22 Jan

New York
This is unlike me, but I want to talk about Brooklyn, the movie, without having read the book. I almost always like the book better than the movie, with the exception of maybe The Notebook. But it’s Oscar season and I’m in a movie sort of mood.

Let me set the stage for the sort of mindset I was in when I saw Brooklyn. It was zero degrees on a Milwaukee Sunday (that was the high temperature). I didn’t have any plans and was alone for the day (my husband, Sam, is finishing med school and has been working nonstop this month). So, in a way, I was liberated! I could do anything!

My initial plan was to bunker down under mounds of blankets and not leave the Brooklyn the movieapartment, but cabin fever set in and I decided to venture downtown to see Brooklyn, a love story that Sam had expressed no interest in seeing. I walk into the quaint old Milwaukee theater, Downer Theater, for the matinee, bought myself a popcorn (which I rarely do), and found a seat in the surprisingly crowded theater at 1pm.

What I love about the film is the relatability of the characters: their desires, their dreams, their love, and the simplicity of the story itself. This is the story of a girl who falls in love in a new place and has to make some tough decisions about home and duty and desire.

When I say simple, I mean it in the most beautiful, most universal sort of way. The movie digs deep into human desires we all have. Universal desires to be near and help people we love, to establish a sense of home and belonging, to love and be loved. Through Eilis’ story, the movie draws out these desires in every audience member, because, in the end, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Home, belonging, love.

Sometimes I think that because my life is so relatively easy, at least compared to Eilis’s and the decisions she’s forced to make, I make problems where there are none. Instead of being happy with the way things are, I get caught up in the narcissistic struggle to do something “great.” It’s not enough (or it hasn’t been) to work and live and love modestly. I feel like I need all of that and more. I want to be recognized and to be able to do something that means something (whatever that is). I’m not saying wanting those things is inherently wrong. Brooklyn just emphasized that I could be present with what I have today instead of wallowing in dissatisfaction and always wanting more.

One of the movie reviews I read said something like, “If you don’t leave the theater with a smile on your face, you did something wrong. Go back and watch it again.” Walking out of the theater alone into the sunny sub-zero Milwaukee day, I was smiling. Not because the movie was all laughs and happiness, but because I had been given permission, at least for today, to be content. At least today, I thought, my life, the career I’m building, the city I live in, and people around me, are enough.


Standing at a Point of Tangency: Cultural Understanding in Literary Journalism

3 Nov

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and Collision of Two Cultures

the spirit catches you and you fall downCommon sense assumes that one understands a culture best when coming from inside it. When it’s ingrained in you. When you speak the language, practice the customs, know the history, etc.. But Anne Fadiman in her well known work of literary journalism, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, takes a different approach. She uses her outsider status to understand the collision of two cultures about which she knows little by observing a Hmong family and their sick daughter and the American medical system they’re forced to engage with.

Fadiman’s in-depth research and reporting in the book indicate the need to work as an outsider; to try to understand two sides, but be removed enough from both to pick up where the miscommunications lie. She places herself on the perimeter to report on a story with no winners and somehow provide a tangible and powerful takeaway.

In the Preface of my edition, the 1997 paperback version, Fadiman artfully recalls her process of researching and writing the book. She points out her marginal position and how it helped her observe and illustrate the cultural clash more clearly.

“I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things, but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.”

Fadiman isn’t just an outsider in this story; she’s on the perimeter observing a collision. She could have written a history of the Hmong in the U.S. Much of the research would have been the same. She could have immersed herself in the midst of a Hmong community like the one in Merced where The Spirit is set. She could have drawn on Hmong global history, their millennia-long streak of independence from any one nation, their deep history of persecution, and their involvement with the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

And that story would have been interesting enough. She thoroughly reports on each of those points in The Spirit. But, like Fadiman so eloquently puts it, “if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.” She takes her work a step further to examine the rich Hmong history in relation to its frictions with American communities, namely American medicine.

Through the lens of the Lee family and their encounter with the American medical system, Fadiman is able to paint a fair portrait of both the Hmong and American medicine, causing her reader to see the nuances on each side and realize there’s not only one way to understand an issue. Sometimes there’s no right or wrong, just difference.

I wonder if we all took an approach like Fadiman’s – to examine cultures from a point of tangency – if we’d come away with a better understanding of the world. For example, if we really examined the deep history of African American culture and the much publicized collisions with police, how would the story change from looking at each side in isolation? If we spoke with police officers, studied how they’re trained, and examined the history of policing in the U.S., how could we gain a new perspective beyond placing blame? If we looked back to the root of African American poverty, the history of persecution back to the days of slavery, and spoke with people living in African American communities that have been affected by collisions with police, how would the story become clearer?

Impact on American Medicine

It’s rare, in my experience, that one can point to a book as impacting change in direct and tangible ways. Fadiman’s The Spirit has. It’s required reading for many medical students and has been written about by a number of American physicians. In a New York Times piece published shortly after Lia Lee’s eventual, but much delayed death in 2012, the writer, Margalit Fox, reflects on the book’s power to bring cultural understanding to light within American medicine.  

“Lia’s story, as few other narratives have done, has had a significant effect on the ways in which American medicine is practiced across cultures, and on the training of doctors.”

Like Fadiman points out, however, it’s impossible to place blame or pass judgement.

“After I realized how much I liked both sides and how hard it was to lay the blame at anyone’s door (though God knows I tried), I stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which meant that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong.”

The doctors in the story were not neglectful. The actions they took were what they thought were best for the patient. As Americans, we’re taught to think in a certain way – a linear way – with the history of medicine at our fingertips and scientific studies to support our decisions. Fadiman suggests that escaping this singular way of seeing the world is the first step.

Rather than place blame on Lia’s individual doctors, (Fadiman paints them as caring and trying their best in a difficult situation) she suggests changes in the American medical system as a whole. Perhaps students should be taught to bend some of their scientific medical knowledge to better care for patients with different beliefs and cultures. There should be systems in place, especially in communities with high immigrant populations, to support understanding: translators, shamans, space to accommodate various cultural practices. Fadiman doesn’t come right out and offer these suggestions, but those are the sort of waves her book is making in the practice of American medicine.

Bringing about a Common Language

In the Preface, Fadiman listens to the tape recordings she took during interviews with the Lee’s and the American doctors. She reflects on how knowledge of both sides has changed her: as a parent, as a medical patient, as an American. And she concludes with a final wish:

“Now and then, when I play the tapes late at night, I imagine what they would sound like if I could somehow splice them together, so the voices of the Hmong and the voices of the American doctors could be heard on a single tape, speaking a common language.”

I think Fadiman’s book may be a start to bringing about that common language.

Photo credit: Simon Schmitt via Unsplash

Do You Need a Bibliotherapist?

30 Sep


I love reading. I guess, that’s apparent from the fact that this blog exists. But, as much as I love reading, I’m rarely asked “why?” Well, here goes!

I love reading for so many different reasons. I love it because it teaches me  something new or transports me to a different time or place. I love it because it helps me relate to someone else’s experience, and the fact that that person is fictional doesn’t make it any less real. Fiction takes the experience of a made up character and makes it real to the reader. And that’s amazing to me. Reading brings to life, through words (my favorite tool to convey meaning), the intricate, and often hard to explain realities of the human experience.

Here’s one of my favorite explanations of why everyone should read from a teacher, Randall Silvas, to his university students: Why I Read.

“I do not tell them [his students] that being a human is a lonely, lonely business and that only a couple of things can assuage that loneliness. Loving someone is the best remedy, I do not tell them. Making music is good medicine too. And so is reading, another form of love—an act of faith and trust and desire, an act of reaching out and of coming together.”

Now – getting to the point – what if you could find just the right  book depending on what you were going through or feeling at a given moment in your life? What if you could hire someone to learn your ins and outs well enough, and who knew books well enough, to actually prescribe the right book to challenge your thinking in just the right way, or help you cope with a sick family member, or jealousy towards a coworker? Well, apparently (and this was news to me!), you can. You could hire a bibliotherapist.

I had never heard of a bibliotherapist until I read the June New Yorker article, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” But, I find the idea ingenious albeit a little elitist sounding.


(source: New Yorker, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” – illustration by Sarah Mazzetti)

Reading changes the brain

Turns out, reading’s been getting support beyond just people like Randall Silvas and me saying how great it is:

“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain.” 

If someone’s seeking help from a psychotherapist or counselor or even if they’re just struggling through a tough time one their own, it makes sense that reading could emotionally – and physically – help them through. By changing the brain chemistry, does reading actually have the power to alleviate signs of depression or anxiety or grief?

Bibliotherapy could turn non-readers on to reading

Another added benefit of bibliotherapy is that, in addition to finding the right books for avid readers who might just be poor decision makers when it comes to choosing the right books, bibliotherapy, the author points out, might also be a tool to turn people on to reading who aren’t regular readers.

Research supports what ardent readers have know since their childhood selves stayed up into the middle of the night finishing a book under the covers by flashlight; books have been, in my life, therapeutic and, I’d even go as far as to say, life altering. And while I believe reading fiction builds empathy and connections across people and cultures, the author makes the case for why that’s not the only benefit:

“Even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.”

Even if books don’t help you relate to others, it has personal benefits that, put simply, just make you feel good.

The question remains, do you need a bibliotherapist?

One of the best cases for hiring a bibliotherapist the article makes is when it points out the depressingly low number of books (relative to the total number of books) one will be able to read in a lifetime. Just calculate how many books you read in a year, multiplied by the approximate number of years you have left to live and that’s maybe how many books you’ll get to read. With that sad number in mind, choosing the right book seems like a dire decision. You don’t want to waste your short lifetime supply of books on something that won’t enrich your life!

But, while I’m sure it’d be great to have someone recommend the perfect book for experiences and feelings specific to my life, I think it might take away from the adventure of choosing my own books. Sometimes I find exactly what I’m looking for when I’m not really looking for anything in particular. I love perusing the library shelves and choosing a book that stands out for its catchy title. Or finding a book I’d heard of before and forgotten about but always wanted to read. I like dropping whatever I’m reading to pick up a recommended book from a respected friend – even if it’s just a book that they’re enjoying and not hand selected for me. Lately, I’ve been enjoying sifting through my own bookshelves and picking up something I’d read long ago. Rereading brings its own form of pleasure.

A Case for Reading 

The article, while focused on introducing the concept of a bibliotherapist, I think, seems more like a case for reading. As you shuffle through the books that sound most meaningful or interesting to you, you’re bound to stumble across some that hit your heart and wake you up like blowhorn in your face.

“The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book ‘splits us into two parts as we read,’ for ‘the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,’ while promising ‘perpetual union’ with another mind.”

What better way to spend an afternoon?

Anna Karenina and Levin’s Quest for Meaning

13 Aug

anna karenina

I finished Anna Karenina a few weeks ago. I didn’t write about it right away because, honestly, I didn’t know where to begin. It was one of those books, similar to Middlemarch, that had been on my list for a while – one of those books I knew I should read, but kept putting off for more accessible, contemporary options. Even though it took me about two months to finally work my way through, to my pleasant surprise, I loved it! Tolstoy writes with such…I don’t know…humanity. There are so many passages about life and love and insecurity that I felt I could relate to–like I had felt the same feelings –even though Tolstoy wrote from such a different time and place.

For example, even though Anna’s situation is so far from anything I have experienced, there’s a universal sense of paranoia or insecurity that comes from being being in love and vulnerable. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to place universal themes in plain, beautiful language, and apply them to a very concrete place and story while developing specific, dynamic characters.

I guess that’s the goal of most novelists; Tolstoy’s just really good at it.

Levin’s Obsession with Death

Aside from Anna, who’s a fascinating character with much more depth than I’m going to get into here, I found Levin intriguing, especially his philosophical search for the meaning of life and faith, and his obsession with death.

As I read, I like to underline passages and annotate pages. When I’m finished, I go back and review the scrawlings in the margins and revisit the underlined passages. As I combed through the pages looking for useful marginalia, I noticed many passages about death: reflections about death, the afterlife, the purpose of life. Each of these passages, I noticed, came from the chapters about Levin. (I’ll ignore what it says about me that I’m drawn to the death passages…).

You can tell right away that Levin is not a content man. When he fantasizes about having a wife and reflects on what he must do to achieve his goals, he thinks:

“I must struggle to live a better, a far better, life.”

At the same time he’s worrying about how he can live a better life while he’s alive, he’s wondering if it’s all for nothing since it all ends in death:

 “‘I am working, I want to do something, and I had forgotten that it will all end in Death!”

For Levin, death is the ultimate problem that cannot be solved by living:

“Just when the question of how to live had become a little clearer to him, a new insoluble problem presented itself – Death.”

And so, he wonders during a conversation with Oblonsky:

“And so one passes one’s life finding distraction in hunting or in work, merely not to think of death.'”

In other words, is everything we do in life for the sole purpose of distracting us from death?

Oblonsky (I love Oblonsky’s character) responds matter of factly to Levin’s nihilistic question:

“Well, of course! So now you have come round to my notion. Do you remember how you used to fly at me for seeking enjoyment in life? Do not be so severe, O moralist!…”

In other words, of course we’re just distracting ourselves in life so we don’t have to think about death! Might as well do a good job distracting yourself and really enjoy life rather than waste time thinking about death.

While I don’t completely agree, I love Oblonsky’s confidence, vigor, and determination to enjoy life and live in the present.

Levin Finds Faith 

As Levin struggles to enjoy life with the reality of death always lurking, he also questions faith and religion. He’s not a believer, but he wants to be. Wouldn’t that be comforting? Not always having to wonder, but just knowing or believing: “What is it all for?” (718)

In his Commentary Magazine article, “The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina,” Gary Saul Morson suggests that when Levin finds faith and contentment in the everyday at the end of the novel, Tolstoy expresses his own belief that the everyday act of living a good life is more important than philosophizing about abstract intellectual topics or politics: “In his daily work, Levin comes to appreciate the importance of the ordinary and prosaic. If one lives rightly moment by moment, and trusts that daily practice has its own wisdom, then the questions troubling Levin are not exactly answered, but they disappear.”

I’m not a Tolstoyan scholar, but I generally agree with Morson’s point about Levin. He’s continually in a state of discontent – when he’s working on his book, when he’s engaging in politics, when he’s philosophizing about the state of the peasants on his farm – it’s exhausting! But he finally finds a sense of “spiritual tranquility” when he appreciates the magic in simply existing:

“I was looking for miracles, regretting that I had not seen a miracle that might convince me. But here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, existing continuously, surrounding me on all sides, and I didn’t notice it!…I have discovered nothing. I have only recognized what I already knew….I have been freed from falsity, I have found the Master.”

Can faith really be so simple? Maybe it can, suggests Tolstoy.

Final Thoughts 

I didn’t get to touch on some of my favorite characters–Dolly and Kitty–and I didn’t even scratch the surface of Anna’s complicated relationships: to Vronsky, to Karenin…to her daughter who she seems unable to love. But, that’s why this book is so rich and why you should read it, not because you should read it, but because it’s deeply moving, surprisingly personal, and just flat out enjoyable.

Photo credit: Stefan Kunze via Unsplash

Harry Potter & The Power of Stories

15 May


I was driving into work the other day, listening to NPR like I always do on my morning commute, when a segment came on about two of my favorite topics: the power of stories and Harry Potter!

I didn’t think it was possible for me to fall more in love with Harry Potter. I mean, I was 11 when Harry turned 11 in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. I grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine (and I’m still a little bitter I never got my owl invite to Hogwarts). But hearing this NPR segment just made me love the series that much more.

In the segment, Steve Inskeep speaks with social science expert, Shankar Vedantam, who reports that: “New research suggests that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups.”

NPR pulled this research from a study called “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter,” conducted by Loris Vezzali. The study measures the attitudes of elementary, high school, and college students in Italy and Britain before and after they read Harry Potter books or watched Harry Potter movies.

According to the results, exposure to Harry Potter stories changes the attitudes of children toward people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Because Harry and his gang are often portrayed as outsiders, children identify with them and, as a result, form a more positive attitude toward “outsiders” in their own communities, specifically refugees, immigrants, and gay people:

“So it turns out “Harry Potter” may be an effective tool against prejudice,” said Vedantam.

Stories and the Power to Change Minds

This idea – that storytelling has the power to change minds and hearts – is echoed in a recent This American Life episode: “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind” (what can I say?…I really like NPR). The episode is split into three parts, each chronicling a group that successfully changes someone’s mind on a polarizing issue.

In part I, gay-rights canvassers in Los Angeles take to the streets of communities that voted against gay marriage in a recent election. The canvassers’  goal is to change the residents’ minds on the issue. The amazing thing about this story is that, in large part, the canvassers achieved their goal. Many of the communities that voted against gay marriage in the initial election swung for gay marriage in the next election.

The study found that the canvassers who were successful did two main things that contributed to their success:

  • 1. connected to the voter through a personal story, and
  • 2. listened

They found that the canvassers who used rational rhetoric like statistics or grand moral arguments had lower success in changing people’s minds. However, those who listened to the residents  with no conversation agenda – and asked questions to lead the residents to change their minds on their own had higher conversion rates, not just in the moment, but even a year later.

In addition to listening and drawing out voters’ own stories, the study found that canvassers who told their own personal stories changed voters’ minds at much higher rates than those who didn’t tell personal stories. Canvassers who told stories about their own struggles and relationships were much more likely to change voters’ minds long term, especially when the canvassers themselves were gay.

What Living Literarily Means to Me 

What I love about these real-world studies is they reveal the power stories have, not just to entertain us, but to affect our brains, and our decisions, and our ability to empathize with people.

These studies affirm why I started this blog in the first place. Living Literarily, to me, means letting stories and art and creativity seep into our everyday lives. Letting it change us.

What many see as a silly children’s book series has the power to change real peoples’ minds about real issues. That’s real power. And that’s what I love about stories.

Photo cred: Jordan McQueen 

%d bloggers like this: