The Readathon Approacheth

deweys-readathonbuttonAs I write this on Friday night, the fall edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon is just a few hours (or “one sleep”) away. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to participate in all but a few Read-a-Thons since my first in Fall 2009, just two years after Dewey began the event. Today, a team of bloggers have carried on the event in her memory, and it’s been exciting to see it evolve and grow.

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to join in this time because I had several things going on, and I find I don’t enjoy participating much when I’m squeezing reading in between multiple other commitments. But most of my plans got shifted, and I’m left with almost a full day. Hooray!

Whenever I can, I like to take a day off before the Read-a-Thon to clean, prepare or purchase some snacks, gather my books, and generally take care of responsibilities and distractions. For some reason my Friday cleaning turned into a thorough going over of the house, including picking stuff up and wiping underneath! So my house feels like the orderly oasis I want for a day of reading.

2014-10-17 21.31.46Lots of folks build tall stacks of books to read on Read-a-Thon day, but many of you know that I like to use the Read-a-Thon to tackle a long, but absorbing book–what I call the “one-book Read-a-Thon stack.” I was stewing all week over whether to read The Quick by Lauren Owen or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Tartt has come more highly recommended (The Quick has the potential to be terrible), but the little type in my mass market paperback of The Secret History was giving me pause. Well, it turns out that The Quick was due at the library today, and I couldn’t renew it, so I took that as a sign. I also have Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy bio on hand if I want some larger type for a while, and I’ve not gotten around to the latest issues of Ms Marvel and Fables. Plus, of course, I have about a million books in the house. So I’m not lacking in choices if I finish the Tartt—or if it just doesn’t pan out.

As usual, I plan to read for charity, giving 10 cents per page read to a literacy project at Donors Choose. The option to do this is something that makes the Read-a-Thon really special for me.

Aside from a break for a yoga class, I expect to spend all day reading, with cooking and eating and internetting and moving around breaks as needed. I’ve got the supplies on hand for a Crock Pot Apple Crumble, so I can enjoy the scent of that cooking as I read. And I’m expecting a Blue Apron box tomorrow with the materials to make calzones, which seems like an ideal Read-a-Thon dinner.

I may pop in and add some updates on this post during the day, but in the past I’ve found that posts are too time-consuming and feel less like fun and more like work. So most of my updates are likely to be on Twitter and/or Instagram. I don’t ever stay up all night—that leads nowhere good, but I’ll stay up until I’m sleepy and maybe read a little more when I wake up.

I’m looking forward to a fun day of geeky bookishness. How about you? Are you Read-a-Thonning? Or doing something equally fun? What would you read if you had a whole day for reading?

Opening Meme

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? Crock Pot Apple Pumpkin Pudding
4) Tell us a little something about yourself! I’ve been blogging for more than 6 years, which I guess makes me an old-timer. I’m a magazine editor in my day job, I volunteer at a couple of DC theatres so I get to see lots of plays for free, I’m active in my church, and I recently took up yoga.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? No big changes for me. I’ve worked out a pretty good system for myself. I going to try to eat healthier snacks than usual–I tend to load up on junk and order pizza, which is great, but I end up feeling more tired than if I ate better food.

Post Read-a-Thon Update

The Read-a-Thon came to its official end just over half an hour ago. I read most of the day yesterday, with a long break to go to yoga class and shorter breaks for online chat, cooking dinner, and such. And I went to bed just a little later than my usual hour. It was a good day.

2014-10-18 19.33.31I read a couple of chapters of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy biography and all of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I should have a review for The Secret History up later today, but I’ll say now that it was a good choice for the Read-a-Thon. There was plenty of suspense to keep me interested, and it wasn’t particularly challenging. (It was not, however, not a ridiculously amazing book. Just a solid crime thriller, which is no small thing.) My page count was 536 pages, which means I’ll be giving $53.60 to a classroom library project on Donors Choose.

All in all, it was a good day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

One Art: Letters

one artYears ago, I bought a copy of One Art: Letters for my husband. How many years? I’m not sure: it came out in 1994, but it was probably not quite so long ago as that. Ten years ago? Twelve? Anyway, he never read it, and it sat there, looking imposing, on our shelf. Last month, I took it down, all 650 pages of it, and started reading.

Elizabeth Bishop is one of the truly great American poets. She is an undisputed master of form (see “One Art” or “Sestina”) and lived by advice she got early from her friend Marianne Moore: no matter how long it took her, she never published a poem until she felt she had perfected it. (Her long poem about Nova Scotia, “The Moose,” was begun when she was in her early twenties and completed when she was in her sixties.) Her brilliant, subtle impressions of the physical world are not confessional or autobiographical, yet as Randall Jarrell says in one of his astute reviews of her work, they could all say under them: I saw it.

Bishop’s letters are her second great art. This book, edited by Robert Giroux, is far from being a complete collection, even at this length: not only was she prolific, not only did she have many friends and a passion and talent for correspondence, but she lived in Brazil for fifteen years with her partner Lota Soares, and could keep in touch with the poetry world only by letter. She had a talent for long, deep friendships with other poets, with whom she could be completely frank about her own work and about theirs. (To be honest, she talks smack about other poets, too — what fun that is to read!) Some of her closest friends were Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, and May Swenson. She knew dozens of other poets, musicians, and literary people, along with less rarefied friends; she was private and shy, but with a strong sense of connection.

Bishop’s voice is lively and engaging, even when — maybe especially when — she’s not talking about much. I loved the years when she was writing in Brazil, dealing with day-to-day events, restoring the house she lived in with Lota, worrying about the servants’ babies, enjoying the scenery. She struggled with her health her entire life, from allergies and asthma to debilitating alcoholism, and this crops up in many of her letters to friends and doctors. Her eye for brilliant bits of detail is unerring: the color of a fruit, or a snatch of dialogue, or exactly what a toucan said. Not a surprise for someone who’s read much of her poetry.

Every once in a while come letters that are purely about poetry: explaining her own poems, very rarely, or more often appreciating someone else’s. There are long letters going through a new book of Robert Lowell’s, for instance, criticizing a word here or there, or confessing confusion about a line; saying what’s done well. There are letters talking about poetry as an art, too: what sacrifices is it worth? What can, and can’t, an artist do with poetry? What is e.e. cummings, or Frost, or Eliot, doing these days? These letters show Bishop as absolutely uncompromising. She wants her poetry taken on its merits, with exactitude, with no admixture of personality or pity or malice, as if the poems are carved from quartz. Yet she herself is generous, loyal, hungry, funny, sad and difficult. It’s revealing and lovely.

I’d never read a book of letters like this before. The oddest thing about it was reading only half of the conversation: hearing what Bishop says to Marianne Moore, for instance, but not hearing what she says back. The best thing about it was reading Bishop’s poems as she wrote them. When she mentioned publishing a poem, I went and read it, or if she mentioned publishing a book, I read the book. Questions of Travel was particularly good along those lines, with all the references to Brazil — I could almost see it before my eyes. I loved exploring this, and all the poetry, and the brilliance. I’d like to do it again, with someone else.

Posted in Biography, Poetry | 17 Comments

Unwritten Reviews

I mentioned in my post on Home Cooking that I had read quite a few books that had gone unreviewed. In the comments, a couple of people suggested I put up a list of the books I’ve read that I would really have liked to write something about. If there’s anything you would particularly like me to get to if I have time, leave me a note — I’ll put it to the front of the queue, and if I have time, I’ll take that into account!

  • Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor. The sequel to A Time of Gifts. Fermor’s description of his travel, on foot, in the 1930s, from the Hook of Holland towards Constantinople.
  • The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth. Novel that chronicles the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through three generations of the Army-going Trotta family, from the height of empire through the first World War.
  • My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman. Short volume by a former editor of Poetry magazine, reflecting on his diagnosis with terminal cancer, poetry, and what it means to have faith as a postmodern person. Absolutely, even brutally, unsentimental.
  • The Bingo Palace, Louise Erdrich. Lipsha Morrissey seeks help from the spirits in order to gain the love of Shawnee Ray, who is considering a much more eligible proposal. Bingo is involved. This is the fourth in her series about the fictional Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota.
  • Engine Summer, John Crowley. Any summary I tried to give would be hopelessly inadequate, but it’s near-future science-fiction, sort of.
  • Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway. There’s a doomsday device involving killer bees, and Joe Spork must save the world. It’s way, way, way, way better than that sounds at face value.
  • Findings, Kathleen Jamie. Nature writing and close observation from Scotland.
  • On Beauty, Zadie Smith. Novel about race, academics, women, sex, theories about beauty, and a lot of extremely unpleasant people.

There we are. My goodness, what a motley crew. All of them are more than worth reading, and if I get some requests, maybe I’ll write about a few of them. I hope to catch up on what you have been reading, as well!

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments


CheckmateThe sixth and final book in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles finds Lymond and Philippa in France. Their relationship remains unchanged since The Ringed Castle, but they plan to dissolve the relationship after the wedding of Mary, Queen of Scotland, to the French Dauphin. All signs point to Philippa marrying Austin Grey, the Marquis of Allendale, the man Lymond mockingly referred to as Tristram Trusty in The Ringed Castle. Philippa also hopes that Lymond will be able to find happiness in a marriage to Catherine d’Albon. And she hasn’t let go of her desire to find out the truth behind Lymond’s birth.

For his part, Lymond keeps his intentions and desires to himself, with only those closest to him, such as Archie Abernathy, knowing just how much physical and emotional pain he is in. As the royal wedding approaches, the characters from previous books begin arriving in France, making it more difficult for Lymond to keep his distance as family and friends (and a few enemies) crowd around.

Teresa: In our discussion of The Ringed Castle,  we talked a bit about the interplay of political and personal life in this series. I was struck by how crucial that interplay was to this book. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on who Lymond and Philippa should be married to, and often, those opinions came down to politics. It’s something I’d expect when it comes to royal marriages, but the marriage of anyone with power or influence seems to be a matter of public opinion.

Jenny: True, and it does mirror, in a small way, the secrets and conspiracies behind the great royal marriage that takes place in this book. In the course of this series, we’ve seen so many great people brought down by mistakes, ranging from adultery to warfare to Protestantism. For the wealthy, the personal is all too political.

The same is true of Lymond, who is too important to be permitted to make his own decisions about where he will live (Russia? France? England? Scotland?), whom he will marry, or where he will serve. But who is making the decisions? Is it the King of France, or the men of St. Mary’s, or Philippa? We’re also led to believe that the Dame de Doubtance (now dead) plays a role, but even on this third read-through, I don’t know what it’s supposed to be, or why.

Teresa: I think the Dame de Doubtance just wants power, but her plans seem too far-reaching to be believed, especially so many years in advance. I can only figure she stored up all her secrets hoping she’d get a chance to use them.

That leads right into my one big complaint about this book, which is that major developments hinged too much on coincidence. This was especially noticeable near the end, when one convenient death and then another end up preserving Lymond’s life. I don’t know if Dunnett was intentionally trying to show that all the plots and plans in the world are subject to outside forces of chance or if she just couldn’t figure out another way to get to the ending she wanted. I want to think it’s the former, but I can’t be sure.

Jenny: I agree that she’s playing with these ideas. We’ve seen all the lines that lead to those deaths laid in train — all the emotional consequences of each action that lead to the final, fatal trigger — but in fact, they aren’t fate, they’re choice (right?), and could have been changed. It’s one of the main themes of the series, isn’t it? Is Lymond ever once free to do as he likes? He claims total independence, even arrogance, but he wants to serve Russia. Is he ever free to return and do so? Is it because of his stars, or because of his (and others’) choices? All these ideas are explored even more thoroughly in the Niccolo books, which are even named after constellations. I think this free will/ fate question is one of the most important Dunnett is juggling. Do you think, in light of that, the ending is earned?

Teresa: It’s clear to me that no one is as free as they claim to be in this series, even if it’s only other people’s actions that pin them in place. But I’m uncertain how much the characters’ fates are down to chance and how much to choice. Characters like Marthe make choices that turn out to be fatal—but only by chance. And others avoid the consequences of their choices—by chance. But the twists of chance seem less like fate and more like the outcome of the many ways these characters are bound together, and that goes right down to the reason Austin Grey could make his final mistake.

As for whether the ending is earned, I of course wanted to see the central characters find some sort of happiness and peace. And I appreciated the way Dunnett took Phillipa’s trauma seriously instead of having her immediately shake off what happened in The Ringed Castle and fall into Lymond’s arms. Yet when it comes down to it, the ending seemed to come too swiftly. Maybe it’s that I was frustrated at Lymond’s easy escapes toward the end. Maybe I needed to see Lymond and Phillipa really grapple together with what happened. And maybe I just didn’t want the series to end just yet.

Jenny: As I’ve said, this is my third read-through. My first was all for plot and action, my second more for character, and my third for politics. But my biggest criticism this time was of the ending. I’m not sure it happened too fast, exactly, since it took us multiple volumes to get here, but I had major reservations about Sybilla’s justifications for her behavior (no, dear, Grand Passion does not excuse everything) and about the whole “double trauma means no trauma” thing for Philippa. I’m not sure that’s actually how it works. After so much wonderful plotting, it got a little overheated there at the end for me.

Still, the fact that it stands up to such close examination only proves that these books are some of the very best historical fiction I’ve ever read. Unless you count Dunnett’s Niccolo books — or her King Hereafter! The detail, the pageantry and swashbuckling, the humor and poetry, the scenery and action, the history, the characters — it all makes for a powerful, beautiful series that shows an age and those who moved within it. What a fantastic read. I hope you have all been convinced that these books should go on your TBR, if they’re not there already!

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Home Cooking (and a little brief introspection)

home cookingShelf Love has been around since 2008, and until this year it was never difficult for me to post whatever I wanted to about what I was reading. Teresa and I have both always taken the view that we do this because it’s fun, so if it stops being fun, we don’t do it. In many ways our delightful laziness aligns, and we are in agreement on this score. No challenges, no pressures, no stacks of books looming over us, no certain number of words a day, nothing we must read in order to please our hordes of fans. (Er… hello, is this thing on?) We just… read what we want to read, and then we write about it.

This year has been a little different for me. My book count is way down this year, and I’ve been faux-destressing with television instead. The books I’ve read, I haven’t written about. I’ve got at least ten or twelve wonderful books I’d genuinely like to write reviews of — I’m totally convinced you’d love them as much as I did — but I can’t seem to muster the energy to talk about them, even briefly. For some reason, this year is swallowing my reading.

So I’m going to let that go. I’m going to start fresh, and write about the books I’m reading now, and get to the ones I get to. Something is better than nothing. If I have some kind of miraculous infusion of extra time, I might even get to the books I read earlier! (Whew. I feel better already.)

Some of you may already know that Laurie Colwin is one of my favorite authors. Her novels are perfect: funny without being farces, serious without being heavy. Besides her novels and short stories, she also wrote a column for Gourmet magazine. Home Cooking (and its sequel, More Home Cooking) is a collection of these columns, and it, too, is exactly right: funny, touching, practical, wise. She has chapters on many of the food situations we all find ourselves in, whether we like it or not: food disasters, finding ourselves alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, cooking for a crowd, making our own version of comfort food. The book is half memoir and half practical application, and Colwin talks about her days in a tiny kitchen in Manhattan, draining her pasta in her bathtub because her kitchen sink was too small, or making hundreds of tuna fish sandwiches at a protest for the SDS in the sixties. Most of the chapters contain a recipe for something you might not expect: toasted cheese, beef tea, rosti, shepherd’s pie for 150 people. By the time you read the recipe, you’ll be expecting the unexpected, though. In fact, you’ll wonder how you did without it.

This was a re-read for me, and as many re-reads can be, it was deeply comforting and pleasurable. Not only is Laurie Colwin a wonderful writer, she reassured me that I’m still capable of deriving pleasure from the books I love, and that I still belong here on the blog.

Posted in Food, Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 30 Comments

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

shelfdiscoverySomehow in my recent Internet wanderings I stumbled on a blog (the link now lost to me) that was devoted to old-school young adult and middle grade books, the kinds of books I found in the small young adult section at the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks at the mall in the early 1980s and the ones featured in the Scholastic book catalog—the books I read when I wasn’t quite a teenager but wildly curious about what being a teenager would be like. Books by Ellen Conford, Lois Duncan, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Willo Davis Roberts in her Sunfire-writing days. From what I remember, these weren’t books that adults typically read, unless they were librarians, teachers, or curious parents. And although I continued to reread this books throughout high school, I too stopped reading these books when I became an adult. I might pick up a highly recommended new YA book by the likes of Maggie Stiefvater or Diane Wynne Jones or an esteemed classic by Susan Cooper but those particular books that got me through my preteen years have remained in my past.

Yet even though I can’t quite cop to the “we never stopped reading” part of the title of this book by Lizzie Skurnick, those books I read over and over at age 11 or so are imprinted in my brain. And seeing those covers again on that blog I’ve already lost track off brought back all those intense preteen feelings. I decided it might be fun to indulge that nostalgia by reading this collection of essays, many of them originally featured in the Fine Lines column at Jezebel.

Skurnick describes her own memory of these books in the introduction:

It might have begun with the covers. Most were either snapshots or looked like soft paintings of snapshots (whither, whither the painted cover?), with girls who were neither good-looking nor not-good-looking, girls in glasses, with braces, standing in front of the mirror or smiling happily in the arms of a boy, glowering in front of a locker, standing with bonnet and hoop skirt on a lonely plane, girls with head, feet, and body miraculously intact. There they were, waiting for the tug on the string that would start them moving and speaking.

In them, I found a window, a scrying glass, into a complex consciousness, a life like my own, but writ large in all of its messy ambiguity. Nothing, as of yet, had happened to me. But there was the world, and everything happening in it, right in the bright row of spines. It was waiting for me to pull out the next chapter, to turn the book over, to open the first page and read.

Skurnick—and a few notable authors like Jennifer Weiner, Meg Cabot, and Tayari Jones—revisit books that meant something to them when they were young. The essays largely look at the books from both the adult and young adult perspective, as Skurnick considers why the book appealed to her back then and what she sees in it now. She gushes about the kinds of things that seemed gushy-worthy to her younger self—roasting a pig’s tail in Little House in the Big Woods—and comments on the mature themes she missed as a child (and the mature content she pored over in wonder). There are exclamation marks and ALL CAPS!!! when the situation warrants, but the book is more than a squee-fest. Skurnick is thoughtful in her approach to these books.

So many of my favorites came up, and I enjoyed the essays on all of them, if only for the pleasing shiver of recognition when Skurnick mentions incidents like Davey’s searching for a rock when she first encounters Wolf in the canyon in Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. (Tiger Eyes was my favorite Judy Blume book.) Blume makes frequent appearances here, and reading Skurnick’s essays helped me remember why I loved her books so much. I needed It’s Not the End of the World, for example, when my parents got divorced. Her books consistently let kids know they’re not alone in their worries and fears, and they take those worries seriously without offering pat answers or pretending that everything will be fine while also sending a clear message that even if life isn’t what you want, you’ll find a way through. It hadn’t even occurred to me until reading this how few of Blume’s book have a proper happy ending—they tend to end with the main characters moving on to a new phase, having found some new strength.

Other beloved books I revisited through Skurnick were Caroline by Willo Davis Roberts, Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (one of the few books Skurnick acknowledges is terrible in hindsight), Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan, and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These are the books that are seared into my brain. There were lots of others that I remember reading and enjoying: Bridge of Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan.

I thought I had read  Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck, My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger, and The Grounding of Group Six by Julian F. Thompson, but those plots didn’t sound even a little bit familiar. And a quote involving six yellow pencils and three stenographic pads convinced me that I read The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene even though I have no other memory of it. (That image, though! Seared into my brain!)

I enjoyed many of the pieces about books I hadn’t read, many of them well-known classics I should have read (there’s Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett). But a few of the essays were well-nigh incomprehensible. For some reason, the books by Madeleine L’Engle seemed completely nuts. (There are pieces on A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve read, and The Arm of the Starfish, The Moon by Night, and A Ring of Endless Night, which I have not.) There was something about talking to dolphins in one and a whole bunch of overlapping relationships—I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but it sounded weirdly good.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, but I couldn’t resist letting this go without leaving you a collage of some of the covers that I remember so vividly from my preteen and early teen reading. What are some of the books you can’t forget? Do any of these ring a bell?

Incidentally, Lizzie Skurnick has her own imprint now, dedicated to putting classic young adult books back in print. I don’t see any of my particular favorite books there, but I do see some beloved authors. Part of me would really enjoy revisiting some of them to see if they hold up to my adult sensibilities, and another part would rather bask in my memories.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Nonfiction | 26 Comments

The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Poisoned ChocolatesThe Crimes Circle had been meeting for about five months when the group’s president, Roger Sheringham, brought a special guest to one of their dinners. The guest, Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, provided the evening’s entertainment in the form of a problem that had been vexing the police. Joan Bendix had recently died after eating some poisoned chocolates. The chocolates had been given to her by her husband, Graham, who had obtained them from Sir Eustace Pennefather when they happened to meet at their club. Sir Eustace received the chocolates in the mail as a free sample—a free sample that in retrospect looks awfully suspicious. Sir Eustace has plenty of enemies, but the police cannot figure out which of them might have sent the chocolates, and so Moresby is bringing the case to the Crimes Circle. And so we have the problem of the 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley.

Sheringham was confident that this group offered “more solid criminological genius” that you would be likely to find anywhere. After all, “entry into the charmed Crimes Circle’s dinners was not to be gained by all and hungry. It was not enough for a would-be member to profess an adoration for murder and let it go at that; he or she had got to prove that they were capable of worthily wearing their criminological spurs.” So far, only six people had met the requirements for entry.

The group members agreed to each take a turn a proposing a solution to the poisoned chocolates mystery, and over the course of the next six weeks, they each shared their solution with the group. The book’s charm is not so much in the mystery but in the unveiling of each character’s approach to solving it and the tearing down of each solution in turn as the members of the Circle react to each proposed solution. Each suggestion seems plausible, yet each one contains some flaw. As the book goes on, group members build on others’ findings, and the discussion gets contentious. It doesn’t help that a few of the members have a personal connection to the case.

A few aspects of the story are quite predictable. The way it’s structured makes one aspect of the ending nearly inevitable. But the fun of the book is in watching the club members tussle over the case. I had a vague sort of theory about the case myself after reading the set-up, and I enjoyed seeing the club members hover over some of the same ideas I considered.

Anthony Berkeley is actually the pen name for Anthony Berkeley Cox, a Golden Age mystery writer who also wrote under the pseudonyms Francis Iles and A Monmouth Platts. As Francis Iles, he wrote the marvelous Before the Fact, which was the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion. (It occurs to me, having just seen Gone Girl this weekend, that Before the Fact and Gone Girl would make interesting companion reads. They have a lot of themes in common.) This book doesn’t have a lot in common with Before the Fact, but it’s excellent in a different way. If these two books are representative of the quality of Cox’s work, it’s unfortunate that he’s not more widely known today.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 10 Comments

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

GodsHotelFor the last couple of years, I’ve been dealing with a handful of minor but annoying health issues—the kinds of things that I can live with as they are now but want to deal with so they don’t get worse. I’ve had good medical care in general, but I’ve sometimes been aggravated at how each symptom is treated as a discrete problem, unconnected to my other complaints. I’ve kind of wished for someone to sit down and really look over my whole history and see which problems might link up and point to a particular root cause.

I thought a lot about this when I was reading Victoria Sweet’s memoir about her years as a doctor at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. This old-fashioned hospital, in which patients stayed in large open wards, was actually an almshouse, a place where the elderly or poor who needed long-term care were sent. She worked at Laguna Honda for more than 20 years, and during that time, she also was studying the medieval medical practices of Hildegard of Bingen. What could a 12th-century nun teach a modern medical doctor about healing the body? Sweet found value in what she saw of Hildegard’s mind-set:

I began to understand that the premodern system was based on the gardener’s understanding of the world, and that Hildegard took a gardener’s approach to the body, not a mechanic’s or a computer programmer’s. She did not focus down to the cellular level of the body; instead, she stood back from her patient and looked around. She calculated in her mind not just the internal balance of the four humors, but the whole balance of her patient within and as part of his environment. With that numberless measure, she manipulated and rebalanced the environment inside of and outside her patient. She did so slowly, like a gardener, by fussing and fiddling, doing a little of this and a little of that. Then she waited to see what would happen. Which is to say that she followed the patient’s body; she did not lead.

Through her study and her work at Laguna Honda, Sweet came to believe that something that she calls slow medicine might have answers for us today. Slow medicine involves not just doctors taking time to give patients a thorough work-up but also patients having time to rest and heal in a calm setting with good food and good cheer (or as she calls them, Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman).

Sweet does not deny the value of modern medicine—far from it. Modern drugs and tests and treatments are important tools, and she uses them. But her focus is not just on applying those treatments to solve a pressing problem; she also looks for ways to remove obstructions that prevent healing. The modern and premodern are both tools in her toolkit.

The kind of treatment offered at Laguna Honda was not clearly cost-effective—although one wonders if it could be in the long-term—and the hospital was often under attack from efficiency experts and money crunchers who wanted the hospital to follow more standard practices. Sweet describes some of the struggles the staff faced as administrators came and went and new rules came down. Eventually, the old hospital building closed, replaced by a more modern building, but Sweet’s initial tour of the facility left her less than confident that the update was a true step forward.

The book follows these multiple threads, with most chapters looking at a lesson from Hildegard or Sweet’s later pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the administrative issues at Laguna Honda, and a patient whose story seemed relevant. The story follows what seems to be a chronological order, although I was vexed at the lack of dates in the book. Particularly when looking at the hospital’s evolution over time, I really wanted to know how quickly things were happening. I suspect that the timeline of patients and the hospital timeline didn’t dovetail neatly, but I don’t think that would necessarily be a problem. The lack of dates, on the other hand, was. The administrative issues were the least interesting part of the book, but the confusion wrought by the lack of dates made the already bewildering process of change even harder to follow.

Sometimes, too, the connections between the particular patients, Hildegard, and Laguna Honda weren’t as clear as they could be—they seemed chosen to fit the structure, rather than to illustrate a point. It’s a hard balance. I wouldn’t want the examples to be too pat or obvious, but I do want to understand what the various bits and pieces have to do with each other. If the book had been shorter, there might have been less of this seemingly off-point wandering, and the main points of the book would still have been explored. This is not quite an article expanded to the length of a book, but that doesn’t mean the book wouldn’t have benefited from some trimming.

Still, I appreciated Sweet’s approach to medicine very much. It seems like we’d all be better off if our doctors really could take time to listen to our whole story and not just look for patches to cover the latest symptom.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

joe_cinques_consolationIn October 1997, a young man named Joe Cinque died of an apparent heroin overdose in his house outside Canberra. His girlfriend, a law student named Anu Singh, was arrested for giving him the heroin, as well as a large dose of Rohypnol, as part of what appeared to be a murder/suicide. Two days later, Anu’s friend Madhavi Rao was also charged with murder for her involvement in the plot.

Helen Garner learned of the case in 1999, after the trial had begun. A friend put her onto it, thinking that she was interested in stories like this, stories of women at “the end of their tether.” At the time, Garner herself was at the end of her tether, having just divorced and lacking a job. So she decided to look into the story:

I understand now that I went to Canberra because the breakup of my marriage had left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to gaze at them and hear their voices, to see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me, as it is in everyone—the wildness that one keeps in a cage, releasing it only in dreams and fantasy.

The story Garner tells morphs over the course of her telling. She begins with an account of the case as presented in court, where we learn of Joe and Anu and their circle of friends and acquaintances—this circle that stood by and didn’t do anything despite hearing the whispers of Anu’s plans to commit suicide, possibly taking Joe with her. Some even attended a dinner party rumored to be Anu’s farewell, yet they remained silent until after the fact, talking only with one another, if they talked at all.

Anu’s case was built on the notion that she was mentally ill and thus had diminished responsibility for her actions. Her history showed signs of eating disorders, drug abuse, mental instability, and some sort of personality disorder. Her parents, both doctors who had immigrated to Australia from India, had tried to get her some help. But there was no help to be had; in fact, it seemed that most people around Anu just gave her what she wanted, even when it was obviously a bad idea. Her father actually paid a deposit for her to get liposuction, even though she was extremely thin.

Garner’s account of these events is as much an account of her investigation as it is the story of Joe, Anu, and Madhavi. By structuring her book this way, she seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of Janet Malcolm in The Silent Womanmy hunch about that was pretty much confirmed when she eventually mention Malcolm’s book. Malcolm’s book is brilliant, and I can see why Garner would want to follow her approach, but it doesn’t work so well here. In writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Malcolm was taking on a story that had been told and retold to the point that all those tellings were now part of the story. While the Cinque case was well-known in Australia at the time, it hadn’t been talked about for decades, nor did Garner spend much time discussing public opinion. Her descriptions of who she ate lunch with at the trial seem less compelling than Malcolm’s accounts of tea with a known Plath supporter. I appreciated some of Garner’s introspection about the story and the direction it was taking, especially toward the end, but her approach left a lot of holes that I really wanted to see filled.

Garner’s way of crafting her story works best toward the end, when she turns the story toward Joe himself. Whatever Anu’s reasons were for doing what she did, Joe was gone, and friends and family was grieving. And focusing on Anu’s perspective meant Joe was lost yet again. Seeing Garner’s process of making this decision to look into Joe’s life and leave Anu alone was helpful, yet tacking on a couple of chapters at the end seems small, almost like she needed an ending and this was what she was left with.

The thing is, Anu’s case raises some huge questions that Garner barely touches on. Anu’s crime seems largely to stem from her mental illness, the nature of which is never entirely clear. Her sentence is based on the idea that her mental illness gave her diminished responsibility, which makes sense while also seeming dreadfully wrong. There are so many layers to this question, and I really wanted to hear from more experts on mental illness and personality disorders, perhaps even to hear about similar cases and how they panned out. Joe’s parents are horrified at the injustice, and Garner spends a lot of time on their grief. It would have been interesting, though, to have heard from other grieving survivors, perhaps even some who saw the killer of their loved one facing more serious punishment.

Another big question has to do with bystanders and conspirators. Madhavi’s case gets into this question, but not very deeply. I wanted more about the group psychology that would cause people to come to a supposed farewell/suicide party like it was no big deal. At a couple of points, after the long process of killing Joe began, Anu talked to people who told her she needed to call an ambulance and get help. Why did they leave it to Anu? Even if Garner couldn’t get answers for this specific case—and there probably aren’t good answers—it would have been fascinating to put these people’s actions in a larger context of how group dynamics can cause terrible things like this to happen.

I wasn’t at all familiar with this case, and that made the story on its own interesting, but the limited commentary connecting it to other cases or to larger issues made it feel slight, even self-indulgent. It felt like Garner was just writing it as she went along, without taking any steps outside the narrative that presented itself. A missed opportunity for some good, hard-hitting journalism.

Posted in Nonfiction | 6 Comments

Under My Skin

UnderMySkinIt took me a few weeks to get through this book, the first volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography, published in 1994. This wasn’t because the book is particularly long or difficult, nor is it because I didn’t like reading it. It’s because Lessing’s writing here is the type that I needed to spend time with to appreciate it. I couldn’t read it in a hurry.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to a former World War I soldier and the nurse who took care of him during his hospitalization after losing a leg. The couple was living in Persia when Doris was born, but in 1925 they moved to Rhodesia, where Doris lived until 1949, when she moved to London and this autobiography ends.

Early in the book, Lessing acknowledges the difficultly inherent in autobiography:

Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path. Had I written the when I was thirty, it would have been a pretty combative document. In my forties, a wail of despair and guilt: oh my God, how could I have done this or that? Now I look back at that child, that girl, that young woman, with a more and more detached curiosity. Old people may be observed peering into their pasts, Why?—they are asking themselves. How did that happen? I try to see my past selves as someone else might, and then put myself back inside one of them, and am at once submerged in a hot struggle of emotion, justified by thoughts and ideas I now judge wrong.

Besides, the landscape itself is a tricky thing. As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don’t?

Good questions all, though Lessing does not answer them in this book. She just gets on with the work of telling her own story as she remembers it.

Much of the book involves her early hunger to break free from her parents. From an early age, she harbors a lot of anger toward them, especially her mother, although she never quite identifies a clear reason for her anger. Some of it has to do with her mother’s desire to live an upper-class English life in Africa, where such a life is neither feasible nor desirable. There are also her parents’ physical and mental health problems. Not long after the family finished their farmhouse, Doris’s mother took to her bed with what she called a bad heart. Doris was enraged at the time, but looking back, she’s more sympathetic:

Now I understand why she went to bed. In that year she underwent that inner reconstruction which most of us have to do at least once in a life. You relinquish what you had believed you must have to live at all.

Some of Doris’s feelings toward her parents probably arose from fear, from seeing herself in them. Here, she considers her attitude at age 14:

Oh my God, the unforgiving clarity of the adolescent, sharpened by fear that this might be your fate too. “I will not, I will not,” I kept repeating to myself, like a mantra.

Eventually, her desire to be free led her to leave school and live with other families as often as she could, getting work as a nursemaid.

Getting free from her family, however, did not mean getting the freedom she craved. By 1939, she was married. She adored her babies, but she didn’t adore being part of the circle of young mothers. Something else to break free from.

Her next move took her into the world of left-wing politics, where she met Gottfried Lessing. The chapters describing her work with the Communist groups of Rhodesia are among the most interesting in the book, not because of the politics but because of the group dynamics that could apply to almost any group of impassioned people. She writes about the power struggles within the group, the shifting allegiances and priorities, and the tendency to become insular and suspicious of everyone not on the inside.

One particularly insightful section discusses the language she and her cohorts used, phrases like “capitalist hyenas, social democratic treachery, running dogs of Fascism, lackeys of the ruling class, and so on.” When she and her friends were first introduced to this kind of language, they couldn’t take it seriously:

We could not use it without laughing … We put the phrases between inverted commas, or exchanged glances while demurely mouthing them. Dorothy Schwartz was particularly good at this, pronouncing that such and such a public figure was a lickspittle of the ruling class with infantile left-wing disorders, while her eyes rolled gently, and her voice fell like an Anglican bishop’s reaching the peroration of his sermon. Slowly, but within months, the abusive rhetoric was set aside.

Lessing remarks that when she wrote The Good Terrorist, which used events from this period, she received many letters from readers who were also part of left-wing groups that did not give up on this rhetoric. In fact, they said, ” ‘The language took them over’ and they became ruthless and efficient killing groups.” Lessing reflects on this with thoughts that seem relevant now:

We should be careful of the company we keep—and the language we use. Regimes, whole countries, have been taken over by language spreading like a virus from minds whose substance is hate and envy. When armies are teaching soldiers to kill, the instructors are careful to put hateful epithets into their mouths: easy to kill a degenerate gook or or black monkey. When torturers teach apprentices their trade, they learn from an ugly lexicon. When revolutionary groups plan coups, their opponents are moral defectives. When they burned witches, it was to the accompaniment of a litany of calumny.

Hateful, dehumanizing language can come from people who are otherwise in the right, and once that kind of language takes over, right becomes wrong. It’s something to be careful of in a time when quippy but mean-spirited terms for people who are different from us can go viral and spread far beyond our immediate circles.

Before reading this, I’d only read Lessing’s final novel, Alfred and Emily, which I didn’t like very much. I did, however, like the writing, and the novel’s use of Lessing’s parents’ histories made me curious about Lessing’s life, which is one reason I decided to read this. I wondered if my lack of familiarity with Lessing’s other work would be a problem, and it wasn’t. When the book ends, she’s still in the process of getting her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published, so she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the writing of a bunch of books I don’t know anything about. She mentions her other books when describing people and places that inspired those books, but she doesn’t let the allusion to those works stand in for a full description of those people and places. For me, this book could stand entirely alone as a well-written book by a woman who lived in interesting times. But after reading this, I am interested in reading more of Lessing’s work. If you’ve read Lessing, what would you recommend?

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 14 Comments