanny ability to find new dimensions and unexpected textures in small moments. In this volume, James tackles the political and political alike, from “A Spray of Jasmine,” which considers the flowers in Burmese dissident Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s hair to “On A Thin Gold Chain,” which remembers an unnamed but oft-pined for beautiful bare-shouldered garden party guest long ago.

In fact many of these poems are about feminine beauty (and its attendant themes of love and passion); many more explore literary life itself. But James’s most powerful poems are those which find him grappling with his own mortality. Take “Habitués”—a poem that begins with a diss on cruise attendees (“They just steam back and forth across the Atlantic— / Until they die”) but soon turns into an earnest meditation on how to live. That question is one that reaches across much of James’s work, as in “Silent Skies,” which pays tribute to a friend after his death. Remembering a bedside visit, James hones in on the moment when he faltered: “I ought to tell you now / That I will miss you. But I miss my cue / Unless it’s tact, not funk, that tells me how / To look convinced this visit need not be / The last at which you’re here to welcome me.”

You Are Not Forgotten by Bryan Bender.

Boston Globe national security reporter Bryan Bender takes readers through multiple generations of military history in this proud story about honoring the country’s defenders. You Are Not Forgotten traces the lives of two remarkable American soldiers, Captain Marion Ryan McCowan, Jr., and Major George Sensey Eyster V.

McCowan, a genteel Charleston native, was serving as a World War II pilot in the South Pacific when he went missing over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea in January 1944. Eyster, the descendent of a long line of warriors tracing back to the Revolutionary War, completed tours in Afghanistan and Iraq before joining the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or J-PAC. With J-PAC, Eyster became part of a team that traveled the world in order to recover and identify fallen lost American soldiers. Through interviews, journals, logs, letters, emails, and even instant message transcripts, Bender narrates the complex drives that drew both men to serve, the grueling demands of their time at war, and the twists of fate that ultimately bring their stories together.

For Eyster, the service of his father, grandfather, and their forefathers were both inspiration and a psychological burden. Eyster would joke that he had a “Lieutenant Dan complex” (ala Forrest Gump); the bravery of the men before him seems to leave him no choice but to follow in their footsteps. Yet he struggles to find clarity of purpose in the frontlines of America’s modern wars. Instead, Eyster finds his calling in the work of returning lost soldiers like McCowan to the loving families they left behind—striving under J-PAC’s motto, “Until They Are Home.”