“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” ~ Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Wildlife Scientist Delia Owens grew up as an adventurous outdoorsy child in 1950s rural Georgia, where she learned to contentedly play and explore nature on her own. Now a bestselling Nature Writer, Owens understands solitude, having spent decades conducting research in remote areas of the United States and studying elephants and lions in Africa.
When this Winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing sat down ten years ago to write Where the Crawdads Sing, her intent was to create a novel that “explore[d] how isolation affects a person.” Her story is about Kya Clark, a child also growing up in the fifties, coming of age in the mysterious marshland of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Owens gets the setting right. Her description of rural southeastern coast and its natural inhabitants instantly took me back to marsh country. I could smell the sweetgrass and see the fireflies. And like Owens, some of Kya’s best friends are part of nature. Yet unlike Owens who pursued a solitary lifestyle, young Kya falls victim to an unlikely series of events that instead force her to fend for herself.
Kya’s mother flees an abusive alcoholic husband. Then one by one, Kya’s older siblings depart, until she is finally and completely abandoned by her father. By age ten Kya must learn to survive and so becomes the wild “Marsh Girl,” not fit for school nor society, rather “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are.” Kya relies on the marsh; “whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her…the marsh became her mother.”
Befriended by a shrimper’s son, Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, Kya is ultimately encouraged to cultivate her gift for archiving marsh specimens. Tate also leaves. And though Kya is skilled in solitude, she yearns to be close to someone and begins a secretive relationship with a self-serving Romeo, Chase Andrews. When in 1969, this former lover (and attacker) is discovered dead, Kya is suspected. Small town drama ensues, and Kya endures a long theatrical trial, her cherished freedom hanging in the balance.
The plot alternates between the trial and earlier time frames. Owens described the writing process as “like a giant 150,000-word puzzle.” As a reader, I sensed it wasn’t effortless. She portrays her timeline afterthoughts as an editing “nightmare.” For this reader, the shifts seemed counterintuitive and curbed any suspense I may have felt for the fate of the main character.
And Kya’s plaintive tale is all too much pathos, lacking the compelling and authentic complexity of real human experience. I wished to connect, but Kya felt so contrived a vehicle, designed to teach the reader how solitude shapes and distorts. Owens’s nature writing depicts the natural world in such vivid accurate detail. Fiction arguably requires as much truth from so skillful a writer.
Originally published November 29, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Bibliotherapy – the idea that reading can have a beneficial effect on mental health – has undergone a resurgence. There is mounting clinical evidence that reading can, for example, help people overcome loneliness and social exclusion. One scheme in Coventry allows health professionals to prescribe books to their patients from a list drawn up by mental health experts.
Even as public library services across Britain are cut back, the healing potential of books is increasingly recognised.
The idea of the healing book has a long history. Key concepts were forged in the crucible of World War I, as nurses, doctors and volunteer librarians grappled with treating soldiers’ minds as well as bodies. The word “bibliotherapy” itself was coined in 1914, by American author and minister Samuel McChord Crothers. Helen Mary Gaskell (1853-1940), a pioneer of “literary caregiving”, wrote about the beginnings of her war library in 1918:
Surely many of us lay awake the night after the declaration of War, debating … how best we could help in the coming struggle … Into the mind of the writer came, like a flash, the necessity of providing literature for the sick and wounded.
The well-connected Gaskell took her idea to the medical and governmental authorities, gaining official approval. Lady Battersea, a close friend, offered her a Marble Arch mansion to store donated books, and The Times carried multiple successful public appeals. As Gaskell wrote: What was our astonishment when not only parcels and boxes, but whole libraries poured in. Day after day vans stood unloading at the door.
Gaskell’s library was affiliated to the Red Cross in 1915 and operated internationally – with depots in Egypt, Malta, and Salonika. Her operating principles, axiomatic to bibliotherapy, were to provide a “flow of comfort” based on a “personal touch”. Gaskell explained that “the man who gets the books he needs is the man who really benefits from our library, physically and mentally”.
Her colleagues running Endell Street Military Hospital’s library shared similar views about the importance of books in wartime. On August 12, 1916, the Daily Telegraph reported on the hospital, calling the library a “story in itself”. Run by novelist Beatrice Harraden, a member of the Womens Social and Political Union and also, briefly, the actress and feminist playwright Elizabeth Robins, the library was a fundamental part of the treatment of 26,000 wounded between 1915 and 1918.
“We learned,” Robins wrote in Ancilla’s Share, her 1924 analysis of gender politics, “that the best way, often the only way, to get on with curing men’s bodies was to do something for their minds.” The books the men wanted first were likely to be by the ex-journalist and popular writer Nat Gould, whose novels about horseracing were bestsellers. Otherwise, fiction by Rudyard Kipling, Marie Corelli, or Robert Louis Stevenson rated highly. In the Cornhill Magazine in November, 1916, Harraden revealed that the librarians’ “pilgrimages” from one bedside to another ensured what she called “good literature” was always within reach, but that the book that would “heal” was the one that was most wanted: However ill [a patient] was, however suffering and broken, the name of Nat Gould would always bring a smile to his face.
The literary caregivers at Endell Street worked responsively, and without judgement, a crucial legacy.
Library on the frontlineLiterary caregiving also took place closer to the front. Throughout the war, the YMCA operated a network of recreation huts and lending libraries for soldiers. After losing his only son, Oscar, at Ypres, the author E. W. Hornung offered his services to the YMCA. Hornung – a relatively obscure figure now, but a literary celebrity then – authored the “Raffles” stories about the gentleman thief of the same name.
Longshaw Lodge Convalescent Home for Wounded Soldiers, Grindleford, near Sheffield. Tyne & Wear Archives & MuseumsArriving in France in late 1917, Hornung was initially put to work serving tea to British soldiers. But the YMCA soon found him a more suitable job, placing him in charge of a new lending library for soldiers in Arras. Dispensing tea and books to soldiers helped him process his grief. Hearing soldiers talk about their favourite books played a key role in his recovery – but he also sincerely believed that reading helped soldiers keep their minds healthy while they were in the trenches. Hornung wrote in 1918 that he wanted to feed “the intellectually starved”, while “always remembering that they are fighting-men first and foremost, and prescribing for them both as such and as the men they used to be”.
Writing a new futurePresent-day veterans encounter the potential of reading and writing in equally participatory ways as interventions with the charities Combat Stress UK (CSUK) and Veterans’ Outreach Services demonstrate. In CSUK, we read widely from contemporary work before undertaking writing exercises. These were designed to help provide detachment from the internal repetition of traumatic stories that some with PTSD experience. The director of therapy at CSUK, Janice Lobban, says: Collaborative work … gave combat stress veterans the valuable opportunity of developing creative writing skills. Typically, the clinical presentation of veterans causes them to avoid unfamiliar situations and the loss of self-confidence can affect the ability to develop creative potential. Workshops within the safety of our Surrey treatment centre enabled veterans to have the confidence to experiment with new ideas.
Another approach, in workshops with Veterans’ Outreach Support in Portsmouth in 2018, explored the role of writing in training veterans to become “peer-mentors” of other veterans wanting to access VOS services, ranging from physical and mental wellness to housing benefits to job-seeking.
The results show that veterans responded positively to opportunities for imaginative writing. Trainee peer-mentors responding to a questionnaire told us that the exercises helped them to write fluently about their own lives. For people who spend so much time filling out forms to access various benefits, the opportunity to write creatively was seen as a liberating experience. As one veteran put it: “We are writing into ourselves”.
For 100 years now, reading and writing have helped veterans build relationships, gain confidence and face the challenges of their post-service lives. Our current research charts the influence of wartime literary caregiving on contemporary practice.
Orginially published November 15, 2018 at www.theconversation.com
Merve Emre is is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. In her latest book, The Personality Brokers, she creates a critical portrait of the Myers-Briggs Indicator, a personality test conceived and developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers Briggs, an unconventional mother daughter team with no formal training in psychology.
“Better than a horoscope…less reliable than a heart monitor.” That’s how organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes the Myer’s Briggs indicator. Yet, the majority of Fortune 100 companies, and major universities along with the federal government use this people-sorter to assign students and employees to one of 16 discrete types.
In a discussion with friends about the test’s creators, we decided that those who hadn’t taken the Myers Briggs would give it a shot. And those who had would take it again, for good measure. The founders and keepers of the Myers Briggs Indicator insist that type doesn’t change, not over time, not over circumstance. As a person who has taken it multiple times over the last few decades, I could attest to that. Could.
But this most recent exercise revealed that within the last year, my personality type had made a significant shift. I have always sensed that these kinds of tests feed our egos in a way that steadies our faith in them. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of bewilderment that accompanied these test results. It was like waking up to a different eye color. Then I became intrigued. How did this happen? In what ways am I different? And more importantly, why am I so fascinated with myself?
Katherine knew that we all seek an answer to the fundamental question, “What makes me, me?” Her first sincere attempts to understand personality began in 1897 with a set of experiments she designed to turn her daughter into a genius. She conducted behavioral drills with Isabel in their living room, the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” And Isabel impressed the neighborhood mothers when she began speaking full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 was accepted to Swarthmore College.
Then In 1923, Katherine discovered a schematic for sorting personalities. She read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in which Jung theorized that every person was primarily extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling. The work captured Katherine’s attention for several years, not only helping her to not only understand herself but inspiring her to seek a broader application for the betterment of society.
It was Isabel who would go on to adapt Jung’s schematic and craft the Myers-Briggs Indicator to help employers identify the traits of their employees. She pitched hard, making use of family connections, and successfully selling the test during a time when employers wanted increasingly specialized and productive workers. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Myers-Brigs Indicator attracted interest from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey and from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, who administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Normal Mailer and other prominent writers and artists.
By 1980, the year Isabel died, it is estimated that over one million other people had taken it. By 2012, sales of personality tests were bringing in about $20 million a year, and Myers-Briggs had become a household name. Emre’s cultural history deftly reveals the a-typical nature of its creators. They were affluent autodidacts, homemakers, published writers and zealous crusaders for self-actualization. They shaped the personality-assessment industry with an indicator that has become an icon. But how would they type?
Originally published October 18, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Written under the influence of Michael Pollan
To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. How to Change Your Mind documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.
The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization. But not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Over the last two decades, medical centers along with the U.S. government, are allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Modern technology, specifically fMRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation or “set” and guided circumstance or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist.
However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death.
While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking…is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life,” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life.
As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote Botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.
Originally published September 6, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Successful French hip-hop artist Gaël Faye was born in 1982 to a French father and Rwandan mother who lived as expatriates in Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa.
Faye describes the bulk of his creative work in music, screenplays and fiction as rooted in poetry. He began writing poems at an early age, anchoring himself to their composition throughout his abruptly uprooted adolescence, and then expanding his small works into song and prose.
He has recently emerged as a dexterous talent, winning numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt des lycéens for Petit Pays, published 2016 in France and selling over 700,000 copies. Sarah Ardizzone translated Faye’s novel into Small Country, now published in over thirty countries worldwide.
The book opens just before the first democratic election in 1993 of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Congo. There, life is fairly carefree for ten-year-old Gabrial, living with his expatriate French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana in the capital of Bujumbura.
Ten year old Gabriel (Gaby) and his pack of mischief making friends sneak beers, gossip about girls, avoid Francis the bully, sell stolen mangoes and sneak Supermatch cigarettes. Faye’s inspiration for these characters comes from a lyric he wrote days before the civil war. Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre; it’s a song of privilege and boredom and from a child who does not yet understand what the future holds.
The 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye will come just three months after his election in a military coup that begins a ten-year civil war, killing over a million Hutus and Tutsis in mutual prosecution of physical difference. The violence will monstrously spread, propelling Rwanda into genocide rooted on an accepted colonial concept of ethnicity. Faye writes, “A glowing, uninvited ghost is showing up at regular intervals to remind us that peace is merely a brief interlude between two wars...we didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash it’s cackles of hyenas and wild dogs.”
Small Country explores the grief that accompanies a boy plunged from the familiar into the horrific. Gaby first steadies himself by writing poetic letters to his French pen pal Laure. He befriends an elderly widow with large bookshelves, immerses himself in reading instead of following friends into guerilla warfare. Eventually he must make the worst of choices. It’s an ambitious character development, and at times Faye loses a little authenticity, attempting to balance seasoned expository with the naïve perspective of a boy.
Faye’s own boyhood was lost to war, and he followed his mother to France where he describes being so filled with injustice and the shock of a new culture that he didn’t unpack his suitcase for months. Like Gaby, he was a child traumatized by the evil that passed though and transformed Africa. He writes, "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Within that darkness, Gaby loses not only freedom but identity, abandoning his former self in order to survive. Faye illuminates the brutal struggle of refugee experience through what at times can feel like disjointed memoir. Yet, he delivers a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide. The story is slow building and deeply moving, told in simple beautiful language, and a worthy eye-opening read.
Originally published July 26, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Folk, a bewitching debut novel from Zoe Gilbert, 2014 winner of the UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
When I was twelve, I sought out the kind of fiction that led me down magical paths, places where powerful incantations held sway in mysterious other-worldly planes. In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward the kind of writing that teaches me something new or challenges my sense of what literature should be. Fantasy fiction hasn’t been my go-to. Yet, I was easily caught in the dark net cast by Zoe Gilbert, a PhD student of mentor Alison MacLeod in South-East London, and 2014 winner of UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
This unique award is judged anonymously, with the names of the competing authors withheld throughout the process. Gilbert’s short story Fishskin, Hareskin received the highest number of public votes and is now one of the separate yet interconnected stories contained in her bewitching debut novel, Folk.
Zoe Gilbert has conjured an eerily beautiful world, an un-happily ever after place, drawn from old tales from the Isle of Man, where “moonlight reaches down between branches” and kites strain and wood quivers. The briny air is rich with the scent of sodden thatch, salt sea-fog and cobnut shells. A fiddle mourns for lost loves where wild enchanted characters inhabit a land tethered to sub-pagan ritual.
At times this book languishes in a way that detracts from its narrative. However, Gilbert triumphs with some simply infatuating prose. She spins ancient myth like a true Solomon, recounting a world, unreal yet more real than our own.
And while the pursuit of supernatural storytelling is to create a universe far far away, these constructed worlds cannot help but reflect a kind of hyper-reality, shining light on our own existence, how are we the same, what are we missing? Take the story of Verlyn, a character born with a wing for an arm and sadly defined by that peculiarity. Verlyn’s tale illustrates our misunderstanding of difference and the resultant fear that blinds our ability both to understand and to love.
In Prick Song, ancient ritual prescribes village girls to fire ribboned arrows into a thick gorse maze which young suitors compete to retrieve. Bloody scratch marks earn the boys kisses on their stinging lips, but the proceedings turn grim when a battle ravaged victor is burned alive.
In Water Bull Bride, Gilbert conceives a water bull as Minotaur, who disguises himself as a man so to capture and seduce a bride. Underwater he elicits a sexual appetite in her that cannot be quenched by mortals.
A new mother who is preoccupied by hares wraps her strange offspring in the skins of childhood pets. A young boy named Hark lives behind a waterfall and uses his ox-voice to answer villager’s questions. Each of their stories can stand alone; together they hint at the passage of time, culminating in a deep and strangely beautiful sense of place.
When I finished Folk, I found myself sadly staring at the cover, then out the window, wishing I could return to Gilbert’s mythical land called Neverness, that my bare feet touched a verdant forest floor or that I might shake hands with a less (more?) human being. There’s something incredibly appealing about erasing the sharp angles of contemporary existence, and there’s a sense of loss in the return to hard boiled reality.
This is not a title that will be to everyone’s taste, but lovers of fantasy fiction will admire Gilbert’s work, and I imagine that some soon to be fans will like it too.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on April 12, 2018
The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin
Burning Your Boats: the collected short stories by Angela Carter
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Unlike other dystopian novelists, Zumas plots no dramatic martial law. Her characters simply wake to a president they didn’t vote for and then later to the legislation that decides how their bodies are used. In an Oregon fishing town, four characters swallow what it now means to be a woman. One wishes she could escape her children, one surrenders a child for adoption, one seeks abortion and one desperately wants to be a mother.
The story centers on Ro, “The Biographer,” a depressed, single, high school history teacher, whose father lives in a Florida retirement home, whose brother died of a heroin overdose, and whose last chance to have a child is through artificial insemination. Ro visits a fertility specialist’s office, described as “a room for women whose bodies are broken,” where she tries to rationalize her urgent impulse to motherhood.
Susan, “The Wife,” lives in the house she grew up in with an aloof husband who teaches at the same school as “The Biographer.” Susan begs him to attend couples therapy while trying not to resent their two toddlers who annoy and fatigue her stay-at-home life. Susan envies Ro’s childlessness but offers only condescension, both women burdened by societal expectations.
Adopted Mattie, “The Daughter,” loses her virginity to her careless boyfriend. The promising but pregnant 15-year-old in the Biographer’s class, she pursues abortion in a world that now views her as criminal.
Gin, “The Mender,” a defiant healer, shares forest herbs to help end pregnancies for women without money or insurance. Arrested in a modern-day witch hunt, her narrative unites the other women, who work to get Gin acquitted.
And Eivør, a 19th-century, Faroese polar explorer and the compelling subject of Ro’s biography, disrupts each chapter with fragments of her brutal determined life, serving as a compass for women who persist.
Zumas fluently speaks their truths, from the Daughter’s fear and earnestness, to the Mother’s conflicted emotions and the Mender’s earthy intuition. Her prose will suddenly quicken in a flood of anxiety, sarcasm and rationality.
“She doesn't want to skip the Math Academy.
(She kicks Nouri’s gothsickle ass at calculus.)
Or to push it out.
She doesn't want to wonder; and she would.
The kid too—Why wasn’t I kept?
Was his mother too young? Too old? Too hot? Too cold?
She doesn’t want him wondering, or herself wondering.
Are you mine?
And she doesn’t want to worry she’ll be found.
But she has a self. Why not use it?”
Thrilled by her mercurial style, I bookmarked a dozen pages in Zumas’ "Red Clocks," a story that cleverly reveals the underpinnings of a current socio-political wrangle yet maintains hope for personal transformation. Leni Zumas is one to watch.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on March 1, 2018
Joshua Ferris’ recent collection of short stories features pieces previously published, over half of them in the New Yorker and one based on a character from Ferris’ first novel, the pop-lit crossover “Then We Came to the End.” With a singular “gray” humor, Ferris shades 11 unmoored but uninspired Walter Mittys of a more modern capitalism. Each story offers an objective glance at dissatisfaction, each character disappointed with the reality of his or her life and anxiously, ineffectively attempting a rewrite. He or she just can’t seem to decide.
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