Jane Austen to the Rescue

Download-2I just came across something I wrote after the 2016 presidential election.  It began like this:

"I’ve been riding shot gun with Jane Eyre. Everywhere I drive, she comes with me. Her voice, Gentle Reader, is a far better companion than the news of the day."

Evidently that was as far as I got. But today I realized that  among all my coping measures for these terrible times, Jane Austen has been my best comfort and my muse. Download-3Though I have read all her books multiple times, listening to them as audios as I drive, make the bed, cook, or whatever, is another experience entirely. Just last week, I finished listening to "Sense and Sensibility." If Eleanor Dashwood - smart, composed, restrained - was running for president, she'd have my vote. (But at this point even the loathsome Willoughby would do.)

This afternoon I played hooky and went with my friend and fellow Austen devotee Joanne to go see the new "Emma." Delicious movie - funny, beautiful to look at, and oh, that Austen insight.

Images-3I'd say this was an old (okay older) lady thing, but my daughter and daughter-in-law are both huge Austen fans. 

Why do we need Austen now? With all the raging and ranting and sensory overload of today's world,  Austen is  the calm voice of reason.  People rise above their baser instincts. They learn lessons. They control themselves. They have sense. And sensibility.

Okay, maybe I'm hiding in the mid-19th century. But it's a lovely place to be.


DownloadI came across the term "bibliotherapy" for the first time this week. Not surprisingly, it refers to the use of literature for mental healing. Therapy through reading. 

The concept is not new - Psychology Today reports that Egyptian King Rames II had a special chamber for books, with the words "House of Healing for the Soul" over the door. Evidently Sigmund Freud also used literature in psychoanalysis, and other doctors have "prescribed" books for their patients. Apparently now it's a thing, and some psychologists train in it.

To me, bibliotherapy seems like another one of those intuitive and obvious things that has now been turned into an industry. It reminds me of Forest Bathing, an entire science devoted to the shocking notion that spending time outside is good for you. Download-1

To be clear, bibliotherapy does not refer to self-help books. We're talking about novels which portray the human condition.

As soon as I learned to read, I stayed up late at night, under the covers with a flashlight, spending hours on adventures with Doctor Doolittle, devouring stories about families and orphans  - The Little Princess was big for me - and on and on. As my reading abilities and sophistication increased, so did the depth of my book choices. Books have always served as both an escape and a way of understanding the world. 

It makes sense that being a good reader helps develop empathy in a person, but apparently it can help with depression, anxiety and other human conditions. Who knew? Most readers. 


Please Hold....For Your Mind

ImagesYour mind is very important to us. Please stay on the line and we will be with you shortly. La la la. Your mind is very important to us. Please stay on the line, and we will be with you shortly. La la la. Your mind is very important ....

Last night, on my birthday no less, I discovered that I have been reading the wrong book for my book group. This is a first. Sure, I've forgotten some of the books we've read - we've been together for 25 years. And it's true that our book group once picked a book that we'd already read. 

But this is the first time I've read THE WRONG BOOK. 

My kind husband had several excuses for me.

  1. We share a Kindle, and he was reading the book I mistakenly read, so it's natural I was mixed up.
  2. I am preoccupied. (What's new?)
  3. The titles were similar.                                                                            

Okay, but are they really?  The book I was supposed to read was "Disoriental." The book I was reading was "Asymmetry." Other than that they are one word, vague titles, I don't see the connection.

Sigh. Well, I'm liking "Asymmetry" and will finish it, but I have to start "Disoriental" or I won't be done in time for our next book group meeting. 

How appropriate. I'm both disoriented and asymmetrical these days.


Family Book Group

Books-bookstore-book-reading-159711We're starting a family book group! 

My son proposed the idea on a group text. "Remember when we saw 'the Reading Family?'" he wrote.

Of course we did. We were on a trip back in the 1990s, and the Reading Family was staying at the same resort.  The mother, father, little boy and little girl each brought their own books to breakfast, lunch and dinner. They ate in silence, immersed in their reading. We thought it was so weird. They didn't talk to each other at all.  (Of course flash forward, replace the books with cel phones, and it couldn't be a more common sight.)

Anyway, my son continued, "Remember when we  mocked them mercilessly? Remember when, for the past 20 years, we all harbored a deep, secret affinity for their life choices?" 

Hah! It's true our family has a major nerdy streak.  And I'd like to take at least partial credit for the book love. When the children were growing up (they're now adults)  my favorite time of day was when we were cuddled up in bed and I read to them. First picture books, then kids books, then chapter books. Now when we're together we do look a bit like the Reading Family - parallel reading with paper books, Kindles, phones - though never at the table! And we do talk to each other. 

We still have a lot of details to work out - the book selection process, not to mention the actual meetings. My husband and I live in New York, our daughter in Seattle and our son in Washington, DC. Conference call? FaceTime? Can you even do a group FaceTime?





Book Group - Hollywood's and Mine

I was excited when I read that the movie "Book Club" was coming out, especially when I found out it starred Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Jane Fonda. Oh boy! 

Full disclosure - I haven't seen the movie yet. But I did just watch this trailer. Oh. My. God. A bunch of 70-something women, not a wrinkle among them, giggling like school girls over dating, men and sex. The book they are reading? "50 Shades of Grey." 

The script writers have given them high-level jobs, plenty of money, and even a scornful reaction to the book selection, which apparently leads them all to explore their own sexual frustration. Over the decades they've moved from Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying" to "50 Shades," fueled by a lot of wine on the way.

Really? What a let-down. My book group has been together for almost 25 years now.  We've read dozens - no, hundreds  - of amazing books. Over the decades, we've shared more than literature, of course.

Our kids were in elementary school when we started. Now they are adults. We fretted over middle-school language placement, kids' drinking and drugging and dating in high school, college applications, kids looking for work, their first apartments, kids who are gay,  kids who are depressed, kids who got sick, kids who got married, grandchildren, etc. etc. We compare notes on aging parents, home health care aides, nursing homes and death. We lament our own lapsing memories - once we chose a book we'd already read.

Not to mention charting our own careers - triumphs and setbacks, layoffs and promotions. Five women in my book group (of 12) have had - and survived - breast cancer. 

And yes, we've discussed our own marriages, the joys and frustrations. Sex? Occasionally, but not in a giggling, school-girl kind of way. 

I'll probably see "Book Group" and I hope it's better than it looks. This afternoon I've got "RBG" on the docket, so to speak. Nothing silly about her.

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

What a great book! And man, am I in awe of the author, Rebecca Skloot, who did amazing reporting for this work of non-fiction. Henrietta Lacks was a poor woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She left five children behind. But this book is far more than the story of her life - it's a book about scientific ethics, cancer, poverty, the legacy of poverty, racism and far more. Mrs. Lacks' immortality came from her cells. The cancerous cells, taken from her without her knowledge, were the first to be grown in culture.  Those cells, known as HeLa, were reproduced over and over again and allowed research that led to medical advances on a variety of fronts, including the polio vaccine, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization.

But Mrs. Lacks died in poverty and her children seemed to fair even worse. Her daughter Deborah at one points asks why, if her mother's cells were so valuable, could the family not afford doctors? Skloot reports this story down to the most minute detail, following the trails of the "immortal" cells as well as the lives of the Lacks family. It is a fascinating tale - moving in it's humanity and illuminating to the non-scientist. The Book Group unanimously loved it.  

Book Group Update

Holy Cow! I had the sense that it had been awhile since I had updated what my book group was reading, but didn't realize how incredibly lax I had become. Don't even know if I can't resurrect everything, but here are a few we have discussed over the last months:

BookReview-Schine The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Shine

Is it possible someone actually compared this to a Jane Austen novel? Not one character in this book seemed real. Two sisters - a librarian and a literary agent - move to Westport, CT, to keep company with their mother, whose marriage has fallen apart. I particularly took exception to the portrayal of the disgraced literary agent. She was hapless, ineffectual, spacey and passive. There was no way she could have been a power player in the New York literary world. My agents would have eaten her for lunch. Couldn't work up a healthy interest in any of the other characters or their problems either.

When Everything Changed When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

I love Gail Collins' columns in the NYT. I think she is a smart, funny, compassionate writer. That said, this book, a history of the women's movement,  was a bit of a long slog. There were fascinating details - like when Billie Jean King, then the reigning US tennis champ, couldn't qualify for a credit card, but her husband, who she was basically supporting, could. Or the secretary who came to court to pay her boss' parking ticket, and got yelled at by the judge for wearing slacks. You forget how relatively recently all this took place. But the book was still pretty unwieldy.

Infidel Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

We still can't stop talking about this book. It is a memoir by the controversial Ali, who grew up Muslim in Somalia, and has now repudiated Islam and become a darling of the American right. Agree or not with her politics, the book  is incredibly powerful, well-written and provides a window into a world I hadn't even imagined.





Titleimperfect The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This book got great reviews, and the only explanation I can come up with is that it was about journalists and reviewers love to read about themselves. A series of connected but disjointed sketches of people who work at a fictional international newspaper in Rome, it was another one of these novels where it was hard to work up any interest in the sad sack collection of characters. The book didn't seem to go anywhere either. It was well written and provided a slice of life kind of look at this group, but overall - eh.

Cutting_stone Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

We all loved this novel. The set up: twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Ethiopia, sons of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a nun, and Dr. Thomas Stone, a surgeon. Their mother dies in childbirth; their father flees the country. The twins are brought up by Hema, an Indian-born obstetrician and Ghosh, who Hema marries after adopting the twins. The brothers become estranged but at the end of the book are reunited, while also reconnecting with their father. The book was ambitious, with compelling characters, fascinating descriptions of the political turmoil in  Ethiopia,  and interesting depictions of what life is like for foreign medical residents in the US.  The book has some magical thinking parts - it opens with Marion describing his birth, while other parts is grounded in really gritty medical writer - the author is a physician and when you read about a liver transplant, you get the gory details. It wasn't perfect, but it was a great read.

Book Update

So....since I last posted, the book group has read:Let-the-great-world-spin-0809-lg  

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lamperdusa

The Nine by Jeffery Toobin

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

At our next meeting we will be discussing "Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann.

 The book, which won the National Book Award this year, weaves together the stories of a group of disparate New Yorkers - two brothers originally from Ireland, a prostitute and her mother, a Guatemalan nurse, a Park Avenue matron and a handful of others. It is set in the 1970s, during the time aerial artist Philip Petit walked across a wire between the two Trade Center Towers. The walk comes to symbolize different things, and the book is both haunting and deeply humane. It kind of sneaks up on you too - when I first started reading it I thought it was just depressing, but it sucked me in, took me for a a ride, and left me feeling much richer for having read it. 

The Best Laid Plans....

Still Alice final Disgraceful! Disgraceful! I was going to post regularly about all the books my book group was reading, and what I was reading on the side. And I see it has been months since I fulfilled this plan. Okay, I have been a bit busy, what with ending one job and starting a new one, but still - this is ridiculous.

Here is a quick encapsulation of what I can remember that I've read.

Speaking of memory, our book group is currently reading "Still Alice," a novel by Lisa Genova, which is about a Harvard psychologist and linguistics specialist who has early onset Alzheimer's disease. The slow unraveling of her mind is as believable as it is relentless. I found the book fascinating, frightening and incredibly sad. 

Since I thought I deserved a little present after that, I picked up a copy of "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," which is a biography of former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. The author, Jennifer Scanlon, argues thatImages  Brown - with her early support of single girls, sexual freedom and self-reliance - was actually a pre-first wave feminist, who has been vastly misconstrued. Her early life - she was poor, hardworking, supported her family - was not easy, and reading about her moving through her career with pure grit is kind of inspiring. 

The rest of the books I'm going to list, with a minimum of comment, in the interests of space and as a reflection of my own limited memory.

John Adams by David McCullough - I'll admit it. Couldn't get through it. Simply didn't have 700 pages of interest in the subject. 

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga - Loved it. A novel set in modern day India, with the quintessential unreliable narrator. He's been a servant, entrepreneur and a murderer, and in the course of seven nights, tells the story of his life to that date. I really enjoyed this book and it opened a window into a world I knew nothing about. 

Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The book is a series of linked short stories, all featuring a Maine woman in her sixties. She's cranky, she's judgmental, and terribly hard on the people she loves. She is also unflinchingly honest (at least to the extent she can be with her limited self-knowledge) and you end up feeling for her as she crashes through her life and family. Strout won the Pultizer Prize for it. 

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Diaz - Engrossing. The hero is a nerdy, science-fiction addicted overweight Dominican-American young man, suffering from a family curse, trying to find his place in the world. This ambitious novel manages to be both gritty and lyrical, hopping back and forth between generations, politics, the D.R. and New Jersey. Forget my weak plot summary - the book also won the Pulitzer, and rightly so. 

The Handmaid's Tale

Handmaidstale  This book came out in 1986, and I just got around to reading it. It was hair-raising, depressing and kept me up nights. Even after I turned the light out.

Margaret Atwood sets up a bleak world. The president of the United States has been assassinated, Congress wiped out by machine gun. In place of the former government is a theocracy, and in the name of God women are completely subjugated. Our anonymous narrator lives in the Republic of Gilead and her sole function is to bear children. Most men and women in the country have become sterile - pollution, nuclear power plant melt downs and bad water are the culprits - so fertile women are essentially imprisoned by the powerful. Should the woman produce a child, it is promptly taken from her to be raised by others.

Our protagonist - known as Offred (she has no name of her own; her "Commander" is named Fred, and her name reflects his ownership) remembers freedom. She once had a husband, a child, a job and a bank account. It is early in the new republic. She vacillates between dreams of escape, placid resignation and contemplation of suicide. Spies are everywhere, but there is also an underground movement. Public hangings are daily events. Women are not allowed to read and write.

It's the language and the detail that make Gilead seem like a real and possible place, and our heroine a once-ordinary woman who finds herself in a terrifying new world. The end blew me away, even though we never know for sure poor Offred's fate.

This wasn't a book group selection, which is disappointing, because I would love to discuss this novel with others. Evidently they made it into a movie starring Natasha Richardson, which is bound to be a disappointment after the book. I'll probably Netflix it anyway.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Oscar-wao This is the story of a nerdy, overweight Dominican-American guy who is searching for love. Oscar lives in New Jersey and he loves science fiction, comic books and - in a painfully unrequited way - women. Early on the narrator informs us that Oscar's family is haunted by "fuku," a curse which haunts generation after generation. We follow the family history back to the Domincan Republic where we learn about his mother's painful past, as well as about the series of disasters that befell his grandparents.

All along the way, our narrator charts the course of Domincan history during the period when Rafael Trujillo, a brutal dictator, ran the country and persecuted the bourgeoisie, and just about anyone else who got in his way. (That includes those who wouldn't quickly turn over their daughters to him for his sexual pleasure.)

 There's a lot going on in this book - it jumps around in point of view, in location, in time and in structure. Most of the family's story is told in the main narrative; the political nightmare that was Trujillo is mostly told in footnotes. The story also mixes up languages - it is written in English, but there's a great deal of Spanish slang as well. (I could have used a Spanish/English dictionary, but I was too lazy.)

I'm not sure if this duality (narrative/footnotes, English/Spanish, family/country) structurally reflects the immigrant experience, or if it is more illustrative of a younger author. Junot Diaz was in his 30s when he wrote the book, and  in my experience, younger people tend to present things in a less linear way.

In any event, the book was intense and haunting. It was also funny in places. The book group was pretty positive on balance. And evidently so was the committee that awarded Diaz with the Pulitizer Prize, which may carry just a little bit more weight as a recommendation.

And Melanie, our host, made a paella. If you don't think what we ate is relevant, then you don't know my Book Group.

Book Group List

Books Welcome to the new category of books! I have been in a book group for more than a decade. We've read dozens of great books and several real losers. It took all the combined brains of the long-time members  to put together a list of what we've read over the years. OK, mostly it was my friend Susan who did it.

What follows is at least a partial list of what we could remember we've read. But my plans are from here on out to write a brief review of our monthly selection, possibly soliciting comments from other book group members. Enjoy!


Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
The Sea – John Banville
The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker
Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
Midwives - Chris Bohjalian
Disgrace – J.  M. Coetzee
The Hours – Michael Cunningham
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Underworld – Don DeLillo
Out of Africa - Isak Dinesen
Chronicles – Bob Dylan
Jim the Boy – Tony Earley
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
For the  Relief of Unbearable Urges – Nathan Englander
The Gathering – Anne Enright
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
The Horse Whisperer - Nicholas Evans
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman
Gastronomical Me – MFK Fisher
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
Borrowed Finery – Paula Fox
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - Alexandra Fuller
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress – Susan Jane Gilman
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
Personal History – Katherine Graham
Autobiography of a Face – Lucy Grealy
A Map of the World - Jane Hamilton
Rookery Blues – Jon Hassler
The Fall of a Sparrow – Robert Hellenga
Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman
Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
Daisy Miller – Henry James
A Very Long Engagement – Sebastian Japrisot
Cherry – Mary Karr
Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The History of Love – Nicole Krauss
Cod : A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky
Lady Chatterly’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
Native Speaker – Chang-Rae Lee
Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
Dreams of My Russian Summers – Andre Makine
Lost in Translation – Nicole Manes
The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
Amsterdam  – Ian McEwan
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found - Suketu Mehta
The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud
God: a Biography – Jack Miles
R L’s Dream – Walter Mosley
The Love of a Good Woman – Alice Munro
Runaway – Alice Munro
The Perfect Man – Naeem Murr
Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi
A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipal
Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
Dreams from my Father – Barack Obama
A Rage to Live – John O’Hara
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute – Grace Paley
Getting Mother’s Body – Suzan-Lori Parks
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Truth and Beauty – Ann Patchett
The Second Coming – Walker Percy
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl
The Haunted Land – Tina Rosenberg
American Pastoral – Philip Roth
The Human Stain – Philip Roth
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Empire Falls – Richard Russo
Baltasar and Blimunda – Jose Saramago and Giovanni Pontiero
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
Longitude – Dava Sobel
Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout
The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan
Ladder of Years – Anne Tyler
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – Rebecca Wells
The Riders – Tim Winton
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf