A Book Can Cure You

A recent article by Catherine Hong for Real Simple magazine focused on the value of reading books for mental well-being – not a new concept – but bibliotherapy is often ignored or under appreciated.  Getting lost in fiction has always been my preferred form of therapy, and I was happy to read the studies Hong provided supporting how reading a good book could “help people become happier and healthier, not to mention more emotionally attuned to others.”

In one of my favorite books, The Little Paris Bookshop, the owner has an uncanny talent to evaluate his customers’ problems  (including doubt, disappointment, and fears) and prescribe exactly the right book to shake them out of their gloom – everyone’s except his own. He believes in the healing properties of fiction and romance.  Being in southern France only adds to the cure.

In Hong’s article she asks other writers for books they use for bibliotherapy.  Among the recommendations are a book of poetry, an examination of a classic, and a puzzle mystery for middle schoolers.

  1.  Look by Somaz Sharif:        Anglie Cruz, the author of Dominica, suggests poetry for soothing the soul.  In Somaz Sharif’s Look, the reader is engaged with how language is used for and against us.  “It’s a good book to read now as we face unbearable loss.”
  2. Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler:     Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Book of Longings, suggests this book to transport you to the Yorkshire moors and save you from being “burned out at work or simply in need of creative kindling”
  3. The Westing Game by Ellen Rasling:   Julie Grames, author of Stella Fortuna, recommends this middle-grade mystery novel to inspire you to be a better human being…”

You might write yourself a prescription for reading a book to take you out of your doldrums.  My go-to authors are Jane Gardam, Kent Haruf, and Jeffrey Archer to whisk me away somewhere else and immerse me in someone’s else’s life, but I keep looking for more.      What books do you recommend for bibliotherapy?

Related Book Reviews:

Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

Chasing the Aurora Borealis and Other Dreams

Still catching up on old New Yorkers, James Lasdun’s Glow – Chasing the Aurora Borealis in the April, 2019 issue caught my eye.  Seeing the Northern Lights has long been on my adventure list, but these days I’d be happy to just get off this island.  Lasdun’s article is a cautionary tale; seeing the amazing colors in the sky is not easy, but after a week of chasing the dream, he finally gets closure and sees their spectacular show.  Reading the article inspired me to keep hoping.  If you missed it, here is the tale – Glow – Chasing the Aurora Borealis.

James Lasdun, the author, is new to me, but he has a long list of books. His Seven Lies was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and his latest Afternoon of a Faun was cited as a timely read in Book Browse:

When an old flame accuses him of sexual assault in her memoir, expat English journalist Marco Rosedale is brought rapidly and inexorably to the brink of ruin. His reputation and livelihood at stake, Marco confides in a close friend, who finds himself caught between the obligations of friendship and an increasingly urgent desire to uncover the truth. This unnamed friend is drawn, magnetized, into the orbit of the woman at the center of the accusation – and finds his position as the safely detached narrator turning into something more dangerous. Soon, the question of his own complicity becomes impossible to avoid.

Set during the months leading up to Donald Trump’s election, with detours into the 1970s, this propulsive novel investigates the very meaning of truth at a time when it feels increasingly malleable… a study of our shifting social mores with a meditation on what makes us believe, or disbelieve, the stories people tell about themselves.

I may try reading one of his books, after enjoying his essay.  Have you read any?

Miss Austen

Just as an unedited email or fast tweet might came back to bite you today, letters in the nineteenth century (snail mail) could be documents of dread for the writer.  Famously protective of her sister, Cassandra Austen burned all of Jane Austen’s correspondence after her death, spinning her own legacy for future Janeites, without contradictory proof available in writing.  In Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, the author offers a fictional spin on how those letters might have changed future generations’ perspective on a beloved author.

Cleverly combining well known facts of Jane Austen’s life with imagined secrets and opinions conveyed through private letters, the author offers an undocumented but very possible view of Jane Austen’s personal life.  Alternating between Cassandra and Jane’s lives as young adults, secure in the family parsonage, and their later trials after their father dies, as unmarried women dependent on their brothers’ goodwill to house and support them, Hornby reveals women’s dependence on marriage to sustain them in that era. Jane, of course, became the exception, bringing in her own income as a writer and dying in her forties, but what fears and insecurities really haunted her?

Cassandra lost her opportunity for the good life when her fiancée Tom Fowles died before they could be married.  Unlike her sister, she lives on into her sixties and in this story, she is visiting Tom’s family, in search of Jane’s old letters.  She knows the letters reveal private details of both their lives as well as her sister’s moodiness; she remembers how scathingly critical of others Jane could be.  In the wrong hands, Cassandra is convinced the letters will change the legacy of Jane Austen, and not for the better.  Eventually, she finds the letters tied in blue ribbon.  As Cassandra rereads the letters, she relives past moments of both their lives, wondering if she made the right choices, and finally revealing Jane behind the public facade.

The imagined lives are entertaining and charming, and Horby writes in the Jane Austen style of Regency era literary England, carefully giving the dialogue intelligence as well as wit.  Fans of Jane Austen novels will appreciate the slow-moving narrative, with references to her novels as she wrote them.

Austen’s Persuasion has a special place in Hornby’s story, motivating me to reread this tale of renewed love after all seemed lost.  In Miss Austen, Isabella finally finds happiness with a Doctor, only after her father, who thought him socially inferior, dies.  Isabella is the niece of Cassandra’s late fiancé Tom Fowle. Isabella’s brother, a local clergyman has recently died, and she has to vacate the home she shared with him. Suddenly, Isabella seems without prospects or a place to live, and the correspondence hidden away for years will be unearthed with packing for the move out of the parsonage. Cassandra is visiting supposedly to help with the packing, but her real motivation is to find those letters.  All ends well with Isabella marrying her secret love, and Cassandra finding the letters.

If rereading Jane Austen’s novels gives you some comfort these days, you might try Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen.  The story can gently carry you back to Jane Austen’s time with a realistic twist and a few bon mots to sustain you.

And if you cannot get enough of speculating about Jane Austen, try:

The Splendid and the Vile

I am reading Eric Larson’s brilliant book – The Splendid and the Vile – in small doses; Larsen’s writing makes it easy with short chapters and a conversational style to this nonfiction.   I am turning to Churchill to get me through the increasing count of the infected and the anxiety of sheltering in place.  I need Churchill to calm me and reassure me with his mastery of words and ideals, when the leadership of my own country fails to do so.  I hope if I read through the book slowly, the crisis would be over by the time I finish.  It is not working; I may have to read the book again.

I haven’t felt much like reading, writing, thinking – getting out of bed? – lately, but Churchill is an inspiration.  As Larsen documents the year before the Americans finally joined the war, he includes Churchill’s daily routine as well as his preparation for his decisions and his motivational speeches.  Churchill’s life and personality are so well intertwined with his decision-making, the whole picture of the man creates confidence and admiration – no wonder Goebel banned Churchill’s speeches from German radio.

Susan MacNeil, author of one of my favorite fictionalized Churchill books – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope mystery series, notes from her research;

“Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.   All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to “… press a day and a half’s work into one,” as he’s quoted saying…a tenacious attitude…{with} an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals.”

In Larsen’s accounting, he notes famous decisions as well as behind the scenes dramas:   Larson draws from the diaries of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and notes from their daughter to fill out private conversations at dinner meetings and with his staff; he notes the radio address with Churchill refusing to remove his cigar from his mouth as he speaks.  His close advisors’ personalities show through as Larson references their anxieties in letters and notes.  

I am still reading and I am still sheltering in place.  The book is a comfort in a strange way – if the world could come together before, surely it could do it again.  

As a regular subscriber to Robin Sloan’s (author of Sourdough) newsletter, I appreciated his sign off on his most recent email:

As you might have heard, the Federal Reserve recently released one (1) emergency Churchill quote to every American writer, a significant injection of liquidity and bombast.  I will use mine immediately:

Now, this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Here is my Churchill quote or rather a famous phrase attributed to Churchill:   “KPOKeep Plodding On.”   Churchill modeled how important it is to take care of yourself; then, back at it – every single day until it’s over.

So, KPO, everyone, and hopefully when this war is over, as Queen Elizabeth promised, …”we will meet again.”
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