Super Giveaway: Colette’s Cheri & the Last of Cheri, Doris Lessing’s This Was the Old Chief’s Country, Hugh Walpole, Elizabeth Peters, & Dear Cary

Yes, it’s a giveaway.

Five books.

We’ll mail them to the U.S., Canada, or the UK.

Leave a comment if you’d like one, or more than one.

They are:

1.  Doris Lessing’s This Was the Old Chief’s Country:  Collected African Stories, Volume I

This was the old chief's country doris lessing2.  Hugh Walpole’s Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (Capuchin Classics )

mr-perrin-traill-hugh-walpole-paperback-cover-art3.  Colette’s Cheri and The Last of Cheri

Cheri and the last of Cheri (colette)4.  Elizabeth Peters’ Trojan Gold

Trojan Gold Elizabeth peters5.  Dyan Cannon’s Dear Cary:  My Life with Cary Grant

cannonDyan dear caryEnjoy!

I’ll draw names if more than one wants the same book.

If no one wants them, they go to the charity sale.

Sleeping with Knightley, Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, & Howard Jacobson on Jane Austen

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong), not looking too sexy together.

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong)  in 1996 film.

Jane Austen’s Emma is the funniest book I have ever read.

Emma may be too clever for her own good, she may flirt too heedlessly with Frank Churchill, she may almost ruin her friend Harriet’s life by advising her badly on marriage, but I prefer her company to that of the more subtly bitchy Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, the decorous Fanny in Mansfield Park, or the weak Anne in Persuasion (I love Anne, but she’s too passive, however hard Austen tries to explain it).  Emma is smart.  Emma says what she thinks.  She doesn’t want to marry, and she prefers the lively Harriet to the rigid Jane Fairfax.  Emma would destroy society in a moment, if Knightley weren’t there to criticize.

Knightley corrects all Emma’s mistakes, but he’s more like a father than a lover. I’ve always suspected he would be as tyrannical as Lucy Snowe’s unattractive fiance, M. Paul (her second choice when the man she loves chooses someone else), in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey,  in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen.  How deeply I deplore her desperate wit.  Her moral tone dismays me:  my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts.  Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley.  What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley.  Sorrow awaited that woman:  she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

the Waterfall Margaret Drabble penguinThe Waterfall is a remarkable novel, has some Austenish overtones, and Drabble knows it.  Her heroine Jane is a kind of anti-Jane Austen.  In the last weeks of pregnancy, Jane lives alone, her husband having left her and her son having been sent to stay with her mother.  She wanders around the house drinking coffee, shops only where no one will recognize her so she can be solitary, and reads an article about a woman who gave birth alone in a hut in Alaska.

Although Jane loves to be alone, she does call the midwife when she goes into labor.  Then her cousin Lucy and husband James take turns staying with her.  Handsome, sexy James, who owns a garage and fast cars, climbs into bed with her and sleeps with her chastely until she can have sex again.  Then they have a steamy affair.

It is Jane’s first real love affair.  She had married Malcolm, a musician, because she felt sorry for him, and they hadn’t suited one another in bed.  James is an ideal lover, and loves to sit around the house with her:  he doesn’t really work, he explains.  He takes her and her children on outings and to the racetrack.  The racetrack is too nerve-racking for her, though.

Jane doesn’t want much human contact except with James, and it is the fault of her neurotic family.  She very much dislikes the rigidity of anything that resembles Austen’s social code.  She hates the dissimulation and pretenses of her family:  her father, a sarcastic headmaster, bullied boys and was deemed a success; her mother was a hypocrite and social climber who pretended not to care about material things but spent all her time sucking up to the rich; and her aunt browbeat her inferior “husband in trade” until he became capable of  middle-class malice.

Drabble’s portrait of her parents does remind us of Austen’s world, and Jane inhabits a post-Austen world of the ’60s.

Some people conspire to deceive the world and find in their conspiracy a bond, but they did it, I think, with a sense of profound mutual dislike.  They presented a united front to the world, because their survival demanded that they should, because they could not afford to betray each other in public; but their dissension found other devious forms, secret forms, underhand attacks and reprisals, covered malice, discreet inverted insults, painful praise.

Margaret Drabble, the '70s

Margaret Drabble, the ’70s

Jane looks like Lucy, and does feel some guilt about her cousin.  And when there’s an accident…

The fascinating narrative is sometimes in the third person, other times first-person, with Jane trying in the first-person sections to explain how she has lied or exaggerated in the third person.

She even cites Jane Eyre, and muses how she could have rendered James impotent/crippled like Rochester had she felt like Charlotte Bronte (which she doesn’t).

This is possibly Drabble’s most difficult book:  it is beautifully written, but a humorless predecessor of The Needle’s Eye, one of her masterpieces.

By the way, I love Jane Austen, I read her books again and again, but I do understand Drabble’s Jane’s doubts.

For Jane fans, here is a link to Howard Jacobson’s fascinating speech on love and sex in Austen:  he gave it at the Telegraph Hay Festival last weekend.

Rejected & Memorial Day Break-Up

jonathn lethemThe other day I wrote about whether or not bloggers should accept review copies.  You said, “No.”

When one reviews for a print publication, an editor deals with the publicists and doles out the books to reviewers.  That makes it easier in some ways.

But I occasionally accept review copies, and don’t have a problem saying what I think at my blog.

The truth of the matter is that I read mainly my own books.

But let me explain.  Jonathan Lethem is my favorite American writer.   I recently read “The Grey Goose,” his story in the New Yorker, which seems to be an excerpt from his new novel, Dissident Gardens.

And so I requested the novel from the publisher.

I was rejected.


I was surprised.

So here is the next step.  Get a name.  Yes, I will get a name of a publicist at Doubleday.  I will email that publicist.  I will explain that Lethem is my favorite writer.  I have already written this year about Lethem here and here.

And what if the publicist says no?

Then I’ll send snail mail.

No, I think that would be way too annoying.

The next step is to get an assignment to review it.  There must be some small free publication that could use a review of Dissident Gardens.

The next step is to give up and BUY the book.

I will be the first one at the bookstore to buy Dissident Gardens on Sept. 10 (the publication date).

And here is an excerpt from the description of the novel from Amazon

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose’s suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village.

Who Needs a Man When I Have the Internet?MEMORIAL DAY BREAKUP.  Perhaps you remember my talking about my cousin, the librarian who drinks and loves Twitter.

Memorial Day is not her favorite day.

She broke up with her boyfriend.

It is not a great thing to break up with one’s boyfriend any time. I was stupefied during my divorce–I rode the same bus as my ex- on the way home after the finalization of the divorce in court, and was in tears for a year–and I attended all social events for months afterwards because I didn’t want to be alone.

On Memorial Day you go to the family party because you are sad and desperate.

“Is there drink?”

That’s the first thing on her mind.

There was a lot of wine.  I don’t drink, so I can’t say what wine it was.  It was picnic wine.  You know:  there you are at the park, barbecueing your chicken forever, and you have pretty much caught up with everybody, the aunts, the siblings, and then suddenly you’re drinking wine.

We took a walk to the store down the road, and she explained about her boyfriend.  He  kept getting phone calls at her apartment.  Eventually  she looked at his phone and read the texts.

I really am very sorry for her.  I don’t have a cell phone, and have never seen a text, but I imagine it’s much like other e-things.

iPhone, e-mail.  We all spend too much time on the “e.”

There’s nothing worse than a break-up, but my cousin is youngish and pretty, and she’ll find someone else.

She’ll have to play volleyball, go to dinners,  and the Sierra Club meetings.

It is very hard to meet men, even in one’s thirties.

God help her, she deserves better.

Bicycling on Sunday & Tolstoy’s Adulteresses on Monday

Raccoon River Trail,

Not my picture, but this  is my trail.

It rained, it rained, it rained, but then yesterday we bicycled 32 miles.  It is a lovely trail, and my husband always tells me to write about it. I tell him I have nothing to say about bicycling, and it is true.  What to say?  Pedal, glide, change gears, chain falls off, put chain back on, pass people on the trail, look at the brick factories, look at the grain elevators, stop and have a snack, sit at a picnic table and read.

Nothing really happens here–it is a tranquil place with very little going on–and bicycling is popular.  The bike trails in the city and country have changed lives:  it is possible to live without a car, we can get anywhere in our “big” little city by bike, and thousands of people from all over the country come for a cross-state bicycle ride (known for partying and sleepless nights).

When writing about bicycling, what to say?  We talk about the wind, where we’re from, cows ahead on the trail, and share our sunscreen.  At the depot the woman who sells the candy and pop wants to talk.

We ride to a small town, and want to take a break in the picnic shelter, but the sky turns blue-black and we have to go.  We coast downhill, then climb uphill for several miles, and beat the rain.  It is the first time in years we’ve bicycled this far without taking a break.

I feel very slightly sick afterwards and take Advil.

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoyAdultery in Anna Karenina & War and Peace Adultery has a high price for Tolstoy’s women.  We have only to compare the consequences for Anna Karenina, the beautiful, sympathetic heroine who falls in love with Vronsky, and Princess Hélène, the cheating wife of Pierre in War and Peace, to realize that Tolstoy disapproved of both.  Anna has a conscience and Helene has no remorse, but both die prematurely.   Anna commits suicide, and Helene is struck down by an unknown sickness.

Whether consciously or not, Tolstoy gave them names which, if not quite homophones, do sound similar:  Anna and Hélène.  (When you reread the books back-to-back, you notice other characters who are nearly doubles, though not in names: Kitty-Natasha, Levin-Pierre…)

Adulteresses often die in literature, especially in the 19th and early 20th century:  Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary and Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening of suicide; Mattie in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, whom Ethan is in love with, does not die, but is crippled in an accident; refreshingly, Willa Cather allows adulteress Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady to get away from the small town by breaking the rules, investing money through a shady lawyer.

Anna Karenina was based partly on a real-life incident.  At an inquest, Tolstoy saw the corpse of Anna Pirogova, the rejected lover of one of Tolstoy’s neighbors, who threw herself under a train.

Tolstoy portrays Anna as a lively, brilliant, married woman.  When she dances the mazurka with Vronsky at a ball,  it shatters Kitty, who has expected Vronsky to propose.  Anna is infatuated with Vronsky, but decides to leave Moscow the next day, knowing she has erred in hurting Kitty; telling Dolly, her sister-in-law, that she has erred; and Dolly making light of it, saying she doesn’t want Kitty to marry Vronsky anyway.

Vronsky follows Anna on the train back to Petersburg, and after a year they become lovers. Anna’s husband, a sarcastic, cold-blooded bureaucrat, doesn’t want a scandal, but she is hopelessly in love with Vronsky and finally leaves her family. When Karenin won’t let her see her son, she agonizes.  And later, when Vronsky loses interest in her, and she is an outcast, she throws herself under a train.

In War and Peace, Helene is an unsympathetic character.  She is described as stupid and cruel, she marries Pierre for her money, and considers him foolish for interfering in her love life.  Pierre hates her, cannot believe he married her, and loves Natasha, who is engaged to his friend, Andrei.

Helene in War_and_peace9

Anita Ekberg as Helene

The odd thing is that beautiful Helene, unlike Anna, does not lose her place in society.  She is considered a wit, and in sophisticated Petersburg everyone blames her husband, fat, smart, intense Pierre, for their marital difficulties.  He tries to leave her, and she continually follows him.

But Tolstoy kills her off, just the same.  She gets ill–everyone expects her to recover–and we are shocked when she dies, though she is a dreadful character.

Kitty in AK, a beautiful, happy young woman, is desperately in love with Vronsky, and becomes very ill after the non-proposal; her parents take her to a spa in Germany, where she recovers, partly by befriending a woman who does good to all the sick people, and trying to do good, too. Natasha in War and Peace also becomes ill after she and her fiance, Andrey, break up:  unlike Kitty, she has been almost unfaithful, and tried to elope with Helene’s brother.  Natasha recovers from her illness slowly, and for a while goes to church with a very religious woman.

I love both books so much that I could read them every year, but I am promising myself that I won’t read Tolstoy in 2014,

Why We Blog & Review Copies: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

Does your book room look like this?

Does your book room look like this?

I am under the radar at mirabile dictu.

I can write what I like, post a rough draft if I like (and I do), re-edit it after publication if I feel like it, yank it, put it back or forget it.

There is something empowering yet cozy about blogging.  We have opportunities to write about books that journalists and reviewers ignore.   Professional writing is probably more satisfying, but in my experience the good professional pre-internet work always disappears, while the sloppily-written-on-the-computer stuff remains forever in cyberspace.  My ex- found the worst thing I have ever written, and then emailed me.  I was  glad to hear from him after so many years, but wanted to say, Couldn’t you have read this one instead?

Last December, I had to rethink what I wanted to do with my blog.  At my old blog, things had gotten beyond empowering.  I had a lot of traffic, a lot of spam, and a lot of unkind comments, which I didn’t enjoy waking up in the morning to delete.  I was and am, of course, always thrilled when writers drop by to comment to say they liked my blog, but am much less thrilled when writers whose work I’ve trashed come by.

Many came only for the post I wrote on the actress Elizabeth Taylor.  (They weren’t interested in the post about the writer Elizabeth Taylor.)   There was also the writer whose book I reviewed, who later plagiarized an anecdote from my blog in her most recent novel.

I decided to start a blog where I would be kinder, though still honest and occasionally fierce.  I wanted to start a blog where I would write of the mirablie dictu  more often than the horrendum dictu (though that is not forbidden). I wanted to start a blog where plagiarists would be less likely to spend time.  This latter, of course, is one of the big problems of the internet.


Should we or shouldn’t we accept review copies?  Bloggers sometimes debate this.

The thoughtful blogger, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader, who reaches 10,000 readers a month, recently decided to stop accepting review copies.  He makes exceptions for European literature in translation from small publishers.

He explained,

This is an independent book review website and while I’ve only ever reviewed books I enjoyed reading, I find that by taking review copies I can’t plan my reading properly.  I’m passing over books I discover on my own in favour of books which I’ve agreed to take on review.

I very much respect his decision.  He is a serious reviewer.

My impression is that this problem is greater for English bloggers than it is for Americans.  Star bloggers Dovegreyreader and Random Jottings tell us how many boxes of free books they receive; some other bloggers tell us whether the books they review are review copies or not.  I do feel I trust these bloggers enough that I don’t need to know about their review copies, but perhaps it’s a kind of Caveat Emptor.  In the U.S. we are either receiving fewer review copies, or not worrying about it.

I do receive a few review copies.  Last year I packed up some of my review copies in a box and misplaced them.  I am now sorting through them.  Some go into the “read” pile, but what should I do with the others?   This year I have accepted very few books, and am beginning to make inroads.  I have perhaps ten excellent review copies waiting I will write about, but since I am in the middle of Anna Karenina….

I did at one point at my old blog have a no-review copy policy.  In April 1010, I said that I could no longer accept them because I could no longer shelve all my books.

Then a new unsolicited review copy arrives and suddenly I, too, am dismayed by the plethora of books. ..How did this new mysterious unsolicited book end up here?  A publicist got my name somewhere–I don’t remember dealing with this publisher before so it’s probably from a very old list. Alas, I don’t want the book. It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look bad, someone’s going to love it, but I cannot accept more books from publishers.

So, what do you think?  Should bloggers accept free review copies, or not?  Does it affect the way the book is read and reviewed?

Mirabile Does the ’70s: Anti-Mass and Erica Jong

Going underground should not mean dropping heroically out of sight.  There will be few places to hide in the electronic environment of the future.–Anti-Mass:  Methods of Organization for Collectives

Anti-MassI recently ordered something from a catalogue, and now the retailer follows me around the internet with ads.

This is the electronic environment of the future.

Who would have guessed that Anti-Mass would be right?

I was not particularly radical in the 1970s, but I read the underground newspapers. One summer an anonymous essay, Anti-Mass:  Methods of Organization for Collectives, was reprinted in several papers. I read it with interest, probably at the Mill, where  I went for spumoni ice cream almost every night.

But the tone was officious.

The mass is an aggregate of couples who are separate, detached and anonymous.  They live in cities physically close yet socially apart.  Their lives are privatized and depraved.  Coca-cola and loneliness.”

I wanted to be a part of the aggregate of couples, Coca-cola and loneliness or not.  I was a romantic.  I wanted the opposite of Anti-Mass.  My favorite book was Wuthering Heights, weird and powerful, the story of the quasi-feral passion of Catherine and Heathcliff.   I date my detachment from my radical older friends from the summer I read Anti-Mass.

A few months later I enrolled at the university and was so busy studying classics that I had no time for politics.

How to Save Your Own Life penguinI had been an accidental radical. I came of age among Democrats, hippies, feminists, and liberals.   My best friend’s mother was a feminist; I became a feminist.  We read D. H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing,  Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, and The Environmental Handbook.  We went to Robin Morgan’s poetry reading at the Women’s Center, but it was so crowded we didn’t stay to get an autograph.   After a strip of fly paper fell in my beautiful long hair and I had to cut it off, lesbian feminists started hitting on me and told me I had “confused sexuality” (meaning heterosexuality) because I didn’t sleep with them.

Those were strange times.

The language of the 1970s put me off politics as much as anything else.  Elitism, struggle, imperialist, co-option, anti-work attitude:  so much to be careful about.  The slang also was markedly of the times and I must admit I never used it:  “into,” “far out,” “right on,” “bummer,” “rip off.”  Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks, though the language seems a bit dated, is a hilarious novel about the ’60s and ’70s, making use of the lingo.  Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean, the Termite Queen is the best mad housewife book of the ’70s  .And  one reason I’ve enjoyed Erica Jong’s novel, How to Save Your Own Life, is that she humorously captures the unique introspection and sexuality of the ’70s  Her heroine, Isadora Wing, writes honestly about her ambivalence not only towards sex with her  boyfriends and husband, but “the gay-chic phase of the Women’s Movement.”

It was stylish to have sex with a woman, and Isadora thinks she might want to write about it, but then she finds  she loathes cunnilingus.

Art and politics, politics and art. Strange bedfellows. Stranger still than Rosanna Howard and me. Can any feminist dare tell the truth about c***-eating in this day and age?..

I began to understand what it meant to be a man, fumbling around—is this the right place or is that?—getting no guidance from one’s subject (who is too polite and ladylike to tell) and wondering, wondering if she is going to come now, or now, or now —or has she already, or will she next summer, or what?

No, I don’t think anyone would write about this today, Erica!

And, by the way, I am pro-gay rights and gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean “the gay chic phase” of the ’70s was wonderful or perfect.

There was a lot of general kindness in the ’70s.  There were many very  kind, brilliant, magnanimous people who would feed you, let you stay the night, and help you with any problems.  There was much less fear.  Few people locked doors.  A friend and I in graduate school kept our back door open, and imagine how surprised we were one morning to find a possum in the kitchen eating the cats’ food.

My friend’s parents lived in a tiny collective, and, having reread Anti-Mass, I know why it was small:  “The collective should not be larger than a band–no orchestras or chamber music please.”

I’m not keen on the pro-ads, anti-books philosophy of Anti-Mass. “Don’t read any more books–at least not straight through.  As G. B. Kay from Blackpool once said (quoting somebody else), “Reading rots the mind.”  Pamphlets are so much more fun.  Read randomly, write on the margins and go back to comics.”

Collectives were hard on people.  How many divorces because a man or woman started having affairs with a woman or man in the collective?  My friend’s parents got divorced; she was depressed.  The divorce could have happended any time, you may say.  But it is somehow more traumatic if you’re all living together, and one half of a married couple starts having sex with a single woman.

Amazing time, amazing books and documents.  I’d love to interview everybody and write a book about it.  These times are forgotten.

Cards, or Eleven Percent

“We are the eleven percent.”

antidepressants a bunch

11% take antidepressants

Eleven percent of Americans now say they are on antidepressants, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  The depressed and their family members  should march and chant for better health care and education about depression.

I once decided against publishing an article on depression because I realized  some of the people I’d interviewed did not understand that public knowledge of their illness could lead to the loss of reputation or even of jobs.

So let’s say I know the eleven percent and recognize them among my friends and family members.

In 2006 I took my research and wrote a rough draft of a novel.

I called the novel Cards because the illness seemed so random.

I should probably change the name to Eleven Percent.

I have decided to post a chapter here in the spirit of writing about mental health (and will go back to my usual book talk tomorrow).  Most of the characters have depression, agoraphobia, or OCD.  The character, Dorrie, has anorexia and bipolar disorder.



Dorrie was down to 90 pounds. The doctor told her to drink a nutritional supplement. She opened a can and drank it with a straw. If she lost weight, she would have to go back into the hospital. Anorexia. Three cans of Ensure a day and meals. It grew harder and harder to eat. A little yogurt, a little soup, some of Rose’s casseroles. The Ensure went down easy.

Ben and Rose kept bringing her milkshakes. It didn’t matter to Dorrie if they were from McDonald’s or the good diner. They were good and they kept on the weight.

Have you considered the eating disorders group?

Dorrie begged them not to make her go to group. Only young women went to group.  She didn’t want to know who threw up, who cut herself with knives. Her doctor agreed that the eating disorders group could be annoying. Most of them are borderline, he said. You’re not borderline. Oh, dear, thank God she wasn’t borderline. These women needed so much attention. All of them had read all there was to know about anorexia. “I called this expert, I called that expert.” What? Oh, they had to interview doctors: it wasn’t enough to read the articles. In Dorrie’s day she had done research from books and articles. Ever heard of a medical journal? she wanted to say. At the groups Dorrie said nothing. It was best. Sometimes she would say she forgot to eat. They would suggest she write it on her calendar. They passed around candy at the group: hard candy with no calories!

Check off three meals a day even if you have to eat them all at once.

Dorrie thought of her friends Rose and Megan, both fatt by Dorrie’s standards, size 12 and size 16, or at least she guessed so, eating all day long. She would look at them and want to be like them but she couldn’t eat . Something about it.

Dorrie kept her note cards on history in an old recipe box. Her cards. She alphabetized them. She might as well. She was writing the history of the world and her history.  She was the ideal librarian: a librarian who had never worked as a librarian. Alexa, Candi, Krista, Lola, Sandra, Susan. Alexa and Susan had been her roommates. Alexa had made phone calls all day long from the pay phone and walked up and down the halls with her iPod because she “had to lose weight.’ You only weigh 100, they tried to tell her in group. You’re 5 ft. 10. But Alexa continued to walk. And she made scenes.

Who’s been reading my journal?

It was supposed to be behind the nurse’s station. The nurses couldn’t find it.

Dorrie loved the way Alexa screamed. She never would make a scene like that. But Alexa explained that you might as well act crazy because they expected it. And she didn’t want the nurses reading her journal.

One of them had it. That’s why they couldn’t find it.

How do you know?

You’ll get to know after a while. The nurses are NOT your friends.


They’re NOT supposed to read your journal.

Alexa  had to go to groups and Narcotics Anonymous all day long. She explained to Dorrie that she had done so much coke that she couldn’t sit still any more. She got a lot of attention from everybody.

Dorrie didn’t go to many groups. She, too, was journaling like mad. It was the only thing that brought her back to earth since mature women like her were not expected to need much help. She read aloud from her journal to her doctor and he told her he thought it needed “editing.”

Dr. Navarro, you are such a drag, said Dorrie. The main thing is that I’m writing a journal at all, not that I need to edit! You should encourage me.

He smirked.  Some animals are more equal than others, he said.

Dorrie did not think that was exactly true. She thought he should not be a doctor. What kind of psychiatrist said things like that to his patients?

Stephen smuggled in a cube of coke (a cube?) and he and Candi got caught snorting it (on a greeting card that Candi had taped to her wall and taken down for the coke). Dorrie was a little scared after that. She didn’t know who these people were in the hospital. Stephen, it turned out, was some small-time dealer with a drug problem. He was there for rehab. He got kicked out. Where did he go? Dorrie didn’t know where they sent him. Candi was there because she had schizophrenia and had wanted to kill her boyfriend. They let her stay. Her boyfriend had committed her after she tried to bean him with a big Oxford English dictionary.

He was cheating on me, she said. If I COULD kill him, I would, she added cheerfully.

Everybody laughed.

Now that’s not really funny, said the social worker.


Let’s talk about Candi’s real feelings.

I was very, very hurt. I could not believe it had happened. Really could not believe it. He said he loved me. I thought we were so happy.

Don’t you feel like crying? It’s safe here.

I’m on 100 milligrams of antidepressant. I can’t cry.

I can’t cry, either, several people said.

So there they were. Depressed. But on pills, pills, pills. If you go off the pills, you’ll be depressed, Dr. Navarro said.

Dorrie knew there was no point in explaining that she was depressed anyway.

Dorrie was in such pain in the hospital that she spent most of the day in bed. Her other roommate, Susan, never said a word. She would not go to the dining room and wrote notes asking Dorrie to bring her tea.

Out of the hospital Dorrie went to group for a while and was reunited with Alexa, Susan, Candi, and the rest.

Silently she collected their names. She didn’t want to do it. She wanted to forget. She remembered all of them. the names went on and on. It was a memorial to depression and eating disorders. No one was supposed to give last names but they all knew. She was afraid that someday she would have to bear witness. She could see it. Everybody she knew dead, a new revolutionary anti-psychotropic regime collecting history. And Dorrie had been there.

Her history: taped sessions in the psychiatrist’s office. Note cards. Computer data. All their histories would be there.

Dorrie looked at her note cards. Notes on World War I, World War II, and the years between, alphabetized and cross-referenced. Treaty of Versailles: “malignant & silly to an extent that made them obviously futile.” 1927: Wall Street Crash and worldwide reverberations. 1930: 2,300,000 unemployed in Germany. Flip, flip. The answers were in the cards.

She couldn’t keep diaries. She had done that once. Everybody knew she wrote.  Then a neighnor had broken into her slum apartment and read them. He had left some of them opened to what they supposed were significant pages. “Saw drug deal in street.” What was significant? They were always out there smoking by the busstop. She would have to be blind not to see them. The police knew. Who cared if Dorrie wrote it down? “Shut up,” somebody’d written.

Dorrie was spending too much time on index cards. She didn’t mind taking notes. They weren’t too organized, but were organized enough. French Navy, treaty limitations on. In case she ever wanted to know. She was learning so much about the art of war. It gave her a sinking feeling. Like the ships Britain and France agreed to sink after WWI. She was depressed. She realized there was not a single day when she had not seen war in the streets, in schools, in politics, in offices, in the hospital. If I do this, will he do this? That’s what everybody was thinking every minute. It got to be a bore. She would stand by the bus stop and somebody would come up to her and start a conversation. Was it all right to talk, or not all right to talk? Poor Dorrie didn’t know anymore. Until she’d attended some of these groups, she’d felt perfectly fine about talking.

Dorrie really didn’t care what another person would do if she said or did X. She didn’t care to manipulate people. Wasn’t the fun of things spontaneity? Why did everything have to be so “Animal Farm” these days?

She had to say it: Dr. Navarro had given her some useful hints. He thought of her as an animal!

History: the Turks thought the Armenians were animals. The Nazis thought the Jews, Catholics, and intellectuals were animals.

She had to drink Ensure. She thought she might eat an orange. If only it weren’t so hard to peel an orange. She went into the kitchen and sat at the table and concentrated. She cut the orange and then peeled it. The slices were good! She was surprised at how much she liked it. She wanted to eat another orange but she could not peel it. She just couldn’t. She was too tired. She drank the Ensure.

If only someone were here…Gabrielle…anybody…to peel her orange.

Could you peel this? she asked when someone came up the stairs.


Awards and Quote of the Week

Winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award

Winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award

I love awards.  In the ’90s I loved them so much that I read the winners of the Booker Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award, and Nobel Prize Award, and the finalists and winners of the National Book Award.

I still follow them with interest.

Recent prize winners:

1.  Lydia Davis, an American short story writer, won the Man Booker International Prize.  It is always exciting when an American writer wins an international prize, because the Nobel Prize committee has neglected Americans so long (especially Philip Roth). I haven’t read Davis’s fiction, but I loved her translation of Madame Bovary. 

2.  Benjamin Alire Saenz won the PEN/Faulkner Award for  his collection of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.

3.  Howard Jacobson won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for this novel Zoo Time, a  satire of the publishing industry, one of my favorite books in 2012.  Jacobson inveighs against book groups, three-for-twos, blogs, tweeting, and the death of reading.


How to Save Your Own LIfe erica JongAnd now here is a quote from Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life:  Isadora on the literary world vs. Hollywood.

Ah, the literary world.  They hate failure and despise success.  They have contempt for authors whose books go unread and sheer hatred for authors whose books are read too much.  Try to please the literary world and you will spend your life in a state of rage and bitterness. But Hollywood is simple, almost pure–if total venality is a form of purity.  There nothing at all matters but making money.

I don’t know Hollywood, but it sounds real.

Antidepressants in America

Sometimes I stare into space
Tears all over my face
I can’t explain it
Don’t understand it–“(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” Holland-Dozier-Holland

I own a Prozac clock, a souvenir of a pharmaceutical company. A friend who never prescribed Prozac (a drug that can cause mania) gave it to me.

Depending on the decade and the literature, taking Prozac (or another antidepressant) can mean: you have major depression or bipolar disorder (modern psychiatry); you are a madman or a madwoman (man on the street or 19th century literature); you have an Oedipal complex or an Electra complex (Freud); you are psychic,  or the only sane person in the room (Laing).

Darkness VisibleDepending on the decade and literature, it can also mean:  Mike Wallace, the great journalist who suffered from major depression; Kaye Gibbons, who is bipolar, the author of Sights Unseen, a novel about a girl coping with a bipolar mother; William Styron, author of Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness, who suffered from major depression; Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind:  A Memoir of Moods and Madness, a psychiatrist who suffers from bipolar disorder; and Carrie Fisher, the author of The Best Awful, who suffers from bipolar disorder and used to have addiction problems.

Alex Preston’s recent article in The Guardian, “Does Prozac Help Artists?”, made me think of stories I’ve heard.

I’ve heard about the time you went manic on Prozac and couldn’t stop running around your neighborhood singing “Heat Wave.”  I’ve heard about the time you didn’t take your antidepressants and couldn’t leave your apartment for a month.  I know you never slept before you took antidepressants.  I know you lost your job.  I know you were homeless for a while. I know you finally got back on track (or didn’t).

No one likes to take psychiatric drugs– Zoloft/Seroquel/Prozac/Lexapro/Wellbutrin/Lithium/Depakote–but they can alleviate the symptoms.  There are different levels of  depression and bipolar disorder:  some feel very down for a while but get better on their own, others plunge into such a catatonic darkness they need medication; some spend a few dollars too much if hypomanic, but if manic try to buy a multi-million-dollar Lamborghini Reventon on a spree.  Studies show that psychotherapy and drugs are the best treatment for these biological brain disorders.    But many people do not have these options.

antidepressant_medications_signAccording to the National Institute for Mental Health, depression is the major cause of medical disability in the U.S. and Canada and accounts for 10 percent of all medical disability.  The data indicate that antidepressants are both overprescribed and underprescribed:  The Centers for Disease Control say that 11 percent of Americans aged 12 and older say they take antidepressants, yet 80 percent of antidepressants are prescribed by doctors who are not psychiatrists   (they have only a two-week residency in psychiatry in their training). Only twenty percent are prescribed by psychiatrists, who have the training to diagnose these illnesses.   But  large numbers of people go untreated because they do not want to go to a psychiatrist, or because there are no mental health facilities in their area:  great portions of the prairies and plains have few doctors.

Alex Preston’s rambling article in The Guardian is both good and bad.  Writing about depression is as difficult as it is to write about poststructuralism,  the 1970s, or some other subject with an abstruse lingo.  He is a novelist who took drugs in his teens, and spent his 20s on antidepressants (SSRIs), even though his GP at the unvierity told him to quit.  In London, he managed to find a pharmacy that would sell him antidepressants over the counter. The antidepressants blocked his creativity:   he finally got off the drugs and wrote two books.  Here is my problem with this story:  if the doctor did not recommend  the SSRI drugs, what did he need?  Did he need them at all?

The '90s memoir for the young.

The ’90s memoir for the young.

He summarizes various books and memoirs about depression, including some by Americans.  He writes favorably of the wildly out-of-date Listening to Prozac by psychiatrist Peter Kramer (1993),  and then attacks Elizabeth Wurtzel’s  Prozac Nation (1994), a kind of youth classic of depression, which he says “has not aged well – it is stuck in the 90s, po-faced and narcissistic. It lacks the note of authenticity that characterises the best books about mental illness.” (She also wrote a book on getting addicted to Ritalin, so I think we can see she has authentic difficulties,)

Of David Foster Wallace, he writes that he went off Nardil (which is not an SSRI) but  remained blocked “and, as his friend Jonathan Franzen put it, ‘when his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death’.”

He interviews some writers, artists, and musicians, including his brother, about the effect of Prozac and other SSRIs on their work,r.  Some say they have been hurt by SSRIs and got off them, others say they have been helped. Will Self, the author of Umbrella , had problems with addiction and was prescribed an SSRI.  He says, “Heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were really the drugs that ended up fucking my creativity; the Seroxat was just a way station on the escape ramp to abstinence.”

Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace

Whether to take drugs or not for depression can be an individual decision.  It can, however, be a necessity. One of the most articulate persons on the subject of depression and pills was the late Mike Wallace. He wrote for Guideposts:

Like most people, I’d had days when I felt blue and it took more of an effort than usual to get through the things I had to do.

But I always snapped out of it….

So my down times invariably passed. Until the fall of 1984, that is, when I found myself suddenly struck, then overwhelmed, by something—an emptiness, a helplessness, an emotional and physical collapse—I’d never experienced before.

Wallace, who attempted suicide, spent a week in the hospital.  The psychiatrist treated him with antidepressants and therapy.  The medication worked, but when he went off the pills, he fell into another major depression.  The antidepressants were necessary for him.

Let’s hope the National Institute for Mental Health gets money for research for better antidepressants.