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Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir
Author: Peter Balakian
ISBN 13: 9780465010196
ISBN 10: 465010199
Edition: Revised Edition
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication Date: 2009-02-10
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
List Price: $16.99

Publishers Weekly

Some memoirs are compelling for the private dramas they make public, others for the historic events to which they give witness and still others for the quality of their prose and its structuring. Precious few excel at all three; Nabokov's "Speak, Memory" remains the standard. Now Balakian, a 45-year-old poet ("Dyer's Thistle") and biographer of Roethke, ups the ante a bit, writing a memoir that not only compels in all three areas but that carries within it an urgent and timely appeal that a dark moment in world history not be revised out of existence. Balakian is of Armenian descent. His mother and father and their mothers and fathers immigrated to America shortly after surviving the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Turks, an event still disputed by some Turkish apologists who on occasion find sympathetic ears in Washington and American academia. At issue are the million or so Armenian Christians raped, murdered, tortured or left to die on a forced march into the desert. Ironically, the young Balakian, growing up in a comfortable New Jersey neighborhood, was sheltered from knowlege of the disaster:. "The word `Armenia' was synonymous with the rooms of my house.... I had never even thought to ask: Where is it?" But spending Friday afternoons as a boy with his oddly magical maternal grandmother, helping her bake choereg, he felt he had "access to some other world... something ancient, something connected to earth and words and blood and sky." This connection, particularly to words, is a notion that Balakian pursues as only a word-loving poet can. The mystical tales and dreams of his grandmother transform over time into body counts, government documents, eyewitness reports quoted at length and family narratives at last given to the curious Balakian. In the book's crowning structural feat, they become the property of Balakian himself. At last, the horrid story is in the words of the poet, and, in this quarter, the genocide becomes real and permanent. "Black Dog of Fate" is neither a grim book nor a polemic, however. It is a memoir about growing up in a wonderfully colorful family filled with artists and scholars. Balakian's evocation of growing up in the New York metropolitan area of the 1950s and '60s will, for many, ring fond bells (Whip 'n' Chill, pajamas with plastic feet, Woodstock, the drone of Allen Ginsberg's harmonium). This story of daring and triumph is at once warm and chilling, a testament to lives lived and lives tragically lost. FYI: Balakian's aunt Nona Balakian was a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review; Nona's sister Anna is a renowned scholar of surrealism. Both figure prominently in his memoir as figures of encouragement to the young poet-to-be.