Two Books for a Mental Vacation

Credit…Andrea Wyner for The New York Times

By Leah Greenblatt

Leah Greenblatt is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. Her most recent review for the Book Review was of “The Woman in Me,” by Britney Spears.

Dear readers,

I have always loved the idea of a sanitarium: Swaddle me in blankets like a chic burrito, please, and tilt my deck chair toward the Swiss Alps or whatever hills you’ve got.

Because I am neither an exhausted starlet nor an heiress blessed with endless rehabilitative funds, alas, the reality of respite rarely involves an upscale wellness resort and a passport. But a trip as brief as a day or two can still trigger the kind of brain-and-body reset that travel at its best is designed to invoke. Even the blustery arrival of an unexpected guest, tropical storm Ophelia, could not ruin the curative gifts of a recent long weekend at friends’ woodsy, social-media-free outpost in rural North Carolina. Who is to say that marathon viewings of “Naked Attraction,” accompanied by much communal shrieking, don’t count as group therapy?

I like it too when novelists we tend to keep in certain boxes turn out to have taken their own furloughs in less familiar lands: memoir, short story. And while any book worth its print run should lift you to another place — what else is reading for? — the works showcased in this week’s edition feel somehow both transporting and restorative, a med-spa of the mind. In whatever brief hours pass between their pages, there is a sense of being really truly there and not here. And for these last precious days before the 5 p.m. darkness, a.k.a. daylight saving time, descends, that is good enough for me (though the dream of Swiss burritos endures).


“A Circle of Quiet,”by Madeleine L’Engle

Nonfiction, 1972

How much do you really know about Madeleine L’Engle? Data is scant on the number of young readers who devoured her classic Y.A. novels (“A Wrinkle in Time,” “A Ring of Endless Light”) and then said, “Now tell me everything about her marriage and her views on progressive Christianity!” Even the most avid fan, though, likely graduated from her adolescent oeuvre with fond memories of starfish and tesseracts and moved on.

Released in the early ’70s, the lively and lucid “A Circle of Quiet” — essentially a midlife diary, set against the pastoral backdrop of L’Engle’s longtime second home in Connecticut — seems more squarely aimed at “Wrinkle” lovers’ consciousness-raising moms. Her musings from the New England-style farmhouse that her actor husband, Hugh, their two biological children, and a sprawling network of friends and surrogates occupied on and off for decades read like dispatches from a lost era of analog pleasures: Sunday roasts, long walks over stone bridges, laundry strung between apple trees. It’s all tender and amusing and a bit smug: the internationally renowned author recast as humble country matriarch, failing adorably to wax her floors.

But beneath L’Engle’s domestic-goddess drag lurks a sharp and glittering mind, one that approaches everything from McCarthyism and modern religion to the encroachment of digital technology (yes, in 1972) with mousetrap intelligence and not a little rigor. Though the lady doth proselytize perhaps a bit too much, her reflections on 20th-century living — the scourges of loneliness and soft bigotry, the longing to carve out space in a world that moves too fast and carelessly — still feel urgently current. Early on, she recalls an august professor at her alma mater, Smith College, dividing literature into three categories: “Majah, minah and mediocah.” At a slender and discursive 246 pages, “Quiet” qualifies as a minah work, but mediocah? L’Engle probably couldn’t be if she tried.

Read if you like: Buying stacks of old New Yorkers and Ms. magazines on eBay, Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman”; the word “ontology.”
Available from: Various online book sellers, and (one hopes) genteel Connecticut garage sales.

“How to Breathe Underwater,”by Julie Orringer

Fiction, 2003

Orringer is a lauded and very successful practitioner of Big Fiction, having produced two doorstop novels about World War II, “The Invisible Bridge” (2010) and “The Flight Portfolio” (2019). If you are a literary person of some leisure, they’re easy books to recommend. They are also fairly devastating and each over 500 pages; heavy lifting in several senses of the word.

Life is, you might have noticed, heavy enough lately. So it feels like a treat to fall into the humane and deeply readable short stories in Orringer’s 2003 debut, “How to Breathe Under Water” — even though the book starts with a bad hippie potluck and a mom weak from chemotherapy (“Pilgrims”), and throws in another terminal mother, this time amid the spinning teacups and hellmouth Florida heat of Disneyworld, near the end (“What We Save”).

Mostly, the book is about the fevered inner workings of being a girl. In “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” a soft-bodied American art student’s study-abroad in Florence is invaded by her teenage fashion-model cousin, a feral beauty with no discernible boundaries. “Note to Sixth-Grade Self” evokes the low-key terrorism of middle-school mean girls, while “Stars of Motown Shining Bright” and “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones” both run the messy, anxious gauntlet of sexual discovery. These are neat, self-contained tales, maybe too tidy in their endings but wholly satisfying.

Read if you like: That one perfect season of “My So-Called Life”; Lorde’s “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All”); youthquakes in general.
Available from: Check your library or local bookstore, or download a digital version from Scribd; the book is also available in paperback directly from Vintage Contemporaries

Why don’t you …

  • Embrace your own evanescence by reading Charlotte Alter’s great, artful profile of Don’t-Die guy Bryan Johnson, the 46-year-old millionaire currently attempting to cheat-code his way to immortality? You might not live to 140, but at least you can eat low polyphenol density chocolate that doesn’t taste “like a foot.”

  • Enjoy the inimitable rhythms of the indie filmmaker and beloved Teutonic kook Werner Herzog’s new memoir, “Every Man for Himself and God Against All,” then cap it with a listen to the comedian Paul F. Tompkins’s pitch-perfect riff on a Herzog trip to Trader Joe’s? (Don’t worry, Werner approves.)

  • Peruse the retro recipes in Witold Szablowski’s chatty and illuminating “What’s Cooking in the Kremlin: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire With a Knife and a Fork”? Make Stalin’s favorite Georgian walnut jam or maybe go heartier with the cosmonaut borscht; it’s your call, comrade.

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