Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it. The fashion is to bemoan happiness studies and positive psychology as being the work not of the Devil (the Devil is kind of cool), but of morons. “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness,” Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1853. “What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
In “Bright-Sided,” Barbara Ehrenreich recently looked with dismay at what she views as the industry of happiness, a culture bludgeoned by insistent — even aggressive — good cheer. Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor (as she points out, neither the designation “victim” nor “patient” is regarded with much favor), was appalled and articulate about the shortcomings of the pink-and-fluffy approach to cancer. Not everyone shares her aversion to that affirmation-heavy culture of support, but I do, and I don’t object to her snarking about the power of positive thinking, either. (It doesn’t prevent cancer; it doesn’t even prevent colds.) A book published two years ago was actually titled “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.” Its author, a professor of English named Eric G. Wilson, wasn’t really against happiness, of course; he was against obtuse, simple-minded complacency, which he thought some people might confuse with happiness.
It is true that ever since Americans began turning away from Calvinism (and who could blame them: long winters, smallpox and eternal hellfire?), the country has been a breeding ground for good news, for the selling of paths to contentment. The quick-witted and genteel opportunism of Mary Baker Eddy and the medicine-free healing mantras of Christian Science begat Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” and every other “Think Your Way to Wealth and/or Happiness” coach from Father Divine to Suzanne Somers to Deepak Chopra. With questions like “Are you tired of being a victim?” “Do you feel stuck?” “Is something missing?” “Is life passing you by?,” there have been a lot of people giving happiness if not a bad name, then certainly a moist, oily “spray-on tan with a side of cash” kind of name.
Actual happiness is sometimes confused with the pursuit of it; and the most mindless and crass how-tos can get jumbled in with the modestly useful, the appealingly personal and the genuinely interesting. Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) is quite personal and most interesting when she takes the broader view. An insightful observer, Gore notes that the things she thought might make her happy did not, and she notes further that a vast majority of books on happiness and positive psychology have been written by men — by Martin Seligman (who has contributed to the genre many, many times) and by an armada of other male psychologists. She says she was puzzled and intrigued by that, but she was irritated, too, and began her own exploration of women’s happiness through hundreds of interviews. Gore concludes with a plea for liberty, joy and happiness, and the acknowledgment that it’s awfully hard to achieve all that when fear, pain, abuse or poverty encroach. (You would think this was old news. Not so. There are rafts of books by warm, dry, comfortably clad people who write as if none of these bad things will impinge on your happiness if you simply maintain the right attitude.)
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.99), is lighter and narrower in her approach, and seemingly falls in the camp of our first happiness blogger, Benjamin Franklin. She demonstrates, as Franklin did, a fondness for charts and goals, minutiae and frequent updates of aspirations and accomplishments. Rubin set out to spend a year, as she puts it, “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy — from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah,” because she found herself more affected by life’s annoyances than she wished to be — and less grateful, and less pleasant. She discovered that happiness (if you have the necessaries) takes energy and discipline. Like Franklin, Rubin is a good-natured, intelligent, privileged person, and she’s frank about the privilege; she resolves to set limits on buying treats for her kids, she resolves to rid herself of the seven kinds of clutter she has accumulated and goes right to the Container Store to do so. She resolves to find a more efficient fitness routine and does; it’s a quick 20 minutes with a great, albeit expensive, one-on-one trainer. She doesn’t apologize for her problems or for her solutions. Her lack of high-mindedness and of goals for world peace, and her willingness to list artificial sweetener on salad as one of her great discoveries, make her book not necessarily life-changing (although it has been a great hit with plenty of people), but at least pleasant company.Continue reading the main story
“If America has a Victor Hugo, it is Amy Bloom, whose picaresque novels roam the world, plumb the human heart and send characters into wild roulettes of kismet and calamity.” —The Washington Post
“To read Bloom is to fall in love—with the magic that language can make.” —More
New York Times bestselling author Amy Bloom is hailed “a national treasure” by Michael Cunningham and “one of America’s unique and most gifted literary voices” by Colum McCann. She is the author of four novels, three story collections, a nonfiction book and a children’s book.
White Houses (February 2018) is a triumphant historical novel that tells of the unexpected and forbidden affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok in the White House, where Hick’s status as “first friend” is an open secret. Lucky Us (2014), a deeply moving, fantastically funny novel of love, heartbreak, and luck, was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post and was chosen by Oprah as one of her top 10 books of 2014. The New York Times bestseller Away was praised by Entertainment Weekly for the way it “encapsulates all the cultural richness that newcomers contributed to this nation of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century.” Love Invents Us, Bloom’s first novel, is an unsettling tale of desire in which she shows us how profoundly the forces of love shape our lives.
Bloom’s short fiction includes Where the God Of Love Hangs Out, a New York Times bestseller; Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her first nonfiction book Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitudes, is a staple of university sociology and biology courses. Bloom is the author of a children’s book, Little Sweet Potato, about appreciating one’s self and finding a community that takes all kinds.
A National Magazine Award winner, Bloom has demonstrated her versatility and wit in the essays she has written for magazines such as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and Salon, on subjects as diverse as cooking lasagna, marrying at 50, and a history of portrait-painting. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages.
A lively, funny, provocative speaker who engages young and old, both sides of the aisle and both sexes, Amy’s talks on The Ethical Life, Good People and Bad Behavior, A Good and Happy Life and Why It’s Hard to Live One are favorites. During the all-too-brief popular weekly podcast of The Ethicists at the New York Times, Amy Bloom’s common sense, understanding, and humor was listened to and enjoyed by thousands.
A practicing psychotherapist for twenty years (after being a waitress, a bartender, an actor, and a peanut-picker), Bloom has an acute understanding of human nature and an ear especially attuned to the inner and outer voices of her characters. “I spent my professional life exploring the gap between what people said and how they said it, the chasm between what they felt and what they said they felt,” she has said.
She is the Distinguished University Writer-in-Residence at Wesleyan University.
Amy Bloom’s website
“To read Bloom’s fiction is to experience afresh how life is ruled by chance and composed of spare parts that are purposed and repurposed in uncanny ways—it’s a festival of joy and terror and lust and amazement….”—Elle
WHITE HOUSES (Novel, 2018)
“It seems a minor miracle, what Amy Bloom has done in White Houses. In Lorena Hickok’s unforgettable voice, she brings an untold slice of history so dazzlingly and devastatingly to life, it took my breath away. Easily, the most intimate, crackling, and expansive rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt in print, and, more than this, a dizzyingly beautiful tale of what it means to be human, and what it is to love.”—Paula McLain
Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.
From Washington to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.
LUCKY US(Novel, 2014)
“Lucky Us is a remarkable accomplishment. One waits a long time for a novel of this scope and dimension, replete with surgically drawn characters, a mix of comedy and tragedy that borders on the miraculous, and sentences that should be in a sentence museum.” —Michael Cunningham
From Amy Bloom, the beloved and critically acclaimed author of Away, comes a remarkable novel about the creation of an unconventional family—a brilliantly written, deeply moving, fantastically funny story of love, heartbreak, and luck. Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star, and Eva, the sidekick, journey across 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take them from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island. With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine through a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. Filled with gorgeous writing, memorable characters, and surprising events, Lucky Us is a thrilling and resonant novel about success and failure, good luck and bad, the creation of a family, and the pleasures and inevitable perils of family life. From Brooklyn’s beauty parlors to London’s West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat, and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species.
LITTLE SWEET POTATO(Children’s Book, 2012)
When Little Sweet Potato rolls away from his patch, he is forced to search for a new home. He stumbles upon some very mean plants on his journey and begins to wonder if maybe he is too lumpy and bumpy to belong anywhere. Will Little Sweet Potato ever find a home that’s just right for him? Amy Beth Bloom and Noah Z. Jones have created a funny and timeless tale about appreciating one’s self, lumps and bumps and all, and finding a community that takes all kinds.
WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT(Short Stories, 2010)
“Wise and resounding. Amy Bloom joins the ranks of the unforgettable: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eyeless time; Virginia Woolf’s impassivity in the progress of her characters’ lives.” —Los Angeles Times
Propelled by Bloom’s dazzling prose, unmistakable voice, and generous wit, Where the God of Love Hangs Out takes us to the margins and the centers of real people’s lives, exploring the changes that love and loss create. A young woman is haunted by her roommate’s murder; a man and his daughter-in-law confess their sins in the unlikeliest of places. In one quartet of interlocking stories, two middle-aged friends, married to others, find themselves surprisingly drawn to each other, risking all while never underestimating the cost. In another linked set of stories, we follow mother and son for thirty years as their small and uncertain family becomes an irresistible tribe. Insightful, sensuous, and heartbreaking, these stories of passion and disappointment, life and death, capture deep human truths.
AWAY (Novel, 2007)
“Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains….AWAY is a literary triumph.” —New York Times
Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia. All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work—her humor and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart–come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable.
LUCKY US (novel excerpt)
I’d Know You Anywhere
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. “It’s like this,” she said. “Your father loves us more, but he’s got another family, a wife, and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face.”
There was no one like my mother, for straight talk. She washed my neck and ears until they shone. We helped each other dress: her lilac dress, with the underarm zipper, my pink one with the tricky buttons. My mother did my braids so tight, my eyes pulled up. She took her violet cloche and her best gloves and she ran across the road to borrow Mr. Portman’s car. I was glad to be going and I thought I could get to be glad about having a sister. I wasn’t sorry my father’s other wife was dead.
WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT(story excerpt)
I had always planned to kill my father. When I was ten, I drew a picture of a grave with ALVIN LOWALD written on the tombstone, on the wall behind my dresser. From time to time, I would add a spray of weeds or a creeping vine. By the time I was in junior high, there were trees hung with kudzo, cracks in the granite, and a few dark daises springing up. Once, when my mother wouldn’t let me ride my bike into town, I wrote, Peggy Lowald is a fat stupid cow behind the dresser but I went back the same day and scribbled over it with black Magic Marker because most of the time I did love my mother and I knew she loved me. The whole family knew that my mother’s feelings were Sensitive and Easily Hurt. My father said so, all the time. My father’s feelings were also sensitive, but not in a way that I understood the word, at ten; it might have been more accurate to say that he was extremely responsive. My brother, Andy, drew cartoon weather maps of my father’s feelings: dark clouds of I Hate You, giving way to the sleet of Who Are You, pierced by bolts of Black Rage.
—From “Between Here and Here”
Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.
The scar across Lillian’s chest is a dull red line.
The scar on her shoulder is a fat little oval of rough, ridged purple with a thin curdled edge of whiter skin, made by the hot underside of a steel soup spoon. She has been asked about it a few times, by an interested man, an interested woman. The interests are not the same. There is the curious caress, the soft cluck of the tongue from a man who might break your heart the way he ignores you during dinner but when he comes to the scar later he fingers around and across it to the white buttons on your camisole, like you are a sweet, quivering bird, Sh-sh-sh.