Wednesday, December 11, 2013

READING by Joyce Kiefer

I was sitting around the kitchen table with a half dozen women friends from college, and we were making a list of good reads for one of us – Donna – who was about to have knee surgery.  Donna had asked each of us to suggest a good book for her convalescence.  An avid reader, she considered her recovery time as a good excuse to read non-stop - anything -  fiction, nonfiction, history, light, heavy.   She wanted to surround herself with a smorgasbord of books.

Joan, a newspaper writer, took down our suggestions.  She queried each of us. Suggest three books, she said.  “Shadow of the Wind,” I offered. “The masterpiece by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The very end let me down, but what a poetic, mystical ride!  The story involves a library.” 

"You'd love "People of the Book," Donna replied.  “Geraldine Brooks.”

How about "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson ?" I started to describe its stark characters and setting.

"Already read it," said Donna.  

I ended with “The Book Thief.” “The presentation is key.  I’ll say no more.”  Neither did she.  Somehow her book club missed that best seller by Markus Zusak.  The movie hadn't come out yet.

We continued around the table.  The shocker came when we got to Jeannie.  She and I had been classmates in an honors Western Civ course.  We read everything from Homer to Wittgenstein and Hume.  I envied her insights, how she got the points that I missed.  But now all she could suggest was  "Peter Pan."  “Yes,” I said, “You must have found J.M. Barrie a fascinating writer, making an allegory of his refusal to acknowledge himself as an adult.  "Maybe," Jeannie replied.  "But my life is so busy with grandkids (over a dozen), that I don't have time to read for myself."  

I was further amazed when Mary, another honors classmate, agreed.  She has no time to read either. And Charlotte confessed she did so much required reading in college (between 3 and 6 a.m. because her roommates were quiet then), that she never wants to read another book.  She does read the paper end to end to keep up to date.

I was shocked because reading is an essential part of my own life. I assumed these old friends – intelligent women all – shared the same passion. How could they turn their backs on history, well-crafted stories, the classics, the opportunity to engage with new ideas?  Did the personal curiosity of these former teachers freeze at graduation?  

My mother taught me that reading is an art.  When I was little, she would open a new book I’d received as a gift, run her finger down the title page to flatten it to the spine, and say, “See?  It smells like a new book.”  Then she’d turn to the dedication, read it, and explain, “This is the person who inspired the author.”  Next, she would turn to the table of contents.  “Here’s what’s waiting for us.”  Finally, she would slowly turn to Page 1 and begin the story.  She taught me to savor a book, not speed through it. 

She also showed me that books are organic.  “Protect the spine, or the book will fall apart,” Mom would caution.  “The leaves are the sheets of paper with the printed page on each side and they’re made from trees.”  As she read to me, it seemed that real people bloomed from those leaves.

I’ve always enjoyed scanning other people’s bookshelves, even as a kid.  The contents tell me what their owners like to explore, the stories they treasure, the ideas that tweak their minds. 

A built-in bookshelf next to a used brick fireplace sold me on the first house we bought.  We still live there.

Chasing down a physical book is part of the fun of reading.  First of all, there’s the literary buffet offered by a brick and mortar bookstore.  On my way to the travel section of one favorite store, I had to stop and sample the cookbooks on display and thumb through the selections on the best seller table before I reached my destination. I was looking for guidebooks to Turkey but couldn’t resist Uzbekistan.   How would I get around if I were going there instead of Turkey?  What would I see?  Of what should I be aware?    Finally I returned to the Turkey shelf and looked for Rick Steves.

Then there’s the library treasure hunt.   My book club decided to read “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Bloom. I didn’t want to own this title. Anyone snooping my bookshelf might suspect a Lucrezia Borgia side to my personality.  I didn’t want the book on my iPad, either.  Something contaminating about that.  All the copies were checked out of my local library.  I had one alternative: the library at Stanford University where I have borrowing privileges.  What could be sweeter than the joy of wallowing in seven million books?  

The Poisoner’s Handbook was available but I had to hunt it down somewhere in the basement of the main library. Once I stepped down there, I followed the arrows along a dimly lit aisle to the South Stacks.  Then I stepped round the corner into a darker underground wing.  Finally I found the right neighborhood of call letters, but my number range was missing.  I refused to give up.  I spotted a couple of aides with a book cart.  Surely one could help but I thought how strange it would be to say, I’m looking for “the Poisoner’s Handbook.”  Can you help me find it?”  Perhaps one aide would chat me up while the other pushed a panic button.  Or they would wave me off to the Chemistry Department.  But I was on a mission and I finally found the Poisoner’s Handbook on a lower shelf in a dark corner.

A friend who’s an engineer said no one needs books anymore.  Everything is on the internet and the young generation knows this.   But my ten-year-old granddaughter would disagree.  She inherited the bookworm gene.  Her friends know she loves to read and gave her gift cards for her birthday to the one bookstore in her town.  She showed me the stack of books she chose, picked one up, and read me the story outline on the flaps. 

“Tempt me,” I said, as we were eating lunch.  “Read me a little bit of the first chapter.”  She opened the book carefully, smoothed down the page, and began to read.

Joyce Kiefer is a long-time member of the A-Z Writing Group formerly known as Kepler's Writing Group.  Her poetry has been published in several anthologies and she writes columns for several websites, as well as her own blog:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

James Chandler: Titanic Centennial Celebration

Bowker's issued a press release about the 98 books published for the Centennial of the Titanic's sinking. Most seem to look at the same event from different angles or work with Cameron's version. No one attempts to change the outcome -- until this one.

Want to read a happy ending, an alternative that could have transpired even with no change in the surroundings that night? A man coming of age, a love he's just met, a challenge he meets in an unconventional way, turning his odd vision into a beacon for survival.

Read the story here for free:

ADRIFT, by James Chandler

James Chandler is the editor of Fallen Leaf Anthology (twenty writers attending The Write Retreat at Stanford Sierra Camp collectively present more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) and long time member of Kepler's Writing Group.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jennifer duBois: Mental Distress Across Culture and History

    The New York Times Magazine recently ran a fascinating article about the group of teenage girls in upstate New York who succumbed, en masse, to a set of mysterious symptoms—such as twitching and spasming—for which no satisfactory biological explanation can be found. One girl was afflicted with the symptoms, then another and another, until the affliction has spread fairly widely throughout the school. Many of the sufferers are cheerleaders. The story has attracted much national attention, and the incidence of the symptoms seems to rise and fall with the level of media scrutiny. After ruling out environmental explanations, some experts have concluded that the girls are suffering from conversion disorder—commonly called mass hysteria. But perhaps understandably, many of the victims and their families are resistant to this diagnosis, in part because it sounds like an accusation that the girls are faking their symptoms—and their symptoms, it turns out, are pretty hard to fake.

     Reading this piece reminded me of an amazing book I read a couple of years ago called Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters. In it, Watters argues that mental illness, unlike physical illness, manifests itself in culturally distinct ways. In different cultures, different symptoms are scanned as reflective of psychic pain—and thus, in different cultures different symptoms of psychic pain appear. Watters argues for a more culturally aware approach toward global mental health, raising the interesting example of schizophrenia—understood as the product of malfunctioning brains in the West, and of demonic possession in certain African cultures. In those cultures, because the problem is understood as external to the individual, schizophrenics are more accepted and well-integrated into their families during periods of wellness and calm. Watters also discusses the case of anorexia, which is widely and popularly believed to be a function of the Western media’s obsession with image and emphasis on thinness. But he raises the point that when anorexia first emerged as a set of symptoms it was not often accompanied by the body dysmorphia we often believe to be its hallmark today—it usually afflicted a young woman on the heels of a romantic heartbreak, and first presented as vague stomach problems and an inability to eat. A similar disorder is arising among young women in Hong Kong, where the disease is not understood—at least not by its sufferers—as a pursuit of thinness, but is in fact experienced as a sensation of chronic stomach discomfort or fullness.

      I was reminded of all of this while reading the article about the cheerleaders in upstate New York. When no external and organic explanation for the girls’ symptoms was found, sufferers were understandably hesitant to accept the diagnosis of conversion disorder—feeling that this was, on some level, an implication that their disease was not real. Crazy Like Us gives us another way of understanding their symptoms: as a culturally influenced manifestation of an underlying, and very real, psychic issue. It shouldn’t surprise us that symptoms of mental distress are variable across culture and history, or that certain mental symptoms can be unusual, transitory, or even, on some level, ‘contagious.’ After all, the brain is in constant dialogue with the culture around it, which makes diagnosing and caring for it an even stranger project than caring for our bodies.  My mother tells the incredible story of how, as a young candy striper volunteering in a V.A. hospital, she roused a catatonic patient from his stupor by offering him a glass of what she thought was apple juice—it was, in fact, his urine sample. His vigorous head shaking was his first movement in months, and he subsequently made a dramatic and full recovery. Though for some reason, this never made it into the medical protocol.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jennifer duBois: When One Falls In Love With a Book

     Really loving a book—especially one that not everyone else in the world has read—comes with a very particular blend of emotions. There’s the feeling of private elation, as though the book’s been written for you personally. There’s that impulse to babble to everyone about how much you loved the book. And there’s the sense of gratitude that, out of the vast universe of books, this particular book happened to find you. All of these feelings are heightened, I think, when one falls in love with a book that has, in one way or another, only recently emerged and become available to you—either through a translation or an exhumation or a re-release. Over the past decade, I’ve read three books of this sort that have particularly stayed with me: Embers by Sandor Marai, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, and There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

     Desperate Characters, originally published in 1970, was re-released in 1999 after many years out of print. It’s a prickly and perfect little book, written with economy and grace and wryness and an astonishing command of our sympathies. Fox skewers the solipsism of her characters—Sophie and Otto Bentwood, fragile inhabitants of late-60s New York—without ever abandoning her empathy for them, and she’s a master of strange and chilling and small domestic symbolism (the plot mostly revolves around Sophie waiting to find out if she’s contracted rabies from the bite of a stray cat). Sophie and Otto’s lives provide the perfect canvass to delineate, with wrenching clarity, the changing social and political landscape of the time. Desperate Characters is that very rare thing—a social novella, no less wise and prophetic for being so slim.  

     Embers was written in Hungarian in 1949, fell out of print forever, and was translated into English in 2000, eleven years after Marai committed suicide. It’s an enchanting and haunting novella, told mostly as an elegant monologue—and extended accusation— delivered by an aging general to an old friend he’s invited over for dinner. The fact of the general’s direct address invites us to feel implicated in the events he describes—and I think in a strange way this device manages to subvert the possible artificial coyness of withholding the revelation of what’s occurred. By telling us what’s happened as though we already know, we sort of feel as though we do. This book feels like a fairy tale in the very best way, and its emergence from obscurity (and Hungarian) adds to this mythic feel. 

      There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is a collection of stories that were selected and translated into English by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen and published in 2009. Though widely known in Russia, this collection was Petrushevskaya’s first English translation from a major American house. The stories are deeply strange and spare and utterly singular; they grapple with the inexplicable; they careen from dreaminess to nighmarishness, and from the literal to the metaphorical, and back again. They straddle realism and surrealism in a way that is both disturbing and gorgeous; one is always left wondering, deliciously, what kind of story one has just read. 
     All three of these books would be lovely and thrilling no matter what—at any time, and in any language. But the fact that they’ve only recently become accessible to me, as a reasonably young reader of English, makes them—at least to me—even more intoxicating and compelling.