All Roads Lead to Austen, by Amy Elizabeth Smith

I could just hear the pitch for this nonfiction book: a literary travel book like the huge bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert, but going to double the number of countries and, instead of a vague goal of finding yourself, a fascinating goal of gauging reactions to Jane Austen's books, thus pulling in the legion of Austen fans. Its subtitle is A Year-Long Journey with Jane.

Although I haven't read the Gilbert book, I was intrigued by Smith's premise. Austen's novels, which she herself called “miniatures”, provide witty commentary on a narrow band of society: English landed gentry of the early 19th century. To say her plots are basically romances is to say that Joyce's Ulysses is the story of an ordinary day. Her books remain popular 200 years later because her characters capture our imagination; they are universal without being stereotypes. Austen's eye for detail gives readers a sense of living within that world. And we can delight in her linguistic wiles, used to delicately and subtly skewer pretension.

Easy enough for us in the Anglo-American world, but how would Austen's books resonate with Latin American readers? This is the question Smith set out to answer, taking a year to travel in Central and South America, leading book groups and teaching a course based on three of Austen's novels.

Her qualifications are excellent: an inventive writing and literature professor at a small university in California who has her Austen students do creative projects instead of a final paper, resulting in such mashups as Northanger Abbey in rhymed heroic couplets. She found that her students react personally to Austen's characters, saying that they know plenty of Mrs. Bennets or wanting to “dope slap” Marianne. Smith had even started studying Spanish, and wisely begins her year with an intensive language course in Guatemala. Other countries she visits are Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, and Mexico.

Smith's other quest was to identify the Austens of these countries. Readers in the U.S. unfortunately get little exposure to authors of other countries, the only exception being England. Even major Canadian authors cannot get recognition in the U.S. Only if an author wins the Nobel Prize or is vehemently promoted by someone powerful in the U.S. literary world will we even hear about them. So I loved this idea. She gives us lists of authors she learns about from each of the six countries and a little about each, but not the kind of literary commentary that made Reading Lolita in Tehran interesting to me. Still, I now have a much longer TBR list and there is a little more detail on her web site. She also runs across one of my favorite books, El Pinto de Batalles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Her writing carries us through this light, entertaining memoir. She enlivens humorous descriptions of her adventures with details of local color such as feeding iguanas in Ecuador or attending a boxing match in Mexico. She gives us just the right amount of herself, enough to enjoy and participate in her reactions without overwhelming the story. I love that she allocates so much space to the people who join her book clubs and course, giving us their reactions and thoughts in their own words. I also love the diversity of the groups: from society matrons to working-class folks to academics. They provide her with plenty of recommendations for authors from their countries.

What Latin American authors have you read?

An Absorbing Errand, by Jane Malamud Smith

This book is subtitled: How artists and craftsmen make their way to mastery. What Smith does here is examine what it takes to have a meaningful life. “I posit that life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create.” Whether your practice is gardening, painting, writing or building boats, pursuing a creative artistic effort adds a richness to your life, not just a sense of accomplishment but joy.

And frustration. Smith looks at the things that get in our way. She suggests that these undertakings, whether art or craft, call for “common mental processes of mastery. One must work hard to learn technique and form, and equally hard to learn how to bear the angst of creativity itself.” (her italics) Individual chapters look in detail at aspects of this angst, such as fear, guilt, shame, and the perils of recognition. She compares these psychological obstacles to a milling mass of sheep blocking the road. One of the pleasures of the book for me are her inventive images.

The title comes from Henry James's Roderick Hudson where the character Rowland Mallet explains that an absorbing errand is necessary if you are to get out of yourself and stay out, thus achieving true happiness. Mallet is searching for a means of expression, saying “‘I spend my days groping for the latch of a closed door.'” This line resonated with me, reminding me of my late friend Bill, a photographer who sometimes seemed on the brink of professional success but never quite getting there. He said that when he discovered photography, he felt that he had found the magic key; he just couldn't find the lock that it fit.

Smith doesn't offer pat solutions to overcoming the potential obstacles to mastering your art or craft. Instead, she explores why they affect us and gives examples of artists coping with them (or not). In the chapter on fear, she delves into John Keats's life and his great fear that he would not live long enough to write the poems that filled his mind. Indeed, he did die young from tuberculosis, but used his fear to defeat the self-doubt that paralyzes so many writers.

She mentions a conversation with Alistair MacLeod, one of my favorite authors, who writes about coal miners and fishermen in Nova Scotia. She asked him why so often the best fiction is written by the first generation not actually doing the work, and he responded, “‘There has first to be a chair. And time for someone to sit in it.'” This is a brilliant summary of the problem faced by many writers I know. Even if we succeed in securing a room of our own, we struggle to squeeze out the time to enter it.

“Whether by design or by accident, many of us seem to find enduring gratification in struggling to master and then repeatedly applying some difficult skill that allows us to at once realize and express ourselves.” I'm reminded of a scene in an early episode of the tv show Homicide: Life on the Streets when Bolander finds comfort in playing his cello with a woman he's discovered plays the violin. They don't need an audience; just playing together creates a magical moment and the conviction that life is worth living.

This book is an ideal gift for any creative person you know. It's a comfort to know that we are not alone. And it's inspiring to remember why we want—no, need!—to create.

What books about creativity have you found useful?

Lethal Remedy, by Richard L. Mabry

I am not a fan of horror stories. The first horror film I saw was Rosemary's Baby and it scared the pants off me. I tried to watch Aliens because I was fascinated by Sigourney Weaver's tough Ellen Ripley, but ended up climbing over the back of my chair and cowering behind it, even with Ripley doing battle for me. Not sure why I'm such a wimp about horror; maybe because I jump into stories with both feet. Given half a chance I'll immerse myself in their world and not surface until I'm forcibly dragged back up.

So I thought I knew what to avoid. But this book caught me off guard and scared me more than any horror story. Lethal Remedy is part of Mabry's Prescription for Trouble Series, which he's labeled “Medical Suspense with Heart”. We follow a handful of doctors who are involved in a study of a new antibiotic that is supposedly 100% effective against Staph luciferus, a particularly virulent form of staph infection that is resistant to existing antibiotics.

Dr. Sara Miles works on the front line, seeing patients, making the hard decisions about appropriate care. Some of her patients have been enrolled in the study which is run by her arrogant former husband, Dr. Jack Ingersoll, who discovered the drug. Sara's former medical classmate, Rip Pearson, is Jack's assistant and dogsbody, doing the on-the-ground work while Jack is flown off to conferences courtesy of Jandra Pharmaceuticals, the drug company subsidizing the trial.

Sara and Rip become concerned when one of Sara's patients, a teenager named Chelsea, seems to show dangerous side-effects from the drug. They are joined by Sara's close friend and colleague, Lillian Gordon, and by Dr. John Ramsey, who has just come out of retirement to work at the clinic. Ingersoll and Jandra maintain that there are no dangerous side-effects to the drug.

We also meet some of the characters from Jandra, a company that is close to bankruptcy and relying on the new medicine to not only save the company but make their fortunes. They will stop at nothing to ensure not only that the FDA approves their drug, but that they approve it before a competing company can get their product out.

You can see why I would be scared! I come from a family of doctors and nurses, and believe that most of them are motivated by the desire to help others. As Mabry points out in his Author's Note, this is fiction and he has never encountered this situation in his 36 years of medical practice. However, “Given enough power, money and selfcentered [sic] greed, I have no doubt that men and corporations could act in this way. We are fortunate that they do not.” Well, sometimes they do. We know about drugs rushed to market with disastrous results, drugs like Thalidomide and DES, and the generic drug scandal in 1989.

Even though I suspect I'll have nightmares for a while, the book is a good read. Mabry handles the multiple characters deftly. He keeps up the suspense with twists and red herrings and numerous subplots. The “Heart” part is, I assume, the Christian aspect of the story. Several of the characters consult the Bible and avoid worrying about problems by telling themselves that God is in control. Luckily these moments are rare enough that they do not intrude upon the story and do not change the outcome.

There are many people ranting about downsizing the U.S. Government and doing away with agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA is our only protection against those who are so greedy they do not care who suffers or dies as long as they make money. The FDA and the few brave whistleblowers who don't look the other way are the only things standing between me and my nightmares.

What books have given you nightmares?

Someone, by Alice McDermott

One person in my book club thought this book boring because the main character never amounted to much, but the rest of us loved it and partly for that reason. This slim novel tells the story of one life, one ordinary and astonishing life. Marie is seven when we first meet her, sitting on the stoop waiting for her father to come home, a not particularly attractive child, burdened with thick glasses. There is nothing so clumsy as a year to tell us the time period. Instead, an accumulation of finely observed details clues us in: boys playing stickball in the street; a girl wearing a spring coat, feathered hat, gloves, and a run in her stocking. As another book club member said, McDermott involves us in the story by making us think a little bit and put things together ourselves.

Marie's story is roughly chronological with the interpolation of scenes from other time periods. As yet another friend from book club said, these interpolations feel like a natural association of ideas. For example, that first scene on the stoop when Pegeen, the girl with the run in her stocking, tells Marie about falling and how there is always someone there to help her up is followed by a scene where Marie, now grown and pregnant, falls “and I remembered Pegeen then: there's always someone nice.” The flow mimics the way our minds work, our memories, bringing together two incidents to shed new light on both. And these are memories. They are Marie's reminiscences from late in life. We are signaled that partly by the tone, but also by these sentences at the end of the first scene:

I shivered and waited, little Marie. Sole survivor, now, of that street scene. Waited for the first sighting of my father, coming up from the subway in his hat and coat, most beloved among all those ghosts.

One of the things I like best about this story is the way we seem to be headed for a big dramatic scene, a blowup of some sort, only to find pleasant and helpful people: “there's always someone nice.” For example, the owner of the local funeral home is named Fagin, leading me to expect some cruel bully, but he turns out to be perfectly kind and determined to change the public's perception of his name. Occasionally the teasing gets carried too far or someone's difficulties are not fully understood, but no one is evil. There are no monsters here. The emotional progression in these scenes is subtle and sure. McDermott proves that you don't need a car chase or a train wreck to create suspense and hold a reader's interest.

Most of all I loved the sense of community: several of us envied Marie's neighborhood. There's always someone there to help you up. There is a place for everyone: clumsy Pegeen, Walter Hartnett who wears a built-up shoe, blind Bill Corrigan who had been gassed in the war. Much later when Marie meets Walter after a difficult parting and the passing of many years, they fall into easy reminiscences: “It might have been the first time in my life I understood what an easy bond it was, to share a neighborhood as we had done, to share a time past.”

Marie is strong-minded and a bit rebellious, but she has reasons for her assertions, even if she may not understand them until later in life. For example, she refuses to apply for a job downtown because she's heard that it's dangerous there. But when her mother tells her that Fagin is looking for someone to help out in the funeral home, she complies. And that job, unlikely as it may seem, is exactly what she needs. We see her grow into a competent and sensitive woman. She learns when it is best to remove her glasses and when she needs to see more clearly. She realizes what a key role the funeral home plays in the community, in those times when death was more common, before so many childhood and other diseases were tamed. It is an agora for the neighborhood, a commons, a place where everyone gathers. The only equivalent in this predominantly Irish neighborhood is the church.

The telling of even an ordinary person's life can take up volumes. McDermott has selected the ideal scenes and presented them in nuanced perfection to give us Marie's life: her childhood with her beloved father, strong mother, and golden boy of an older brother; her teens with her first grief and first love; marriage and children with all the pain and fear and comfort that they bring; all the way to old age when her defective sight begins to fail entirely. I loved the use of sight as a motif throughout, not just Marie, but Bill Corrigan, the neighbor who was blinded in the war. It is a sweet story, strong like honey in the comb.

Some people in my book club thought the title too minimalist, that it didn't convey the richness and depth of the story inside, but others of us thought it perfect: like Marie's life, so ordinary from the outside, so dazzling within.

What books have you come across that have the perfect title or, conversely, a title that is all wrong?

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

When I first read this novel forty years ago, I found the structure fascinating but the story itself disappointing. I had understood the book, first published in 1962, to be a story of free women, the title of the frame story that begins each section and ends the book. I eagerly looked forward to reading about the lives created by women who had freed themselves of society's constraints on women's roles. However, as Lessing herself points out in her 1971 introduction, this book is not about women's changing roles; it is the story of an artist whose creativity is blocked and who eventually cracks up.

Anna Wulf and her older friend Molly are free in the sense that they are not married anymore and have careers, Molly as an actress and Anna with a communist press. They each have a child: Molly's son Tommy is a difficult twenty-year-old and Anna's daughter Janet a young schoolgirl. While the two women have much in common, their friendship is complex, full of shifting alliances and attacks, envy and admiration. The emotional honesty of Anna's story eventually won me over.

And I was fascinated by the structure of the book: each section also contains portions of Anna's four notebooks in which she writes about different facets of her life: a black notebook about her life as a writer, a red notebook about politics, a yellow notebook where she writes stories based on her experiences, and a blue notebook which is more of a diary. Thus we see events and entanglements through a variety of lenses, their meaning shifting. Eventually Anna abandons these notebooks for a single golden notebook.

What made this novel valuable to the Women's Movement of the 1970s is that the artist in question is a woman, so the ways in which she is blocked and fragmented are those of a woman. What disappointed me then and startles me today is that she is a woman steeped in the culture of the times, the late 1950s and early 1960s, when women were supposed to be happy homemakers, vacuuming in their pearls and high heels and ever-ready to serve their men.

At the same time, whipped up by books written by men, women as mothers and lovers were blamed for all of men's problems. In fact, later that year I actually tore up a Philip Roth book—the only book I have ever destroyed—in my fury at his insistence that women were only put on earth to serve the male protagonist's needs and that he was entitled to destroy any woman who dared to ask for something from him. As Anna says, “‘None of you ask for anything—except everything, but just for so long as you need it.'”

Anna's reactions to the men with whom she becomes entangled reflect her times and her struggle to change, thus contributing to the perception that the book is about, as Lessing says, the war between men and women. To me, it is more the war within a woman, and in that first reading despaired at what seemed to me Anna's weakness.

On this reading, however, I have a better appreciation for the difficulty of change and treasure Anna's small victories. It is not easy to create for yourself a new kind of life, one for which there are no role models. I value the honesty of this book, where Anna truly weighs and expresses her commitment to one social structure after another. For example, she is forthright about her shifting attitude toward communism: the danger of conformism—when two people meet they speak honestly about politics, but add a third and they revert to the party line—and the way one's will is sapped by the belief that someday the world will be a worker's paradise. Yet she values “the company of people who have spent their lives in a certain kind of atmosphere, where it is taken for granted that their lives must be related to a central philosophy.” It is only through this honesty that Anna is able to win through to a new understanding.

So I was surprised by this novel a second time and impressed by how well it holds together despite its fragmented structure and deeply troubled protagonist. In some ways it is an artifact of its time, but its refreshing truthfulness and candor make it a book for all time.

Have you reread a book years later and changed your opinion of it?