a recipe for a good old age

When asked the recipe for a good old age, I often give a list “good genes, good luck, enough money, and one good kid usually a daughter”.

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life
by Louise Aronson, MD

Despite our bravado or fear, most of us will be old and many of us very old. Aronson would have us embrace this stage of life and proposes it be recognized as distinct, but no less valued, from childhood and adulthood. She exposes the inadequacy and outright wrong-headedness of standard medical practice with respect to the biological differences of the older body and the kinds of services that the elderly need to be healthy and to maintain their lives.

Most of us probably want to blur the boundary between middle-age and old, but, however reluctantly, I have to acknowledge that I am crossing it. My husband is in the middle phase of Elderhood and my parents in the late, giving me a pretty good view of life in the last decades. Aronson’s book is very affirming for the dignity and value of each person at every stage of life. She condemns the view of old age as just a series of diminishments and losses. Elders in most times and cultures have been respected for their experience and service; she cites studies which show the greatest levels of happiness and life satisfaction among those in their 70s and 80s.

Aronson gives a withering critique of the medical services industry in the treatment of the elderly patient. I’ve encountered enough of what she describes to be nodding my head as I was reading. The phrase “health care” is beyond ironic when applied to the inappropriate, unhelpful, and violent treatment that so often is what the old experience in the medical system.

I will be recommending this book to everyone. It gives a very positive corrective to the prejudices and fears around aging and much good advice about securing good care until her call to “transform medicine” is realized.

Aronson’s recipe for a good old age is amusing, but has an edge. Whatever the positives in aging are or may be, inevitably our bodies will have problems and need care. Why does the medical establishment have to make things so much harder than they need to be?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price

Most of the talk about a supposed imminent and inevitable “death of the book” reflects a sincere concern, no doubt, but is generally too confused and dramatic to be helpful. I want a definition of terms before I can evaluate the danger…just what is meant by book? Is the concern for the physical object, its tactile pleasures, history or beauty? Is the concern for the kind of content and form of expression we experience in books? Perhaps it’s worry that the change of delivery technology will diminish the benefits we associate with reading?

Leah Price points out in her recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books that all of these issues have caused anxiety among readers for a very long time. There was never a “Golden Age” of reading but always a mix of purposes and quality for books and other forms of printing. I love books, in any definition, as much as the next reader. While for years I only cared about the content of what I might be reading, I’ve developed a strong interest in book history and appreciation for the artistry and craft of production. There will always be people who appreciate the beauty of fine printing, so I am confident that the book as art object will continue. I don’t expect to ever own one of those small press run gems but I can enjoy the trade edition.

There is unquestionably a lot of trash/junk/drivel, pick your own label, published now. But does it actually drive out good writing or is that an illusion? The range of fiction writing in the nineteenth century was similarly wide but we only think of the great works that continue to speak to us. As a bookseller, I sighed to see children loading up with the Babysitter or Goosebumps series; in a few years will they be the adults with the latest James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel? “At least they’re reading” isn’t a comfort. Reading is a skill that needs to be developed by engaging with good writing. The readership for literary fiction has never been large; it’s hard to make a case that it’s any smaller today.

I’ll admit to sharing some of the concern for the possible implications of the new delivery technologies. Tiny screens, blue light, multiple constant visual distractions, never reading more than a few sentences at a time…what might these do to our physical brains, to our abilities to concentrate, to think? Price writes about the explosion of new kinds of print media in the nineteenth century – pocket-sized paperbacks, news digests, tabloid newspapers – to meet new needs in the urbanizing, industrializing society. People needed something convenient to read for short intervals of waiting in lines, in offices, on the train or to provide isolation from the strangers around them. Sounds a lot like how we use electronic devices, so perhaps we’ll survive them too.

Price tells an interesting story of William Morris, the great champion of design and craftsmanship, who criticized the small paperback book because it is difficult to hold for comfortable reading. He also recognized the human bias to value things based on scarcity and effort required. His books are designed to encourage what we might call “slow reading”, by which the physical qualities of the book call attention to the quality of the content. By restoring the sense of occasion that he associated with medieval manuscripts, Morris hoped to forestall the always-on reading that we equate with the smartphone but that he blamed on cheap print. Like familiarity, ubiquity breeds contempt.

Those of us who love books, who love to read for any of the many reasons there are to read, want books to continue to be valued in our world. We respect the power of good writing to focus critical thinking and to enlarge our lives. It’s the writing that matters. A book is thinking and feeling made visible. The ‘book’ has had many forms over the centuries. How will it adapt in this one? That is what we should be talking about when we talk about saving books.

If you value the union of opposites brokered (sometimes but not always) by long-form, long-term reading–emotional absorption with intellectual reflection, inwardness with empathy, the capacity to withdraw from those around us while remaining attuned to distant minds–then the book may no longer be the only place to look. If we think of printed paper not as an inert collectible but as a cue or catalyst, then fetishizing the wood pulp and thread or glue onto which attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination have sometimes piggybacked means looking in the wrong place. More useful might be exploring what new–or old but forgotten–ways of circulating and sharing and responding to words might allow those habits to flourish.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

At 163 pages, this book invites consumption in two or three bites, like eating a rice ball or other snack food from the store. It’s better, though, to nibble. The protagonist is a very unusual woman and her observations and story are highly unsettling. I read it again immediately and find it lingering in my mind, like the flavor of an exotic food upon the palate.


Keiko, a social misfit from childhood, makes an unlikely heroine. She doesn’t understand why her family is so anxious to ‘cure’ her and have her behave like everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathize with them when Keiko uses a shovel to clobber a classmate on the playground. Everyone wanted him to stop beating up another child so she simply took effective action; the adult reaction baffled her. So it goes until she learns to not speak or act; she no longer stands out. She hasn’t changed internally, though. Stroking the cheek of her baby nephew, she finds it strangely soft, like stroking a blister. When her sister tries to quiet the child’s crying, Keiko looks idly at a knife on the table – it would be easy enough. It’s a chilling moment. She doesn’t act on those thoughts any more but still wonders why people don’t use the simplest means to accomplish what they say they want.

A job in one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores is a common temporary job for many, quickly left behind for a ‘real’ job or marriage. The structured routine of the store proves ideal for Keiko, however. Indeed, she feels “reborn” as a worker. She stays on for 18 years as managers (currently #8) and staff come and go. The store manual tells her how to act, other female staff provide models of clothing and speech which she can mimic, and the work gives her a sense of purpose. She thinks she’s finally pulled off being a person. We see that’s not quite the case outside the store environment when her sister pleads with her to go to counseling because ever since you started working at the convenience store you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.

The Convenience Store is both microcosm and metaphor of society. Both are forcibly normalized environments where foreign matter and exceptions are removed. Unruly customers, expired milk, and unreliable workers are expelled from the store. Young adults (especially men) who don’t pursue careers or (especially women) marriage are shunned, culled from the herd. Any oddity in a person’s life is massaged and interpreted until it can be explained and fit into a conventional social pattern.

Nothing is static or uniform, of course, despite the bemused comment of an elderly customer that this place never changes. Keiko reflects that all the units of the store – products, staff, customers – are constantly being replaced with the same but different units, like the cells of her body. The old lady was like one of eighteen years earlier, the eggs sold today are like those of yesterday but different, and she herself is a unit that will be replaced. Problems of the world intrude into this controlled environment too. A recently hired foreign worker, chronic staffing shortages, and a mentally deranged customer hint at the labor and social crises in Japan.

The author is very clever to let Keiko tell her story; a reader almost automatically feels a sympathetic interest in a narrator’s point of view. But the ambiguities and uneasiness created by such a heroine are considerable. Keiko, whose name means “happy child”, is not happy nor does she understand or want “happiness”. She sees society as a kind of hive or herd in which everyone unconsciously copies others’ behaviors – infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think. She has admirable qualities as an employee but her complete identification with the store is deeply odd. She is bereft when she leaves her job and can no longer hear its voice caress her eardrums.

The novel is a deft and deadpan satire of that universal human inclination to sort and explain everything/one into familiar patterns and categories. It’s easy to criticize Keiko’s conventional family and workplace for the excessive pressures for conformity that we associate with Japanese society. But I found myself trying to ‘understand’ her too, though in a more enlightened way of course. The English language edition subtly guides our expectations with the translation choice in the title. The title is more properly translated as Convenience Store Human or Person. (The word is also used as urban slang and in Dragonball circles as an insult meaning something like “idiot humanoid”.) “Woman” is a significant change and closes off a more open reading at the outset by emphasizing gender and the individual. My feminist instincts were easily engaged when she’s badgered to marry, or to find a more worthwhile job, or when she’s not promoted despite her exemplary performance in the store. Her return to a store that ‘needs’ her, crying out to her in its distress, feels like a victory and affirmation of personal choice. But really? What will become of her when she’s unable to meet the physical demands of the job, when she’s a worn cog and an unusable tool?

I think “Human” is a more interesting title, as well, as it encourages us to think about those qualities that make us human. Keiko in some respects seems like an AI construct of a human being; she’s a humanoid robot designed to serve this complex structured machine called a Convenience Store. How different, we should wonder, is our own life? how unreflecting our judgments? The career professional never unplugged, the retail worker whose personal life is captive to erratic shift scheduling, social media pressures to have a shiny smiley life – we can see much of contemporary life mirrored in this insightful and entertaining novel.

HOMELAND by Fernando Aramburu

Homeland is a wonderfully rich and intricate novel of two Basque families during the decades of ETA violence.  Aramburu takes the thinnest possible tissue slice of a community, the  lives of these two families, and examines the impact of civil strife on individuals, families, and communities.

It’s not a political novel, we don’t learn anything about the separatist movement beyond the slogans.  We do learn how people respond to threats, fear, and loss.  How the young are manipulated, how a cause can be cover for the selfish and malicious, how much courage is required to live with integrity, loyalty and love.  And how bitter is regret.

The families, lifelong best friends, are divided when one man becomes the target of ETA harassment.  Immediately he and his family are ostracized in the village, from either fear or conviction.  His murder is the central event of the story, dividing all their lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’.  Aramburu spins threads from each character, weaving back and forth between them, between their pasts and the present, and leaves the threads dangling into the future.

The 2018 disbandment of ETA and its apology for the decades of violence and murders committed for its political goals have prompted efforts toward social reconciliation and justice.  The themes of responsibility and forgiveness, social and personal, are central to the novel.  The widow returns to the village as the novel opens, determined to reclaim her life.  She is ready to forgive her husband’s killer, but she wants him to acknowledge responsibility and to ask for her forgiveness.  That issue of guilt and forgiveness ultimately seems straightforward and possible compared to achieving reconciliation with her estranged friend; can the wounds of such intimate betrayal ever heal?  In a poignant, wonderfully ambiguous final scene the two women meet unexpectedly in the village square.  Eyes watch as neither woman will alter her path to avoid the encounter, whispers speculate and recall “they were such friends”, they meet…



Moby Dick – Discuss

I met the challenge, I finished reading MD a half hour before Book Group.  In my defense, I was reading in the two weeks available after a long vacation trip.  Everyone in Group finished the novel in similar style except one, and we gave her a pass because she’s working and very pregnant.  Everyone enjoyed the reading experience but there was an occasional struggle.  You can’t make it a quick read no matter how pressed for time.  It really is a most curious novel.  It’s undeniably long, and heavy with facts, and nothing much happens until the final few chapters.  It’s also engrossing, populated with memorable characters, full of striking imagery and language and entertaining digressions into philosophy and political commentary.  This is a book for endless discussion.

Moby Dick continually surprises the reader and defies convention.  Everyone knows the opening, right?  Call me Ishmael is among the most famous of opening lines.  Only it isn’t. There are pages before we read that sentence.  The mock-serious tone is set when we’re given an etymology of ‘whale’ by a late consumptive usher and extracts from literature compiled by a sub-sub librarian.  Only then do we arrive at Chapter One and meet our narrator.  You can say the line opens the story, but attaching this prelude material gives our expectations a little shake out of comfortable convention.

Ishmael is a terrific companion and guide on this journey.  He has many admirable qualities; he’s curious, adventurous, willing to accept people and situations as he finds them.  He is practical, interested in science and facts, and a self-educated independent thinker.  Alone and rolling unattached through life, he is the outsider/observer reporting and commenting on the comedy and grief of life.  I try all things; I achieve what I can.

And he’s so funny!  Why doesn’t anyone comment about how witty Ishmael is?  I loved listening to him talk.Coming to an inn for the night, with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pockets and only brought up a few pieces of silver.   Frightened that night, had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.  His philosophical reflections are marvelous and delightful in their unexpectedness.  When Tashtego falls into a sweet spermaceti coffin Ishmael muses How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?

Melville’s writing is richly descriptive.  A face showed a congruent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.  Starbuck is a long, earnest man…flesh being as hard as twice baked biscuit…his thinness…merely the condensation of the man.  Moby Dick viewed: the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that, lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea.  Wonderful language that slows an appreciative reader’s pace like a sea anchor.

I’m trying to imagine where we – Ishmael and I – are as he tells the story of this fated voyage.  Possibly he is sitting alone and writing his recollections for later perusal.  But the narrative has the leisurely discursive quality of conversation and storytelling.  It has the pace of a voyage with long periods of near idleness and of simple repetitive work conducive to reflection or talk.  Perhaps I’m the new hand and he’s filling the days with instruction and tales.  I hope that he’s off the sea and snug in a comfortable sailor’s bar, spinning his tales for a mesmerized audience.




Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

It’s not the only irony of this novel that such a title leads a deeply life-affirming story.  The book is essentially a meditation on individual response to unjust corrupt authority.  The setting is Berlin at the start of World War II, an unambiguously evil authority in political control.  Through the choices and actions of the characters, Fallada urges the essential questions for us:  how do we live in an unjust society? is resistance moral, even possible? is resistance worth the cost of the almost inevitable failure to effect change?

Fallada faced that issue himself as he attempted to maintain his writing career through the 1930’s and by choosing to remain in Nazi Germany rather than emigrate.  His own experiences and observations carry into the novel and give it powerful immediacy and authenticity.  The story revolves around a working class couple whose son has died in the early months of the war.  They decide to write postcards with anti-war/anti-Nazi messages and to leave them in public places to encourage others to resist.  A small, probably futile scheme that nonetheless risks their lives and eventually the lives of others.  They get away with it for a couple of years and imagine that the cards are having an impact.  Like most people, they “believe what they hoped.”

Their are several other interlocking stories which show the whole range of responses to life in Nazi Berlin – enthusiastic participation, trying to live a separate private life, passive resistance, criminal opportunities, gaming the system and more.  There is humor mixed with the horror, not all of the black variety.  The repellent basement dwelling “super” is obsessed with stealing the goods from an upstairs apartment.  His schemes are continually thwarted, though, like the rat he resembles, he survives all the destruction around him. The characters are well-drawn and much of the story is carried in dialogue which gives it an unexpectedly fluid easy-reading quality. As with a classic studio period movie, it’s easy to miss the structural care and skill in a “new realism” style novel.

All of the efforts at resistance fail, as we know they failed historically.  It took armies and lives to bring down the Hitler government.  Repeatedly, the resisters ask each other and then are asked by their interrogators, “Why? why do it?”

Eva Kluge, postmistress, quits her job and leaves the party to preserve her self-respect.  Facing up to life alone, thinks maybe she can amount to more.

Judge Fromm retires rather than serve this government and tries to help threatened neighbors.  His actions are undetected but “bombs fall on the just and unjust alike.”

Trudy, the son’s fiance, not sure what can be done, but knows the “main thing is that we remain different from them…Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.”  We can be “like good seeds in a field of weeds”

Otto Quangel, the card writer, a man who loved peace and quiet, but refuses to let that make him a coward who can ignore the oppression and injustice around him.  Reflecting on his “crime” he thinks “my only crime was thinking myself too clever, wanting to do everything myself, though I know that one man is nothing.”

Dr. Reichardt, orchestra conductor, sharing a prison cell with Otto, asks him “who can say (if the cards did any good)?  At least you opposed evil.  You weren’t corrupted.” The time for a big plan was before Hitler came to power.  “As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone.  But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our deaths will be in vain…we are fighting for justice against brutality”







Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

2017 Knopf

In this collection of short conversational essays, Schwalbe takes us on a tour of books that have had meaning in his life and offers observations on the ways certain books have particular impact, when they seem to speak to our life at that moment – “the right book at the right time”.  The books we return to for insight or comfort, the books that link us to a person or memory, the books that helped us see other lives and other possibilities, these would make an interesting bookshelf  of a life.

His reading list included many familiar titles but also several unknown to me.  Some of the familiar ones are unread as well.  I’ve shelved many copies of Anne Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea at the library booksale but never given it a look.  His enthusiasm makes me reconsider my casual dismissal of a “celebrity” book.  Several others have been added to that long list of books I’d like to read or at least sample.  I’m generally content to let those come to me by chance in a used bookstore, but I think I’ll go looking for A Journey Around My Room written by Xavier de Maistre in 1790 while he served 42 days of house arrest for dueling. Too intriguing to miss.

Books connect us to other readers, to authors, and to other books in an unending chain or web of language and associations.  Schwalbe urges us when we read to think about the ways those connections of language and ideas shape our lives.  Talking about literature can help us understand ourselves better and can foster deeper connections with the people we care about.   He suggests we greet friends with “what are you reading now?”  And most importantly, to share what we read.  He used to say that a book is the greatest gift you can give anyone, but no longer.  The greatest gift is to give a book and then share it in conversation.  “What did you think? Did it make you remember/feel/want to do…?  I was moved by…”  We give ourselves when we meet another person over a book.


The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt

It might be overreach to say that the Western is an infinitely adaptable literary form but it has proven to be a remarkably useful framework for cultural and psychological exploration.  That there are still new ways to tell a story within its seemingly simple structure is dazzlingly demonstrated in this 2011 novel.   Canadian author Patrick DeWitt spins elements of the traditional Western with the knightly quest tale, medieval morality plays, fairy tales, road movies and a contemporary comic sensibility into a fresh, funny, completely compelling story that might have been told around a campfire, in a mead hall, or on a comedy club stage.

The two brothers are characters usually seen only in the background of a standard Western, the hired guns who serve the corrupt boss.  DeWitt plucks them from the shadows to make them the leading men of a perverse knightly quest.  They are dark knights clad not in armor but in long dusters with the sleeves ripped off. The Commodore(king) sends them on a job(quest) to recover something of “great value”.  They have adventures and meet all manner of odd characters.  Much is learned and much is lost.  They betray their trust for the lure of the alchemist’s dream but perhaps find truer treasure at the end.

Continue reading “The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt”