Category Archives: reading

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Universe with Two Young Muggles

Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.

The universe?  Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.

The young Muggles?  My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them.  Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies.  Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.)  According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family.  I.e., people like us.

For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home:  dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene.  We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.

Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums.  Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A.  But we were.

On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard.  Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday?  Not entirely.  Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.

We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market.  Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun.  We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.

The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles.  We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet.  The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.

We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first.  As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course).  As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.

Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous.  It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.  As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted.  Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.

I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people.  I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear.  Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together.  Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.

After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders.  Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”  (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)

Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends.  But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP.  Our first priority was the Studio Tour.  We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day.  We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without.  One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea.  But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.

After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film.  Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong.  Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos.  For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.

The Simpsons ride was terrific, too.  Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it.  Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.

Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek.  Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.

When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off.  Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica.  This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie.  I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago.  Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.

The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture.  We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA.  A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.

By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success:  “1. Rise early.  2. Work hard.  3. Strike oil.”  It certainly worked for him!

 

Curl Up With a Good Book

If you have a penchant for reading fiction, guess what. You may have better social skills as a result.

A recent Harvard study asked 26 young people to undergo MRI brain scans while reading brief excerpts from novels, magazines, and other sources. The study found that reading fictional excerpts about people heightened activity in a brain system called the default network.

The study suggested that those who read a lot of fiction turn out to have stronger social skills than non-readers or people who read nonfiction. Why? Well, according to the researchers, reading fiction can improve social skills (also called social cognition) because a reader’s attention is drawn into other people’s mental states.

When the study’s participants read passages about people, there was significantly greater activity in the default network. (Reading about physical places didn’t evoke the same response.) The researchers noted that the enhanced activity stemming from reading about people linked to higher scores on social-cognition assessments.

In other words, stories with compelling emotional, social, and psychological content seem to trigger neural changes in the brain. And this apparently translates into enhanced social skills in real life.

The take-away? Reading fiction, especially stories that take readers inside other people’s lives and minds, may improve social skills by exercising the part of the brain related to empathy and imagination.

As someone who occasionally writes fiction, I’m delighted to learn the results of this study. They validate the feedback from those of my readers who’ve praised the characters I’ve created and the harrowing situations they’ve found themselves in.

As a reader, I love plunging into an absorbing story that’s focused on people with fascinating lives. Now I can envision my brain lighting up as I read an exciting passage.

I’ll bet you can, too.

So curl up with a good book—especially a story about other people’s lives. Then take a break and spend some time with your family or friends. As someone with enhanced social skills, you’re sure to have a great time.

The study, published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.