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.

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.

A history of publishing through one author’s books

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It’s 2016, in case you didn’t notice. That means I’ve been a so-called published author for 42 years: I’m a walking talking piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c’est moi.

Publishing poetry collections: fun or none

From 1975–1988 five poetry books were published by small-press poetry specialists, and my Selected Poems by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a marvellous book designer, educated me in the publishing process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, layout, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it’s still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could make a gorgeous book, I loved the creativity and control, and I could make a profit.

A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, “Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?” So I self-published that book too and was thoroughly satisfied.

Publishing fiction: turbulence and change

My first three novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and Humming by another publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. With a professional designer the process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, Scarlet Heels still made money.

Slowly I’m now republishing the best of my work as ebooks, and have made about $3 (stet: three dollars) so far. I enjoy extending the life of my backlist this way.

My latest novel is Fixing Mrs Philpott (2016). A handsome paperback, it was published by a small Indie press and I will make a small profit.

Non-fiction: the plot thickens

Between 1980 and 1999 I had ten non-fiction books published by mainstream publishers. Since then I’ve personally published four books for the corporate market and one or two for writers. It’s my self-published non-fiction books that brought me a satisfying income over many years.

My publishing history is every author’s publishing history

To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 most of my books were published on paper by conventional publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. But since 2005, all my books have been self-published or indie-published.

I see the same pattern the world over: don’t you?

  1. Publishing has never been an easy industry and e-books ate the profits.
  2. Mainstream publishing companies shrivelled or merged until only two medium-sized fiction publishers remain in New Zealand.
  3. New technology increased the cost-effectiveness of small print runs.
  4. Small companies sprang up to enable anyone to self-publish.
  5. E-books came to dominate the market; real book sales reduced and then began to recover.

It’s not the books, it’s the industry

Now you may be thinking, “Apparently Rachel’s writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable.” Indeed, that’s what publishers often imply. After waiting for months for a response, you will probably be told, “Sorry, your book doesn’t fit with our marketing plan.”

What this really means: “We can only afford to publish a handful of books each year. As for fiction, we only publish guaranteed best-sellers. Anyway, our list is filled for the next 18 months.”

My attitude? Never say never, but I’m happy to carry on self publishing. It’s fun, it’s empowering and it’s profitable. I can live with the occasional sneer from people who don’t realize that these days, almost every New Zealand novel is self published.

Why am I sharing these gory details?

To encourage you, if you’re a writer struggling to find a mainstream publisher. To provide a reality check: times have changed! To reassure you that a rejection slip is not necessarily a reflection on your book. To inspire you, if you are looking for an alternative route to publication. And to remind you that writing is a reward in itself, and you can share it in many other ways.

Decoding a table of contents

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I’m looking at the table of contents (TOC) of Fixing Mrs Philpott, my new novel, and thinking that it tells a story.

First clue: that a table of contents is even provided. A quick glance at other novels on my shelves suggests that the norm is probably to have no table of contents, but merely to number the chapters as they happen.

Another obvious weirdness is the number of chapters: way outside the norm. When a novel does include a TOC, it usually fits neatly on a single page. Fixing Mrs Philpott has a TOC that fills three pages. It has 57 chapters in Book One, and then another 32 short stories, narrated by 27 different characters. Weird or what?

So what can we deduce from this 3-page TOC?

As the author I think I know, so you don’t have to sit this test.

  • One event happens per chapter, so to speak. As there are 57 chapters, the plot has a touch of the picaresque.
  • Zoe is the main character, but 26 other characters get to tell their tale or tales. Only one character is male. It’s a book featuring many different aspects of women’s lives.
  • The style is light-hearted for the most part. But with such an absurd structure, this was a mighty hard novel to shape and took a lot of grunt to write.

The strange provenance of Fixing Mrs Philpott

Professionally, I’ve been 95% occupied with my business for the last ten years. All that time, any so-called creative writing was low priority, squeezed into rare opportunities. Therefore the only book I could write apart from business books was a collection of short stories, based on true tales about personal relationships told to me by various women. This book became Scarlet Heels, published in 2010.

Then in 2012, the NZ Society of Authors picked Scarlet Heels as one of 40 books to promote at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I went along and seized the opportunity to quiz publishers and literary agents who answered with a single voice: “Virtually no publisher will touch short stories now. Turn it into a novel.”

Enter writing buddy and Writers Salon

Okaaaay… I struggled with the question: but how? I made a few doomed attempts at the job. Then in 2015, I got together with a writing buddy, Denise Keay, and that made all the difference. We meet on some Sunday evenings for what we jocularly call our Writer’s Salon. Denise is relentlessly honest and a splendid writer herself. With Denise at my elbow I struggled to squeeze a raggedy, random, all-over-the-shop narrative into the stern structure of the Hero’s Journey. Amazingly, it could be done and eventually I did it.

But what about the table of contents?

OK, getting to that. Originally the novel had all the stories inserted in the narrative at the moment they occurred. Each chapter ended when a story was told. Result: chapters without a focus, of wildly different lengths, chapters in which several major events might occur or none at all. So I decided, one event, one chapter. Stories happen whenever.

Then four friends beta-read the manuscript, and they were neatly polarised, two distracted by the short stories, and two distracted by the story of Mrs Philpott. So I removed the stories and put them back as Book Two of the novel. Mrs Philpott was well and truly fixed.

That was boring

I know! If you don’t write novels, I have just been guilty of a pointless rave. But if you do write novels, you’ll know exactly what I mean, and why it matters. You see, that’s one of the primary things that novelists do: struggle with structure. If we don’t get the structure to work, it’s not a novel. End of story. So to speak. Thanks for reading this far. (I’m amazed.)

PS How about your writing buddy?

Go read her blog, which is really an extraordinary novel, sort of, written by a 16th century cat and edited by Denise Keay, whose avatar is toutparmoi.

The Earl of Southampton’s Cat

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More about Mrs Philpott

Mrs Zoe Philpott is the central character of my new novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott. Here, to give you a better idea of why she thinks she might need fixing, are a few more samples of the book.

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Moving on a couple of months, Christchurch, where Zoe and her husband live, is struck by an immense, devastating earthquake. Endless aftershocks follow, playing havoc with everyone’s nerves and health.

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Here’s a little bit about Zoe’s morning bathroom ritual — extremely difficult when the city’s infrastructure is in chaos.

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As for happiness —

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Just for fun, do you have any life advice for Zoe? I promise it’s just for fun: there is no real Zoe, so you can preach to your heart’s content.


Accessible description of the images

  1. When Felicity Philpott preached her famous sermon on marital love, Mrs William Philpott suspected that the message was directed at herself and her husband. And so it proved.
  2. This road trip was a doolally idea.Text overlaid on a photo of an earthquake-shattered road by Brendan Zim.
  3. These days her elaborate Dusty Springfield hairdo took a lot more back-combing and a few more hairpins, but eventually the job was done. Text overlaid on part of a sketch of Zoe in the yellow caravan; sketch by Lesley Evans.
  4. ‘Oh sure,’ said Zoe. ‘Happiness is very much in vogue nowadays.’ Text overlaid on a photo of orange azaleas by Rachel McAlpine