As a reader, I’ve always loved libraries. I remember when the library opened in my small town. I was eight and the teacher took us there on a class trip and I thought it was the most wonderful place. We didn’t have a lot of books at home, just the usual Dick and Jane and Golden Book series, and here was a whole building full of books you could take home for several weeks. I read my way through the children’s side and had graduated to the adult section by age eleven. My mother would take us to the library every Saturday to stock up, and I read my way through many a long hot summer. I still remember the familiar smell of books and the waft of cool air that hit you walking through the door, as the library was one of the few places in town with air conditioning. Of course living in the country, we needed a ride there, so imagine the convenience of having a free little library in your own neighbourhood.
Free little libraries are small neighbourhood boxes where you can borrow, take, donate or share a book…..all kinds of books. They have been popping up all over lately, just like the spring flowers, but as they are a year round venture, they must be weatherproof and snow proof. There are at least 30 registered locations in my county alone – one of the most utilized ones is near a local campsite.
I’ve been thinking about having a little library since the beginning of the pandemic, which the libraries were all closed and I found myself lending out books to neighbours I met while walking, who complained about having nothing to read, and is there anything worse for a reader.
It’s a nice way to share your love of reading, expand book access, and meet and get to know your neighbours. Last year the local Literary organization was so stockpiled with donated books that they offered temporary pop-up libraries at parks and beaches when the weather was nice, using plastic recycling blue boxes.
The Free Little Library organization (take a book, share a book) has a website, (see link) where you can officially register as a book steward (with a plaque number) if you wish, but I think I would prefer to just put one up and see how it goes. My neighbourhood is an old established one, with a mixture of retired folks and young families, but it’s a cul-de-sac, and I don’t want too much of a commitment until I see how much it will be used.
Their website says they have over 100,000 registered stewards in over 100 countries around the globe. They also have a page where they sell pre-made libraries and kits – see link – averaging around $350 plus another $175 for the spike and post. I like this blue one made out of composite so it doesn’t need painting, but it’s sold out.
The local literacy organization was partnering with volunteers and high school shop classes to make some of these book sharing boxes. They were sponsoring a contest, which I didn’t win, but garage sale season is coming up, so I’ll keep my eyes open for something suitable….and books of course. They can hold up to 40 books, so I have some book shopping to do.
Thrift stores are good sources for books, plus I went to the big Rotary Book sale last month, for the $10 stuff a bag day and stocked up. I bought mostly books that I have read and enjoyed, although the children’s selection was picked over by then.
Warm weather will be here soon, and I’m looking forward to reading outside again on the deck.
I once read about a woman who took a reading sabbatical. She packed up a whole load of books and escaped to an isolated cottage in another country and read….and read….and read. Sounds like the ideal vacation to me, and having a whole year to do nothing but read would be like heaven…..and so it has been during the pandemic. Not that there haven’t been other things to do while stuck at home, but there’s certainly been plenty of time for my favorite activity.
When I was younger and in the habit of escaping the Canadian winter for a week down south, I would always tote a pile of books in my suitcase (this was in the days before e-Readers) and spend at least half of the time poolside with a good book, the other days being devoted to exploring whatever tropical destination we happened to be in. One vacation sticks out in my mind, a week on Turks and Caicos, long before it was developed, with five boring books and no way to buy more. The only shopping centre was a strip mall of offshore companies and one souvenir shop devoid of even a rack of paperbacks. For a reader, there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a tropical island with a bad selection of books. I don’t scuba dive/snorkel/can’t even swim, so after my daily walk on the lovely and pristine beach I was bored to tears.
I find other people’s bookshelves fascinating. When they’re interviewing some expert on TV about some matter of vital importance, I’m usually studying the bookshelves behind them and wondering what’s on them, and being envious if they are the nice floor-to-ceiling ones, preferably in white, which I can not install as I have hot water heat rads.
I average about one book a week, and start to feel antsy if I don’t have several in reserve, but this past year my intake has increased dramatically. I spent the first few months of the first lockdown working my way through my stash (18) of mostly non-fiction volumes from bookoutlet, but when the library reopened last summer for curbside pickup it was like Christmas in July!
I keep a book journal where I sporadically list the books I’ve read, usually just tossing the library slips in for later recording. I had intended to do a quarterly review here on the blog, but other topics got in the way, so while I’m not going to list or link to all the books I’ve read during the past year, or even make a best of the best list, here’s a sampling of some of them, with some (honest) observations.
I should note that when I used to do book reviews on Goodreads, before I started blogging, I rated everything a 4, with an occasional 3 or 5, because I only reviewed books I liked. If the book was boring or not to my taste I would not finish it and so left the skewering to other folks. This was partly in an effort to be kind, keeping in mind that the author had poured much time and effort into something which after all did get published, and partly because reading is so subjective. Just because I didn’t like it, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t enjoy it. But every once in awhile a book, usually a much-hyped bestseller, would annoy me so much that I would pen a fairly blunt review…..so expect things to be a bit more judgmental here. I haven’t had the best selection this past year, not being able to browse the shelves of my local library or bookstore so I was more reliant on the publishers PR, which sometimes can be disappointing.
I love vintage fashion so I thought The Grace Kelly Dress would be an interesting read. Years ago, I read a historical fiction book about the designers behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink boucle suit so I thought this would be something similar, but more of a three generational saga. It was not – it was a whole lot of drama about saying yes to the dress, and the lavender-haired multi-tattooed tech CEO millennial granddaughter eventually said no to her grandmother’s historic couture gown and had it cut down into a pair of trousers. (There I just saved you from a painful read). I don’t think the author intended to make a statement about the difference between the generations but that’s what came across. The 50’s were a much classier era, people had manners.
Separation Anxiety was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – it was on a recommended list but I found the plot so stupid (middle-aged woman facing empty nest “wears” her dog by carrying it around in a sling? – see cover photo) that I never even got past the first ten pages, other than to skim the ending and see she if she stayed with her lazy weed smoking husband. It was supposed to be hilarious and heart-breaking – it was neither. Sad, when the author hadn’t written anything in over a decade, that this is the best she could come up with.
Sophie Hannah had been recommended to me as a good mystery writer and as she has been appointed the heir apparent to carry on Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot series (I read the Killings at Kingfisher Hall) but not being a big AG or HP fan, I decided to try one of her own books. Perfect Little Children was a long disappointing read – you simply cannot have a murder mystery with only one suspect. I kept waiting for the twist at the end but there wasn’t one.
Every year I swear I’m done with Elin Hilderbrand and yet I find myself ordering her latest. Her characters are now middle-aged and they need to grow up and stop drinking, and driving, and she needs to stop killing them off in the last chapter. Troubles in Paradise was was the last of her winter Caribbean trilogy, but I’m long past the age where living in a tropical paradise would have any appeal to me.
In A Time for Mercy – John Grisham revisits the small southern town of his first book (which I’ve never read), 25 years later. This was a captivating read, but I find sometimes his endings just dwindle away – it’s like he’s done with it, reached his word count, and that’s that. I also read his Camino Winds – a murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. Good descriptions of the hurricane, but again the ending kind of trailed off. The last scene was the middle aged protagonist celebrating in a bar with his buddies. (Female version of Elin Hilderbrand)
I’m a big fan of Lisa Jewell, but her novels can sometimes be disturbing. Invisible Girl was a good read, more like a murder mystery. She really knows how to pull you into the story.
The Talented Miss Farwell – about a small town bookkeeper who collects big time art – was an interesting book, unique in topic and plot line. It was certainly readable, but I’m not quite sure what the point was, and I expected a better ending. I enjoyed it for the view into the elite New York art world.
Elin Hilderbrand – 28 Summers – her annual Nantucket beach read. (see above) Corny premise – star crossed Lovers meet on Nantucket the same weekend every year for three decades? But they can’t be together the other 51 weeks because he’s married and his wife is running for President. It was such an unrealistic plot it was funny, and not in a good way. If it wasn’t for Nantucket I wouldn’t bother with her, but I’ve always wanted to go there.
The Guest List – murder at a fancy resort wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland – good characterization and suspense. A Reese Witherspoonl bookclub selection. I enjoyed this one so much I read her previous book The Hunting Party – set in Scotland.
Stranger in the Lake – murder mystery – Kimberly Belle was a new author to me, but I tried her other books and could not get into them. (see Pretty Little Wife comment)
I used to love Joanna Trollope, but she’s been more miss than hit the past decade – Mum and Dad was not one of her best. Drama about a British couple who are vineyard owners in Spain and their millennial aged children. Poor character development, stilted and repetitive dialogue (Are you okay Mum?) and really the parents were only in their early 70’s, not even old enough to really worry about yet. A lot of stuff about sibling rivalry and not much of a plot.
Hidden Valley Road – non-fiction book about a family of twelve children in the 60/70’s and six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Decades later, the two youngest, both girls, collaborate with a journalist investigating a genetic link to the disease. An Oprah Book club selection, which I normally avoid like the plague, but this was totally fascinating. But then I like a good medical book and have had some exposure to schizophrenics through my work. Be grateful for a sound mind. The research was interesting, particularly the preventative angle. Not sure why they kept having kids when advised not to, but it must have been a nightmare living in that house. Both parents had died, so we do not get their POV.
Dear Edward was a library bookclub selection which I skimmed but decided I did not want to read, as it was about a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash which killed 183 people, including his parents. The world is depressing enough….
Mary Higgins Clark was the Queen of Suspense, and I blogged about her passing last year at the age of 93. (link) Piece of My Heart is the last in the series she co-wrote with Alafair Burke. It’s clear that even at her advanced age MHClark was the mastermind of the duo. This was so unlike the previous works that Ms. Burke must have finished this one mostly on her own, as it was as dull as toast, with little to no suspense.
The Midnight Library – by Matt Haig was good, but got off to a slow start, and I did not find the writing as a female protagonist quite believable. (In an author interview he remarked that he had made an earlier attempt from a male POV. He also said he was striving for something hopeful like It’s A Wonderful Life). Writing about parallel universes seems to be a popular theme these days, (who knows how many other dimensions are out there we might be currently living in. Some of them might even contain aliens!) I was close to abandoning it, but LA (fellow book lover and blogger of Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50), convinced me to stick it out and I was glad I did as the ending was worth it. Besides I love anything with a library in it.
Lean Out– by Tara Henley – I enjoyed this non-fiction ode to time-out so much that I blogged about in My Literary Salon. I seem to have had better luck with non-fiction this year.
Two of these were DNR or did not get even started. The weather turned too warm for Insta-Pot soup, and World Travel – the Anthony Bourdain book, written by his collaborator after his death but full of his own quotes, had so much swearing in it I found it offensive and merely skimmed a few chapters. I used to watch his tv show occasionally but have never read his first, Kitchen Confidential or any of his other books so I have nothing to compare it to.
When the Stars Go Dark – by Paula McLain of The Paris Wife fame – about a CA detective searching for missing girls, was good for her first attempt at a non-historical/murder mystery.
The Push was a riveting read – motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a deeply disturbed sociopath child. I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so it would make excellent bookclub fare. As a first-time novelist, I wonder where she got the idea, but then we have only to look at the news and wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a child who commits a violent crime, even if she is only seven.
Pretty Little Wife – DNF – reminder – do not order anything with the wife/exwife/trophy wife as the murder victim/suspect/crime solver etc.
Anxious People – Sorry LA – I know you said to give it a chance, and I may someday but it was overdue and I had to take it back. By the same author as A Man Called Ove – which I loved and which Tom Hanks is re-making as a movie….I enjoyed the Swedish version.
The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron – a big disappointment which I blogged about anyway.
Keep Sharp – by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I loved this book, it’s an easy read for non-medical folks, full of common sense advice but it’s scary to think the decisions we make in middle-age determine how well we live in old age. I may blog on this later. He has another book coming out later in the year – World War C – Lessons from the Covid Pandemic.
The Last Garden in England – library bookclub selection, a multi-generational story about an English garden. A good tale, but nothing much to discuss, character driven with the garden merely a background.
A Promised Land – presidential memoir by Barrack Obama – although it’s not pictured here. I read his two earlier books but they were slim volumes. I’m sure his time in the White House was interesting but 700 pages was just way too much detail for me. I got to page 200 and it was still the primaries, and I had to return it and besides, Michelle said it better and more concisely in Becoming. I’ve not heard too much about this book after the initial buzz, but there is to be a volume two. I like to read in bed with the book propped up on my lap and it was just way too heavy…..literally, it weighed a ton.
The Last Bookshop in London – this was a surprisingly good read for light historical fiction, but then I love anything with a bookshop. Set in WW2 England during the Blitz….you can imagine the rest.
The Windsor Knot – cute premise and title with Queen Elizabeth playing sleuth. It was a slow, not very suspenseful read but somehow I do not think the Queen would be amused. Not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Lost Apothecary – also a good historical fiction murder mystery, but then I’m biased towards anything with an apothecary, especially a female one, even if it was a place you went to obtain poison for your intended (male) victim. The 1800 London past woven into a present day story, with a surprisingly hopeful ending.
Biggest disappointing read of the year which I had been so looking forward to was Jodi Picoult’s – The Book of Two Ways. Book opens with married female protagonist surviving a plane crash. Does she go home to her husband and child or fly off someplace else? Waded through 400 pages on death doulas, AI, Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaeology, much of which was standard university lecture material and had little to do with the plot, only to arrive at a totally ambiguous ending. I guess if you live in a parallel universe you don’t have to chose between your responsible-but-no-longer-in-love-with husband and your sexy grad-school Indiana-Jones type boyfriend because you can have both? Or maybe you the reader gets to decide? The ending was just plain annoying. In the author notes she thanks her editor for making her change it as it was so much better, which only left me wondering what the original ending might have been. I’ve never known Jodi Picoult to write a bad book before so it was doubly disappointing. I found her last one, Small Great Things, (how someone becomes a white supremacist) a timely and outstanding read.
There were many other books I didn’t take photos of…..some the kind you can’t put down.
I particularly enjoyed The Pull of the Stars – by Emma Donoghue about an obstetrical hospital in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu, which I found riveting, both for it’s historical obstetrical detail (not advised for anyone pregnant but many of my friends were OB nurses) and for it’s depiction of the pandemic (much the same as today, masks, distancing, fresh air, but thank god no carbolic acid disinfectant). I was surprised by the ending, but after I researched the author it make sense. Only a well respected writer (the Room) could get away with no quotation marks around the dialogue, an odd feature which didn’t seem to distract from the story.
I love murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, if they’re not too gory and I have my favorite authors – One by One by Ruth Ware was excellent, the setting a snowy ski chalet in the French alps with eight co-workers. The End of Her – by Canadian author Shari Lapena who is consistently good also, and Grace is Gone – by Clare McIntosh. Woman on the Edge – by Samantha Bailey, about a woman who hands her baby to another woman on the subway platform before she jumps, was also an interesting read.
For historical fiction, The Book of Lost Names – Kristen Harmel – a WW2 saga about a female forger helping Jewish children escape, and The Paris Library -Janet Skeslien Charles about librarians working at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation, – were both good reads.
I hope you have found something interesting here for your summer reading. I also have a link to My Literary Salon reviews on the front pages of my website on the main menu under Books.
It’s either feast or famine, and I have little out from the library at the moment, which has been the recent victim of a “cyber security incident” thus disabling the online reservation process. I hope they get it fixed soon, or we Readers will all soon be in withdrawal. I’m always up for a recommendation, so please leave any favorite reads or authors you’ve discovered in comments.
PS. 3000 words – and I was criticizing Obama? Maybe I’ll stick to a quarterly review in the future…
This months literary salon pick is a non-fiction book titled, The Library Book, penned by Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker. With those credentials you know it will be good, and I must say this was one of my favorite reads this summer. But then the library has always been one of my favorite places, especially during the COVID crisis when their curbside pickup has been a real lifesaver – transporting me to another world for awhile.
(Quote by Jane Austen)
While I do not have my own library at home, just random bookshelves, I’ve been a proud library patron since the age of seven when we took a class trip to our newly opened village library. Although small in size with just two rooms, a children’s section and the adults side, I thought it the most marvelous place and was excited to have my own library card. I could already read by then, having started with the Dick/Sally/Jane books, but here were shelf after shelf of books, each with a different story just waiting to be told.
(quote Jane Austen)
As a quiet middle child I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book. My mother would take me and my younger brother to the library every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week. The library was one of the few buildings in town with A/C and I can still recall the blast of cool air which hit you when you entered the vestibule, plus the distinctive musty smell of books. The librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Sekritis sat behind a tall circular desk, and she would often comment on my choices as I grew older. While our little library stocked picture books for children and adult fiction for grown-ups, the selection for Young Adults (if that genre even existed back then) was limited – perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine). And so I read the classics way too young, Dickens, the Brontes, whatever sounded interesting on the book jacket. Occasionally, when I would come across a YA book, I would find it fascinating reading about kids my own age, so different from my rather isolated life growing up on a farm.
I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be too expensive to buy them all, and our small local library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such wonderful people. I seldom visit the larger downtown branch where the service is impersonal and the reserve lists long, except to browse the large print books (easier for reading outside with my aging eyes) of which they have a better selection. But whichever branch I visit, I still consider the library a sacred place.
But back to The Library Book.
On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.
As mentioned on the cover blurb, this 2018 book is a little bit of everything – true crime, history, biography and first rate journalism. The story of who lit the fire is fascinating and interwoven among the various chapters.She delves into the history of library fires over the years from ancient Egypt to the famous book burning of the Nazis in WW2, plus the destruction of thousands of books in wars including recent ones like the Gulf war – a list of the lost libraries of the world, so many words destroyed forever. She covers biographies of librarians, a different breed who must love people as much as they love books and the future and expanded role of libraries in our communities as beacons for the homeless and social services centers, as well as branching into art, music and technical programs such as maker spaces. (Even our small branch has a technical support person on staff but I’m not sure I could listen to that annoying 3D printer all day). I was aware of the history of the Carnegie libraries, but not the reason behind it. As a young boy Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 fee for the local lending library, so he spent the last third of his life giving money away, funding a legacy of 1700 libraries for future generations of readers. In much the same way that Bill Gates spent a decade funding literacy in third world countries. If you want to change the world, books can help, one mind at a time. Introducing your child to the pleasure of books and reading iseven more important now in this time of COVID, when education seems so perilous.
And lastly I loved this book for it’s perfect prose, here’s a sample from page 309.
“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come. I realized that this entire time, learning about the library, I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long, as someone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story: it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was. I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, alert and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaming at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books. I knew that if we had come here together, to this enchanted place of stucco and statuary and all the stories in the world for us to have, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.”
and another excerpt from pg 93
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone has died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by out experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can share, one that burns down and disappears when we died. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
And so we read on…..
Postscript: I was moved recently by this video which fellow blogger Annie (AnnieAsksYou) posted, so I’m going to share it here. It’s a short clip of congressman John Lewis, who died recently at the age of 80, accepting the 2016 National Book Award for young people’s literature for March, his story of the civil rights movement. As a young black teenager in 1956 he was denied the privilege of a library card as the library was for whites only, but he had a teacher who encouraged him to “read my child, read.”
We’re all on edge these days. We live in anxious times and the new worries associated with COVID-19 have made things much worse in a very short period of time. It seems only yesterday that life was normal and going to a store or restaurant wasn’t a dangerous activity which could cost you your life. I drafted this blog a month ago before the current crisis exploded, but perhaps it is even more timely today. This months’ literary pick is by Andrea Petersen, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who has lived with chronic anxiety her entire life.
A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, honest account of living with anxiety.
A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.
Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuro-scientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.
Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.
About the Author: Andrea Petersen is a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health and travel. During her 18 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Journal, Andrea has covered a wide variety of beats including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aging. On Edge – A Journey Through Anxiety is her first book.
Why I Liked It:
This was one of my bookoutlet bargains, an online site where you can spend hours just browsing, and in this case I was trying to get my basket to $100 so I could get $40 off. Certainly I’ve known and counselled many patients about the benefits and side effects of the drugs which are often prescribed in the treatment of anxiety, but I’ve never read a memoir about what it’s like to live with it day after day, so I found this book to be an interesting read.
While most of us think of anxiety as a sporadic or episodic condition associated with a specific event, (like COVID-19), this book delves into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety disorder. Patients with.generalized anxiety disorder worry even if there isn’t anything concrete to worry about, as the mind of a patient struggling with GAD can always find something to catastrophize about! Despite her many low points, the author has led a very successful life, although her boss at the Wall Street Journal was unaware of her struggles until the book was about to be published. Worriers can often excel at masking their condition. She was also fortunate in having a supportive family and friends who understood her condition. I liked how the author’s history was woven into the various chapters on drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, research and genetics, so it was a personal story and not just a recounting of scientific research.
The fight or flight heightened response is an evolutionary adaptation for survival, left over from the caveman days, when our worries were of sabre-toothed tigers and where to find the next meal. While we in modern times may have new and different things to worry about, like is it safe to go to the grocery store, it’s amazing how adaptable the human mind can be to the new normal, and how it can rise above a current catastrophe and find a way forward. Something to remember in these, the worst of times.
PS. There are many non-drug coping mechanisms that can help soothe an anxious mind and stop the cycle, number one of which is distraction. Keeping your mind occupied with something creative can be a wonderful distraction, and if you can’t shut your mind off at night, then I find getting up and reading to be a good activity, preferably a non-fiction book. Basically, any mindless activity such as gardening, painting or reorganizing something is also wonderfully blissful. What is your coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety in these crazy times?
It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months. These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.
As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries. Click on the link for the full publishers blurb. The list is in descending order of greatness.
Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday, telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods. Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change. But others have been waiting for this day too. Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.
Think your family is dysfunctional? After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison. I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet. There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.
“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.” In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too. Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?
While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales,Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride. Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was. She used to be a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.
Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.
The perfect life, or the perfect lie? Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret. Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem. Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.
A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone. She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014. I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending. Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries. A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.
Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy. Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything? As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.
Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex. In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older. I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.
I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title? I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.
From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis. Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home. But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.
A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not. It’s also immensely readable.
In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s. Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post. Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.
One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true? Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath. While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.
This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all. Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme. I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells. Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris? (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what). While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member. Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book – you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.
I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies! Have you read any good books lately? (1500 words – most of them not mine)
One of the most common remarks that I read from bloggers on here, is that she/he is an introvert. Writers tend to be introverts, with a few exceptions, Hemingway being one, but then maybe he was just an extrovert when he’d had a few too many. Writing requires introspection, and some peace and quiet. Your mind be busy and your thoughts multiplying faster than you can get them down, but outwardly you are silent. Although this book is not a new release (it was a best-seller in 2012 and won numerous awards), I thought it would be a good selection for this month’s literary salon, if only to provide food for thought as summer is winding down and our noisy busy lives resume.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – by Susan Cain – 2012
“At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.
In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts–from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.”
About the Author:
A self-proclaimed introvert, Susan Cain is an honors graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and spent seven years working in corporate law for prestigious clients, then worked as a negotiations consultant before quitting to become a writer. In addition to her two best-sellers (Quiet 2012 and Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts 2016), her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications, and her TED talk on the same theme has been viewed over 23 million times. She is co-founder of the Quiet Schools Network and The Quiet Leadership Institute. All in all, a very impressive resume – it tired me out just reading about all her accomplishments, and this is just the shortened version – although she attributes all she has achieved to being an introvert. I did note that it took her seven years to research and write the book.
As an introvert, I really enjoyed this book, especially the last chapter which was addressed to schools and teachers, but then I was the child whose otherwise stellar report card always included the derogatory comment, “Joni fails to participate in class.” Vindicated – Introverts now Rule!
Why I Liked The Book: (see review above)
It’s been so long since I read this book that I can’t remember specific details about it, but it made me feel that introverts were finally being heard and valued for the first time, in a world which basically worships extroverts. Most of our public leaders, CEOs and politicians are extroverts – anyone who can talk a good game is often successful, justified or not, in a world which often values style over substance. These are the people who take up all the space in the room, grab all the attention and never lack for anything to say. But do they ever stop to listen? Introverts tend to be the best listeners, and often make the best bosses because they listen, ask questions and weigh all the factors before they decide or speak. They tend to observe and remember things about others, and usually make great conversationalists, a rare trait in this all-about-me world. They are often creative souls as creativity requires solitude. Introverts are generally undervalued in today’s society, so I enjoyed reading a book which pointed all that out and felt a certain degree of vindication. (Not to knock extroverts though, parties would be dull without them!) Here’s a Wikipedia link with a breakdown of the chapters and principles involved.
Introverts would much rather stay home and read a good book than go out to a social event, but usually enjoy themselves when they do. The would rather have a good conversation with one person, than many superficial ones at a crowded party. They enjoy their own company, and like being with others, but usually need alone time after socializing, in order to recharge.
I’ve always been a quiet person, a result of genes, being a middle child and growing up in a fairly isolated rural environment. I was a quiet kid who turned into a quiet adult. I might have gone into journalism as I love a good story, only I and others (like the high school guidance counselor) thought I was too quiet. (But then they ruined my plan of being a girl detective too!)
I was a details person, as quiet people often are, and was well suited to my career where for decades I had a comfortable level of interaction with people. Working forced me to become more extroverted, and I was good at it, (no one would know as I can talk for hours if I have to, it’s an Irish thing), but it can be exhausting being an introvert in many jobs today. Like many work places, mine was eventually subject to downsizing, staff cuts and quotas and my enjoyable job turned into a stressful one, where I was under constant pressure and seeing way too many people – as those Facebook memes say, it was too peoply out there. I like people, in small doses, but after a day of people in big doses I would come home so overstimulated and drained it would take hours to decompress. I needed lots of down time. (I suppose if you are an extrovert who works at home all day you might want to go out at night and see people, but I have to wonder if the author’s change of careers was precipitated by her marriage and raising young children – those little cling-ons require lots of energy). Plus there is a level of rudeness and impatience in society today which was not there in my earlier working years. So if you ask me what I miss about not working, it’s the people, (most of them quite wonderful), but then again, it’s not. If you’re an introvert, you’ll know what I mean.
Introverts often have an easier time with retirement, as they are used to spending time alone, content in their own company and many retirement activities – gardening, reading, painting, are solitary pursuits. I guess if you are an extrovert you fill your schedule with volunteering or run for public office or travel the world on bus tours. While no one wants to be lonely or turn into a hermit, it’s nice to have a balance between the two which is consistent with your level of introversion or extroversion whatever it might be. (People who fall near the middle of the spectrum are called ambiverts).
Do they still make kids do public speaking in school? It was always a dreaded activity for me. Oh, I could write the speech, but my voice is soft and I can’t hear you would be the usual comment. Introverts do not like being the centre of attention, hence the dislike of public speaking – hard to avoid unless your speech is so boring the audience falls asleep! I would hope that teachers are better trained now to value introverts as well as extroverts. As for those report card comments, it was always the word – “failed” which bothered me. As if failure to raise your hand and participate was a crime, instead of merely being the innate personality trait it is, belonging to that of a quiet soul.
PS. As this is an older book, libraries may have a copy. It’s a fairly long but interesting read, but if you lack the time, here’s a link to the author’s TED talk.
Upon re-watching the TED talk again (20 minutes), I highly recommend it – some very excellent points, especially about solitude and creativity. I especially liked that it opened with the author talking about social activity in her family being everyone all together in their comfortable corners, reading their books. Obviously she grew up in a family of introverts, but her talk/book also has an important message for extroverts trying to understand their introvert spouses (opposites attract!) and children.
What makes a great beach book – any book with summer in the title. Here’s my summer reading list (four read, two to go), and although only two of my selections qualify with respect to the title, they are all beach-worthy in one way or another.
First place, as always, goes to Elin Hilderbrand’s annual summer release, Summer of 69.
Publisher’s Blurb: Follow New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand back in time and join a Nantucket family as they experience the drama, intrigue, and upheaval of a 1960s summer. Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country. In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.
Why I liked it: Her usual fare, but anyone who lived through the summer of 1969 (sorry millennials), will find this book especially appealing. I was the same age as Jesse the youngest of the siblings, so I could really relate to the story line, the fashions and the music. I especially liked how she incorporated songs of the era as chapter titles.
“For What It’s Worth” I think we had better songs back then. I’d like to “Get Back” to that year on “A Magic Carpet Ride” as “Those Were the Days” my friend. I was a “Young Girl” in ’69, a year when “Everybody’s Talking” about “Fly Me To The Moon”, that distant orb in the sky which was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. It was the “Time of the Season” for love and as we were “Born to be Wild” we were full of “Midnight Confessions”. We didn’t need “Help” from “Mother’s Little Helper” or “White Rabbits” or have the “Summertime Blues” as it was a time of peace and hope. For all it’s protests it was also a time of optimistic change, as politically “Everyday People” who had “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (as opposed to CNN or Fox), did not have “Suspicious Minds” and could look at issues “From Both Sides Now”. Perhaps, “Someday We’ll Be Together” again, hopefully “More Today than Yesterday.” Whew – I got them all in! (How many do you remember?)
Instead of flying to the moon, let’s fly to Paris – One Summer in Paris – by Sarah Morgan
Publishers Blurb: To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Grace has planned the surprise of a lifetime for her husband—a romantic getaway to Paris. But she never expected he’d have a surprise of his own: he wants a divorce. Reeling from the shock but refusing to be broken, a devastated Grace makes the bold decision to go to Paris alone. Audrey, a young woman from London, has left behind a heartache of her own when she arrives in Paris. A job in a bookshop is her ticket to freedom, but with no money and no knowledge of the French language, suddenly a summer spent wandering the cobbled streets alone seems much more likely…until she meets Grace, and everything changes. Grace can’t believe how daring Audrey is. Audrey can’t believe how cautious newly single Grace is. Living in neighboring apartments above the bookshop, this unlikely pair offer each other just what they’ve both been missing. They came to Paris to find themselves, but finding this unbreakable friendship might be the best thing that’s ever happened to them…
Why I liked it: I’m not a big fan of romance fiction, but was attracted by the title and the book jacket.I’ve never been to Paris, the story line sounded promising and it had a bookstore in it. Basically this book was pure fluff, albeit readable fluff. I don’t think I’ll be reading anything more by this author, as she is traditionally a romance writer and it was a bit too predictable for me. Plus there was actually very little about Paris or the bookstore in it, which just goes to show how we can get sucked in by marketing. (I swear if I ever write my murder mystery I’m going to call it Murder at the Paris Bookshop even though it’s set in another country – guaranteed sales – but perhaps that title has already been taken?)
Did I mention I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it, so No. 3 is The Bookstore on the Corner – by Jenny Colgan.
Publishers Blurb: Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more. Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling. From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.
Why I liked it: I haven’t read it yet, but with a bookstore, how could it fail? (I’m reserving judgement, see above). (Edited to add: Two chapters in and I’m loving this book – the main character, the humorous style of writing, the Scottish locale, it’s simply charming, and there are actual books in it!) (Note after finishing: I’m quite disappointed – two thirds of the way through this book turned into a Hallmark movie. It was all down hill after the scene with Mr. Darcy wearing a kilt and carrying an injured lamb…..well those were actually two separate scenes but you get the drift….really I m much too old for this romance stuff. Where is Jane Austen when you need her!)
It’s summer concert season. Let’s go back in time again, this time to the 70’s. Based loosely on the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones and the Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club. I can already see the movie being made….now who will play the lead singers?
Publisher’s Blurb: Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things. Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road. Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend. The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.
Why I liked it: Despite it’s great reviews I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. It wasn’t a subject matter that interested me, as I attended a Catholic high school and my recollection of the 70’s was not exactly sex, drugs and rock and roll. But I ended up loving it – and it’s definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year. Basically it’s a love story, but not your typical one. I even liked the unique interview format a la Rolling Stone, which surprisingly readable. The book is pure fiction but the characters seemed so real that several younger reviewers on Goodreads believed it was a memoir about a real band. Someone really needs to set those lyrics at the end to music.
Enough of the retro, here’s a psychological thriller to keep you in suspense during those nights when it’s too hot to sleep – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Publishers Blurb: Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word. Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London. Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….
Why I liked it: I don’t usually like first person narratives, especially by male protagonists, but this was very well done and overall an excellent book for a first time novelist. Never even saw the ending coming – I am in awe of the brilliance.
And lastly, because even the best of summers have to come to an end and real life resumes, a family drama – After the End – by Clare MacIntosh.
Publisher’s Blurb: Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son. What if they could have both? A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find.
Why I liked it: I haven’t read this one yet either. I’m saving it for August, but it sounds like a departure from her usual crime suspense novels (I Let You Go, I See You). We shall see….
There – a little something for everyone under the sun – Happy Reading!
This month’s literary review is about one woman’s humorous but perfectly disastrous journey through the world of self-help books.
The Publisher’s Blurb:
Marianne Power was a self-help junkie. For years she lined her bookshelves with dog-eared copies of definitive guide after definitive guide on how to live your best life. Yet one day she woke up to find that the life she dreamed of and the life she was living were not miles but continents apart. So she set out to make a change. Or, actually, to make every change.
Marianne decided to finally find out if her elusive perfect life—the one without debt, anxiety, hangovers or Netflix marathons, the one where she healthily bounced around town with perfect teeth to meet the cashmere-sweater-wearing man of her dreams—lay in the pages of those books. So for a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne.
As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?
About the Author:
Marianne Power is a successful British journalist and blogger. She lives in London, England. She was a freelance writer at the time the book was written.
Marianne Power’s year long journey sampling the shelves of the self-help section is an enormously entertaining look at the self-help genre. We’ve all read self-help books, except maybe those with perfect lives and non-dysfunctional families. But are they…well…helpful? We tend to read them and then toss them aside, so how intriguing to read about someone who spent a year road testing them. I absolutely loved this book – it was brilliantly written, hilariously funny and when she spirals out of control into the depths of despair, painfully honest. Not many people would be so revealing about their less than perfect lives and perceived flaws. Fortunately, Marianne had her mother, so full of wisdom and sensible advice, to help her through her year of applied psychology. I can just hear her mother sighing, “Oh Marianne, you’re fine, just the way you are.” And she is. PS. I hope now that she has become a successful author, she makes enough money to pay off all her debts and buy a house.
I noticed this book on the Just New Releases shelf at my local bookstore, because pursuing the self-help section is something I’m long past. When you’re older, you realize that your life doesn’t need fixing…. you’re happy to be still living, reasonably healthy and mostly content. If I do pick up a self-help book it’s more likely to be one about living with gratitude or something practical like how to get organized – Marie Kondo I may be revisiting you before I empty out those kitchen cupboards!
The book was so engaging, I just could not put it down. I enjoyed her witty style of writing. The chapter on angels was LOL funny, but then I grew up Catholic so I could relate.
‘My guardian angel was a daily companion who got me through exams and my ever-present fear that a burglar would break in while I slept. Every night I’d pray to her, turn off the lights, and then when I’d be practicing playing dead, (I figured murderers wouldn’t kill me if I was already dead in my bed), I’d imagine her flying over me, her golden wings flittering, like Tinkerbell. She was pretty. As all angels should be.’
While I was aware of some of the titles and authors she explored, I had only ever read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (which surely must be from the 80’s), and The Secret, (during my Gospel according to Oprah phase). I knew of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that Tony Robbins was a popular life coach but the chapter on his workshop was just too weird and cult-like. Of all the books she mentioned, the one that seemed to resonate the most with her was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. She had tried to read it once but her therapist recommended it might speak to her now, as sometimes it’s a case of the right book at the right time. I might check that one out as I tend to be a worrier and have trouble staying in the present. (Edited to add – sorry to say but I abandoned Mr. Tolle at the halfway point, although I did find him helpful those nights I had insomnia mulling over all those kitchen reno decisions – it was so boring that after a few pages I was out like a light).
She did see a therapist, and that brings up another issue about self-help books – many people turn to them because they can’t afford a therapist or a life coach and there’s only so many times your friends and family can listen to you moaning about the same old problems. Not everyone has a wise sage of a mother dispensing sound advice, so to obtain nuggets of wisdom and fresh points of view from the pages of a book cannot be dismissed. Discussions about how to live a good and happy life have been with us since the days of the Greek philosophers. But is too much introspection a bad thing? The last chapter sums things up nicely.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates)
“All this thinking about yourself is not good for you.” (Marianne’s Mum – Chapter 11)
Is there a particular self-help book which you have found helpful?
Last April I posted about a delightful book, Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnin, and since it is April again, I thought this would be a good selection for this month’s Literary Review. Although this book was written almost a hundred years ago, it’s a favorite of mine for it’s theme of beauty and hope, and how a lovely environment can renew one’s life and perspective. Here’s a link to the blog……Enchanted April. I hope your April has been enchanting too!
I absolutely loved this book, but I had watched the movie first. A timeless tale with a lovely story line and such vivid descriptions of flowers, gardens and beautiful countryside that you almost felt like you were there.
If you’re not fortunate enough to get away for a vacation this year, what better activity than to curl up with a travel book and listen to the March winds howl, (like a lion the same way they came in). Last year I wandered into the travel section at bookoutlet.com and never left. There are so many wonderful travel books available, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my personal favorites. (Warning: travel memoirs can be equal parts enjoyable and annoying. There can be a fine line between reading about someone’s wonderful experiences in a sunnier place, especially when you are still in the dull dreary dregs of winter, and resenting the hell out them. But remember there can be comfort in staying home too…see The Golden Age of Travel post).
Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, was published in 1923, and could be called the first travel memoir of it’s kind. Set in Italy, I profiled it in a blog last year – see link. How could a book with a captivating opening sentence like this, not be good.
“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine. Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.”
The King and Queen
A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle was the first travel memoir I read, and I found it LOL funny. He went on to write a whole series of memoirs (read) and a few novels (not read), about Provence. He made Provence so famous that at one time he moved to Long Island to get away from all the publicity. He died last year, shortly after his last Provence book was published, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence – Reflections on Then and Now, (read) which is a summary of his life there.
If Peter Mayle is the King, then Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is the Queen, and she made Tuscany a very popular place to visit. It’s been 25 years since her bestselling book, and she has written wrote four or five more travel books, (read) and has a new one coming out this year – See You in the Piazza – New Places to Discover in Italy.(on order) She also wrote a novel, Women in Sunlight, last year, which I found so unreadable that I can not recommend it. I’m still not sure how a novel about four women who travel to Italy can miss, but it did. Travel memoirs are definitely her forte.
My Personal Favorite
Susan Branch is my personal favorite of all the travel writers. For those who think of her as just The Heart of the Home cookbook author, did you know that after she lost her publishing contract with Little and Brown in 2009, she started self-publishing and now has a trilogy of marvelous illustrated journals, with a fourth on the way next year about England, Ireland and Wales. Her first, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is about her move from CA to Martha’s Vineyard in the 80’s after a divorce, which I enjoyed as that is a part of the world I would love to visit. (Her second is about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and is not really a travel book, but more a memoir of her youth).
Her third, A Fine Romance, is about her trip to England and is full of photos and watercolor illustrations, of such sites as Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District and the Jane Austen House in Chawton.
I find her monthly newsletters inspiring, and you can check out her books and order them from her website. I wish she would venture into France and Italy.
A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod
All About Paris
One of my favorite books about Paris, is Janice McLeod’s, A Paris Year, which I profiled last year in a blog titled, April in Paris – Part Two. A watercolor artist, her journal is illustrated with her own artwork, and is a quirky and whimsical look at her day to day life in Paris.
A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod
Marlena de Blasi has written three memoirs about Italy – A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany and The Lady in the Palazzo – At Home in Umbria, which was my favorite of the three. Her books are well-written and often poetic, but sometimes irritating with respect to her ex-pat mentality and whining about their failure to fit into a foreign culture. So if you want to read about someone who makes an impulsive decision to buy a run down palazzo and then complains about how long it takes to renovate it, then this book is for you. So much of appreciating a travel memoir is based on finding the essayist appealing, still it’s an interesting if illogical journey.
My Current Read
Elizabeth Bard wrote Lunch in Paris – A Love Story with Recipes, about her move to Paris and subsequent marriage to a Parisian, which was good, even if I wasn’t much interested in the cooking part, (there are recipes at the end of each chapter). But I am really liking her second book, Picnic in Provence – a Memoir with Recipes, about their move to a small village in Provence, with their young son. The writing is honest and real and so well done, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that she has a wee bit of a privileged princess attitude.
My Latest Discovery
My latest discovery is Vivian Swift, another watercolor artist, found while browsing the bookoutlet website. (I feel like I’m regressing to my childhood with all these picture books!) Le Road Trip – A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France – is a self-illustrated memoir of her fun and whimsical jaunt through France on her honeymoon.