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Bibliotherapy: Who Knew?

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A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.  Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings.—from What is Bibliotherapy?




The intentional use of reading as a therapeutic method has been around since the 1930’s, perhaps even earlier: the ancient Greeks considered literature psychologically and spiritually powerful and their library doors held signs proclaiming it “a healing place for the soul”.Its basic concept is that reading, like other forms of therapy, can help people resolve complex problems in their lives. After World War II bibliotherapy was used in both general practice and medical care for soldiers with time to fill while recuperating. Bibliotherapeutic groups were also used in psychiatric institutions.

I have to wonder, if it’s so widespread, how come I, a seasoned therapy patient who’s undergone, at various times in my life, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, bioenergetics, re-evaluation counseling, gestalt, and dance and movement therapy, never even heard the word bibliotherapy? And when I Googled it I found only a few books on the topic. book piles

One book I skimmed, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, by Ellen Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, suggests specific books for particular ailments—but I found it superficial and even, in some places, silly. I was stunned that they recommend The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe to help cure agoraphobia. Dunes is the story of a Japanese village whose residents live in houses buried beneath piles of sand that they constantly must sweep their way out of, only to be buried again the next day. It’s an allegory of the futility of life; at least that was my interpretation when I read it as a teenager. I was so disturbed by Dunes that to this day I remember the way I felt reading it some 50 years ago—and the memory still makes me shudder. A cure for agoraphobia? Maybe—but it had a negative effect on me and my growing claustrophobia.

The Guardian UK calls the authors of The Novel Cure “Bibliotherapy’s founders”, according to Robert McCrum, who went to them for his own therapy via literature. Says the Guardian, “Bibliotherapy is the new service offering solace to jaded souls – by revitalising your reading list. We sent six of our writers to find out if it works.” Each writer presented a brief description of a session with one of the practitioners at the “Delightfully Offbeat School of Life” in London, where the service is offered, along with his or her prescribed reading list. The descriptions were amusing, the prescriptions interesting, and I’m sure I’d thoroughly enjoy one of these sessions. Does that make bibliotherapy a valid method of analysis and/or improvement? I have my doubts—and yet, as I said in a guest post for Tolstoy Therapy, I’ve been unwittingly practicing bibliotherapy myself for most of my life, though I didn’t name it.

ladybugheart2I suspect that one reason bibliotherapy isn’t more widely known is that, despite a great deal of anecdotal evidence, very little research has been conducted to prove or disprove its effectiveness. It also seems to be more popular in the UK than in the States. From my interactions on Goodreads with the British, I’m learning this happens a lot: a trend that goes viral in the US might leave the Brits cold, or they go crazy for something new that we’ve barely even looked at.

I’m  following Tolstoy Therapy, the most interesting blog I’ve yet to find on the subject. You don’t have to commit to heavy self-analysis to enjoy reading about PTSD and literature, book reviews and recommendations, theories on why we enjoy reading fiction, and dozens of other relevant subjects. Check it out.













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Laika In Lisan: New Book

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Laika in LisanFirst : Immediate and Full Disclosure: I worked with Maron Anrow, this book’s author, editing Laika in Lisan. It’s because I liked the book so much that I’m posting it on my blog as a publicity shot. This is something I’ve never done with a book I’ve worked on: that’s how much I liked it.

Laika in Lisan is classified as “fantasy,” a genre I previously thought meant dungeons and dragons or monsters shooting one another with laser beams up in the sky—but this novel could have taken place in our world, in a repressive country like North Korea; in fact, Lisan is very much like that country, with its citizens forced to worship their leader; all resources diverted to the military and those in power while the workers starve; and extreme isolation from other nations.

My favorite part is the relationship between Laika and Rodya, an anti-government radical she meets in the woods after her journey into the capitol, where she’s been invited as a visiting scholar, is waylaid by violence. Their interactions, dialog, and progression of their relationship are unlike any other I’ve read, and it provides a welcome relief from the intensity of everything else that occurs. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy everything else; this book is replete with the kind of suspense that had me sitting on the edge of my chair the first time I read it, furiously clicking through my Kindle to see what happens next: in other words, it’s a real page turner—or screen clicker.

And now for a moment on my soapbox: Laika in Lisan is one of thousands? millions? of books that are part of the independent publishing movement, growing bigger every day. Some of these books are so crappy they make this movement look lousy, but I’ve found just as many genuinely good books as bad ones in the mix. This movement has the potential to remove the mega-sized publishing corporations as gatekeepers of what reaches the reading public, and to put writers in control of our work. For this to happen, however, indie authors must put as much careful precision into their final products as they would if they were working for a publisher, particularly one who’s paid them an advance. Laika in Lisan is one book, believe me, that’s gotten that kind of precise authorial attention. Climbing off soapbox.

Click over to Amazon and check it out; the book is now available for the Kindle; in a few weeks the print version will be ready. And it’s already garnered two

Maron Anrow

Maron Anrow

reviews, both of them positive!

Oops…I almost forgot to mention that Laika in Lisan is Anrow’s first novel, a fact I include because you’d never guess it’s by someone without more experience. I’m proud to have been a part of this literary endeavor.

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The Goldfinch: Book Review

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Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch (Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’)


The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014

Spoilers ahead.


“To write a novel this large and dense…is equivalent to sailing from America to Ireland in a rowboat, a job both lonely and exhausting…—Stephen King, reviewing The Goldfinch in The Guardian

If reading fiction is an escape from reality, I’m having trouble with re-entry. It’s been over a week since I finished The Goldfinch, yet it’s still one of the first things I think of in the morning and return to several times during the day. Somewhere around page two or three hundred I took up residence in the world created by Donna Tartt, and I’ve yet to move out. (“…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost…” —from The Goldfinch.)

The Goldfinch however, is no escape: it thrusts us into the awareness, always just beneath the surface, that the only way out of our troubled lives is death, a truth most of us tend to avoid. When forced to face it, our reactions can range from depression to terror to thoughts of suicide (as in might as well get it over with). I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention, but it was, at least for me, the novel’s ultimate statement. Not that she doesn’t offer glimmers of joy and hope along the way, particularly in her long summary-like ending: but the dark side decidedly overpowers the light.

A plot-driven novel, The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and moments of heightened suspense. Unlike most plot-driven books (see John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et al), in which the action is fueled by stereotypical cardboard characters, The Goldfinch is populated by multi-dimensional  human beings: Theo, the narrator around whom all others spin; Boris, his chief sidekick, dragged all over the world by his abusive businessman father; Pippa, the girl Theo falls in love with moments before a bomb goes off in the New York Metropolitan Museum, setting the plot in motion; and dozens more. I can still vividly picture every one of these characters, though Tartt, thankfully, allows readers to fill in most of our own visuals—which is odd, considering she’s so heavy on other kinds of description.

As both a reader and writer I’ve never been that interested in description, whether of city streets or country roads, lavish mansions or run-down hovels. Thus, Tartt’s long, elaborate word paintings of whatever’s going on while what’s really going on goes on annoyed the hell out of me—that is, for the first hundred pages or so, until I fully surrendered.The plot is so engaging that I’d impatiently scan the page (or rather Kindle screen), my nerves twitching with the feeling of Come on, get to the story already! For instance, just as Boris is about to tell Theo (and us) what’s become of the treasured painting at the center of the plot, Tartt leaves the conversation momentarily to let us know what’s showing on the TV set in the bar. She’s also big on that famous plot device, the flashback: after the explosion, when Theo crawls through a collapsed passageway seeking an exit, Tartt flashes back to a time when he was stuck in another tight space. Sometimes she even writes a flashback within a flashback.

At such moments I became distracted and annoyed, and read as quickly as possible to get past what I saw as “extra”s…but then a funny thing happened on my way back to “the story”: I began to notice that my impatience was similar to what happens during suspenseful passages; Tartt’s long flights of description left me literally suspended. I was desperate to know what would happen next: I had to turn the pages. Eureka! Are these literary devices—the descriptions, the flashbacks—purposeful techniques employed precisely to create suspense? Is her deftness with these methods partly what makes the book so compelling? Perhaps. No, more than perhaps: probably. It’s worth noting that The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published novel, and that she spent eleven years writing it. At a time when would-be authors attend workshops on “How to Write A Bestseller in a Weekend” and toss off a book in six months’ time, Donna Tartt is holding down the fort of literary excellence.



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Bibliotherapy (Photo credit: puptoes74)

Hey Everybody! You can read my Guest Post titled Spending Time in the Four-Gated City on Therapy Through Tolstoy, a charming blog devoted to the subject of bibliotherapy. If you don’t know what bibliotherapy is, visit and all shall be revealed. I just recently stumbled on the term myself, and when I checked it out I was inspired to write the post.

Hope you like it.

Sisterhood in the Novels of Jane Austen


Part One

In every Jane Austen novel—they total six—the heroine has at least one biological sister, sometimes a whole slew of them. In addition to blood relations, many a heroine has—or gains in the unfolding plot—a sister-in-law or two, referred to as sisters with no qualifying laws. Additionally, a few girlfriends are usually on hand to give us more of the dynamics of relationships among women. It’s safe to say that the theme of sisterhood was of some importance to Austen.

Cassandra Austen Wikipedia

Cassandra Austen

Austen herself had one sister: Cassandra Elizabeth, her senior by two years.  She and Jane were the only girls among eight siblings; amid so much testosterone, they kept each other close, and remained best friends and confidantes throughout their lives. Over 100 letters from Jane to Cassandra survive, and have assisted  historians and biographers constructing the details of Austen’s life. In some ways Jane seems to have been a typical younger sister; their mother once noted, “If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.”

No wonder that in Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility, the relationship between Marianne and Elinor,  grown sisters, is central. Oh, sure, the plot revolves around the bumpy road to love and the men they hope to marry—but the sisterly relationship carries the emotional weight of the story, more than all their love affairs combined. Though devoted to their baby sister Margaret as well as to their mother, Marianne and Elinor are each other’s primary relationship in life.

Marianne spends most of her time enjoying—some say wallowing—in sensory reactions to the world around her. She frequently mocks Elinor for being, in her estimation, far too sensible—which in Marianne’s worldview means stodgy. After her devastating affair with Willoughby, however, and her return to good health, she comes to see her big sister much differently, and examines her own behavior in a harsh and glaring light. She confesses to Elinor, somewhat as apology, that she’s ashamed when she compares her behavior to her sister’s lonely fortitude under similar tribulations, and finally sees her as a worthy role model.

Though the demonstrations of love and tenderness between Elinor and Marianne are rarely exhibited in contemporary relationships, their sisterly dynamics are familiar to modern readers.  Jane Austen’s insights, rendered two centuries ago, still hold the ring of truth.

220px-AustenTeapotCookiesPride & Prejudice—In Austen’s second book she pulls out all the sister stops, giving us the five–count ‘em, 5!—Bennett sisters:  Jane, Lizzy, Lydia, Kitty and Mary, who range from early teens to 20’s. To spice up the pot, she adds Lizzy’s best friend Charlotte, and a pair of sisters the likes of which haven’t been seen outside of Cinderella (the Bingleys), who sabotage their brother Charles’ love affair with Jane Bennett at every turn.

While Austen doesn’t delve deeply into each of the sisters’ relationships with one another, she’s the kind of writer who imparts a great deal of information about her characters with elegant economy, painting a full and vivid picture. The elder sisters, Jane and Lizzy, are close, like the real-life Jane and Cassandra. Both are sensible girls, especially compared to their mother and younger sisters. Jane sees the best, and only the best, in people, while Lizzy is much more discerning, and mentally sharper than any one of the Bennetts, including her intellectual father, who’s clueless when it comes to relationships among humans. Lydia would be considered a slut even by today’s standards, though not so harshly judged for it; Kitty worships and emulates Lydia. Mary is possibly the only brainiac character in history without a brain. She escapes their chaotic family life holed up in her room studying, emerging on rare occasions to exhibit her questionable talents and deliver philosophical opinions. Each sister manages, in her own way, to publicly mortify Jane and Lizzy, outdone only by their mother, who talks about people right in front of them, and blurts inappropriate announcements and impertinent questions.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are without parenting instincts or skills. Each makes no secret of their favorite child: Mrs. B. adores Lydia for her gay, party personality, while Papa B. favors Lizzy for her intelligence and wit. Austen doesn’t say how the girls feel being aware of this, but it might be partly responsible for much distress and confusion.

When Lydia scandalizes the Bennetts by running off with the dastardly Mr. Wickham, she gloats as if it were a great accomplishment. In  the  Austenrecent past Lizzy had herself been enamored by the same man, before learning of his disreputable character. Knowing what we do of sisterly competition, we have to wonder if Lydia boasts so immodestly for managing to snag a man once prized by an older sister. Having no real knowledge of Lizzy’s reasons for turning against Wickham, she might even assume Lizzy still cares for him. A baby sister trumping one several years her senior—now that is an accomplishment!—or at least it is to a girl who, while favored by her mother, never won the same from her father, who reserved that position for Lizzy, turning the two of them into unspoken rivals.

That’s just a smidgen of the sisterly dynamics among dozens in P&P, but to analyze them all is beyond the scope of this blog. Time to go to…

Mansfield Park. This is Austen’s third novel, deemed a literary comedown by most critics and fans after the miracle of Pride & Prejudice. Here is yet another retelling of the Cinderella story, played out in hundreds of movies, plays and novels across time and cultural variations. Fanny Price is the girl in the cinders of Mansfield Park, dragged out of her dirt-poor family home to be raised by wealthy relatives, who imagine themselves magnanimous. Cousins Maria and Julia stand in for the wicked stepsisters. Sir and Mrs. Bertram are too clueless or lazy to play stepmother, but not to worry: Aunt Norris is, conveniently, a secret sadist next to whom the  typical fairy-tale stepmother appears angelic. Fanny’s fairy godmother is Mary Crawford; unfortunately, she fails to recognize her as such. Worse yet, Fanny mistakes the younger Bertram son, Edmund, as her Prince Charming just for being kind to her. Meanwhile she lets the real Prince—Henry Crawford—slip right though her fingers.

In Mansfield Park female competition for male attention is overt: Maria and Julia, normally close, both fall in love with Henry Crawford, giving rise to jealous hostility and almost open warfare. Similarly, Fanny and Mary Crawford are both in love with Edmund. Mary, being unaware of Fanny’s feelings for him, extends genuine sisterhood to her; Fanny is, however, engaged in a life-and-death battle for Edmund’s heart, and cannot reciprocate.

English: "Lizzy, my dear, I want to speak...

London: George Allen, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just love for Edmund that interferes with Fanny’s ability to form a friendship with Mary: abused by Aunt Norris and belittled by her girl cousins, Fanny harbors a deep distrust of women, and might never be able to form any decent sisterly relationships. She does extend herself to a younger sister when visiting her birth family, but exhibits little love towards the girl, particularly compared to her feelings and behavior towards her brother William.

End Part One. Sisterly connections in Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey will be analyzed in Part Two.