The midlife crisis book inhabits a behemoth literary genre. It spans the feel-good fantasy of Eat, Pray, Love; the survival of "ordinary disasters" and meditation on mortality that is Martin Amis' Experience; and the chintz-patterned glasses through which Anna Quindlen envisions the padded retreat into her prime real estate-ensconced years. But as my 50th birthday approached, none of these titles were cutting through my mid-life malaise. Urgency drove me to these three essential reads, which are now as indispensable as my hormone replacement therapy.
The Middle Passage
From Misery to Meaning in Midlife
Normally, I enjoy buying books at my local bookstore, but I opted to have my copy of The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife delivered to my doorstep from Amazon — for the same reason that people once transported their pornography in brown paper bags. This slim volume will never make a summer beach read list; no, you need to be slogging through some serious soul-searching in order to get through it, but you'll be glad you experienced its bracing tough love. James Hollis, a Jungian-trained analyst, advocates rigorous self-examination, individuation and ridding oneself of negative animus, all in service of "transcend[ing] the delusory guarantee of security and identity." If Eat, Pray, Love steeps a fragrant oolong tea served in fine china by candlelight, Middle Passage brews a cup of Joe under florescent lights laced with smell of the hand sanitizer you'll need to keep yourself healthy at this age. It ought to be required reading. Doctors should send you home with a copy after you wake up from your first colonoscopy.
My Life in the Middle Ages
A Survivor's Tale
James Atlas' My Life in the Middle Ages came out several years ago, but it seems like many readers missed the sly charm of this book. He had me at the cover photo. A bemused Atlas is stretched out across train tracks dressed in a dapper suit: Funeral-ready? Maybe, but he's going out in style. Atlas' account of just how long it took to face up to the fact that his son was capable of beating the pants off him at tennis made me both laugh out loud and curse the fact that my teenager won't even play ping-pong with me anymore. Short of early mortality, Atlas offers not a single solution to mid-life ennui — only chipper fatalism, which makes his writing all the more witheringly pleasurable.
The Baby Boom
How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault And I'll Never Do It Again
If you're around my age, you will likely recognize the touchstones of your life both illuminated and lampooned with satirical relish by PJ O'Rourke in his new book. O'Rourke puts Boomers' contributions to history in perspective. It's a comedic and caustic cautionary tale for future generations — and, for those of us who are Boomers, a nostalgic and hilarious diversion. At page 29, I found myself pining for a simpler time, before juicing and kale turned our tongues green, when we faced down the dreaded, ubiquitous lima bean on our dinner plates. When O'Rourke tragically reduces the legacy of Boomers to a world where grown men regularly appear in public wearing shorts and our clothing announces our life philosophies, I snorted my essential green drink through my nose. It's disastrously familiar, distressingly accurate and great fun, a book that proves that though there is no escape from getting grayer, the old adage "misery loves company" really is timeless.
Actress and writer Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of I See You Made An Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50.