Books as Therapy

The November 7th issue of Time Magazine has an article Read a Novel: it’s just what the doctor ordered, written by Sarah Begley.   Ms Begley is a staff writer for Time; she writes book reviews and culture stories for the magazine.  She has worked at Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Hearst Magazines.  She lives in the New York City area and is a graduate of Vassar College.


Sarah Begley

She says, “the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ but our EQ.”  Researchers at the New School for Social Research found a link between ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to know what a person is thinking or feeling) and reading a passage of literary fiction (as distinguished from popular fiction).  Ms Begley continues, “Maria Eugenia Panero of Boston College says it is ‘hard to know whether reading literary fiction increases theory of mind or if people who naturally have a higher theory of mind are more drawn to literary fiction'”.

Ms Begley reports that a 2012 study at Ohio State University had undergraduates read different versions of a story in which a protagonist overcomes challenges (car trouble, bad weather, long lines, etc.) in order to vote.  Those who read a version of the story which led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in a real election a few days later: 65% reported having voted as compared to 29% of those who read a less relatable version of the story.  The story did affect the behaviour of some readers.

Bibliotherapy, which involves the prescription of novels to ‘cure life’s ailments’, is practices at the School of Life in London.  Ella Berthoud, an artist, and Susan Elderkin, a novelist, are friends from their Cambridge days when they left books for each other to deal with the crisis of the week: be it romance, work stress, or whatever.  Now, while they are not trained at therapists, their clients pay £100 to spend 50 minutes with them, in person or via Skype.  The clients fill out a questionnaire about what they like to read and what is going on in their lives.  “The bibliotherapist makes an ‘instant prescription’ at the end of the session and then sends a list of six to eight books and the reasons for the recommendation a few days later.  They say the feedback is 99% positive.”

Ms Begley concludes: “The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits.  ‘I think we all have some intuitive sense that we get something from fiction’, Panero says.  ‘So in our field we’re interested in saying – well, what is it that we’re getting?’  Even the greatest novel cannot cure clinical depression, erase post-traumatic stress or turn an egomaniac into a self-denying saint.  But it might ease a midlife crisis or provide comfort in a time of grief.  As Elderkin says, it’s natural for readers to find it’satisfying when people come up with ‘proof’ of something which they’ve always felt to be true.'”

As for me, I certainly subscribe to the theories presented by Ms Begley in her article.  That is why I write novels like Seeking Father Khaliq.

Review: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

I bought this book – an historic novel – in a Waterstones bookstore because I had nothing to read at that moment and it looked interesting.  Its author is Antonia Hodgson who grew up in Derby and studied English at the University of Leeds.  Her first novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, won the 2014 Historical Dagger Award.  Ms Hodgson lives in London, where she is an editor.


Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is set in a rather down-market section of Georgian London.  Its principal character, Thomas Hawkins is a ‘gentleman’ who killed a man in self-defense in prison, and throughout the story is under threat of being hung for murder.  There are several intertwining plots.  One involves a rather loathsome neighbour who is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (a pathological moralist) and whose own morals permit him to consort with prostitutes and to beat his children.  The neighbour is suddenly dead.  Who killed him?  Thomas, one of the children, the apprentice, the son of a notorious gang?  Another plot involves King George’ mistress who is also a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte.  This Henrietta Howard (who was a real person) is a pawn in the struggle of her very evil, estranged husband to extort money from the king.  The queen, also a real person, is caught in the middle and manages to capture Thomas as her rook to defeat the black knight, Charles Howard.  To keep things going, there is Kitty, the pretty and libidinous girlfriend of Thomas.

There is plenty of action in this rather engaging tale which moves along at a frenetic pace with many twists and turns along the way.  The characters are well-developed and likable or despicable; the dialogue is terse and credible.  The Covent Garden area of London is well described in physical and moral terms, but it was difficult to picture oneself in the setting.  It is not just a familiarity with the Covent Garden of today that blocked – to some extent – the credibility of the scene; it was more that at a feeling level one is somewhat remote. Having said this, one has to admire the depth of Ms Hodgson’s research into the times, the issues and the characters.  There are plenty of surprises in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – they certainly keep the reader engaged – but sometimes the events seemed a little too contrived.  For example, the events around the ambush of Henrietta’s carriage by her husband, and the conclusion where Thomas is sent on a new mission by the queen.  The cockfight and the duel of the female gladiators, while authentic and interesting, added little to the story line.

For those who like a historical novel with an anchor in truth, one with many fascinating twists and turns, with important, stand-out characters, and a good helping of mystery, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the novel for you!


My wife and I went to see the Picasso exhibition of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery last Saturday.  Until I went to the exhibition, I hadn’t been aware of the enormous range of portraits, in varying styles, Picasso had painted, and most were not included in the exhibition.  I have to confess that I liked best Picasso’s paintings in the traditional style.  In these paintings, one can really see Picasso’s artistic skill.

One other aspect of these paintings that impressed me was that the character of the subject was clearly identified in the picture.  It was this aspect that reminded me of the writer’s task in establishing an identity in his characters.  Picasso was less interested in presenting a clear likeness of his subject than in suggesting to the viewer the personality of the subject.

Let me illustrate:


Olga Khokhlova

These are two portraits of Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife and a Ukrainian ballerina whom Picasso married in 1918.  The painting on the right was done early in the relationship.  In it one can see an elegant, beautifully dressed woman whom Picasso admired greatly.  Olga was, in fact an aristocrat who enjoyed a full social life.  Picasso grew tired of the meaningless social life and returned to his private, bohemian lifestyle, eventually beginning an affair with the 17 year-old Parisian girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter.  The two stayed married until Olga’s death in 1955 because Picasso refused to grant a divorce which would have given her half his assets.  The portrait on the left is of Olga painted during the period of estrangement.  Her head appears to be precariously attached to her body signifying, perhaps, lack of substance.  Her hair is orderly and disorderly.  The stylish purple hat looks rather silly.  The black eyes look out toward Picasso critically.  The mouth is small and a bit sad.  In these two portraits one can see both a changed relationship and two different views of the same person.


Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

Kahnweiler was a German-born art historian, art collector, and one of the premier French art dealers of the 20th century. He became prominent as an art gallery owner in Paris beginning in 1907 and he was among the first champions of cubism and Picasso.  Picasso wrote of Kahnweiler “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?”  The figure in the painting is imposing, the head powerful, the hands relaxed but commanding.  There is light that seems to emanate from the head and the hands.  One has the impression of a dynamic, creative and important person.  When one looks at the painting itself, which must be about a meter and a half tall, one can’t help but be impressed by the intricacy of the brushwork and the hours that Picasso worked on this portrait.  It is certainly a fitting tribute to a very important influence in Picasso’s life.


Jacqueline Roque

Jacqueline Roque was Picasso’s second wife whom he married in 1961, and she outlived him.  She was his favorite female subject; in 1963 he painted her portrait 160 times, and continued to paint her, in increasingly abstracted forms, until 1972.  In looking at the portrait, one has a sense of a strong relationship between the subject and the painter.  She is dressed in black but does not seem to be in mourning; in fact her forthright stare and raised eyebrows suggest a positive outlook.  She appears to be about to disclose something important.  The figure expresses confidence and femininity.


Old Man

This is a self-portrait of Picasso in a posture similar to a Rembrandt self-portrait; Picasso greatly admired Rembrandt.  This was painted in the last year of Picasso’s life, and suggests a powerful figure looking out on the world.  There is little motion in the picture, except for what appears to be heat on the right which dissipates toward the left.  His right hand is clearly shown; the left hand is somehow disabled.  His exposed upper torso conveys a sense of vitality in spite if the stasis.  The face seems prepared to make an announcement.  Overall, one has the impression of a painter who knows what he wants to paint and why and who cares very little for the reaction of his audience.

Picasso was highly skilled in communicating a message along with the image in his paintings, and this is particularly evident in his portraits.  Artists and writers share a challenge: defining a character to the viewer/reader.

A Nobel Artist

Bob Dylan’s selection to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 has stirred up considerable controversy.  People are either strongly in favor or very much opposed.  The award seems to be intended for a unique poet/songwriter.  The Nobel Academy said Dylan “Created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  Sara Danius, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, said she “hoped” the decision would not be heavily criticized.  She said, “If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to.  They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan.”

Here are some Dylan lyrics:

From Tangled up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975):

We always did feel the same       We just saw it from a different point of view       Tangled up in blue

From My Back Pages (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964):

“Equality”, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow       Ah, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

From Lay Lady Lay (Nashville Skyline. 1969:

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed       Whatever colors you have in your mind      I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine

From Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times     And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes        And your silver cross and your your voice like chimes    Oh, who do they think could bury you?


Bob Dylan

Objections surfaced quickly all over the world.  One commentator labeled the selection, “an ill-conceived nostalgia award.”  Another said it insulted “ten thousand fine writers” who could have won the award in his place.  Fiammetta Rocco, manager of the Man Booker International Prize and culture editor of The Economist, said, “It’s a gimmick.  With all the extraordinary fiction that is being written all over the world, by writers whose lives are in danger and who could to some degree be protected by a Nobel Prize, why do this?  Bob Dylan doesn’t need it.  He is an old white man who is rich, famous, and physically safe”.

But, Professor Seamus Perry, head of the English faculty at Oxford University, said, “Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed quite unimaginable in this one.  He is, more than any other, the poet of our times, as Tennyson was of his, representative yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny, and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats.”  Salman Rushdie said it was a “great choice” and the Dylan is “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.

Edna Gundersen’s article, resulting from a recent interview of Dylan, appeared in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.  In the interview, Dylan says that the award was, “amazing, incredible.  Who ever dreams of something like that?”  And that he intends to attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm “if it’s at all possible.”  She says: “In interviews over the years, the famously unpredictable Dylan has been by turns combative, amiable, taciturn, philosophical, charismatic, caustic and cryptic.  He has seemed, most of all, on being fiercely private and frustratingly unknowable.  His apparent toying with the Noble committee cannot be said to have come entirely out of the blue.”  When asked whether he could have just taken the calls from the Noble Committee, he says, “Well, I’m right here”, as if it was just a matter of the committee dialing the right number.  Ms Gundersen says: “As a painter, writer, film-maker, actor and disc-jockey, Dylan plainly sees no limitations to artistic expression.”  I think one should add ‘musician’ and ‘sculptor’ to that list.

As for me, I think the award is a great choice.  It recognizes a man of extraordinary talent, who speaks for the times.  Is it a ‘gimmick’?  No.  I would call it a ‘departure from the norm’ which is sometimes necessary to breathe new life into an old process.  What about the ‘ten thousand other writers’?  Would selecting one of the ten thousand have satisfied the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?  I don’t think so; it would, if anything, have intensified their sense of entitlement.  What about the writers whose lives are in danger and who could be ‘protected by a Noble Prize’?  Is it the function of a Nobel Prize for Literature to protect writers?  I don’t think so.  There will always be writers who are hated by their governments.  God bless these writers!  Bravo, Nobel Committee!