Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Review: A Safeway in Arizona

A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in AmericaA Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America by Tom Zoellner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First: thanks to Jeremy for introducing me to this book.

In the spring of 2009, Jeremy and I met author Tom Zoellner at the Tucson Festival of Books. We discussed his The Heartless Stone, as well as Arizona, Mormonism, and, briefly, Under the Banner of Heaven. We talked about that book's slant on Mormonism and how Krakauer argued a relationship between a religion and a horrific crime.

Now we have A Safeway in Arizona, about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, and I find that it reminds me quite a bit of Under the Banner of Heaven - a little bit memoir, a little bit history, and at the core, an exposition of a terrible tragedy. But everything Banner did wrong, this book does beautifully right. Zoellner is a Tucson native and a longtime friend of Giffords, so he is in a good position to write about the events of January 2011. He is also a meticulous historian and story teller. There were so many missteps he could have made in crafting this controversial work - it could have overhyped Giffords, or simplified the Arizona political landscape too much, or caricatured Loughner, or been too sympathetic to one side or the other. Instead, A Safeway in Arizona is at once realistic, nuanced, thorough, thought-provoking, and ultimately very moving. As I read, I alternated between wanting to talk to everyone around me about each page, and wanting to just sit and think for a while, alone, to digest the ideas I was taking in.

Here are three of my favorite passages, to give you an idea of the kind of book this is. First, in a section of the book that talks about gun control, there is this:

"Predation is the crux of the whole question. The act of owning a gun is almost a theological statement. It carries an assumption that the universe is hostile and capricious. It assumes that society's safeguards or God's providence will not be sufficient to protect us from Darwinist terrors, and that a person must have access to the easy ability to remove another's life forever and without question, in a decision that might contain within it all the deliberation that three seconds can afford." (p. 203)

The above passage is placed in the context of a larger conversation with a gun enthusiast and I found that one of the most affecting chapters of the book.

At the heart of the book is the question of what effect, if any, Arizona's divisive political landscape had on the crime perpetrated by Jared Lee Loughner. Every chapter relates to this issue, directly or indirectly. And unlike Krakauer (in my opinion), Zoellner makes a convincing case against the shooting having occurred in some kind of social vacuum:

"I don't think that the atmosphere of twenty-first-century Arizona made this crime inevitable or was the motivating cause of it. There was only one responsible human part: Jared Lee Loughner, who is gravely mentally ill.

"The much harder question to examine - which must be looked square in the face - is the context in which the shooting took place.

"James Clarke's study of American assassination demonstrates that those who plot violence against politicians are generally suffering from mental illness, but they are never free of influences from the culture at large. They always come from a specific set of circumstances in a specific time. And even in a case of an illness like paranoid schizophrenia, the social context becomes worthy of scrutiny, not as a direct cause of violence but as an influencing factor: an aggravation." (p. 257)

Finally, this statement near the end of the book gave me pause:

"[Gabrielle Giffords] taught me the difficult lesson that it is not enough to merely dwell in a place. You must make the decision to truly live in that place, take ownership of it, be a citizen of it, and play a part in the common good beyond your own front door." (p. 263)

On this count, regarding my years in Tucson, I am absolutely guilty of dwelling, not living. And that makes me sad. I can argue that some of this lack of citizenship is due to the particular season of my life I was in during that four-year period: pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, the library, the park, etc. My world was made very small by my children. After reading this book, I wish I had engaged more with Tucson, even though I knew from the beginning that I would only be there for a few years. I certainly feel I understand Tucson more now, and understand my own experience there better, after reading this book.

The best and rarest books make you feel like they were written just for you. A Safeway in Arizona is one of those - illuminating, heartbreaking, and just plain interesting!

(PS - since I am so easily offended by sloppy portrayals of Mormons in non-fiction, I have to give a shout-out to Zoellner for being so careful the few times he mentions the members of my religion. Specifically, he talks about Russell Pearce for over a page before mentioning that he is a Mormon. Soon afterward, he points out that the mainstream body of the church does not agree with Pearce, with a succinct and astonishingly correct explanation of this disagreement. It would have been so easy for the author to call Pearce a Mormon first thing, and then not bother to show the other side - which is what I felt like Krakauer did on every other page in Under the Banner of Heaven. Just saying.)


Jeremy Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy Palmer said...

Here is my review part 1:

Tom Zoellner (2012) A safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords shooting tells us about the Grand Canyon state and life in American

Tom Zoellner’s book comes across as heartfelt and genuine. It is an insider’s view of a broken society and culture. It is a testament to the Janus-like nature of humanity. On the one hand there are so many terrible aspects of life that need addressing in Arizona – more on that later – while on the other hand, there are unfaltering souls like Gabrielle Giffords who attempt to make things better, even at great personal cost. It is so sad that she nearly paid with her life for her public service. It is sadder that some people did lose their lives while Gabrielle Giffords was simply trying to connect with the community.

It’s true, I do have some serious beef with Arizona. As a guest resident (grad student) for nearly 4 years, I experienced some of its challenges first hand. My bike was stolen within our first few weeks (yes, it was locked) - I have heard that bike theft is a rite of passage in Tucson. The ghetto bird circled overhead regularly at night. Our neighbor’s house across the street was broken into. Our next-door neighbor’s house was almost broken into, while I sat watching (yes, I called 911). I saw a homeless person in a wheel chair get backed into by a truck. We had to station volunteer sentries outside during our church meetings to stop the massive amount of crime taking place in our parking lots – in broad daylight. Sure these things can happen anywhere, but the thing is that they haven’t happened to me outside of Arizona.

And yet there is beauty in Arizona. Both in its people and geography. The desert and mountains are beautiful. The mountain biking is par excellence. The Tucson Desert Museum is on of my favorite places on the planet. The Biosphere. The desert itself, with its flora and fauna, is breathtaking. I envy some of the people who may be called desert rats for their love of all things Arizona. Good on them. They showed me a good time camping, playing paint ball, and mountain biking. And I became close to a struggling member of the Tohono O’odham nation.

But back to my beef. The K-12 school system is one of the most troubled in America and it is highly segregated. I witnessed this first-hand at several schools in Tucson I visited as a guest speaker about the Middle East. If you’re white, it seems that you want your kids to go to a school in the northern regions of Tucson. The south is made up primarily of Spanish speakers. Our white friends living south of the foothills seemed to all want to enroll their children in Orange Grove or other schools further to the north. I would probably have done the same (although in my defense, my kids do not go to the premiere ‘western whitey’ establishment in the UAE. Rather they attend a much more affordable and diverse international school mostly made up of Indians and Pakistanis, plus a handful of random others).

Another important issue that Tom Zoellner explains is that people in Arizona tend to be transient and there is little sense of continuity in personal relationships. We heard a rumor that California collects its homeless and buses them (free of charge) to Tucson. I don’t know if that is true, but there are many people down and out in Tucson. I feel bad for them. They are probably mostly mentally ill and don’t have the means to access professional and timely care (another topic Zoellner covers).

Jeremy Palmer said...

Part 2:

Speaking of mental challenges, I will admit here that I also have an unfortunate biological need for happy pills, and it was a constant fight to get them in AZ. The Soviet-esque bureaucratic paper work and waiting periods were nearly insurmountable. I once went to a public mental health center in central Tucson to try and get some cheaper happy pills. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. After entering the premises, I was told to complete my paperwork on a table while another applicant sitting next to me did the same. An employee then came and asked the two of us personal questions that were certainly confidential and should have been posed in private. At the next level of bureaucracy, I was told that in order to get happy pills I would have to wait at least 6 weeks to see someone who could prescribe them. When one is out of happy pills, this is a frightening prospect (withdrawal is awful). After more embarrassment and unprofessional service, I asked for my application to be canceled and left the building never to return.

Some of my favorite passages in Tom Zoellner’s book are below. I had hoped to work these into my own commentary but, alas, I didn’t. The passages touch upon the need to do more than dwell somewhere. We should try to ‘live’ where we are. I will return to the UAE next week with this in mind.

The passages also touch upon the truth that handguns exist to kill humans. I think I don’t support the rank and file having handguns. I think they should be illegal. However, I think I would probably want one in Arizona, with a concealed carrying license, until they all became outlawed. I would be happy to return mine when they were finally eradicated.

Enjoy the following passages.

“If more listeners realized that partisan talk radio is not a genuine public policy forum but a money-oriented business designed explicitly to attract an audience through gross exaggeration and invented grievances, elected leaders would not be so easily vilified and thought of as subhuman. “

‘If the state’s electoral system were configured in a way that rewarded those who tried to build coalitions and seek common ground instead of playing on fears and resentments of the base, the quality of the state’s governance would rise.”

What the author learned from Gabrielle Giffords, “She taught me the difficult lesson that it is not enough to merely dwell in a place. You must make the decision to truly live in that place, take ownership of it, be a citizen of it, and play a part in the common good beyond your own front door.”

Author returning to AZ to help Gabrielle Giffords: “But I was an Arizonan … It seemed like it was long past time to stop bitching from a distance about all the flaws of my home place and start trying to do something good and positive for it, even in a small way.”

“The sole operational purpose for a handgun is to condemn a human being to the darkness of death. They are not practical for hunting… The only purpose of a handgun is to hammer a two-ounce foreign object into the fragile meat of the brain, the irretrievable treasure chest of a personality, memory, and comprehension.”

Jeremy Palmer said...

Wow. I just read Bridget's review. I see that I failed to mention comment on one of the root issues of this book: The culture of the area likely influenced Loughner. I have not read Banner from Krakauer but Bridget's commentary entices me to do so.

Well done Zoellner. God bless Giffords and the other victims. Let us all try to truly live wherever that might be.

Susanne said...

I enjoyed both reviews. You often make me reconsider things and help me learn. Thank you both.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading the book now. I live in Tucson and moved here about 5 months before the Safeway massacre. I live about 2 miles from it. I found this blog by searching "I hate Tucson"....needless to say I was not that excited about moving here.

Bridget said...

I hope you enjoy the book. It deserves another read after what happened in CT.


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