Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrĂ©e into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Myrna - Therapy, books, and brownie cups!

by Amy

I seem to be shying away from actual cooking. It hasn't been on purpose. Honest.

I actually have pictures of meals that have been cooked, photographed, and enjoyed... but they´re not what I needed to write about. Since the main purpose (to me, at least) of this has been a form of therapy through writing, I have allowed myself to write about what I feel I should be writing about, even if it´s not exactly what is expected here.

I don't think of Myrna as a cook. In fact, we usually see her eating meals in friends' homes (although she helps with cooking and sometimes contributes a dish instead of a decoration) or at (or from) the Bistro (but then, if you lived next to Olivier's Bistro wouldn't you do the same? Why cook?). 

Since I don't exactly have a "Myrna meal" scene from the books that fits this particular post... nor do I have Libby's creativity or brilliancy when it comes to creating character-based recipes, I'll just share an "invention" which, like Myrna's marmberry, isn't really a recipe. It's more of a new twist on old favorites.

Here's my take on Myna's marmberry, by the way. Although I should call it Almondberry. I don't really like marmelade and couldn't bring myself to buy some JUST to take a picture and not eat it. So I guess this is more like peanut (ne, almond) butter & jelly on an English Muffin. We've discussed comfort food before and as far as comfort food goes, I think I'll keep my brownies and pass on the chili and the English muffin with marmaberry!

“People wandered in for books and conversation. They brought their stories to her, some bound, and some known by heart. She recognized some of the stories as real, and some as fiction. But she honored them all, though she didn’t buy every one.”

I remember, as a child, playing make believe with my sister and with friends. Whenever we chose to recreate a beloved story, we’d call dibs on one character or another. Sometimes our choice had to do with the character we most identified with. I have a feeling that choices were most commonly dictated by how we would like to be seen, not who we thought we really were like.

Part of the magic of reading fiction is that we have the opportunity to live many lives and to put ourselves in a variety of shoes. Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit – but it’s still fun to try it out (emotionally, that is) for a few days (or hours). Sometimes, the character fits us like a second skin. That can be comforting at times, but depending on the context in which the character is inserted, it can be extremely gut-wrenching. Sometimes it is in living through a fictional experience in a fictional context that we can come to terms with our very non-fictional feelings, prejudices, reactions, and impulses.

I think writing fiction could be an even more powerful experience in that sense. Marilynne Robinson describes it thus:

"When I write fiction; I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire - a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one's own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul." (Marilynne Robinson - When I Was a Child I Read Books)

I think that is why fiction is a form of magic.

Stories have a strange power of attraction. When we tell stories, we touch hearts. If we talk about theories or speak about ideas, the mind may assimilate them but the heart remains untouched.” (Jean Vanier – Becoming Human)

I’ve used Jean Vanier’s quote so many times in so many posts that you are all probably wondering if it’s my favorite quote (it isn’t, by the way – although it’s probably in the top 10). It’s a powerful idea, isn’t it?

I think he’s right. I have long used fiction as a form of therapy. I am a life-long reader and while I absolutely believe that our personal histories and view of the world tinge our perceptions of the books we read, I also think that the books we read and the lives we live vicariously influence our view of the world and ourselves.

Louise Penny’s characters are wonderful. I would love to live in Three Pines and have these people in my life. In a sense, they are also a part of me and I can see myself as a patchwork of characteristics from this or that character…

As I said in the Peppermint Tisane post, I think I'm probably most like Reine-Marie (or is it just that I'd like to think I am?). I can frequently empathize with Beauvoir (I am nowhere near as well read or as sophisticated and collected as Gamache and can understand how baffled Beauvoir feels at times), I’m probably closest to Myrna in regards to profession (both as a psychologist – I’m a pediatrician, but counseling and supporting is more important than any other aspect of the job – and as a book pusher), but I’d love to be as well read and perceptive and contained (in actions – not in outfits) as she is. I envy Clara her ability to express herself through art. I would dearly love to borrow Gabri’s self-esteem and authenticity and wish I had a fraction of Olivier’s elegance.

Myrna’s character fascinates me. Shortly before I began reading the Gamache books I’d started organizing my thoughts regarding the idea of books as a therapeutic tool. For a few years I’ve been toying with the idea of studying the concept formally - in some graduate setting. Recent studies have tried to prove what book-lovers have known for years: reading can teach you empathy and increase your capacity for theory of mind; stories can be a powerful tool for teaching children, in particular those with social difficulties, how to decipher emotional cues, perceive others’ behavior, and interpret interactions; non-fiction and fiction alike can give people something to aspire to or be inspired by, and can, thus, promote resilience; and so much more. There’s even a branch of therapy that uses fairy tales in particular (although other stories can be used) to help a client, through identification with the fairy tale and its characters, retell their own stories.

For some time now I have used stories both with my own son and with patients to help them deal with social and emotional issues. It's amazing how much easier it is to approach sensitive subjects if you're talking about someone else. After you've dissected the feelings, put yourself in various positions in the interaction, and reacted to it from a distance, it's easier to talk about the impact that has (or might have) in your own life, who you are in that scene or story, and how you can improve in your own interactions. It doesn't take much. Actually, my favorite stories, in this sense, tend to veer towards picture books. And I learn more than the kids do. 

And then there’s literary therapy. Two friends, in England, have long helped each other deal with life’s challenges through a series of book recommendations. Recently they made it official. ( If I’m ever in London I’ll be sure to make an appointment. They interview their clients and make a list of books they should read throughout their lives – in no particular order. They recently published a fascinating book called A NOVEL CURE. It has literary remedies for various ailments.

And, for those who haven’t read it, I absolutely fell in love with Jean Perdu and THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP. This character understands the therapeutic power of books (although he himself took decades to allow himself to heal).

I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.” (Nina George – The Little Paris Bookshop)

I think Myrna’s character is brilliant because it is a sort of homage to the therapeutic powers of books. Or at least that's how I see it.

“I know what you mean. When I quit my job as a psychologist, I felt guilty. This isn’t our parents’ generation, Armand. Now people have many chapters to their lives. When I stopped being a therapist I asked myself one question. What do I really want to do? Not for my friends, not for my family. Not for perfect strangers. But for me. Finally. It was my turn, my time. And this is yours, Armand. Yours and Reine-Marie’s. What do you really want?” (The Nature of the Beast)

I don’t think she stopped. She just found the perfect setting and her optimal form of therapy. She may not be a practicing psychologist in the traditional sense, but she is still a therapist.

But they both knew that words were weapons too, and when fashioned into a story their power was almost limitless.” (The Nature of the Beast)

And now for the brownies. I had to make desserts for a Christmas gathering and I was in another town (another country, actually), away from my own kitchen, and wanting to make sure to please everyone involved, but with little time to do so. My husband (always) would like a pie. My son prefers everything plain. One of my guests is a chocolate lover. And I, myself, am always excited when I'm in the US and there are fresh blueberries and raspberries for sale (we hardly ever get them and, when we do, they aren't usually all that nice). And dessert was created.

I just made brownies from a box. As soon as I pulled them out of the oven, while they were still warm and soft, I pressed a smaller dish into them to create a "brownie cup". I made dark chocolate, because they're my favorite. After the brownie cups had cooled, I added the finishing touches. The filling is that same lime (juice of 2 limes) and condensed milk (1 can) mix. I'd mixed them together and left the mixture in the refrigerator for a few hours so it would be firmer. Then I just decorated with some berries.

What I _didn't_ know before I made dessert was that one of the guests was a baker. As in he bakes things professionally for a living. I'm glad I didn't know beforehand. He wanted to know where I'd bought them (because they were cute) and ate more than one (because they were yummy). So if anyone else wants a nice looking dessert that takes very little time and effort and gives you more time to enjoy books and conversation with friends. This is it!


  1. Your entry is so thoughtful and dare I say, deep. I often become so immersed in stories and identify with characters that I have to take a break! Myrna is a wonderful character. She is still the therapist. I will look into The little Paris bookshop. Another author who wrote about magical books is Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author of THE SHADOW OF THE WIND. I believe the genre is called magical realism.
    Thank you for writing about Myrna. I wish I lived in Three Pines ! Books open up a whole world.

  2. Nancy,
    You're not the first person who recommended THE SHADOW OF THE WIND to me. I think I'll just "have" to read it now, especially since the magic of books has been on my mind...
    Then there's also The History of Love - Nicole Krauss, did you read that one? It's a fascinating book. I have Possession (Byatt) and have been meaning to read it, but I keep getting sidetracked by other books and since I watched the movie before I heard about the book (I hate it when that happens), I keep saving it for later.
    I wish I lived in Three Pines, too. :)
    And I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate that you take the time to comment. I confess that if this is a place where I'm using the written word to think aloud, it's encouraging to read your comments and know that there's not only someone listening, but thinking and pondering right along with me.
    Wouldn't you love to be Myrna's friend? I think it is a measure of her ability and her depth that she's Gamache's confidant in a way - even before she becomes his therapist.
    I love their conversations.
    Hugs! And thank you for reading!

    1. Yes I have read "The History of Love". I would love to have a friend like Myrna. I was excited to hear of the title of the new book A GREAT RECKONING. In only 6 months we will be back in Three Pines with all our friends. I love reading this blog, you are both very thoughtful and articulate..

    2. Hi Nancy, I was too! What a great title! I love Louise Penny's titles. I don't even think I could choose a favorite - although the image that "How The Light Gets In" brings is such a hopeful one I may favor that one. They are all powerful titles.
      And thank you for reading! You make the writing experience so much better.

  3. Love your idea of the brownie cups! I will have to do that sometime soon - it's an idea that even I can't mess up, I think, hahaha. I love the discussion of Myrna, and especially of the characters that people Louise's books. Three Pines is so absolutely where I want to live, but in some ways, I already do. I know that MY Myrna wouldn't be like yours or anyone else's, so even if there WAS a Three Pines, it wouldn't live up to my imagination. I think the character I most identify with is Gabri. There isn't a bigger heart in all the land, though he lacks somewhat in ambition. (I KNOW he's a far better cook and housekeeper than I am, though). I feel things in Louise's novels, very deeply, and along comes Gabri and expresses my feelings to a T! Gotta love the boy.

    1. Hi Julie,
      LOL! That's why I loved them. They look fancy enough, taste good enough (my son doesn't like the filling, but I just give him a plain cup with berries), and are easy enough that everyone is happy. You can also use ice cream as "filling". Or anything else, I guess.
      It's funny that you said that in a way you do live in Three Pines. I was actually going to write that thought in the post - ended up deleting when editing. Great minds thing alike?
      I agree! My Myrna, my Gamache, etc don't really match the book characters. It's the "feel" of them and their role in my life that's important.
      Oh, see?! I knew I liked you! Gabri is a wonderful character! I love him!

  4. I keep trying to change my postal address to 3 Pines but no luck. Love your Brownie Cups, and the new book titles to check out.
    Myrna is so lucky to be part of the 3 Pines business district and part of the magic that is that little settlement. She is the "mother" figure they all go to I think

    1. I agree. She is a mother figure. Or the wise healer of the tribe. Or something.
      I think in Still Life there's a scene where Clara is described as being their informal leader... I think Myrna's influence is a bit more subtle sometimes. She supports them.
      I'm glad you like the brownies.
      If you ever manage to change your address, let me know. I'll come visit!

  5. I love your insight about using books and stories to explore different lives, feelings, and emotions. I have always used reading as an escape and as a way to experience things I may not get to in real life. I wish my Myrna lived closer, but at least with email, text, and phone, I can get in touch with her. And oohh those brownies look amazing! Janell

    1. I'm so glad you have a Myrna in your life.
      I think we all need Myrnas!
      Aren't books magical that way?

  6. Oh I love Myrna too, Amy! To me she is the most centred of characters, a touchstone for the other Three Pines' characters. I think the 'Myrna' in my life is a 'compilation' of friends too! There's lots to think about in your post. Some books, like some friends, can be a wonder in the way they act on your self-awareness, and help you to interpret and re-define the stories of your own life. There's a good argument in there for wider reading too. Sometimes it can be too easy and comfortable to confine yourself to certain types of books. That's the good thing about book clubs! :)

    1. Myrna is wonderful. She's the character that changes the least in all of the books. In a way she's already grown into her own skin and has already had her "life crisis" when she moved to Three Pines. She knows who she is. I like how you described it: she's a touchstone. Good point. I hadn't really realized (before) that she was the one who changed the least. Your comment about her being the most centered made me reflect and see that. I was writing another post about how conversation can sometimes help us see things we don't see right away ourselves. See why it's so much fun to have friends to talk to about books we love? And you are so right. Sometimes it's good to have different friends - and different books.

  7. Hi Amy, Here I am - your "late" fan. *g* Life has been a bit full lately - as it is for most of us - but I find myself catching up on blogs and other internet reading tonight. So very glad I did! I adore the brownie idea. That would go over very well with my crew especially my husband (although he would be like your son and prefer them plain). They sound easy, fun and delicious. I'm already imagining ways to decorate for various holidays. Brownies are a big favorite for our family and always nice to find a new way to serve!

    Ah, books as therapy. I believe in that idea wholeheartedly. I think I've always been an empathetic person and I'm sure my love of reading has helped. I will check out the blog about assigning certain books for therapy purposes. Great idea! And so many great recommendations. I continue to wish I had a book clone. *g* Thanks for sharing your insight and unique ideas.

    1. So funny that your husband would be like my son! You could always make the brownie cups and have different fillings and decorations and have people make their own... That would probably go well with kids, too. It would probably be messy, but it would be fun. I like brownies more than cupcakes anyway. The blueberry/raspberry ones I made ended up looking pretty patriotic (for the US). I should have added a mint leaf or something to the raspberries. That might have been more Christmas-like. I need a book clone, too! I'm not sure I _do_ have unique ideas. I think what I have is a mish mash of things I've heard and read and all I do is thread them together. Just like the recipe that isn't a recipe. It's just a new mix to old flavors. I think. But then, that's what new ideas are, right? New spins on old thoughts.