19 books about aging, happiness, and the bonus years

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Books to sustain, enlighten and entertain us as we dare to contemplate the prospect of growing older and dying.

For the record, I list some books below that have educated or entertained or enlightened me as I nervously anticipate the final stage of life. Happy reading! Links are to the Amazon page for each book.

Please share your own favourite books about these topics, and tell us what they gave you. (That’ll be your good deed for the day.)

Non-fiction

  1. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Norman Doidge, 2007 — Inspiring. Revolutionary at the time. Introducing neuroplasticity, the reason why a boot camp for old age is a goer.
  2. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Norman Doidge, 2015 — Exciting sequel to The Brain That Changes Itself.
  3. Mindful Work: How Meditation is changing Business from the Inside Out. David Gelles, 2015 — Valuable. Entertaining. Why it’s never too late to start meditating.
  4. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Charles Duhigg, 2014 — Boot camp basic. The science behind forming good new habits and replacing bad ones.
  5. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: Discover the surprising talents of the middle-aged mind. Barbara Strauch, 2010 — Thrilling.
  6. Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert, 2006 — Joyful science.
  7. Amortality: The pleasures and perils of living agelessly. Catherine Mayer, 2011 — Sobering. Documents the new wave of Peter Pans and their (our?) denial of old age.
  8. The Art of Aging: A doctor’s prescription for well-being. Sherwin B. Nuland, 2007 — Thoughtful.
  9. How we die. Sherwin B. Nuland, 1995 — Unforgettable description of exactly what happens to body and brain as we age and die. Lays bare the cost and conflict induced by medicalized death.
  10. Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Atul Gawande, 2014 — Brilliant and brave. Deservedly top of the pops.
  11. The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, time and aging. Doowe Draaisma, 2013 — Fascinating, perceptive and wise.
  12. Travels With Epicurus: A journey to a Greek island in search of a fulfilled life.  Daniel Klein, 2014 — Enriching. Studies contented old age as lived by Greek friends and described by philosophers.
  13. Somewhere Towards the End: A memoir. Diana Athill, 2009 — Irritating, but widely admired.
  14. From age-ing to sage-ing: A revolutionary new approach to growing older.  Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 1997 — Advice on how to become wiser with age, and start a revolution. (Good luck with that.)
  15. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Jonathan Haidt, 2006 —Walk through 10 big ideas and find one that matches your style.
  16. How to Age. Anne Karpf — An important essay on gerontophobia in the west with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for this.
  17. This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton Applewhite. This book is  a tonic, suit of armour and box of chocs rolled into one. Go Ashton!

Fiction and poetry

This list is short, because I quickly realised that it could become e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. Please share your favourite fiction and poems that sustain or enlighten or entertain you, because of some association with death and aging.

  1. The Summer before the Dark. Doris Lessing — Stunning. Must-read. The heroine is plunged into an artificial old age by circumstance. An exercise in empathy and experimentation.
  2. Memento Mori. Muriel Spark — Loved it. A mysterious caller announces to each character in turn, “Remember you must die.” Rrright! How do you respond? Call the police? Explode? Run away? Or agree… Beneath a feather-light, frivolous treatment of death lies a timeless message for us all.
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Reasons for writing: be glib or be puzzled

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My sister Lesley (left) who accidentally triggered Fixing Mrs Philpott. Photo: Nilu Izadi 

What prompts you to write a particular book, a specific book? For example, why did I write Fixing Mrs Philpott— rather than a memoir, a book about ageing, or a novel from scratch about an entirely different character?

“Why did the author write this book?”

This is a stock question at any writers’ festival, and authors learn to answer in a way that satisfies the audience. But the “reasons” we trot out are usually a minefield of guesses, coincidences, fictions and facts. They are excuses, not reasons. We shape our reply for the audience and our own needs, and it’s as true as we can make it. Behind that carefully constructed answer is a mystery and a puzzle. Which is not a bad thing.

My high school English teachers used to ask us this standard question about every poem and every novel that we studied, and it puzzled me deeply. Especially as they seemed utterly confident they knew the answer, and that there was only one correct answer. Even at the age of 12 I was astonished at their answers and their certainty, because I was equally certain that they were wrong.

Unpicking some reasons for writing Fixing Mrs Philpott

Circumstances played a part. A few years ago, my sister told me that her 80-year-old friend was looking for some mildly erotic short stories to revive her lost sex drive. I was very busy at the time and certainly didn’t have time to write a novel … but it occurred to me that I could handle short stories. They were short, that’s why. And I could write them one at a time.

So I gathered true confessions about real life sex from friends and acquaintances (but why?). I elaborated (but why?), I embellished (but why?) and the result was Scarlet Heels: 26 stories about sex.

Then at the Frankfurt Book Fair, publishers and agents advised me with one voice to reverse-engineer the short stories into a novel. With 26 random characters in eight different countries? Yeah, right! What a ridiculous idea.

Nobody forced me to jump through that hoop, and yet I did. (Why?) After three false starts (modelled on 1001 Nights, an Agatha Christie house party, and The Canterbury Tales) I finally hammered the stories into a single entity by using the Hero’s Journey screenplay model. A single male character was added to the mix. Eventually I had a plot and an earthquake-resistant structure, instead of a string of episodes:

Odd little Mrs Philpott has a couple of problems on the back burner. At 70 she is convinced that her life is over, plus she has a “relationship problem” with her husband Bill — and then the earthquakes begin. So off she goes, a small woman in a large car dragging a yellow caravan. On a shaky road trip around Canterbury, she receives a torrent of all-too-personal advice from an ever-expanding community of friends. Further disasters test her to the limit. In a final violent confrontation, she must either prove that she is well and truly fixed — or lose everything.

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But these are not logical reasons

Would you have perceived a lack of time as a reason to write short stories? Would you have written the short stories just because your sister asked you to find some for a friend? Would you have struggled to create a genuine, well plotted novel out of those maverick short stories, without a contract or commitment from agent or publisher?

I like to think I select my own path as a writer, but my feet carry me inexorably along peculiar tracks to odd destinations. And that’s exactly how I like it.

How about you? Are you more logical, more sensible than this? That’s fine, because we need all sorts of writers. Or maybe you know exactly what I mean.


Why do we write the books we write?

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I look at my latest novel and I think, why? Why did I write it, that book, that particular book in that particular way? Why didn’t I write a different novel, or write it in a different way? Why didn’t someone else write that novel? Why do I write any book at all nowadays?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fixing Mrs Philpott, and lots of other people have told me they do too. (Allow me to toss in a few encouraging adjectives from my 24 fans: exuberant, giggling, positive, terrific writing, great fun, feminist, intrepid, life-affirming, adorable…) I love my funny worried self-deluding heroine and the cover and the entire concoction of stories and characters and earthquakes and sex and unstoppable tips from friends and strangers. Nevertheless, I’m puzzled about why I wrote it.

Not about why I write books in general: that’s fairly straightforward (on the surface). I love writing books, that’s why. I get high on the adventure, the puzzle, the impossibly difficult project. It’s how I get my thrills— intellectual (as half-formed ideas stretch out and colonise my brain), emotional (fear, pride, fear, the ecstasy of Flow), and aesthetic. That’s enough reason, surely?

But still, why writing instead of say, mathematics or scuba diving? A bunch of writing genes, a library habit, a ready-made audience of five sisters? No, because then we would have six poet-novelists in the family. Maybe some credit is due to aphantasia, leading me to compensate for mind-blindness with extra skills in language, narrative, and abstract thinking. That’s a stretch. Maybe the fact that my mother was briefly engaged to an eminent poet. (What? No. No!)

Who cares? I write books. I can’t help it. It’s a habit.

You are different. You write for your own particular reasons. I wonder what they are… maybe you’ll tell me…

That leaves the specific question: why did I write Fixing Mrs Philpott? I’ll leave that for another day.

Joy of writing #2—sharing

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Mini-book fair, maxi-book launch: sharing with readers and writers

Most writers adore those moments when readers tell you how much they loved one of your books. When they quiz you about how you write, why you write, and why you wrote a particular thing a particular way. When their eyes glow and you know that you touched this person with your words.

It’s love you receive at those moments. Love and attention and respect — often from a complete stranger. And you feel simultaneously high as a kite and grateful, humble, almost embarrassed to think that someone has paid such close attention to your writing.

Mini-book fair, maxi-book launch at Meeow Cafe

Last week eight indie or self-published novelists got together for a Kiwi Book Feast, where they launched new books together and met some of their readers. I thought this was a lovely idea — to share the planning, the costs, and the fun with fellow writers. It’s certainly an idea worth developing and repeating. Launching a solitary book is huge fun but it’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. Launching eight gives the audience a sense of perspective and some choices — but not too many.

Double sharing: with readers and fellow writers

The multiple book launch gives writers another opportunity to share their ideas with readers in person. It also requires writers to share the work and the limelight of a book launch with each other.

Have you been to any similar event? It’s the first time I’ve encountered a multiple book launch and I’m curious.