Review: David Levithan’s “The Lover’s Dictionary”

Heather gave me David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary for Valentine’s Day.

I moved it pretty high up my reading list (I still haven’t read the book she gave me for my birthday) because it looked interesting, and it looked like a quick read.

I was right on both counts.

As an author, I’m jealous.

In part, I’m jealous because, through the clever formatting of the dictionary-entry-esque approach of the book, Levithan has turned what is, at best, a novella’s worth of writing into “A Novel,” as it declares on the cover. It’s a clever approach; I’m much more comfortable calling the book novel than a novel.

I’m jealous in part because Levithan has captured the mood of a novel I’d hoped to one day write better than I could. The book is the story of a relationship, the good and the bad, both told with equal weight and believability. The out-of-chronology storytelling approach portrays the relationship as a series of moments, set in a variety of emotional landscapes, that captures the ups and downs of love without weighting the one through the filter of the other. In a relationship, it’s hard to remember the good during the bad or the bad during the good, but here both coexist side-by-side.

Finally, I’m jealous because it’s a good book. Levithan is talented. The book may be sparse, but it’s nuanced. There’s great emotional depth in the interwoven vignettes. The dictionary motif places a lot of focus on words, and Levithan is well aware of their power, and uses them well.

Not Really A Review At All: “No Strings Attached”


Portman and Kutcher in "No Strings Attached"

I’m jaded.

We went and watched “No Strings Attached.” (We’re not proud. We had the opportunity to watch a movie without the boys, and the options that were playing in the time slot we had were limited, and this was definitely a movie to watch without the boys.)

The girl and the guy meet. And meet again. And meet again. And at some number meeting, end up in bed.

She has no desire to be in a “relationship.” She does have physical urges. He agrees to address the latter while avoiding the former.

<<Spoiler warning for those who have never watched a movie before>>

Against her plans, she falls for him. She decides that with him she does want a relationship. They end up together.

The End.


Except that it’s “The End” because this is a movie, and movies run for some amount of time and stop.

Real life is a little more messy.

Falling in love and starting a relationship is not, in real life, The End.

In real life, that’s just The Beginning.

And this is why I say I’m jaded. At The End of “No Strings Attached” I couldn’t imagine any scenario in which The End is followed by “And they all lived happily ever after.”

I give them six months. A year, tops.

And it made me wonder if it even matters any more.

It used to be that the happy ending of a romantic movie was that you could imagine them growing old together.

I couldn’t imagine these characters growing old together.

Has it become enough just to end up together for a while? Is just being together at the end of the movie what passes for a romantic happy ending today? In the words of Kenny Rogers, “Who needs tomorrow; we’ve got tonight.”

Or am I just jaded?

We Can Be Heroes, Just For One Day

Brick at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Davidson Center. Purchased while we were married; we were divorced before it was put on display.

And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am
But you’ve never been a waste of my time
It’s never been a drag
So take a deep breath and count back from ten
And maybe you’ll be alright

— Liz Phair, “Divorce Song

I was going to write this post anyway, but I’m posting it today because of Anne Jackson.

I wrote a post published Saturday about her book, “Permission To Speak Freely,” and my reaction to it and to learning after finishing the book that she and her husband were divorcing.  She was kind enough to not only read my post this weekend but to actually respond to it, and her response caused the gradual back-burner mulling that was still going on in the dark recesses of my mind to demand more immediate attention.

I may have been a little glib in my review, but the truth is I didn’t realize how much the book was still challenging me.

I stand by my original main thought — the book wasn’t what I was expecting it to be. I reiterate that for two reasons. First, to say that, should she read this post as well, I would be the first to read a book by Anne Jackson closer to my original expectations — dealing more with the things people feel they can’t say in the church, why the church creates that culture, and how the church can begin the work of changing that. The things she wrote about that subject in “Permission” were quite interesting; I would love for her to expound on it.

And I’ll admit again that my review was colored by the fact that those things are very much a pet subject for me; I’m passionate about those issues, and perhaps gave the rest of the book shorter shrift than it deserves for that reason.

I do agree, passionately, with the point she makes in the book — that the reason people feel like they can’t say things is that nobody says those things. Whatever you’re dealing with, you’re not the only one who has experienced brokenness, and there are others who can empathize with where you are and what you’re dealing with because of their own brokenness. But, unfortunately, since no one feels like they can talk about their brokenness, no one talks about their brokenness, and because no one talks about their brokenness, no one feels like they can talk about their brokenness.

She’s right, and she’s also right that the only thing that changes that is when people stop caring if others are transparent, and start being transparent themselves. When someone starts, they give permission for others to follow suit. They create a place where it’s safe to share. I believe this passionately also, and have strived to do this myself, and have encouraged others to do so.

Her book may not have handed me exactly what it wanted, but she’s done something more valuable — she challenged me. And I hope she can appreciate that I offer that as high praise for an author.

Which leaves the other issue; the one Anne talked about in her blog post, the one I eluded to in my review, the one I’ve been mulling ever since.

I wished I hadn’t read about her divorce until after I wrote about the book. It was impossible for me to not be colored by that. I did wait until after writing the review to read her post about her divorce, which may or may not have been good to do.

In my review, I alluded to the fact that the book, to some extent, held her marriage up as evidence of the merits of her arguments. In her reply, Jackson wrote:

Yep. My marriage failed. And it sucks. And the “progress” made in my book is now printed tens of thousands of times to remind me.

Yet have I failed? Am I less loved? Am I less learning?

Hell no.

I’ve much to learn, much to grow, and never…ever…ever…ever…have the answers.

(As stated in the final chapter) 🙂

And here’s the thing — I’ve been there.

You read Anne’s post and you read her book, and together you get this picture: A marriage of about seven and a half years. Struggles because of her sexual abuse in the past. Struggles because of her addiction issues. Perseverance. Love. Victories over those struggles. A marriage that shows that those things can be overcome. And then, one day, it’s over.

I’ve been there. I lived that picture, exactly. Exactly.

The worst days came about two years after we married. I got a call on Valentine’s Day that my wife had done things I assumed couldn’t be true. They were. Less than two weeks later, we celebrated our second anniversary in a mental health facility.

Those were not good days. Nor were the ones that followed them.

But we persevered. We endured. We struggled and we survived. And things got better.

And because we persevered, because we endured, because we struggled and survived. We thought we had won. We declared victory over the demons that plagued us. We encouraged others. We counted ourselves as a success story. When a cousin’s marriage was falling apart, we held ourselves up as an example of the fact that if we could endure what we endured, their problems were certainly no reason for divorce.

And those demons laughed, and waited.

Yes, the worst was behind us. Yes, things had gotten better. But, eventually, even the better version of those problems, over time, wore us down.

And one day we stopped persevering. One day we stopped enduring. One day we stopped struggling and surviving.

And it ended.

We stopped being a shining example, and became another statistic.

Her post does a good job of capturing some of the emotion of being in that situation. If you’ve been there, if you know anyone who has, if you fear being there, read it.

My most glib and regrettable comment in my review was this: “one’s answers to life’s problems are valuable only if they’re efficacious, and Jackson fails to fully make that case using her life as example.” One, it’s unkind to rub salt in such a fresh wound. Writing online provides a certain illusion of disconnect, but the truth is its a network that allows anyone to connect with anyone. My words were placed where they could find their way to their subject, and as such were inconsiderate.

Second, they’re not really true. Like I said, I agree with what she wrote. I agree with the value of transparency. Nothing in her story belies that.

So why would I write that? Because of the third issue — those words weren’t really about her. They were about me. Substitute “Jackson” for “Hitt” (and change the pronoun, of course) and it’s a truer statement. Who am I to ever act like I know anything?

Unlike Anne Jackson, I don’t have a book recounting those victories and perseverance, my successes and the lessons I shared from them.

All I have is a brick.

A brick we bought during a fundraiser for a major project here in town. We assumed we would be together forever. We had divorced by the time the brick was placed. There’s an irony there about being “written in stone.”

The brick is still there.

I could probably have it removed. But I don’t. Because, as I’ve said many times since, “those things happened.” That’s part of my past. That’s part of my story. It’s a testament to my brokenness. There are lessons there and truths, too valuable to be erased for the convenience of creating a prettier picture.

Things happen sometimes that suck.

Anne, you wrote a good book. I hope your current life situation doesn’t diminish that for you at all. Whatever is happening now, whatever happens in the future, those things happened. Your book is truth. And truth is an absolute good. Be proud of it.

For me, the lesson is this.

Until we die, the story isn’t over. Our lives aren’t fairy tales. We can’t declare “happily ever after” until the story is completely told.

Victory doesn’t come with major battles that ensure lasting success. It comes one day at a time.

When we declare victory, we’re setting ourselves up for defeat.

To have any chance, the only way — the only way — is to fight each day as if that’s the day that matters. And be glad for that day, and not think winning today somehow wins tomorrow.

We do indeed have “much to learn, much to grow, and never…ever…ever…ever…have the answers.”

I’ll also add that you can get an autographed copy of the book for $10 or a really cool t-shirt via the official PTSF website.

Like A Good Neighbor

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics over the year. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Your Neighbors.”

I’m a bad neighbor.

I couldn’t tell you the names of anyone I’ve lived next to since high school. Anywhere. Ever. Eighteen years, and I don’t know the name of a single one of my neighbors. I think the last name of the guy across the street is Yim, but I’m not positive about that. And I don’t know that from talking to him. I know that from one of my friends getting insurance information after somebody hit somebody’s car, which has happened a bit too often in the seven years I’ve lived in the house I’m in now.

Making it worse is that I’ve lived next to some decent people. The aforementioned Yim has helped me with lawn-mower problems before. Another former neighbor helped out with car problems once. And me? I don’t know that I’ve ever offered help with anything. I’m always glad to help when asked, and have done so on multiple occasions. But being aware enough to offer? I’m too oblivious.

I feel a little bit like I’m missing out, just on enjoying the benefits of that sort of relationship. It would be nice even to have the sort of acquaintance that I would feel OK asking a neighbor to get my mail if I’m out of town, but I don’t.

By and large, however, I’m pretty OK with that.

My Wednesday night Bible study group was recently assigned a curriculum by the church on gospel-centered life, and in one of the lessons, the author talked about the call to love his neighbor. He was doing a bit better than me; he at least knew one of his neighbors, he just didn’t care much for him. He wondered if he should be doing more for the neighbor, and, in particular, witnessing to him, but just didn’t feel any drive to do so.

Skipping everything thereafter in the lesson about how through his good works he got God to change him so he wanted to minister to his neighbor, and the rather large issues I take with that teaching, I’m also pretty OK with where he was, as well.

Increasingly, I feel like we’re living in a post-geographic world. I believe we should love our neighbor, but don’t believe that the idea of a “neighbor” means the same thing it did 50 years ago. And I think we need to be more open to God not being too tied up on geography, either.

I pretty frequently hear people talk about feeling guilty that they’re not witnessing to some person they encounter in their life. “I see ten people at the gym every day, and I don’t witness to any of them, so I’m a bad Christian.”

“Uh huh. And do you feel that God has put it on your heart to witness to any of them?”

“Well, no.”

“And the problem is?”

There are a lot of people on Earth. Like, really, a lot. And there are a lot of people we encounter as we go through our lives. And I don’t know that God calls us to witness directly to all of them. (I do believe He calls us to witness indirectly to all of them — we should live in a way that makes others want what we have.) I believe He often places us in relationship with certain people to play a certain role in their lives.

And I don’t think He limits that relationship to geographical proximity of residences. We’re in relationship with our “neighbors” at other places where we spend time regularly — our jobs, our churches, etc. We’re in relationship with our community of interest neighbors — the person at the gym or the book club or the improv troupe or the like.

And, increasingly, we have our virtual communities, the people we interact with on Facebook or other networks that we “see” more than our physical geographic neighbors. I don’t think those relationships are any less important to God just because they aren’t about residential proximity. In fact, I believe they’re more important, because they often involve a deeper connection.

And I would hope, that to those people I’m in community with, versus those that just live in my community, I’m really not that bad a neighbor.