Sophie’s Choice and Radical Acceptance

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I first read Sophie’s Choice the summer after I graduated from college. I don’t know why I waited so long. I had spent large portions of my childhood compulsively reading Holocaust memoirs. My mother, a children’s librarian, made phone calls and drove me to libraries in other towns to find more. I had a strong preference for memoirs over fiction because I knew the narrator would survive. Almost everyone she loved would die, but she would live and eventually write the book I held in my hands.

In Sophie’s Choice, the narrator lives, but he’s not a Holocaust survivor. Stingo—an aspiring young novelist—is a white Protestant Southerner racked with guilt over slavery, the continuing subjugation of black people in his home state of Virginia, and the fact that although he enlisted to fight in World War II, he did so mainly to fight the Japanese, a foe characterized by Americans in a distinctly racist way. He meets Sophie, a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, in Brooklyn after the war.

Who was Stingo to write about the Holocaust, to tell Sophie’s story? And who was I, a Catholic growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1980s, to devour the distinctly Jewish stories told in the memoirs I read, to dwell on them as I did? I recognized in Stingo a shared, possibly inappropriate interest.

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Shirley Jackson, Madeleine L’Engle, and Motherhood

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I read much of Shirley Jackson’s memoir of raising four children, Life Among the Savages (1952), on a weekend when I was caring for three children. For a brief stretch—maybe five pages—we achieved a fragile equilibrium and they were all attached to me as I read. The eight-year-old snuggled against me reading his own book. The six-year-old sat on my lap, idly turning pages I didn’t want turned, and I had made the mistake, earlier, of telling him that Shirley Jackson’s husband seemed kind of terrible, so he interrupted me to ask exactly how he had been terrible.

“He didn’t help with the kids or the cooking or the cleaning,” I said, leaving out the affairs and trying to find my page. My son didn’t seem sufficiently horrified, so I added, “He didn’t think men should have to do those kinds of jobs.” He put his hand over his mouth and giggled. “But what else?” he asked. Wasn’t that enough?

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Mistresses, Written By Women

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The affair in Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Be an Other Woman,” starts with a meet cute on a bus: “A minute goes by and he asks what you’re reading. It is Madame Bovary in a Doris Day biography jacket.” It’s a clever description of the story itself, which like many of the stories in the collection, Self-Help, is written in the second person. It’s considerably more playful than Madame Bovary and doesn’t end in suicide, but gives serious consideration to the trials of adultery. Unlike Flaubert’s protagonist, Moore’s is not married. She finds out after the affair is already underway that her lover is married.  She’s been duped into mistress-hood.

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.  

You walk differently. In store windows you don’t recognize yourself; you are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms you sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into your bluing thighs: ‘Hello, I’m Charlene. I’m a mistress.’ 

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Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth Isn’t Just for Suburban Moms’ Book Clubs

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I am so into Ann Patchett right now. Is it hip to be into Ann Patchett? Is it edgy? No. It’s book-clubby. It’s suburban-mommy. My book club of suburban moms met last night and discussed Patchett’s Commonwealth. When we chose it, we laughed a little about what an obvious pick it was. Suburban moms are often brutally self-aware. Ann Patchett is, too.

When I recently recommended Commonwealth to a friend I used to work with at a bookstore back in our younger, edgier days, she replied, “I haven’t read it, but I gave it to my mom for Christmas.” There you have it. It was my own mom who introduced me to Patchett with a copy of Bel Canto. All of her librarian friends had loved it. It had a book club discussion guide at the end. I rolled my eyes for months before I bothered to read it, only to find that I loved it, too. I was awestruck by the floating, omniscient narrative which would change mid-sentence and still remain fluid and easy to follow.

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As the effects of the president’s cruel and regressive executive order on immigration are becoming clear, I’m proud to live in a town that’s ready to stand up for what’s right. This week, our Board of Selectmen voted to cosponsor a warrant article with the Human Rights Commision that would make Arlington a Sanctuary Town.

The final language and whether the Board will recommend a yes vote still need to be worked out, but based on the discussion, I’m optimistic that I will have the chance to vote in favor of this article in Town Meeting this spring. The Arlington Police Department already follows these practices, but the warrant article would codify them and send a powerful message. Adopting Sanctuary Town status is not without risk, since the president is threatening to pull federal funds from sanctuary cities and towns. Whether he can do this remains to be seen. I’ve reached out to local officials to see if there’s anything voters or Town Meeting Members can do to help, and if I hear of anything I’ll let locals know.

But I’m excited to think of what could happen if other cities and towns became sanctuaries. California is blanketed with sanctuary cities and towns. A proponent of the warrant article said at the meeting that in Massachusetts, Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Lawrence, Northampton, Orleans, Somerville, Springfield, and Holyoke offer this kind of protection. Newton and Salem are currently considering similar proposals.

If your town is not on this list, would you consider reaching out to your town leaders to see if it’s in the works or what you can do to help make it happen? Their email addresses are easy to find on town websites. Even if elected officials are not supportive, citizens can sponsor warrant articles. Generally town websites or the clerk’s office can give you information about that. It’s always great to have buy-in from the electeds, but it’s not a requirement. Arlington citizens are the ones who started the movement here (I wish I had been one of them). As towns gear up for their spring meetings, the timing is right. I’m personally feeling overwhelmed by where to begin to oppose this administration’s bigotry and authoritarian bent. I’m grateful that my senators and representatives are already fighting the good fight. I don’t need to call them. Reaching out to your elected town leaders about this issue is a small local action. This movement could be very powerful if enough cities and towns join in.

The Ambiguous Epiphany

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When I was a child growing up Catholic, the Feast of the Epiphany struck me as an afterthought. December was all about the thrilling run-up of Advent, characterized by candle lighting and singing at mass and by lists for Santa and chocolate-filled calendars at home. Finally there was the tremendous climax of Christmas. Jesus is born! Santa is here!

After that, it was all denouement. Epiphany was when our Christmas tree—by then shedding needles at an alarming rate—finally hit the curb. It was also the last little burst of festivity at church before the long stretch of Ordinary Time. The three wise men had made it to Bethlehem. My mother or maybe a priest explained that in many cultures, Christians waited until the Epiphany on January 6 (also known as Little Christmas, Twelfth Night, and the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to exchange gifts. This was mildly interesting, but I wouldn’t be getting any more gifts, so it was hard to get too excited.

Now that I’m a lapsed Catholic fiction writer who still loves Christmas, I’m trying to figure out what stories to tell my kids about this season. I keep coming back to the Epiphany, which seems to me now fantastic and magical, a journey fraught with hardship and intrigue and faith and even espionage. When the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and ask King Herod, “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”, he is disturbed and sends them on to Bethlehem with instructions to report back when they find the baby. But after they meet the infant they’re warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They instead follow a different route back home. Herod intends to kill the baby, who he sees as a rival.

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Christmas with Alice Munro

Like many of Alice Munro’s stories, her Christmas stories are occupied with work and explore the subtleties of how work defines identity. Of the three stories I’ll discuss, “The Turkey Season” (1980) is the most explicitly about Christmas, ending with a snowy tableau on Christmas Eve. But the major function of Christmas in the narrative is to create demand for Christmas turkeys, which creates the need for turkey gutters, providing the narrator—a girl of fourteen—with her first job.

Inside the Turkey Barn, she learns about how people in her town are categorized—and what it means when people don’t fit into any of the accepted categories. Although she’s from the place, a small town in Ontario, she already knows she doesn’t fit in:

Work, to everybody I knew, meant doing things I was no good at doing, and work was what people prided themselves on and measured each other by. (It goes without saying that the things I was good at, like schoolwork, were suspect or held in plain contempt.)

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The Female Gaze and the Same Old Songs


I recently went with my husband to a concert. The artist we saw writes gut-wrenching songs. His albums are full of fascinating characters and their stories, his voice invites the listener in, and he and his band put on a great show. But I got restless about half way through. “It’s just so masculine,” I said to my husband, and not long after that the inevitable guitar solo tradeoffs began.

I thought of a line from a talk Jill Soloway gave in September at the Toronto Film Festival, titled “The Female Gaze.” She describes sports as “men watching men do things that men like to watch men do.” These solos, and the way the two men stood there, guitar to guitar—locked in a competition that was more than a little homoerotic and that generated music that seemed utterly devoid of feeling—were not for me. I admit I was already on edge. Just a few days earlier, women had heard something that wasn’t for us—the misogynistic and explicit remarks Donald Trump made to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood.

All of this also made me think of Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering,” which was widely circulated at about this time last year.

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently . . . since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

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Image: Conal Gallagher, 2010

Fracking, Glove Making, and Elevator Inspection: Industry in Novels


I delighted in Alexandra Petri’s column, “An Easy Guide to Writing the Great American Novel.” A writer must be able to laugh, kindly, at herself, and perhaps less kindly at others, especially when those others are extremely successful.

One of Petri’s must-haves in the great American novel is a “painstaking description of an intricate craft or a science thing that the average reader will not be able to fact-check, which is fortunate because it is such a lovely metaphor.”

I hadn’t even realized this was a thing. Of course it is a thing, and I love it. And even worse, I should probably figure out a way to do it in my own novel, which is set largely in a recording studio. So far there is quite a lot of tape moving from reel to reel, with hissing and whirring and clicks and silences that are something more than silences. But the writers I admire do something much better. Instead of slathering details of the specialized trade everywhere, they distill it into one or two scenes that resonate through their novels without exhausting the reader.

In Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh tells the story of a coal mining town gone bust and then seemingly reborn when a natural gas company starts buying up land rights. It’s a sweeping book, with a large cast of characters, and Haigh spends time building the characters and the world before she shows us fracking.

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Serial, Timelines, and Fiction

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In  “Route Talk,” an episode from the first season of Serial, Sarah Koenig and her producer attempt to recreate the state’s timeline of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As I listened to them test what was possible, I was struck by how similar their exercise was to one creative writers perform.

Whenever I move a scene, I have to rearrange the novel’s timeline. If I want a character to be a certain age at the time of a historical event, I have to live with (and keep track of) that birth year. It’s a painfully obvious point, but it can be an inconvenience for other aspects of the story. If I want people to go on vacation at a certain time, because it makes sense for the narrative, that needs to happen at a time of year when those characters would actually take a vacation. I am constantly squaring things up, and I misplace weeks and days with alarming frequency.

Writers have handled the problem of the timeline in many different ways. Joseph Heller handwrote a stunningly detailed outline of Catch-22, complete with a timeline. (It’s worth zooming in.) As freewheeling as Catch-22 seems, Heller kept careful track of details like the number of missions Yossarian had flown as the book progressed. 

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