“The Teddy Bear Habit” by James Lincoln Collier

The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln CollierI thought it might be fun to occasionally revisit a favorite book from my childhood; not surprisingly, I was an avid reader, and I still own a handful of my old kid-lit volumes. One of my most cherished books was The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier, which was first published in 1967. I read it several years after that, and I strongly suspect that even by the late 60s its depiction of a Greenwich Village filled with beatniks and folk singers was already outdated. (Hadn’t the hippies moved in by then?) Still, I was absolutely enraptured by Collier’s depiction of Manhattan.

The book’s hero and narrator, 12-year-old George Stable, lives in Greenwich Village with his dad, a painter who draws comic books on the side. (His mom died when he was a baby.) His father disdains modern music and demands that George study voice with a pretentious British teacher, Mr. Smythe-Jones. However, George is keeping two big secrets: he’s taking guitar lessons from a beatnik named Wiggsy. And he’s got a good-luck charm, an old teddy bear: “I don’t understand it. I just feel stronger and more confident when he’s around… I know it’s a terrible thing for a kid as big as me to go around carrying a teddy bear. It’s a weakness, and it’s embarrassing to me all the time.”

When a chance encounter with a talent scout leads to an audition for a TV show, George has the bright idea of hiding the bear in the body of his acoustic guitar. (Sure, that muffles the sound, but he convinces the producers that “it’s my trademark.”) But then Wiggsy discovers the bear, which becomes a small, stuffed accomplice to a crime committed by the sinister beatnik.

I really enjoyed the way the story is told from George’s first-person point of view, but as a kid growing up in a small Midwestern city, what kept me coming back to The Teddy Bear Habit, which I read and reread numerous times, was the stuff about New York, which seemed as exotic as any foreign land. Even the food was different—George’s favorite snack is the egg cream (a beverage which “contains neither eggs nor cream,” as Wikipedia helpfully notes). I had no idea what exactly was in an egg cream, but when I finally visited New York years later, I made sure to find a soda fountain and order one.

There’s also a wonderful passage in which George needs to travel from Greenwich Village to midtown, “over thirty blocks uptown and three blocks crosstown,” but he doesn’t have enough money to take the bus or subway, so he walks. “The city was just getting started for the day. As I went along people began unlocking their stores, folding back the iron grilles on delicatessen doors, rolling down the awnings of shoe stores, turning on neon signs in the windows of restaurants… The department stores weren’t open, but there were people in some of the windows putting clothes on the plastic models… It was funny to see them carrying models around as if they were logs of wood.” Oh, how I longed to walk those streets myself someday!

Incredibly, considering the book is now 50 years old, both the author and the illustrator (New Yorker favorite Lee Lorenz, whose loose and lively drawings provide a wonderful accompaniment to Collier’s text) are still alive. Lorenz is 85 and Collier is 89. The Manhattan they depicted no longer exists, but I’m grateful that it will live forever within the covers of The Teddy Bear Habit.

“The Seagull” by Ann Cleeves

The Seagull by Ann CleevesIs there a readers’ equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me”? Ann Cleeves’ The Seagull is the type of book that’s usually right in my wheelhouse—British police procedural, strong female character—but it took me almost two weeks to get through. I had a lot of distractions, ranging from planning a big trip to hosting an out-of-town guest, and I often found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page. Instead, I’d turn to my phone and scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram photos of cute hedgehogs. Or I’d pick up a different book, read the first couple pages, and then put it back down.

A few months ago, I first encountered the phrase “reading slump”—”the dreaded moment when the words on the page simply fail to captivate them and when picking up a book feels like a 50 pound weight,” according to Bookish.com. The Internet is full of advice for folks in a slump, ranging from the odd (“ripping pages out of a book you don’t like but happen to own is oddly therapeutic”) to the obvious (“reread an all-time favorite”). Were it not for my self-imposed obligation to post something here each week, I might find myself taking a bit of a break from reading. But let’s hope I pull out of this slump soon, since normally, reading is one of the best parts of my day!

As for The Seagull, this is the eighth book in Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series; my book group was reading it, which is why I didn’t start with the first Vera book (though this feels like the sort of series where the individual novels can stand alone). It is the basis for a popular TV adaptation featuring Brenda Blethyn, who has described Vera as “big, fat and ugly.” The inspector’s appearance is frequently commented upon in the book, to the point where I felt it got a little excessive; one of her underlings notices her Velcro-strapped sandals, which reveal her “filthy” feet: “[he] felt a moment of revulsion.”

Vera is one of those detectives who is married to her job, which she does exceptionally well. In The Seagull, she is dealing with a cold case involving the discovery of two dead bodies which had remained hidden since the 1990s. One is identified right away, but the other is a mystery. Vera must consult a man in prison, John Brace, for information about the crime; Brace was a bent cop who was close friends with Vera’s late father, who frequently associated with shady figures, a group “held together by loyalty and shared secrets, that strange kind of male friendship that seemed more important to those involved than either marriage or family.”

At 400 pages, The Seagull seems a bit overlong, and the web of crimes, both modern-day and long-ago, grows almost too tangled. Apparently the Vera TV episodes each feature a complete case and clock in at a brisk 90 minutes. The story Cleeves tells in The Seagull is a good one, and maybe watching a pared-down version would prove more satisfying than reading the book.

“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch

The Happiness CurveA few years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis” was passed around avidly on social media by many people in my 40-something cohort. Rauch’s piece discussed research on the “U-curve,” which indicates that youth and old age are periods of relative happiness, while middle age is often a time of discontent and sometimes even despair. This holds true not just for people, but for primates, implying that the origins of the phenomenon “may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

Many of us middle-agers can identify with Rauch when he writes how he “would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.” (Rauch is an award-winning and very successful journalist and author, proving that even the highest achievers are prone to this particular malaise.) Now 57, Rauch is happier and feels he’s emerged from the trough of the U and that his life is on the upswing.

He has expanded his Atlantic article into a new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. The research he presents is quite convincing, though it’s not difficult to come up with anecdotal counter-examples. For instance, I read this passage—”With age, apparently, we lose not our emotional sharpness, but our tendency to have our day ruined by annoyances and setbacks. Perhaps, then, positivity comes about because older people lose their emotional edge… when storms do boil up, older people have better control over their feelings”—shortly after one of the president’s more apoplectic tweets hit the news cycle. (Luckily, most people in their 70s don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re under investigation by the FBI.)

Rauch’s main goal in The Happiness Curve is to reassure people in their late 40s and early 50s that it will get better; science says so. Economist Hannes Schwandt studied people who had grown up in two very different cultures, East and West Germany, under varying economic circumstances; he found that younger people usually overestimated how happy they’d be in five years, while older Germans greatly underestimated their future life satisfaction. “‘If [people] know that life satisfaction tends to be U-shaped in everyone and previous expectations don’t match up with outcomes for most people, that could make people feel less unhappy about their life,’ Schwandt told me. Normalization, he believes, can have a double-whammy effect. ‘If you tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, this already helps you. And the second thing that helps you is maybe you can break the cycle of this vicious feedback effect. By knowing this is a normal developmental stage, you will also suffer less.'”

Many of us fear aging because we fear ill health and infirmity. However, Rauch quotes a study showing that “even as people became more afflicted with disability, their self-rated successful aging increased… most people remain surprisingly happy despite getting frail and infirm.”

The Happiness Curve will provide readers with a lot of food for thought, but the scientific study of happiness is still a relatively young field and I’m sure there is still more work to be done. Ultimately, perhaps this research may one day give us insights that could help the enormous numbers of people in their 50s who struggle with issues like opioid addiction and suicide. Meanwhile, those of us with garden-variety middle-aged ennui should read the book and take its lessons to heart.

Note: The Happiness Curve will be published on May 1, 2018. Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke

Bluebird, BluebirdAs a West Coast liberal, I tend to think of Texas as a foreign land, one I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable in. I have read a lot of very fine books set in Texas, however, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that captures the Lone Star State in all its contradictions as well as Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

A major theme of the novel is a black lawman’s feelings about his home state, one which he loves dearly but is also clear-eyed enough to recognize often provides friendly harbor to racists ranging from genteel bigots to violent white-power gangs, the modern-day equivalent of the KKK. Darren Mathews is a Texas Ranger, a member of the super-elite law enforcement squad tasked with investigating the state’s most serious crimes. (Mathews, of course, is Locke’s fictional creation, but in the real world, the first black ranger wasn’t appointed until 1988, almost 165 years after the group’s founding.) Suspended from the force after he was suspected of interfering in an investigation involving a family friend, Mathews nevertheless heads to the small town of Lark to look into a pair of homicides after he hears about the case from an FBI agent. The first victim was a black man; the second, a white woman.

“Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.”

Mathews at first tries his investigation undercover, but soon has to resort to showing off his badge when he is threatened by local members of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Of course, Lark also has its own sheriff, and he’s none too pleased to have an interloper in his county, particularly one whose status with the Rangers is on shaky ground. “This is my deal down here,” he tells Mathews. “We know how to take care of our own.”

There were several times when I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going, but Locke always managed to surprise me, never taking the easy or predictable way out. (One example: the carefully-drawn relationship between Mathews, whose wife Lisa has never fully accepted his work with the Rangers, and the first victim’s wife Randie.) Still, I think what I’ll remember most about this book are the passages about the Mathews family’s relationship with their home state, which no doubt feel so authentic because Locke herself is a native Texan:

“The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life… The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself… You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight.”