This is the third book by Gretchen Rubin that I’ve read (I read The Happiness Project back in 2010 and Happier at Home in 2015) and my favorite so far. In this one, Rubin talks about how an offhand remark by her eye doctor (she’s there for a case of pinkeye; the doctor mentions that she’s “more at risk for a detached retina” because of how nearsighted she is) made her think about her senses, and inspired her to want to learn about them, focus on them, and appreciate/pay attention to them more.

When Rubin writes about how she moved through the world, she says this: “I didn’t make much effort to shape my experience, and I always chose convenience over pleasure.” I think of myself as making a lot of choices to shape my experience, and I also think of myself as being pretty good at choosing pleasure. But I also, like Rubin, can find myself “preoccupied” with “plans and lists”, or stuck in habits or routines. So I was interested to read about what Rubin learned about the senses in general, and about what she did to pay attention to her sensory experiences in particular.

The book focuses on what Rubin calls “the Aristotelian Senses or the Kindergarten Senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch,” in that order; it doesn’t try to cover things like proprioception. For each sense, Rubin talks a bit about how it works (like: all the things your eyes and brain do related to visual processing, or how the senses of taste and smell are connected), and a lot about her own personal experiments and experiences, which was the right balance for me and made this a really fun read. As part of the project of writing this book, Rubin also decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day for a year, inspired in part by her love of E.L. Konigsburg’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which is such a great book), and each section of the book also includes something about what she saw or heard or experienced on those daily visits. And within each section/for each sense, there are lots of ideas for things to do to focus on or play with sensory perceptions: taking a walk and trying to pay attention to trees, or hats, or dogs; trying miracle fruit/flavortripping; taking a shower in the dark; throwing a taste comparison party where people do taste tests of different unlabeled potato chips or sodas or whatever. I really liked reading about Rubin’s sensory explorations, and about how focusing on her senses taught her things about herself and also helped her connect with others.

I started this book knowing very little about 1600s Dutch history, so I was grateful for Robin Buss’s introduction and the background it gave about the real-life characters Cornelius and Johan de Witt, who were killed by an angry mob in 1672 after Cornelius was accused of an assassination plot against William of Orange. In The Black Tulip, Cornelius de Witt is the godfather of our protagonist, Cornelius van Baerle, who cares not at all for politics and very much for tulips. (We learn that van Baerle tried being in the navy but decided it wasn’t for him: after a battle he thinks about how “after all this—after twenty ships shattered to pieces, after three thousand dead, after five thousand wounded—nothing had been settled either for or against, but that each side claimed victory, that everything had to be done all over again” – and he also considers “how much time is lost in blocking his ears and eyes by a man who wishes even to think while his fellows are letting off cannons at one another.”)

So van Baerle starts studying plants, and then happens “to choose one of the most elegant and costly of all the follies of his country and his time. He fell in love with tulips.” Luckily, he has a substantial amount of money to devote to his tulip obsession, and he’s a smart and patient guy, so tulip-growing suits him, and he’s excited when he learns that the Horticultural Society of Haarlem is offering a cash prize to the first person to grow a black tulip. He devotes himself to cultivating a tulip as black as jet, and he thinks he’s on the verge of achieving it, but then he’s arrested and imprisoned for his nonexistent political machinations, thanks to a jealous neighbor. Difficulties ensue, as does romance: the jailer has a pretty young daughter named Rosa, who is sweet and smart and determined.

Without going into too much detail about the plot, I will summarize the moral of the story thus: Crime doesn’t pay; learning to read does. I’d never read anything by Dumas before, so wasn’t familiar with his style at all, but I enjoyed the pacing of the story and his aphoristic asides, like this: “in the most banal speeches of politicians, their friends or enemies always try to find a ray of their real thoughts shining through, which they consequently think they can interpret—as if the hat of a politician was not a bushel designed to hide all light.” Or this: “Once a city has started applauding, it is the same as when it has started to hiss: it never knows when to stop.” I read this over the course of a few days when I found myself with a lot of solo free time because my husband was sick with covid/banished to the guest room, and I found it to be an absorbing way to pass the time.

As the inside cover blurb puts it, this is a novel about “eight friends, one country house, four romances, and six months in isolation.” It’s Boccaccio meets Chekov in the Hudson Valley in 2020, and it’s precise and funny and tragic and I liked it a whole lot. The conceit—which is that a Shteyngart-like writer named Sasha Senderovsky has invited three old friends and a couple of newer friends/work acquaintances to come to the country estate where he’s gone to escape early-pandemic NYC with his psychiatrist wife Masha and their daughter Nat—allows for some city-folks-in-the-country satirical moments, but also for drama and emotion. The old friends are Ed, Vinod, and Karen: Ed is a globetrotting “gentleman” who lives off family money; Karen is newly wealthy from a mega-successful app she created; Vinod is “a former adjunct professor and short-order cook” who lives in Elmhurst. The newer folks are Dee, who is a writer who was in one of Senderovsky’s seminars, and “the Actor,” who is very famous and with whom Senderovsky is trying to collaborate on a TV pilot for some much-needed funds. As the plot progresses, there are shifting romances and past secrets/betrayals revealed, and that 2020 mood is there in full force, how the spring (in the NYC area at least) felt so terrifying and then the summer had moments where it felt “as if this was just any other summer but with blue surgical masks and spent bottles of hand sanitizer littering the side of the road” (and outdoor dining, so much outdoor dining).

I love how the book opens, how we see Masha and Sasha preparing for the arrival of their guests and how we then see the guests arrive, one by one. There are dead tree branches littering the lawn of the property—there’s been a storm recently, and Sasha hasn’t yet managed to find someone who can remove them—and we see each character’s reaction to the branches, Karen looking at them and thinking “All these years and Senderovsky still couldn’t take care of himself,” versus Ed and Vinod not noticing the branches at all, versus Dee wondering if they were “supposed to evoke the devil-may-care attitude of wealthy urban aristocrats who studiously rejected appearances.”

And I love how Shteyngart’s sentences can so perfectly capture the feeling of a certain place and time, like when Dee arrives and is thinking about how at that moment in March 2020 “The virus was just starting to make a dead zone of her section of Brooklyn, leaving nothing but ambulance wails and possibly suicidal trips to the bodega,” or this sentence, from the end of the book, when various characters are back in the city: “The summer heat had just been rescinded and now there were two beams of blue light arced over the downtown sky, that time of year.”

While the plot is predictable, and the setting (a fictional island in the very real Narragansett Bay, with some excursions to Portsmouth and Boston) didn’t have as much of a strong sense of place as I wanted/expected, and the characters talk like they’re from now, not 1846, I was still charmed by this book, which I found to be a fast-paced comfort read.

I like the world-building and the set-up of the magical systems: in this world, some people have magic and some don’t, and those who do may not have a lot of it, but may have talents in one or more of the eleven magical doctrines. Each doctrine is some kind of magic (e.g. kinetic magic involves movement/force) and each one has some kind of repercussion/side effect for the person using it (e.g. use of kinetic magic results in temporary stiffness). But it’s not only people who can be magical: houses can be magical too, and may need special care to keep things comfortable for their inhabitants.

At the start of the book, it’s 1846 and Merritt Fernsby learns he’s inherited a house from his maternal grandmother—despite having been disowned by his father and being estranged from his parents and siblings. The lawyer says the house hasn’t been inhabited since 1737, and is apparently haunted, so when Merritt goes to check it out he expects a crumbling ruin. Which isn’t what he finds at all: the house is in good condition, though strange things do start happening almost as soon as he arrives. Enter Hulda Larkin, from the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms, who has been sent to study the house, determine the source(s) of its magic, and hire staff for its upkeep. Which brings me to the other things I like about this book: the characters and their interactions with each other, Hulda and Merritt especially but the house (and its magic) as well.

As for the plot: as previously mentioned, it’s fairly predictable. There’s a villain—a power-hungry magician who wants more magic than he naturally has, and figures out a way to get it—and it’s pretty clear how that story will go. And it’s pretty clear how Hulda and Merritt’s story will go, too: he’s a writer, and at one point when Hulda reads his latest novel-in-progress, she gives him this advice: “If you don’t intend for the couple to have a happy ending, then don’t involve them with each other at all.” While that philosophy may not make for great literature, it does make for a sweet romance, which is apparently just what I was in the mood for.

I like the way that Lois Lowry’s middle-grade books about Anastasia Krupnik (who is in eighth grade in this final book in the series) keep the reader’s interest by combining multiple plot threads. In this one: 1) Anastasia has just gotten a dog 2) she’s taking a Values class at school 3) her dad has jury duty and 4) she makes a mistake that she’s worried might have actually been a crime. With the Values class, we see her answers to homework questions like what she would do if she saw a stranger shoplifting, or what she would do if she saw a close friend shoplifting; she and her three best friends also have spirited discussions about their very different responses to those questions. Anastasia worries that she is too “wishy-washy”—and in fact, that maybe her whole family is. (Her dad’s jury duty story involves how conflicted he felt, after hearing first from the prosecution and then from the defense.) But as her teacher points out, she’s actually “good at examining things, and seeing all the different options,” which she should see as a strength rather than a liability. Meanwhile: on her very first early morning walk with her new dog, she accidentally puts a bag of dog poop in a mailbox, rather than the package she meant to mail for her mom. She goes back later that day to see if she can somehow retrieve it, but the mailbox has been removed entirely, which she’s sure is because of her “crime.” As she wrestles with her feelings of guilt and whether/how to confess, she realizes she’s facing a real-life Values dilemma rather than a hypothetical one.

This isn’t my favorite of the Anastasia books, but it was nice to re-read it, though there are a few moments that feel very dated, like when Anastasia’s friend Daphne talks about reading about “transvestism” in the library, and when Anastasia’s teacher says “I hate to see a pretty girl like you looking so sad all the time” and it’s presented in the narrative as just a nice/concerned statement, rather than being in any way problematic.

But I love Anastasia’s dog, Sleuth, who is described/drawn as looking very much like the dog that appears with Lowry in her author photo. I love passages like this: “The dog, finally, after raising his head at each mention of his name, got up and came over to the table. He sniffed each person’s knees as if maybe they had turned edible overnight. Disappointed by the smell of denim, he yawned, went back to his corner, and resumed his disguise as a mop.” Or this: “he pranced by her side and surveyed the neighborhood to be sure it hadn’t undergone any changes in the night.” And I love how Anastasia’s mom tries to use Sleuth as a model for the illustrations she’s working on for a children’s book about a dog, but gets frustrated due to his shagginess, and finally decides she needs to get his hair out of his eyes with plastic barrettes—which Anastasia and her kid brother Sam both find extremely undignified.

I somehow never had to read this book in junior high, high school, or college, so I don’t know if I would have disliked it as much as Tom Perrotta (who wrote the foreword to the edition I read) did when he first read it. Perrotta talks about how he “found the book strange and difficult, bordering on oppressive,” and how it “just seemed so foreign—so cold and forbidding and buttoned-up and so remote, as if it had been written not just in another century but on another planet.” When Perrotta re-read the book as an adult, though, he was surprised to find that he really liked it, and that he saw it in a totally different light: as a “coming-out story,” a book that “wants us to know that happiness isn’t possible if you’re living a lie.” Perrotta’s foreword definitely made the book feel more approachable to me, moreso than Robert Milder’s much more academic introduction to the edition I read—which was interesting too, but more in this vein: “Ultimately, the meaning of the book resides in its title and irreducible symbol, the scarlet A itself, which stands for nothing so much as Ambiguous (the literary text) and Ambivalent (the author’s relationship to it).”

You probably know the story of The Scarlet Letter already: it takes place in the 1640s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Puritans have settled. They’re a dour bunch, “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful.” (As Perrotta notes, this is “a historical novel, its setting as distant from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time as Hawthorne’s is from ours today.”) Anyway: Hester Prynne, who was sent to Massachusetts ahead of her husband (who hasn’t been heard from in a few years and is presumed dead) has had a child, which means she committed adultery, and as punishment she has to wear the letter A, embroidered from red thread, for the rest of her life; she also has to spend three hours standing on a high platform in the public square, on her first day wearing the A, while everyone looks on. Everyone wants her to reveal who the father of the child is, so that he can be punished too, but she refuses to say.

Hester moves to a cottage that’s a little ways away from everyone else, and raises her daughter (whose name is Pearl), and supports herself by needlework, and does good deeds, and won’t tell anyone who Pearl’s father is—even when the man who was her husband turns up and asks. (She won’t tell, but he says he’ll figure it out, which he does; he also makes her promise not to tell anyone who he is, and uses this anonymity to exact revenge on Hester’s erstwhile lover while acting as his “medical adviser.”) Meanwhile, Hester feels guilty for not having told Pearl’s father who his physician really is, and resolves to tell him, which leads to probably my favorite part of the book, in which the two of them talk in the forest and there, in the middle of the wilderness, get a sense of possibility, a feeling that there might be another way for them to live. (There’s a sense of possibility in Pearl, too, who is described as “like a creature that had nothing in common with a bygone and buried generation, nor owned herself akin to it. It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted to live her own life, and be a law unto herself, without her eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.”)

I probably liked this book more now than I would have if I’d read it when I was younger, though I could have done without most of the introductory section where the narrator talks about working in a customs house (as Hawthorne did); the conceit is that the narrator finds the scarlet letter itself, and a bundle of papers containing Hester’s story, in a disused attic room. I did enjoy the part about moonlight, though, and how it transforms “the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment” so that “the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”

Quiet by Susan Cain

March 9th, 2023

Susan Cain covers a lot of ground in Quiet (whose subtitle is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”). After starting with the idea that “where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum” might be “the single most important aspect of personality,” she goes on to explore what she calls “the Extrovert Ideal” and how she thinks it came about in the US—and how that ideal means our culture often short-changes introverts, failing to see their strengths and pathologizing their differences. In addition to talking about what introversion looks like/how introverts experience the world, she talks about other related (but not identical) traits such as “sensitivity” and shyness. She talks about introvert/extrovert relationships, and about how workplaces and schools might better serve introverts (and better make use of their talents) and offers suggestions for parents of introverted kids. She touches on the fact that not all cultures have an “Extrovert Ideal” and specifically examines the ways in which some Asian Americans, in particular, may feel at odds with America’s emphasis on extroversion. It’s a lot, and I found most of it super-interesting, though I could have done without the “here’s a story about an introvert at some historical moment” parts about Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Not that those people are uninteresting, I was just more interested in the studies on introversion and on Cain’s conversations with living introverted people than those biographical mini-sketches.)

I am definitely an introvert, so a lot of the stuff about what introversion looks like and feels like was not a surprise to me, but it was nice to feel validated in my own feelings and experiences. Like: school and summer camp are not generally designed for introverts. Or like this statement: “Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book.” Elsewhere in the book Cain says this about stimulation, which, um, yes: “Over-arousal doesn’t produce anxiety so much as the sense that you can’t think straight—that you’ve had enough and would like to go home now.” (File under: how I feel at some point in the day whenever we go to an outlet mall.)

My husband is more of an ambivert (as he puts it, he used to think he was an introvert, and then he met me) and I had fun sharing various snippets from this book with him, like a story about an introvert/extrovert couple where the introvert wife is “always happy to see” her husband, “but sometimes she’d rather sit next to him reading than go out for dinner or make animated conversation. Simply to be in his company is enough.” Or that introverts “like to focus on one task at a time,” “tend to dislike conflict,” and “often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” (Yes, yes, and yes, and this is why I like having a job where a whole lot of my day involves written communication.)

I wasn’t aware of the existence of this book until I found a copy in a little free library near home, and as far as memoirs by musicians go, Carrie Brownstein’s is still my favorite, but I’m glad to have read this too. Beth Ditto talks about her childhood in small-town Arkansas, and growing up in a family and in a place where “the legacy of abuse is made so normal you feel you have to move halfway across the country to come out from under the spell of where you’re from.” Judsonia, where she grew up, outlawed dancing long before Beth was born; she writes about how her Aunt Jannie “used to sneak down to the river, to a chained-up shed that hid a forbidden jukebox.” At some point when she was a kid, they had MTV, but that was taken away too; she talks about how a friend who had lived in Louisiana for a while recorded from MTV onto VHS tapes and brought them back. She remembers watching videos by “Hole, Veruca Salt, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Alanis Morrisette” on those tapes, and then getting into Riot Grrrl. She talks about realizing she was gay and not knowing what to do with that, in the place where she lived; she writes about moving to the Pacific Northwest (first Olympia, then Portland) and starting Gossip, and working as a touring musician/working minimum-wage food-service or retail jobs between tours, when Gossip was first starting out.

There’s a lot of heavy stuff in this book, from the beginning on, but there are moments of hope and possibility from the beginning too. Ditto writes about her Aunt Jannie sitting in the living room in her bra and underwear: “Entitled to her own body, entitled to its comfort, entitled to live in her home as if it was hers.” She writes about her mom not letting people say the n-word in her house, and not having guns around: how she “fought violence, racism, and sexism in her own ways, in the small spaces where she was allowed control as a single mom in 1980s Arkansas.” And she writes about the possibilities that come from friendship, and especially the possibilities that come from music: that feeling, in high school especially, that every musical “discovery was a treasure that could save your life, that made you more understandable to yourself.”

I think I bought this book my senior year of college and started reading it for a class I ended up dropping: I opened the book to find that I’d underlined/taken notes in the margins up to page 29, at which point I found a ticket stub for a student ticket to the ballet ($10!) from Friday, January 30, 2004. I’m glad I kept this book for all those years, and glad I finally read it: it’s beautiful and sad, haunted, haunting.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator (who is German, we later learn) talking about meeting a somewhat older man by chance in the train station in Antwerp in 1967, and continuing to run into that man, Jacques Austerlitz, in the late 1960s. We later find that the narrator and Austerlitz fell out of touch, then reconnected decades later, in 1996. When the narrator meets Austerlitz, he learns that he’s a scholar, an expert in “architectural history”; the narrator and Austerlitz talk for hours, and Austerlitz regales him with the history of forts and fortifications in Europe, after which the narrator sees an article in the newspaper that mentions Breendonk and decides to go visit. (It is not coincidental that when the narrator first meets Austerlitz, he finds himself looking at the people in the vast, high-ceilinged waiting room at the train station and comparing them to the animals he’s just seen at the zoo, somehow struck by the fancy that the people in the waiting room “were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.”)

As the book proceeds, we learn about Austerlitz’s origins, the details of which he learned only late in life. He grew up in Wales, we learn, and learned his true name at the age of fifteen—he had been raised by a minister and that minister’s wife and had grown up with the Welsh name they’d given him. But as a young adult he never tried to find out where he came from; he tells the narrator about his avoidance of all things that might be related to his past, to the history of the Holocaust. But all that avoidance and repression takes a toll: after having had a number of breakdowns, Austerlitz finally accepts that his Jewish parents must have sent him to England so he would be safe, and determines to go to Prague to learn what he can about his early life and his family.

The text is interspersed with black and white photos (a staircase with a wrought-iron railing, the glass roof of a train station, butterflies in a display case, billiards balls on a table); the photos add to the book’s concern with history and memory and time and its passing. Fairly early in the book, after his visit to Breendonk, we get this, from the narrator: “I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Austerlitz’s belated determination to unearth his own hidden/forgotten/repressed family history, and the photos he takes of all the places he travels, both serve as a kind of rejoinder to that, an exploration of what we can remember.

I love the long sentences of this book (there’s one about the workings of Theresienstadt that is more than seven pages long, no joke, and is an emotional wallop for both the reader and Austerlitz) and the descriptions of places, like this, when the narrator talks about seeing Austerlitz in Liège: “The sun was just breaking once again through the inky blue wall of cloud heralding a storm, and the factory buildings and yards, the long rows of terraced housing for the laborers, the brick walls, the slate roofs, and the windowpanes shone as if a fire were glowing within them.”

I’d been vaguely meaning to read this book since it first came out in 2015, and only recently learned that an updated edition was released in 2021; I figured I might as well finally check it out. This book is maybe more firmly in the self-help genre than I was expecting, and some of the metaphors (sexuality as garden, certain brain structures/systems as an “emotional One Ring”) were either cheesy or hard for me to follow, but there was enough interesting/useful information for me to be glad I did finally get around to this. I appreciate that this book does not assume heterosexuality or monogamy, and, metaphors aside, I mostly like Nagoski’s writing style, which is approachable and generally clear.

It was interesting to read about the changes in how sexual response has been conceptualized/understood over the years, from the “four-phase model” focused on physical phenomena that was formulated in the 1960s by Masters and Johnson (excitement/plateau/orgasm/resolution) to Helen Singer Kaplan’s “triphasic” model from the 1970s (desire/arousal/orgasm) to the “dual control model” that was “developed in the late 1990s by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft” (the brain has an accelerator/it also has brakes; flooring the accelerator is not particularly useful if the brakes are still engaged). It was also interesting to read about stress and the idea that our bodies and brains are, in evolutionary terms, good at dealing with intense stressful situations with a clear beginning, middle, and end (like: being chased by a lion) which doesn’t really help in modern life where in general “our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration.” A key point in this section is about the need for “completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state” rather than “self-inhibition”, which can involve “stopping the stress response midcycle.” Other highlights: spontaneous desire vs. responsive desire and the fact that many people experience both at different points in their lives, and some surprising-to-me stats like the fact that “80-90 percent of women who masturbate typically do so with little or no vaginal penetration” (I would have guessed a lower number for that!) and that “approximately 30 percent of women experience nocturnal orgasm” (I would have guessed higher!).