Breaking the Fall in Alice McDermott’s Someone

SomeoneAt the beginning of Alice McDermott’s latest novel, Someone, an unattractive but good-natured girl divulges her deepest desire. One day, coming home on the subway, she fell against a man—someone who managed to catch her—an event that was memorable because he was kind in the way that he did it. It’s clear that in that short moment she comes to love him, as we are fully capable of doing with strangers—even those who will always remain strangers.

She does not see the man again, but that does not stop her from looking. Laughing at her own foolishness, she says that she finds herself watching for him—subway ride after ride—in hopes of another such encounter. If it ever happened again, this time she would fall against him on purpose, to be caught by design. Because the best thing she has known in life so far has been the very fact that she was caught, and that someone was kind to her in the act of doing so.

This character, richly drawn, makes her appearance early in the novel, and like the man she hopes to encounter but never will, evanesces from the story within a few short pages. But the impression that she makes upon the narrator, Mary—a child when she first hears the story—lasts throughout the balance of the work. The rest of Mary’s life is marked by the relation of this yearning—that there be someone there when she, and those she loves, invariably, ineluctably, inescapably, fall.

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Fury: The Beautification of Violence?

FuryGuest post by Christine A. Scheller

I loathe violent movies. When my husband watches them at home, I escape to another room or ask him to change the channel. This has been especially true since our son died a violent suicide death. I don’t want to see blood and guts. Death is too real and broken bodies are too precious for me to want to consume them as entertainment, or be confronted with them in art.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I attended a screening of the new World War II flick, Fury. I had heard that the film is brutal. It is.

But it’s also that rare breed in which the violence is necessary. This may seem obvious given that it’s about war, but other war movies revel in lingering scenes of carnage. Aside from one grotesque sequence, this film never does.

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Look at the Light: Thirteen Songs for 2013

Arcade FireGuest Post by Joel Heng Hartse

I’m writing my dissertation right now and for once I am trying to be bold, to not worry about whether what I am arguing has been substantiated by someone with more knowledge or status than myself. This is probably what is called for.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to shut up and let the wise ones have their say. This is my sixth annual end-of-the-year playlist for Good Letters, and unlike previous years, I am not going to offer any commentary on the songs I’ve chosen; instead, I offer these songs paired with excerpts of books, articles, or other things I have read recently (or not-so-recently) which resonate with me and, I hope, the songs. [Read more...]

Orthodox Films Fill the Void

Living on the F train subway line in Brooklyn, I am regularly exposed to one of the more consistently curious sights that New York City has to offer, one that tends to trump those attention-seeking sights that surround it by virtue of its contrasting virtues: the Hasidim, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews who’d rather go unnoticed in our midst.

From where I’m standing, their disdain for the vanities that drive those other eye-catching strangers on the train who actually want your attention only makes the Hasidim that much more interesting.

All the full-sleeve tattoos, cringe-worthy piercings, and whacky hairdos combined can’t add up to the sight of a single Hasidic man mumbling over the Torah in his broad black fedora and long black coat deep down the infernal New York underground during last week’s brutal heat wave.

From my standpoint, they’re nothing short of fascinating for their steadfast resistance to the mores of the larger culture into which they refuse to be absorbed. Is there anything more radical in our workaholic, super-consumerist day and age than a genuine observance of the Sabbath? I don’t think so. [Read more...]

The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]


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