- Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears
- Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, Wesley Stace
- Body of Lies, David Ignatius
- Best Sex Writing 2010, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel
- Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, Susan Jacoby
- Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb
- Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin
- Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham
- Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce, Sharyn Wolf
With the exception of the sadly forgettable Body of Lies, you could do worse than make this your reading list for the next few weeks. Everything here delighted me, made me think hard, or both. (Yes, that includes the 800+ pages of Miss Manners. I couldn’t put it down!)
Let me start with the Willingham. I’m often asked, given my line of work, what the average person needs to understand about the science of learning. While I’m happy to rant on this topic at length, it’s more effective to point people at something to read. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a book I’ve been quite happy recommending. Now I do. Willingham reviews the cognitive psychology of learning, and picks out nine major themes that are both useful and well-supported by evidence. His writing is clear and readable, and he ends each chapter with action items that you can incorporate into your life as a learner (and teacher!) right away. I’ve already recommended this to several people, and now I’m recommending it to you!
Miss Manners was also remarkably practical. I consider myself a relatively gracious and well-mannered human being, but I realized that I have plenty of things to learn. I especially liked her explication of the general principles underlying the specifics. For her, good manners is not about what fork to use (though knowing does help!). It’s about making other people feel appreciated while setting boundaries for yourself, and behaving in the manner appropriate to the specific situation that you’re in. That’s manners I can get behind! The book is a pleasure to read, too. There are lots of examples, and she’s snarky and witty on almost every topic. Special awesome bonus: if you ever want to throw a formal fourteen-course dinner party, she’ll tell you how. The boy and I are going to do this someday.
Then there were the heartbreakers. Both Never Say Die and Love Shrinks reduced me to tears, though for somewhat different reasons.
Jacoby takes a sledgehammer to the myth of the happy senior. She points out that while the myth may be true for those in “young old age” – healthy individuals in their sixties and early seventies – “old old age” remains devastating. The marketing of old age means the “old old” are expected to perform as role models of cheerful wisdom, even as they are extraordinarily poorly served by our society. It’s a powerful and difficult book, especially if one is prone to imagining one’s own elderly future – but an inspiring one, too. For one thing, it made me want to agitate for better models of elder care in rural communities! In short, read this book if you plan to get old someday, because if nothing changes? You’re likely to get screwed.
Love Shrinks, on the other hand, neither described a social problem nor spoke to my own fears. It’s devastating because of the insight into the specific life story of a particular person, one I could not imagine being but for whom I felt immense grief and compassion. The author is a marriage counselor, and she writes about helping other couples stay together as her own marriage slowly implodes over fifteen years. Each chapter illustrates one reason why her marriage fell apart, and ends with a brief story showing why it held together as long as it did. I thought I was getting a breezy, ironic book about why even a marriage counselor can’t make modern American marriage work. What I got instead was searing, soul-searching honesty about a life I could not imagine.
Gottlieb’s book was also quite difficult to read – hmm, am I sensing a theme here? Gottlieb writes about her difficulties dating after forty, and why being “picky” (her term) is a bad idea. She ties together research on relationships and an analysis of the white upper-middle-class dating scene with her own story as she works with a variety of coaches and programs to find a date. Each of these threads has some deeply problematic elements, and I think reading these threads together is what makes the book even readable. For example, I was deeply annoyed by her characterization of feminism as being about “getting what you want,” until I realized that she’s quite selfish. She spends much of the book agonizing about finding a guy who meets her ridiculously long list of criteria, and ditching the list becomes the narrative through-line of her redemption. It’s no surprise feminism looks like a philosophy of getting what one wants to someone who sees the world through that lens. There are numerous similar problems with the book, and I found that it was easier to read when I remembered that Gottlieb tells us more about how she sees the world than she does about reality. Even so, you’ll be deeply irritated much of the time.
That said, I’d still recommend the book – because the good parts are very good, and Gottlieb’s own story is a compelling one. If she’s at her worst when opining about gender relations and feminism, she’s at her best when interviewing experts on love and relationships, and her stories of putting the advice they give her into practice are fascinating. In the end, I also agree with the book’s core message (which isn’t, despite the title, to just marry any random dude). Gottlieb learns that core values and lifestyle desires are most important for companionate marriage – not whether you enjoy the same hobbies or how tall your partner is. You’ll have to let go of the idea of a “perfect mate” because no one* is perfect – most especially not you. Additionally, the person you think is perfect for you probably isn’t; we’re not always smart about what we choose for ourselves.
If you can’t tell, part of why I found the book so compelling is because I somehow figured a lot of this out at a very young age. I met my now-husband when I was nineteen, and somehow looked right through our superficial differences to see that he was the person I wanted to spend my life with. He wasn’t a reader; he wasn’t socially adept; worst of all, he wasn’t Jewish. I picked him for his kindness, his humor, his intelligence and openness and courage. The rest we worked out along the way. He tends to be shy? Great! He’s given me the confidence to admit that I’m kind of an introvert, too. He didn’t read much when I met him? Turned out he’d been a big reader before college, and these days he reads almost as much as I do. And the Jewish part? That was the biggest challenge, because it reflects a lot of my deepest values and affects the way I live my life every day. But he discovered that Judaism reflects his core values, too. The conversion process was not easy, but together we’ve chosen to live a committed, engaged, practicing Jewish life. And the things that made it all work? His kindness, his humor, his intelligence and openness and courage. No superficial similarities could replace those.
Ironically, the two very excellent novels I read are both about problematic marriages. In fact, they’re also both historical mysteries set in England. Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer takes place in the music world, while Stone’s Fall follows the story of an arms manufacturer and financier. If you’re only going to read one, though, I recommend the Pears. Jessold‘s unreliable narrator is a delight, but the tricky multi-layered plot of Stone’s Fall and the gasp-out-loud ending meant I couldn’t look away. Pears really does love his “let’s go backward in time and tell the story from the perspective of different narrators” technique, but hey, why fix what isn’t broken? And the characters – especially Lady Elizabeth – are terrific, even if few of them are who or what they seem.
Happy reading, everyone!
* Even my phenomenal husband, who I think is the finest man I’ve ever met, is not perfect – but at the end of the day, his flaws are flaws I can live with. Some of them have even challenged me in ways that have made me a better person. By this I don’t mean that I’ve learned to be more patient or selfless or generous – I mean that his flaws are often part of the virtues that inspire me. For example, he is serious about keeping his word to the point of stubbornness, but it’s taught me to raise my own standards of integrity. This is pretty cool.