Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. A pair of blue jeans covered in it is almost too hard to carry. I know these things. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass. Facing clean-up and recovery is lonely--deep in the bones lonely--and while part of that loss of control means surrendering to the awful thing that has happened, another part means accepting help--from friends but also from strangers. And that's why I also know what it feels like to have a stranger walk up my front porch steps, ask if she can take the pile of muddy, wet laundry from my front yard and wash it for me--and to not know what to say--and to finally say yes--and to have my life change forever because of that one word.
With the recent release of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" I've been thinking about some of my favorite fictional characters. Because, naturally...or not, Lisbeth Salander ranks right up there as one of my favorite female fictional characters of all time. I know that Stieg Larsson's gritty series with its share of graphically violent content doesn't suit everyone's taste. Furthermore I imagine the movie image of the dark, pierced and spiky-haired Swede might leave many folks cold, wondering what there is about her that could possibly appeal to anyone. And yet, several months after I finished reading Larsson's trilogy this married, advanced-age mother of two grown men still sometimes wonders what Lisbeth might be up to.
I learned to read when I was four years old and books have been a very important part of my life ever since. There were plenty of them around. My parents bought many books - cheap editions of classics available in regular bookstores, pre-war editions of books one could only get at second-hand bookstores and flea markets. There were libraries, too, but more popular titles were hard to get and there were no holds, unless a librarian took pity on me and helped me secure what I craved.
Recently, I attended a genocide conference that included a film called Beyond the Deadly Pit, produced and directed by Rwandan genocide survivor Gilbert Ndahayo. It documents confronting his father's killer during gacaca, the traditional court used to try "lesser" perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Ndahayo said, "If one wants to be healed from the sickness, he must talk about it to the world. For 12 years, I lived with the remains of about 200 unpeaceful dead in my parents' backyard." I found the film so profoundly moving that I could not rise from my chair. Even now, writing this, I cannot prevent the tears. During the post-film q&a, I asked Ndahayo if making the film had facilitated healing. He said simply, "No."
The picture book market is in the doldrums. Publishers report that sales are flat and disappointed booksellers must box up the brightly colored, lavishly illustrated volumes - unopened, unread, and most dispiriting of all, unloved - and send them back to the warehouses from whence they came.
When I was a kid I brought home a paperback book that my parents didn't think I should read. Mind you, this was during an era when our neighborhood drugstore's book racks never sported anything but the most innocuous (by today's standards) sorts of pulp fiction, from detective stories to romance novels to true crime. So you can be assured that my selection was about as tame as, say, a Disney animated movie. But it had a lurid cover photo and a rather suggestive title, suggestive, at least, to my 12-year-old sensibilities. Also to my mom because when she spotted it on my nightstand she freaked. She asked my dad to speak to me about it and confiscate the book.