Adulthood is a wonderful thing. We evolve from pimply teenage mess into responsible, productive members of society. At least that’s the ideal progression. But for some of us, the voice of the inner child doesn’t fade as readily. For some of us, it becomes difficult to let go and face reality, so we hold onto that which keeps us innocent, inculpable. And somehow it becomes easy to maintain this childlike revery. That is until the reality of adulthood comes hurdling towards us at full steam like a bully in the halls of Anywhere USA High School.
Marc Schuster’s Charley Schwartz of The Grievers is one such individual. Throughout the novel, readers will find themselves growing increasingly frustrated with Charley until they realize that he represents the parts of themselves that they must deny in order to function as adults. In many ways, Charley behaves in a manner that we have all envied at some point. He is sarcastic, irreverent at times, and completely unsure of his adult self. This uncertainty of just what it means to be an adult is precisely what allows Charley to ingratiate himself with readers. By the time he comes to the realization that none of us is sure what it really means to be an adult, readers are already sympathetic to his plight.
The Grievers contains a number of examples of people we could all be, paths we might have taken when we reached the proverbial crossroads that separate childhood from adulthood, and it is interesting to note that no one seems completely confident of their decision. Some characters are better at faking it than others, but for the most part, everyone involved in the story is operating under some sort of pretense, a quality that lends itself to both believability and relatability. Anyone reading The Grievers will find someone with whom they can identify, and it becomes very comforting to note that everyone has uncertainties.
While the story itself is very realistic and the portrayal of the characters makes them both endearing and frightening, there are times throughout the book when the dialogue seems better suited to reading than to speaking. In other words, people don’t really talk that way. However, these instances are so few and far between that they do not detract from the novel, its purpose, or its impact.
The Grievers is an ideal novel for those of us who sometimes seek to read books with which we can commiserate, rather than books into which we can escape. It allows us to be more aware of our humanity, while learning to accept it (flawed though it may be) at the same time.
Love is a timeless, universal sentiment. It defies the parameters within which we seek to define it. To attempt its definition is to find oneself at a loss. Love, true, real, raw love, is not easy, and it is ever elusive. But once it’s been found, once it has allowed itself to be confined within the hearts and souls of two people, it makes life more rich and abundant than we could possibly imagine it to be.
So why is it that we devote only one day a year to something so important, something so consuming?
In elementary school, we hand out little paper hearts attached to lollipops in hopes that they will bring happiness to our classmates. We eat cupcakes (at least we used to) and have parties and leave school sugared out all in the name of love.
In high school, we wait expectantly either to receive flowers or to find out how our flowers will be received. We give cliché greeting cards in the hopes that they will accurately expose our adolescent feelings to our sweethearts. And we think it will last forever.
In adulthood, men are now obligated to scramble around at the last minute to purchase flowers (that will die), candies (that she will say have contributed to her nonexistent weight gain), and jewelry (that she will likely wear for a few weeks before allowing it to slip to the bottom of her jewelry box to lie with the relics of Valentine’s Days past). Women, it has to be said, have a fairly easy job this holiday. They are required only to wait and to receive. The final judgement regarding the success of the holiday lies within their jurisdiction. Sorry, guys.
But why? Why do we do behave in these ways? Why do we stress ourselves out wondering whether or not he will propose this year or whether or not the flowers and necklace will be enough to keep her happy for now?
The history of Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery and confusion. No one saint can claim patronage over the day, and early celebrations of the holiday were hardly the greeting-card infused sweetness we know today. But somehow over the years we have adapted this day to our own purposes and allowed it to become the international day of love, for better or for worse.
I’m not suggesting here that Valentine’s Day is a pointless exercise designed only to make us feel worse about ourselves than we already do. I can be just as sappy and sentimental as the next girl (and quite frequently am). But if love is so important, if we’re willing to call it the be-all, end-all, if we’re willing to spend a lifetime searching for it, if we consider ourselves so lucky to know it, to possess it, to bestow it, then isn’t it worth celebrating every day?
Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.
Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.
Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.
Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.
By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.
Capital L Literature is slippery to define, even on the best of days. Generation after generation has struggled to define the qualities inherent in Literature (as opposed to literature, or the stuff that populates both the bestseller list and the book stands in local grocery stores). We ponder over innumerable cups of coffee what it means to be part of the great literary canon: what characteristics link the greats to one another? How can those characteristics be replicated? How do we define them in concrete terms? What happens when we try?
Over the years, the literary canon has changed, multiplied, divided, become inclusive and exclusive all at once. But some things never change. Some authors remain constant fixtures in Literature, and no amount of debating, dissecting, or declaiming can ratchet them from their honorable places.
Among these sit illustrious, albeit misunderstood, literary geniuses (the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Poe, and Louise May Alcott), of whom Charles Dickens is one. Today marks what would have been the author’s 200th birthday, and a celebration is seemingly in order.
Even those who are not readers of his works have been influenced in some way by Dickens. His story A Christmas Carol has become part of the holiday catalogue, inspiring animated films and Christmas decorations. The film and television industry has been arguably generous to Dickens, ensuring that each generation has its theatrical embodiment of the classic holiday tale, and each generation has bent the story to its purpose.
Dickens’s works are full of one-liners familiar to us all for one reason or another:
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
“Please, sir, may I have some more?”
And for these the world owes a debt of gratitude. Not only have they illuminated poignant moments in literature, but they have also provided the masses with entertainment and laughter at their own expense.
To say that Dickens had a way with words seems trite and inadequate. The names of his characters alone are enough to inspire both readers’ and writers’ imaginations. One needs little more than the name of a character in any given story to understand the true nature of him. Take, for example, Wackford Squeers of Nicholas Nickleby or Lord Verisopht of the same novel. While Dickens has absolved himself of outwardly accusing these characters of certain natures, their names provide the reader with enough context to form an opinion before the character has even acted.
Dickens had a knack for making a point with his work without overtly using his authorial voice to comment on the state of his world. In Nicholas Nickleby, for example, he uses Squeers and Smike to illustrate the deplorable conditions of boys’ schools, but he allows the text to resolve the problem, allowing Wackford Squeers his just deserts.
Important writers, those with canonical staying power, are few and far between. Many aspire to greatness, but few are able to achieve it. Today we celebrate one of the few who did, one who gave to the world more than he could have ever realized in the voices of Tiny Tim, Pip, and Oliver Twist. For this a celebration is indeed in order.
Some of the best friends I’ll never make are in New York. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to meet them all. That is the city’s great mystique, encouraging (indeed forcing) interaction while hoarding its people for itself. For some its the way of New York; they belong to the city and no one else. For the rest of us, it seems difficult to imagine the immensity of the place and its capacity for allowing simultaneous exposure and anonymity.
New York thrives on synchronous creation. People go to New York to create themselves without realizing that the city can only create itself from its people. Not a dangerous dependence, but one that is inescapable. A mere presence there allows the city to crawl inside you, perhaps to an abandoned nook of your personality, perhaps someplace more prominent. There it waits for the opportunity to spring itself. And it will. New York is nothing if not surprising.
Apathy is not an emotion to be associated with this particular metropolis. New York is a highly emotive place where feelings and thoughts, dreams and sorrows are amplified. Everything you ever did or didn’t do is magnetically drawn to the surface to be confronted. Suddenly, for everything in New York is sudden, you find yourself faced with unlimited possibility. New York is a city for asking, “Why not?”
For some, the electrifying potential seems daunting. So they leave, telling themselves that they can now cross NYC off some elusive mental bucket list, justifying their presence while simultaneously (there’s that word again) dismissing missed opportunity and things undone. Some convince themselves they don’t like it there, that they would almost rather be anywhere else, that New York holds nothing for them. But the city has already claimed them, whether they know it (and accept it) or not. And some of us leave reluctantly, knowing that everything now will pale in comparison with this place. We know we’ll be back. In fact, most of us have already begun planning our return visit because trying to resist the urge feels unnatural, uncomfortable. The city has claimed a part of us, and we acknowledge it freely, unashamedly, knowing part of the attraction lies in the reality that we will never be able to visit the same New York twice. We’ll be back there. How could we not be? It’s a fun quest, searching for that part of ourselves that the city snuck away while we weren’t looking and knowing that even if we found it we would give it up all over again.