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Posts Tagged ‘Last Friends’

On Monday I read a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about Colum McCann. Joel Lovell, who also wrote a very enjoyable piece on George Saunders this year, talked to McCann about his new book and writing but also traveled with him to meet a group of kids at the Newtown, CT high school who read Let the Great World Spin after the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary. Their teacher, Lee Keylock, chose the book as a way to help himself, as well as his students, work through their grief and disbelief and invited McCann to come to the class.

The last three paragraphs of the article, which describe Lovell’s and McCann’s visit with Keylock’s students, are incredible journalism, which take you right into that school and those conversations, and remind you that human beings may have an outsized capacity to hurt each other, but we do a hell of a good job at helping each other as well. The piece reminded me of Rolf Dobelli’s contention that news is bad for us (which I wrote about here). It hit me that “bad” news lacks the humanity I felt leaping off the page in Lovell’s piece, connecting me to these people I’d never met.

McCann told the students a bit about a new nonprofit project he co-founded — Narrative4 — explaining, as Lovell writes, that it “brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise, McCann said, in “radical empathy.” The image of young people “taking on the persona of their partner,” inhabiting each other’s stories, really got to me. That could be life-changing, so also world-changing.

I went to Narrative4’s website and blog and learned that many authors I’ve written about and even a few I’ve met, like the wonderful Firoozeh Dumas, are a part of it. And that all of us can participate in the project’s radical empathy by donating a little bit (as little as $5) at the website to read over 100 stories by authors who wanted to help launch Narrative4. 

There is a connection between my visceral reaction to this project and what I’m reading. I just finished Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, which revisits the characters in Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The book is a heart-rending look at how our life stories stay in our hearts and minds and souls right into old age, and impact our relationships and our inner monologue to the end. Gardam doesn’t flinch away from despair, and her elderly characters aren’t just sweet old souls, they are whole people with a trail of hurts and misunderstandings in their wake. But they are also, like all of us, capable of what McCann described to the students: “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” I thoroughly enjoyed Last Friends.

Finally, a true story: yesterday I bought Stray Bullet, Gary Rivlin’s piece on Atavist (Gary is a terrific writer and is also married to my cousin). I downloaded it to my iPad but you can also read Atavist stories on your computer. Stray Bullet is about Tony Davis, a man serving life in prison for the murder of a teenager in 1990. Gary met him while writing his first book, Drive By, and the two became friends. I’ve only just started it but I’m hooked.

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