• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Without Your Love, It’s a Honky Tonk Parade

I have to go fast because this is a pay computer in a Sheraton in Miami Beach. I’m down here for the Miami Book Fair, which is a fantastically vibrant event with tons of booksellers, authors, street performers, sausages, you name it. After my agent panel, I signed books for a half hour or so. I was very moved by a few people who brought in old dog eared hardcovers and told me how much the book meant to them. One woman, with the beautiful face of a Mayan sculpture, told me that she never used to speak in her writing class or share her work. Her professor, sick of her oracular silence, insisted she write the last lines of her diary on the board. She wrote, “all I have left to do is die.” This woman then told me that he called her into his office and gave her a copy of my book. She told me read it ten times. I really didn’t know what to say. It was almost too much to take in. I silently hoped that he also gave her the name of the campus counseling service.

It’s hard to know what’s true in this world. Hard to know if the full moon over Miami wasn’t a stage prop, fat as a face. It’s hard to know if the laughter around the pool wasn’t forced, or the lamb chops cooked to perfection were fully appreciated by the dinner guests who floated above the calm water of a dark canal. Hadn’t we come to be wooed. Hadn’t we come to steal candy and laugh like children finding our way out of a strange labrynth of palm trees and howling dogs. Did I tell you I met Dave Eggers, my hero, CK Williams who is called Charlie, and Russell Banks, and Susan Cheever. Did I tell you that I cut myself off after two glasses of white wine because it was clear I was about to behave regrettably.  And I’d like to be invited back.

For me, it was Ariel, the book that saved my life. What book saved you, or at least reminded you that you were not alone.

69 Responses

  1. Writing my own manuscript saved me.

  2. dave eggers is your hero!?!?!? EWWWWWWW

    the book that saved my life was napoleon hill’s “think and grow rich”

  3. A Wrinkle in Time.

    Meg Murray was the first character I’d read about who looked and acted and worried just like me. And she won.

  4. It was The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. I was only ten, younger than her target audience, but the book matured me and inspired me and drew me to the written word.

    When we had to do a book report the next year, my choice was a given. I’d already read it three times. Someone else read their report first, on the same book. The teacher asked how many students might like to read the book, based on the report. A few raised their hands. Later that period, I read my own report aloud. The teacher said there was no reason to take a vote on the book, since the class already had. One boy raised his hand and said, “But I didn’t want to read it after the first report, and now I do.” And nearly the whole class raised their hands.

    I knew then I wanted to affect readers like S.E. Hinton had affected me.

  5. Ordinary People, by Judith Guest.

    By the time I read this book, I’d already attempted suicide. In my conservative, Catholic, Cuban family back in the 1980s, mental illness was not something you admitted to or even addressed, but something you hid. Until I had the chance to go to college and avail myself of the free counseling there, this book was the closest I got to therapy. I experienced no small measure of healing vicariously through Conrad.

    • I read this book just last year and was completely taken in by it – I so wished I’d had it years before, when I clung to The Bell Jar and the book I mentioned below.

    • Yes, Joe — Ordinary People by Judith Guest did it for me too. I was a teenager from a poor family, and it was the first time I realized that being a kid in a perfect-looking, suburban, monied family did not solve all problems. When I re-read the book as an adult, I appreciated how expertly written it is.

      Years later, when I met Judith Guest at a bookstore, I was so dumbstruck I couldn’t speak.

  6. Betsy, I recommend free computers, much more relaxing. My computer is down, so I’ve snuck into our Alma Mater and am using a nice big Mac here. Zarathustra saved me.

  7. Probably Harriet the Spy. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilder, recently imported to far west Texas from Kentucky and possessed of a lovely soft accent, read the book aloud to the class. She may as well have soaked me in bourbon and set a lighted match to me. Harriet wasn’t real–she transcended reality, realer than real, in the manner peculiar to fictional characters–but she was doing it. She was doing it! She had notebooks and she wrote in them, all the time, whatever she wanted. It could be done! Incontrovertibly inspired by her example, on November 10, 1969, I took up a notebook and a pen and began writing, all the time, whatever I wanted. Beat the hell out of sitting around in silence, pretending everything was all right while I stewed in juices of rage and heartbreak.

    (Street performers and sausages. Sounds like you’re having a lot of fun.)

  8. The time Traders, by Andre Norton. It did not so much save my life as show me where to look for it though it took forty years to get there.

  9. No Direction Home – Robert Shelton’s biography of Dylan – I was a college sophomore when it came out, and it told me it was not only okay to go for long walks at night alone, write poetry, sit in the corner at parties not saying a word, refuse to go along with the crowd, deny respect where I don’t see it deserved, and be depressed to edge of suicide, but that they might actually be a sign I belong to this tribe called writers.

  10. The book I read again and again as a kid? That made me feel close to someone?

    The Diary of Anne Frank.

    Do with that what you will.

  11. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews


    Bridge to Teribithia by Kathryn Patterson

    I wanted to live in both books, even if it meant I had to die in the creek and give my puppy to the boy who didn’t really love me until I was gone.

  12. I carried also my old, hardcover -copy of “The Forest for the Trees” today…Or I should say yesterday. It is now past midnight in Miami.
    So many pages with so many highlighted lines! I kept my book safely hidden in the bottom of my purse, & bought the “revised version” to present to miss Lerner to sign. I also found the courage to tell her: “Thanks to your book, I have been working on a revision of my manuscript!”

  13. When I moved from Ohio to California at 22, I took with me a used paperback copy of Tom Robbins’ book, STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER. I felt all out of synch with the world, jittery, scared, excited, worried, terrified, paralyzed. And then I read something the book that got me through the next year: “The camel has a big dumb ugly hump. But in the desert, where prettier, more streamlined beasts die quickly of thirst, the camel survives quite nicely. As legend has it, the camel carries its own water, stores it in its stupid hump. If individuals, like camels, perfect their inner resources, if we have the power within us, then we can cross any wasteland in relative comfort and survive in arid surroundings without relying on the external. Often, moreover, it is our “hump” – that aspect of our being that society finds eccentric, ridiculous, or disagreeable – that holds our sweet waters, our secret well of happiness, the key to our equanimity in malevolent climes.”

  14. The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor.

  15. Septuagenarian Stew. Bukowski.

    “… it would take decades of
    living and writing
    before I would be able to
    put down
    a sentence that was
    anywhere near
    what I wanted it to

  16. Milly Molly Mandy.

    The first books my mum gave to me to read by myself.

    I can still remember the utter amazement – being able to disappear into another world, at will.


  17. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

  18. Not so much that it saved me, but that I sat spellbound when our teacher read aloud to us and savoured every minute of it – Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White. (Also later loved Wrinkle in Time and adored The Outsiders – both mentioned above)

  19. The New Testament. I believed. When the yelling and breaking of things made me shake – before I grew immune, I escaped to the field on the other lot and lay in the deep hay and contemplated the stars. And I knew. Now wouldn’t last forever. The unshakable faith of a child can still make me cry.

  20. Spoon River Anthology

  21. The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, which I read when I was 18. Tolstoy wrote in completely different time, place and language, but he spoke an undeniable truth about which voice one needs to listen to. It threaded itself into my DNA

  22. Oxford Dictionary saves me every damned writing day!

  23. GIOVANNI’S ROOM by James Baldwin. As a confused little gay boy, I devoured it in one sitting. It was a revelation.

    • THE FOREST FOR THE TREES got me thinking seriously about writing. When I was in a couple of chapters, I met you, Betsy, at a book signing at a B&N in NYC. My writing life hasn’t been the same since. THX!

  24. Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

  25. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

  26. When I was in second grade, my dad built us a house in Los Alamos. It sat at the top of a hill and was shaped like a stop sign – very seventies, and not a 90-degree angle in the whole place. Anyway, there was a smaller hexagonal room on top with a window on each wall and a bench seat covered with cushions all the way around. It was the perfect reading room, especially in a storm. I used to curl up there with my library copy of The Silver Crown, which I kept hidden under the cushions like the book itself was made of silver.

    I remember thinking how precious this book was. How anxious I felt when I had to turn it in, and how relieved to find it there on the shelf at the next visit. There was always a moment of smug incredulity at seeing only my checkout record on the card inside; no one else seemed to know about Ellen and that strange, malleable silver crown.

    When we moved a year later, I was devastated that our new library didn’t have it. I thought, I’d rather write my own stories, so I’ll always know where to find them.

    • my mom just sent me a box of my old books, and there was The Silver Crown…I’d forgotten it, I don’t know how. I got all the feeling of reading it (and re-reading and re-reading) just from touching the cover (I know we’re done with Kindle bashing, and in fact I love my kindle AND my iPad, but you cannot do that with a Kindle).

      But I think it was A Wrinkle in TIme that saved me.

      • My mom has a very fragile book from her childhood – a collection of Australian fairy tales about tiny children who wear hats made of the tops of acorns. We sat together on my mother’s bed, running our fingers over the delicate pen and ink drawings and graceful font. She held the book to her nose and said the pages smelled like home.

        That book has been in the top drawer of her night stand for as long as I can remember. I guess she needs a little hit sometimes.

  27. I read The Forest For The Trees and finaly wrote the damn book that I’d been thinking about for too many years and got it published. I thank Betsy every chance I get in spite of the restrainng order.

    But dying IS all we have left to do, every single day that we live. When I lay me down to sleep that’s the last thing I think of before I get my nightly panic attack. All that heart-pounding dread is my cardio workout — I’m very fit. And SANE, no matter what the court documents say.

    No book has ever made me feel less alone, but Lucky Jim made me feel happy that English is my native language. I’d hate to have to read it in translation.

  28. book that saved my life was the letters from Africa by Karen Blixen – still saves my life sometimes

  29. “P.S. Your Cat if Dead,” and a”There Must Be a Pony,” both by James Kirkwood. I wrote to him back in the late 80’s, when i was writing plays, and he sent me a few letters of encouragement about my writing. I still have them hanging on my wall, and I still look at them every so often. He was a beautiful man, an inspiration. Thank you, James.

  30. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. It was the book that set my imagination soaring and set me on the road to writing. A wonderful story of how a child alone and orphaned and raised by great apes discovered he was a man. And how he learns to not only survive in a harsh environment but becomes the master of it.

  31. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and then The Chronicles of Narnia. Although if I’d known what a fucking proselytizer C.S. Lewis was, I probably would have felt differently. But I didn’t. So.

  32. The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman. I did the exercises in the book when my child was two, prepared to have to do them again when he was old enough. I’d suffered from depression for 16 years at that point.

    It never came back after I went through that book. His program worked on me. I didn’t get depressed again, not even after my second baby died.

    I wrote to Dr. Seligman a couple of months ago to thank him.

    • That looks like a fascinating book. Just imagine if children really could be given tools to ward off serious depression. So sorry about your second baby.

  33. Anne Of Green Gables. I was a gangly, awkward kid prone to drama and flights of fancy so Anne was like a kindred spirit who showed me a path to reading that is still my daily passion and joy.


  34. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. He just got in a car and drove and met people and wrote about it. I wanted to escape like that.

  35. Very random selection: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton.

    In general, if I think a book doesn’t have some life-saving potential, then I don’t finish it.

  36. Life After God, by Douglas Coupland

  37. Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters….the first book that made me really want to write,

  38. My white English teacher in high school ( 1973) went out and bought me a copy of Cane by Jean Toomer because she could see I was struggling with the all white curriculum in class. I was the only black student in her advance class and I couldn’t find myself in what we were studying and when you are 17 you need to see something of who you are and can be in in your class work. She handed me the book and told me I was a good writer and that she understood why I was having such a hard time. I remember hugging her. I still have it. still read it. She helped me become a writer and I will be forever thankful for that. That book saved my life.

  39. The comments of the last two days have been really moving. Thanks to all who’ve left some rubber on the road. You are all so amazing. Xo, b

  40. I’d have to say the Bible…specifically the New Testament…I was saved before I read it but after I read it I knew I would never be alone.

  41. The Awakening. My professor couldn’t get it when I cried at the ending and said, of course I’d have done it too. Wouldn’t you?

    I still think I’d have done it.

  42. The LIttle Prince. When I was in the tenth grade, a teacher gave it to me. I read it again, today. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

  43. I’ve been thinking all day of a book more.. literary or something.. than my immediate response but I still have to go with it: Gone With the Wind. Because even in the worst possible situations–personal, family, nation–there was the possibility (and novel idea to me) that not only could love exist, it could survive. And of course, the famous reminder that tomorrow is another day–something I still remind myself when I need to.

    So many great lines like Rhett: Why? Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a weakness for lost causes, once they’re really lost. Or maybe, maybe I’m ashamed of myself. Who knows?

  44. Hmm, so many … The first book that really caught my attention was a biography of George Washington Carver that I must have read seven or eight times when I was 10–even remember perching it on a towel on the side of the bathtub. After that, well, will just jot a quick list of wriers– Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, ee cummings, A.J. Liebling, Jung, Shakespeare, Angela Carter, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, Borges, Dylan, Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas, Jung, Shakespeare, Annie Dillard, Charles Addams, Umberto Eco, Terry Tempest Williams, James McPhee, Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan.

  45. Make that _Dylan_ Thomas (glad the mischief-maker found a way to get his very own box, which is of course his due).

  46. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Mann, Nicholson Baker, Ali Smith, Sebald, Chabon, Barth, DeLillo, Lynda Barry, Pynchon, Kundera, Wharton, Hawthorne …

  47. Do pay computers charge more for question marks?

    I might have to use one soon, but I will need to ask some questions.

  48. Actually, as much as you hate kiss-asses, yours did.

    I no longer feel unique in my neuroses; I now proclaim it to be part of writerly DNA, because you said it is, and you’d know. (When I’m feeling fancy, I will even call myself an artist.)

  49. Which Ariel, Betsy? Plath, Boyett, or..?

  50. Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Looking at this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
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