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Monday, May 5, 2008

Humor and Pathos

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  For a writer, relating the immigrant experience without patronizing or perplexing the reader is no small feat. Actually making them laugh in the process is even harder. Firoozeh Dumas has been hailed by critics for being capable of delivering poignant glimpses of her experiences as an Iranian American growing up in Southern California with both sensitivity and humor.

  Her first book to gain wide critical acclaim, Funny in Farsi, was a series of autobiographical essays illuminating her and her family’s experience of acclimatizing themselves to American culture. Her second, released this month, recounts her experiences of living with her French-born husband and blending French, American and Iranian culture and cuisine, as well as offering comical insights into Iranian copyright laws and the trouble with translation.

  “Humor, like poetry, is culture specific,” Dumas says in her latest book, Laughing Without an Accent. She uses examples like the tireless relish with which pie-in-the-face routines were employed in Western comedies. “The laugh tracks told us it was supposed to be hilarious, but we thought it was obnoxious. We also saw it as a terrible waste of food,” she says in her book; an opinion that I confess I’ve always shared. To think of all that lovely pie going to waste…

  Dumas comes to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood on Monday, May 12, at 7 p.m.

  Also coming to Schwartz in Shorewood the following day is local author Susan Engberg. Her short stories have been praised for their meticulous prose, their gradually built tension and the deftness and vigor with which they examine the inner workings of the human mind. One New YorkTimes critic described them as stories that “could change your life.” Many of them are set in the Midwest, and convey its atmosphere through details of climate and topography. Her characters, both young and old, are often at turning points in their lives. Her new book, Above the Houses, is a collection of nine stories, some of which deal with the disorienting loneliness experienced through the loss of love. And some examine the most desperate form of alienation: the kind that arises in the company of others from whom we feel inexplicably estranged. Engberg will be reading and signing copies of her book on May 13, 7 p.m.