Haunting Books: Too Close to the Nightly News for Comfort

I thought about only including historical fiction in my “haunting books” this year, but a few novels set in current times haunted me more—because their plots are so similar to what we see in the news all too often. These novels are Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll, This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty.

Each of these books is haunting enough for a dark autumn night when the wind blows hard and you want to hole up inside with a wood fire. Just be sure there’s someone close by to comfort you when you finish, because the books themselves are disconcerting enough to make you rethink your worldview.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

Both Luckiest Girl Alive and This is Where It Ends deal with school shootings. Luckiest Girl Alive also deals with bullying, sexual assault, and other problems teenagers face today. We know from the beginning that the protagonist, TifAni FaNelli (yes, the strange capitalizations in her name are deliberate—Yuck) survives the shooting incident, but we come to see how ironic the title is—TifAni’s tale shows she is far from lucky, though she is alive. We do know from the beginning that TifAni has somehow moved beyond what happened to her in high school, because she tells the story as a 28-year-old back in her home town to participate in a documentary about the school shooting,

I found TifAni’s high-school story compelling in an “I hate to . . . . can’t wait to . . . see what comes next” sort of way. One tragedy after another befalls poor TifAni, and some of the situations she encounters are truly ugly, which is why the book haunts me. Ultimately, she became a high-school heroine in a violent and surprising way—though it takes a long time for Knoll to tell the reader that.

I did not find TifAni’s story as an adult once she “made something of herself” (she goes to Wellesley, becomes a magazine writer, and gets engaged to an “old money” guy) nearly as satisfying as seeing her finally take command of her situation in high school. In fact, I never did like TifAni as a character—she’s the epitome of ambition and self-deception. Even though I knew she was only trying to move beyond her terrible high-school experience, it left me cold.

TifAni rekindles a former crush—I won’t say any more than that. But this relationship is likely to cause harm to others, even if it allows TifAni to “find herself.” In other words, her redemption is not without its own problems. Knoll never confronts the morality of the choices TifAni makes as an adult—it is as if Knoll believes TifAni’s self-actualization is all that matters. But even as she comes to terms with her past, TifAni is still a bitch.

Knoll’s voice in Luckiest Girl Alive is strong. I think she nails the high school “mean girl” speak, as well as TifAni’s adult voice. I just wish Knoll had built a more likable protagonist.

This Is Where It Ends was even more haunting than Luckiest Girl Alive in recounting in real time what happened during the school shooting. Any book that involves killing 39 students and wounding 25 more is bound to be haunting. The entire book takes place during 54 minutes of the shooting as terror reigns while the students and faculty try to escape.

The descriptions are vivid, which adds to the haunting nature of the book, but the characters were somewhat confusing, in that it was hard to know which brother/sister pair was which. Most of the characters wore a large V for victim sign on their foreheads, and they weren’t very deeply drawn. Of course, in 54 minutes of horror, it’s hard to give very deep backstories for the characters. But because the characters weren’t depicted in much depth, I found it hard to care as much as I wanted to when they were injured or killed. Unfortunately, Nijkamp’s book ends with the resolution of the shooting, and we don’t see what befalls the survivors. Therefore, the book mostly haunted me as I read (it’s a quick read), but the characters didn’t stay with me.

Frankly, the real news stories about the recent Las Vegas mass shooting have been more haunting than these two school-shooting novels. I cared more about the real people I never met than the characters I spent 300 pages with.

The third book I’m featuring in this post, Truly Madly Guilty, has as its theme how different people at the same event can have different perspectives on what happened. Each character at an impromptu summer barbeque sees the event through his or her own backstory and baggage—and imbues the event with the moral impact his or her experience brings. Moriarty does an excellent job of developing six very complicated adults, plus some children.

In this case, each character feels guilty about what happened for a different reason. In the end, who caused the tragedy? We aren’t certain. All the adults are somehow at fault, and yet none of them were really responsible.

In fact, it’s not clear what the tragedy is. The reader suspects what happened, but it isn’t until the midpoint of the book that it is revealed—and it’s not as bad as it could have been. And then there’s a twist at the end that shows how another tragedy occurred—one that was more serious. Who was guilty of what? Though they were all truly guilty of something. A haunting story, indeed.

I thought Moriarty overplayed her hand at delaying the revelations—what happened wasn’t as earth-shattering as I feared through the first half of the book. The novel isn’t nearly as good as Gone Girl, though Moriarty’s book also involves unreliable narrators each recounting their own version of events. Despite the book’s shortcomings, I liked how Moriarty wove together the story of three marriages (and two of the couples had children, so their four methods of parenting) and multiple friendships and other relationships among the characters. I didn’t particularly like or relate to any of the characters (though they are all believable), but I think that was because the book depicts them at their worst. Or thinking of themselves at their worst.

That’s all the space I have for haunting books this year. Maybe I’ll use some of my 2017 reads next year. Until then, . . .

What’s the most haunting book you’ve read recently?

Haunting Books: World War I and Its Aftermath

Today’s “haunting book” post features two historical novels, Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett, and A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Follett’s book is a panorama of Europe and the U.S. from before World War I through that war’s conclusion. Towles’s book is an exquisite cameo of life in Russia after World War I into the 1950s.

While the first book sweeps from Russia to Germany and Austria to England and Wales, then across the Atlantic to the United States, the second novel takes place almost entirely in one Russian hotel after World War I has concluded. I liked Fall of Giants, but I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. And I learned some 20th Century history from both.

I call these books “haunting” because they depict war and deprivations. And because I keep thinking about them weeks and months after I read them.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

Fall of Giants is one of Follett’s epic novels, the first in his Century trilogy. It takes place between 1911 and 1934, with an emphasis on the 1914 through 1918 war years. I’d had it on my “to be read” list for a long time, but only got around to reading it this fall, when my book club chose it.

Frankly, the length of the novel daunted me. I’d read Pillars of the Earth, an earlier epic by Follett, and liked it. But I preferred his thrillers like The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. His thrillers are taut and tense, whereas the epics sprawl for almost a thousand pages.

Fall of Giants follows five families, and through them informs the reader about Welsh miners, English aristocrats and suffragettes, German noblemen and diplomats, Russian factory workers and revolutionaries, union workers in several nations, and U.S. Ivy-Leaguers and criminals. From his huge cast of characters, Follett crafts the tale of how the nations of Europe succumbed almost against their will to the temptations to fight a war that engulfed their continent and spread around the world.

I’d read Barbara Tuchman’s nonfiction books, The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram, many years ago, but Follett’s novel was a good refresher on the causes of the war, if on a rudimentary level. My husband read Fall of Giants a few years ago, and called it “comic book history.” I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as he reads, so I found it about the right mix of history and story.

This is a novel drive by world events, not by character, and its plot suffers quite a bit to serve history. Most of the characters were stereotypes to serve a particular group in history. Some of the encounters between the characters in Fall of Giants were so coincidental as to be obvious constructs on the author’s part so he could depict some historical event or development. Also, because there are so many characters, it was often hard to remember who was who and what their role in the story was. Moreover, Follett resorted to telling the reader what to think, instead of letting his reader figure it out. So to that extent, my husband was right to call the story a “comic book.”

Nevertheless, the history was true enough to be educational, even when the story sagged. The opportunity to get an overview of World War I, the English suffragette movement, and the Russian Revolution, while also learning about Welsh mining, international diplomacy and its failures, and the U.S. Prohibition years made reading the novel a satisfactory experience. Call it “Downton Abbey on steroids.” Still, I’m not sure if I want to invest my time in the rest of the Century trilogy.

If reading Fall of Giants is like a 2000-mile road trip through the hell of war, then A Gentleman in Moscow is a quiet evening beside the fire.

I could curl up and be amused at the antics of Count Alexander Rostov during his thirty years of house arrest at the luxurious Metropol hotel in Moscow. He had the run of the hotel, but he could not leave the premises. The Russian authorities attempted to deprive him of all semblance of his aristocratic past, but he built a meaningful life in his ten-foot-square room with the last of his family’s heirlooms.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rostov’s transformation from a pampered aristocrat into a mensch of the first order. Despite his confinement, Rostov managed to build a family from the guests and hotel personnel he encountered, develop a sense of social justice, and outwit the Bolshevik thugs who replaced the former nobility frequenting the hotel.

The plot of A Gentleman in Moscow is not very credible. Even assuming a man would be placed on house arrest in a beautiful hotel and able to retain many amenities from his past noble life, I had a hard time believing he could foster a child and maintain a romance with a famous actress under these circumstances. Still, Rostov’s relationships were so charming and he was such a courtly gentleman, that I willingly suspended my disbelief.

Amor Towles’s writing in A Gentleman in Moscow is erudite and exquisite, unlike Ken Follett’s more clunky prose. Towles’s language illustrates his main character’s education and wit and also contributes to the charm of the book. Reading the novel was akin to having dinner with an amusing raconteur, with rich food and richer conversation. Much like some of the meals in the Metropol hotel that Rostov and his accomplices concocted despite the lousy Stalinist economy.

I read Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, and liked its depiction of New York society in the 1930s. But there was an ugly side to that story that A Gentleman in Moscow avoids. Perhaps that makes Towles’s second novel less realistic, but it also makes it more engaging. Not since Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand have I enjoyed immersing myself in a fictional world so much. Both Count Rostov and Major Pettigrew are true gentlemen, of the type that one no longer finds often in the real world.

What’s the latest good book you’ve read?

Impact of Shorter Attention Spans on Readers and Writers

Twice in one day last week, I encountered references to people’s reduced ability to focus these days. Our shorter attention spans are due largely to the ever-present distractions from technology—and I know this is true, based on my own behavior.

The first time this issue surfaced was during the Association of Missouri Mediators conference I attended, in which the keynote speaker, Professor Noam Ebner of Creighton University, cited the following statistics:

  • Today we spend on average three minutes on a task before we are distracted.
  • Once we are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.

Moreover, he said, humans are not good multitaskers. Contrary to what we think, every distraction detracts from and delays our ability to perform the task we were doing. The ubiquity of smartphones is the primary reason for our distraction, though other forms of technology are factors also. Think of when email first entered the workplace and dinged at us every few minutes. Now those dings follow us whenever our smartphone is within hearing range.

This photo isn’t of me. In reality, as I listened to the webinar, I played the video on my desktop, listened to the audio on my phone, took notes on my laptop, and kept my tablet nearby. No wonder I was distracted.

Later that day, while I was listening to another presentation during the AMM conference, I read an article (yes, I was distracted by technology) on The Passive Voice blog entitled “Shorter Attention Spans.” The article quoted Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, during the Frankfurt Book Fair:

“You have whole generations being trained for shorter attention spans than books require.”

As a writer, I had to stop and think about that statement.

I remember my childhood years when I spent whole days immersed in a book, from after breakfast until dinner, with only a short break for lunch. During summer months, I often consumed two books a day for a week.

Even into high school, when I had the time, I could read for hours on end. I read my favorite Phyllis Whitney young-adult mysteries and the like in a day. I read many classic novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) over the course of a few days, or no more than a week.

Even as an adult, despite working 50 to 60 hours a week and raising two kids, I escaped into books when I could. I’d take a weekend afternoon, or stay up late into the night, to read. It might only happen once every month or two, but it was a favorite respite.

But now? I still read a lot. I probably average a couple of novels a week. But  I find myself reading for a few pages, then switching my tablet to email, then checking Facebook, then back to the novel. My attention span is definitely shorter.

What does this mean for society?

Professor Epner talked about how it is harder for parties in a mediation to focus on problem-solving when their attention spans are shorter. This leads to the need to have shorter mediation sessions, and to let the parties break to seek out information and do other “homework” in between sessions.

The ubiquity of screens and digital interruptions have impacted the quality of our communications also. According to Professor Epner, we don’t interpret body language or word inflection in the same way we used to. Our intuition and empathy have changed as a result.

All this isn’t necessarily bad, because technology has added new ways of communicating as it has changed face-to-face opportunities. But technology makes communication different. And if we don’t recognize the changes and consider them in our communications, we will not resolve problems and differences as well as we used to.

Now, think about what this means for readers and writers.

I described my own experience as a reader above. I do not read without distractions as I used to. I do not think I’m unique in this regard.

If other readers have changed as I have, then writers need to consider how to grab readers in shorter bursts and how to retain them as long as possible, or re-grab them after a distraction. Shorter chapters. More reminders of setting and situation in novels. More headlines and breaks and sidebars in nonfiction. More uses of metaphors that relate to today’s readers.

Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster said we need to be sure books remain “central to the discussion of what’s going on in the culture,” while at the same time using social media to reach consumers more directly. I agree with both points. The challenge is to handle both book-length writing and social media snippets equally well, for the functions that each does best.

Writers, what do you do to attract and retain today’s readers that you didn’t do ten years ago?

Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

Libraries Out Loud

I’ve written before about the wonderful libraries in the Kansas City area, including the Kansas City Public Library, the Mid-Continent Public Library, and the Johnson County Library. I am proud to say I have library cards with all three systems. And I am prouder to say that Kansas City ranks as one of the most literate cities in the United States, according to a study by Jack Miller, president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut (though we are only #16 in 2017, falling slightly from 2015 when we were #14).

On July 18, 2017, I attended a program at the Kansas City Public Library called “Libraries Out Loud.” The program featured the leaders of four Kansas City library systems—Johnson County Library’s Sean Casserley, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library’s Carol Levers, Mid-Continent Public Library’s Steven V. Potter, and Kansas City Public Library’s Crosby Kemper III. These four knowledgeable professionals discussed the current state of our libraries, as well as their assessment of what the future will bring for public libraries. The program was moderated by Nick Haynes, who moderates the KCPT Channel 19 program Kansas City Week in Review.

The July 18 session also featured four short documentary films by Michael Price about the state of libraries in Kansas City. The film segments explored four areas of practice in libraries today. They were titled “Building Communities,” “A Literacy Beyond Words,” “Bridging the Great Digital Divide,” and “For the Planners and Dreamers.” All four shorts are available online here.

A major theme of the evening and of the film shorts is that libraries serve the unique needs of the public in their communities, whether those needs be for education, information, or communication. As Sean Casserley said, libraries are “places of the mind” where we can discover “what it means to be human in the 21st Century.”

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

Another theme these librarians emphasized was that literacy is more than about words. It involves knowledge about anything from the environment to fitness to food. Crosby Kemper stated “libraries are about turning information into knowledge . . . about organizing information.”

And libraries are places where anyone can get access to knowledge, as well as help in sifting good information from inaccurate. They are the great equalizers in our unequal society. They are refuges for all.

With these broad missions in mind, the public libraries in Kansas City and its surrounding communities provide the following in one or more locations:

  • Yoga classes
  • Classes on English as a second language
  • A seed library (where patrons take seeds, grow them, and return seeds after their harvest)
  • 3-D printers, which, among other uses, help entrepreneurs create product prototypes
  • Consulting and research for small businesses
  • Hands-on nature programs for children.

They provide ebooks to patrons who never enter their doors, and they mail hand-selected books to homebound patrons who get to the library (Yes, via snail mail—wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive a book picked just for you by a professional librarian on a regular basis to feed and develop your reading habit?). They provide digital connections to those who do not have internet access at home, and meeting rooms for a variety of community programs.

And they even show people how to butcher pigs. (Yes, the Johnson County Library once had a program on how to butcher pigs. Not the actual slaughtering, but to demonstrate where various cuts of meat come from on the animal—knowledge our urban and suburban community otherwise would lose.)

Despite the rapidly changing publishing and digital environment, the four librarians who spoke on July 18 were all enthusiastic about the future of libraries. They see their missions as developing with the times, but remaining relevant.

In the future, libraries might

  • Provide second and third chances for people to receive an education through GED programs, links with online university classes, and continuing education. As Steve Potter said, libraries can provide “remediation wherever you are in life.”
  • Become data hubs to help the public access information and answer a variety of questions
  • Serve as links between the public and their health care providers to transmit health data
  • Collect stories from people and serve as a repository of local history

Woodneath Branch of the Mid-Continent Public LIbrary

Some of these possibilities are already happening, and others are certainly within sight. The Mid-Continent Public Library has purchased all past editions of the Kansas City newspapers, which they will make available to the public. MCPL also has a genealogy center and The Story Center which fosters written and oral storytelling.

I came away from this program marveling at what a great resource we have in the public libraries in our community. And hopeful that they will remain great resources in the future.

Whether you live in the Kansas City area or not, I encourage you to watch the four short documentary films. And local residents can tune-in to watch a special Kansas City Week in Review at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 4, on KCPT that will discuss these films and our great library systems. (This broadcast was publicized at the July 18 event, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. You might want to check your TV schedule.)

What do you like best about public libraries? And what do you hope they become in the future?

Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?