Sunday, June 4, 2017

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

by Alan Alda
Random House     2017
202 pages            Nonfiction

We all know Alan Alda to be a well-known actor, but what I didn't know about him is that he is a professor of Communications at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He is an expert in communication skills and specializes in training scientists, doctors, and other who must spend their lives communicating.

Alda got his start doing improvisational theater, and later learned a great deal about communication when he hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. From his studies, he discovered that one of the reasons that people have trouble understanding scientific breakthroughs is because scientists have a difficult time communicating their ideas. He teaches these scientists using the improvisational and interview skills he gained through his career.

I witnessed this scientific communication difficulty just a couple of weeks ago when I attended the PhD dissertation presentation of a friend. His dissertation was about black holes, I guess. The only two words I understood of the entire 45 minute presentation were stars and nebula—and I wasn't really sure if I understood what "nebula" were.

Alda has taught communication skills to scientists and others for several years, and this book is a synthesis the methods he uses. He says about relating to others: "It's being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you're observing them. It's letting everything about them affect you, not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their body language, even subtle things like where they're standing in the room or how they occupy a chair. Relating is letting all that seep into you and have an effect on how you respond to the other person."

The communication skills Alda teaches are really practical, and the book is full of wonderful advice for anyone who wants to really be in touch with the people with whom she is communicating. Some of Alda's clients are doctors who must deliver sensitive information to their patients. When my young husband was dying and it was near the end, the oncologist, who had taken very good care of my husband—but had kept himself at a distance—came into the room, put his arm around me, and stood there weeping. That moment meant more to me than virtually anything he might have said. This was true communication.

If I Understood You is so very valuable to anyone who needs to impart information to anyone. I should give my copy to my PhD friend as he begins his career.

Here is an interview with Alda on NPR.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

City Mouse

By Stacey Lender
Akashic Books     2017
309 pages     Fiction

Jessica and her husband Aaron, both busy professionals, are living in a one-bedroom flat in Manhattan. With two toddlers, it is just too small, too crowded, and too lacking in privacy. Aaron brings up the possibility of moving to the suburbs, a notion that Jessica finds horrifying, but realizes that for the sake of the family, it may be the best choice. They find a modern Victorian in the village of Suffern, move in, and Jessica tries to adapt to suburban life. It's pretty hard to do because she has a long commute into the city four days a week, working from home on Friday. Aaron travels a great deal, and Jessica is never sure that this suburban life is all it's cracked up to be. Then Aaron and Jessica meet the neighbors and are quickly included in the social life of the young parents who make up the majority of the preschool community where their daughter is enrolled. 

The women Jessica meets are primarily stay-at-home moms of young children, and frankly, are boring, catty, and mean-spirited. Yet, they are friendly and accepting of Jessica and her work schedule. Jessica tries to volunteer as much as she can, and she continues to seek out women with whom she has more in common, including a young Hispanic mother who is studying for a degree and is doing some fascinating research about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (By the way, I found her research to be the most interesting part of the book.)

The women who take the major roles are extremely petty with few interests beyond their children and their partying. They aren't the type of people Jessica would have found interesting if she were living in the city—nor would she have spent any time with them. Are they typical of small town, suburban women? I don't really think so. At one point, after the rather shocking weekend trip the "friends" take, Jessica bemoans the fact that she didn't work hard enough to seek out more like-minded women. She settled and almost paid a huge price. Ultimately, the couple decides to move back to the city—this time to Brooklyn. Jessica muses: "I thought about how I'd been spinning in circles for so long, like so many mothers, trying to live a life that was supposed to be best for my kids without losing the essential bits of myself. " She wonders about how many other women were living rather unfulfilled lives "twirling desperate to find the perfect place to land."

My first inclination was that City Mouse was going to be like Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty or Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. However, there is no murder to keep you reading like in Big Little Lies and, unlike Stepford Wives, the husbands play a very small role in City Mouse—in this case, the wives are the manipulators. While the climax of the book is scandalous, it is absolutely as small-minded as the rest of the book. 

The value of City Mouse lies in its exploration of the notion of "having it all." If you have trouble finding your place in a culture that seems alien and shallow to you, is it possible to have it all? On the other hand, is suburban life as bad as Lender implies? My thinking is that any community has both the good and the bad, and a discerning resident can find like-minded people virtually anywhere. 

I was interested in an item on the PBS News Hour last night that discussed a group of women in rural West Virginia, who are defying the prevailing wisdom of their community and are speaking out regarding the policies of President Trump. Jessica, the City Mouse, might have found some alliances there. 

Stacey Lender, the author of City Mouse, is a marketing executive for entertainment brands, a career very similar to her character Jessica. Unlike Jessica, however, she lives in Manhattan with her husband and two daughters.

Stacey Lender website.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

by Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books     2017
197 pages     Spiritual

"Well, Hallelujah Anyway." Isn't this what we say when life is getting us down—when we don't know where, when, or how to move ahead? Isn't this what mercy is all about? Anne Lamott says: "Yes, because in the words of Candi Stanton's great gospel song, 'hallelujah anyway.' Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature laughing, mercy."

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual authors. My love affair with her began with her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She tells it like it is—no holds barred, and nothing glossed over. In Hallelujah Anyway, Lamott is telling us that sometimes life isn't particularly pleasant; that shit happens; and then every once in a while, we see glimmers of grace and mercy. Mercy most of all. Lamott tells us that "Mercy is radical kindness. . . Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable."

One of her big lessons is that sometimes when we can't take it anymore, a mentor appears to guide us through the difficult moments. Lamott tells the story of how she found sobriety, and the woman who offered her mercy when she most needed it. This is just one of the many stories she tells about herself and her inner life. She offers her readers accessible wisdom and the very most practical of theologies. She reminds us of "how big and deep life is meant to be." 

Lamott's faith is honest faith; full of questions, days that have no meaning, glimpses of light, dear friends that anchor us, and mercy that comes from the most unusual people, at the most extraordinary times. Hallelujah Anyway reminds us to celebrate life, no matter what.

Several thoughts about the book and our reading of it. I read the book with my husband for our morning reading times. Of course, he had no past experience with Lamott, and he found the premise of the book rather negative. However, our readings provoked a lot of discussion about the nature of failure, about how he was always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and how he was so very good at mentoring people. We also talked about how hard he was on himself—that he needed to offer himself some mercy.

While we were reading Lamott's book, I was reading a novel for a church book group called Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown, which I will blog about next. In this book, four women meet in a spiritual growth group. One of their commonalities is that they offer themselves no mercy. They are not able to say, Hallelujah anyway! These fictional women offered me a lens through which I could see the points that Lamott was making.

Finally, as I was writing this blog posting in the early evening, the doorbell rang. At the door was a former handyman—alcoholic and recovering drug addict. He was looking particularly haggard and asked if he could come in. (My kids don't like it when he comes around because he can be very disruptive when he has been drinking.) So, we sat in the gathering dusk and he told me his worries and concerns.  I listened and offered him the mercy he needed. Would I have done this if I hadn't read the book? Probably. However, because I read Hallelujah Anyway, I understood the concept of mercy much better—particularly why he had come to me seeking mercy and the generosity with which I could offer him some peace. Anne Lamott says, “I know why I’m here, I know what I have to offer. I can get you a glass of water, that’s really all I have to offer.”

 Here is a video podcast of an interview Anne Lamott made following the publication of Hallelujah Anyway.   

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir

by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Flatiron Books     2017
322 pages     Memoir

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich  purports to be two things—a true crime nonfiction narrative and a memoir. In actuality, the memoir is far more engrossing than the true crime, but in combination, the book is so compelling that it will probably go on my list of favorites for the year, primarily because it is genre busting.

A word of caution: The Fact of a Body is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart because it includes murder, pedophilia, and sexual abuse. The author is unsparing in her description of events; her personal story as well as the true crime investigation regarding Ricky Langley, a convicted pedophile and murderer.
Marzano-Lesnevich was a law school student when she went to intern for the summer with a New Orleans law firm that specialized in death penalty cases. Her goal is to fight for the elimination of the death penalty. When she is given information about Ricky Langley and what he did, her beliefs and her worldview is shaken to the core. She cannot believe that she wants Ricky Langley to die. She finds herself questioning the events of her own life through the lens of Ricky Langley's life and deeds. Ricky had mental health issues his whole life and has cried out several times for help through the years. His arrest triggered several trials, which have ended with life in prison without parole.

Alexandria intermingles her own story with Ricky's. As she explores Ricky's life and its secrets, his penchant for young children, and the murder of little 6-year-old Jeremy, she is exposed, once again,  to the secrets of her own family and her own childhood, including the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her grandfather. She explores for the first time the things that have caused her lifelong emotional scars—the things have been left unexplored and unsaid—and the reasons why they were left unexplored and unsaid. 

These two narratives are totally compelling alone but best told in combination. The other portion of the book that is unique is the "imagined" way that the author fills in the gaps of Ricky's life. She only met Ricky one time in the prison in Louisiana, but she has the transcripts from the several trials and the impressions of the lawyers. She fills in the blanks, in effect. She says, "While I have not invented or altered any facts, relying instead on the documentation I've used as the primary source for this book, at times I have layered my imagination onto the bare-bones record of the past to bring it to life." All the sources she used are documented at the end of the book.

So, you can see that Marzano-Lesnevich has in effect created a new genre, a genre with which she excels. Her memoir is perhaps a bit more effective than the true crime narrative, but on the whole, the book is riveting and hugely successful. The Kirkus reviewer calls it " a powerful evocation of the raw pain of emotional scars." 

Here is a very interesting interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Beyond Bedlam's Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom

by Mark Rubinstein, MD
Thunder Lake Press     2017
275 pages     Nonfiction

Beyond Bedlam's Door continues Mark Rubinstein's stories about patients he met and treated in the course of his career as a psychiatrist. These stories began with his 2016 book, Bedlam's Door. If I had this many interesting stories in me, I would tell them, too. He calls them "more mysteries of the mind."

Rubinstein certainly affirms the saying that "everybody has a story!" He tells each case story with panache and spirit; the people come to life, just the way he met them. I especially appreciate the way he analyzes the experience from both the patient's point of view and his own point of view. This portion of each chapter is called The Afterword. In the afterword, Rubinstein explains the medical and ethical reasons for why he, as the psychiatrist, responded in the way he did.

What I particularly like about Rubinstein's storytelling is that the 21 stories in the book are about very interesting people, each with his/her own unique story, each with a unique problem for which they have come seeking help. Sometimes it takes a very brave person to say, "I need help in thinking this problem through." or "I can't solve this on my own." The afterword in each chapter is as important as the story itself. Rubinstein never denies, in any way, the humanity of his patient. 

I had just finished reading the novel, Ill Will, by Dan Chaon, when I began reading Beyond Bedlam's Door. Ill Will is about a psychologist who becomes involved with a patient in solving several murders at the same time that he is coming to grips with the death of his wife and his own haunted past. The first story in the Rubinstein book is oddly reminiscent of Ill Will because the case is about a doctor who has as many problems as the patient and the patient's problems are compounded by the doctor's—resulting in a murder. In the afterword, Rubinstein talks about transference and countertransference. These are cases in which the doctor and patient are involved in a relationship outside of the treatment space. In a later story, Rubinstein discusses a case in which he was involved in a transference involving the purchase of a piece of artwork by one of his patients. 

When I read the first book of case stories, Bedlam's Door, I pondered who would most benefit from reading the book. Now, after reading Ill Will and Beyond Bedlam's Door, I can see that—beyond professionals or medical students—a novelist or short story writer would benefit from reading Rubinstein's books. There is a lot of fodder for great narrative in the real life characters Rubinstein presents. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As a mother and grandmother, I appreciate so much the care that people close to me have received through the years. 

Dr. Mark Rubinstein's website. He is the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction.