Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
Fools Crow by James Welch
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

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Small Town Life Here's what I love about living in a small town. My block has about six houses on each side of the street. Ed is my neighbor across the street. He's an older gent, and he was in flooring for his working life. When I first moved in, Ed brought me a trivet he'd made from leftover flooring samples ... it's perfect to go under my rice cooker. Well, Ed owns a snow blower, and it snowed last night, about a foot and a half. Now Mike lives on my side of the block, two houses down from me. He's my hippie housepainter neighbor, and the first person I met here. When the weather is nice, Mike sits on his front porch in the morning drinking coffee and saying hello to people. For the first week or so that I was here, Mike and the guy at the hardware store were just about the only people I spoke to all day long.

Here's how the neighborhood works when there's snow. Ed snowblows the sidewalk on his side of the street, and then hands the snowblower off to Mike, who does our side of the street. While Mike was snowblowing over here, I looked out the window and there was Ed, shoveling the steps for his next door neighbor, Minnie. Well, actually it looked like he was expending as much energy convincing Minnie, who broke her hip last year, not to shovel her own steps as he was in getting this little chore done for her. We worry about Minnie, she's gettiing quite frail, but there she was in her little pink parka and a stocking cap, with her shovel in one hand, ready to take on her front steps. And there was Ed, who is no spring chicken himself, chatting her up to keep her safely on her own top step while he cleared the snow to the street for her. It's a nice way to wake up in the morning, watching Ed and Mike taking care of our little block. .

posted by Charlotte at 1/22/2003 09:03:00 AM


Bookslut notes that The Lovely Bones story lives on, and points to this totally inane conversation on Poynter which seems to argue that David Mendelsohn's review could only be motivated by "backlash" against the book's commercial success, and that critics should go easy on first novels, particularly if they are heavily promoted. There are so many holes in this argument that I don't actually know where to start, so I think I'll just start by saying, as an author, that any review which surpasses the level of "liking/disliking" and addresses the artistic ambition and accomplishment of a work is so rare that, once one gets over the shock, it must be a relief. I'm sure that if I was Alice Sebold, I'd be completely dismayed by the NYRB review, but on the other hand, who else is going to challenge her to set the bar higher with the next book? Sebold's no frail flower, she's certainly survived worse than one serious but critical review, and I have every expectation that her next novel will be interesting, and perhaps will avoid some of the pitfalls of the first one.

What I found useful in the NYRB review, however, was the way he used The Lovely Bones as a jumping-off place for a discussion of our current cultural mania for pablum comfort, for our desperate need to believe, in Mendelsohn's words, that "we needen't really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary." As one who wrote a dark novel, a novel in which everything does not work out okay, and everyone does not come out at the end feeling that chimera emotion "closure," I can testify to the force of the cultural backlash against this particular idea. (At my 20th high school reunion last summer, you would have though from the reaction of the suburban moms, that I had actually taken a small child out into the woods and lost her myself.) Somehow in America, we have become incapable of acknowledging that things, more often than not, do not work out well, that life can offer up events from which we may never "heal," that "closure" is a myth.

Which brings me to the inimitable Jeanne d'Arc and her discussion this morning of how prosecutors and the media have tapped into this powerful myth, how they have held the death penalty out as a carrot to the survivors of murder victims and have promised them that if they press for the death penalty, they will achieve this mythical state of "closure" upon the execution of their loved one's murderer. Now, maybe it's the Catholic in me, but I've never understood why, as a nation, we seem to sanction revenge in this way. Haven't any of these people ever read the New Testament? Isn't Jesus the guy who makes the radical argument that it is only in forgiving those who have trespassed against us that we are sanctified? But I digress, what I really wanted to point out here is the manifold nature of this myth of "closure."

There is no closure.

People never "get over" heartbreak and grief. We simply learn to live with it the way one eventually accepts that the broken leg will always ache when damp weather moves in. It was the Buddha who taught that the First Noble Truth is suffering, and that it is our resistance to and denial of suffering which causes more suffering. Suffering itself isn't "bad" -- suffering just is. It is our attachment to the idea that suffering is bad, our attachment to the idea that suffering is to be avoided or denied, our attachment to the idea that suffering shouldn't be happening to us, because we are such nice people, we did everything right, it isn't fair that is the problem. As a nation, as a culture, I'd like to respectfully suggest that we all just grow up please.

Stories matter. It matters that The Lovely Bones elides the true nature of suffering. It matters because the fact that the book has sold millions of copies demonstrates how badly people want to believe that we can get through life without growing up, without facing the inevitable reality of suffering and injustice. Stories matter because in our desperation to deny that suffering and injustice are real, we promulgate false stories to the victims of real crimes. We hold out hope for a coherent narrative, a narrative in which everything will make sense, in which all the loose ends will be neatly tied together. Stories matter because our desperate quest for a coherent narrative leads us to participate in human sacrifice, to participate in a system where the point was simply to sentence someone, anyone, to death, so that we can claim "closure" and "healing" for the victims of crime.

George Ryan may have been a tarnished govenor (not the first in Illinois, by a long shot) but read the speech. He was willing to stand up and declare that we cannot, as a free society, afford the cost of this false story. That we cannot be a nation that is willing to offer up for public sacrifice the lives of these men and women, too many of whom are not guilty of the crimes of which they have been accused. That we cannot afford to be a society willing to kill innocent people. It was a brave and noble thing to do, and I for one, applaud him.

posted by Charlotte at 1/21/2003 08:14:00 AM


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