Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce
 Random House  2012
343 pages     Fiction

About five years ago, a 65-year-old acquaintance of mine announced that he was going to walk home to Kalamazoo from Sneedville, Tennessee, where he had been on a mission trip. He proposed that he would write daily journal entries which he would email to friends, and then he would write a book when he got home. What he didn't anticipate was that his feet would become raw and bloody, and he would become so exhausted about two weeks into the 300+ mile journey that when someone offered  him a ride and dropped him off at home, he accepted the offer. It was a pilgrimage quite similar to that of Harold Fry. Unlike Harold, my friend's feet got the best of him. 

I thought often of my friend as I was reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold is the product of a loveless home and is in a loveless marriage. Newly retired, he doesn't know what to do with himself. His wife, bereft because their son has abandoned them, cleans the house incessantly. Life has become meaningless to both of them. When Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker Queenie announcing that she is dying of cancer, it is the culmination of all the ills in his life. He tries to mail her a letter but he can't bring himself to do it. He passes three post boxes until he finds himself at the edge of town. He begins to walk toward Queenie, in shirt, tie, and yacht shoes, and he doesn't stop. He calls the hospice where Queenie is spending her last days--600 miles from where he lives--and tells the nurse to tell Queenie not to die until he gets there. "I will keep walking, and she will just keep living." 

His walk, then, becomes a pilgrimage. He is on a journey to save, not just Queenie, but himself. It is the most audacious thing he has done in his life. As he journeys, he mulls over the choices he made in his life: the timidity with which he parented his son; the wedge that came between his wife and him; the fear that heralded his days and nights. He finds strength and joy in the mundane of "putting one foot in front of another," and in the final culminating moments of the book, the courage to make amends and find purpose for the rest of his life. In the end, Maureen, his wife, joins him as he visits Queenie, who has indeed stayed alive long enough for him to arrive. Maureen says, "You dear man. You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don't even know you can get there isn't a small miracle; then I don't know what is."

In reading the reviews of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I discovered a new word--twee. I had to look it up; it means something overly cute, delicate, small or corny. The reviewers in the New York Times and the Washington Post both used this word, but they used it to say that in describing the book, it sounds "twee," but in fact, the book is anything but twee. The Washington Post reviewer says that instead, the book is "steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands." That may be why I liked it so much. It made me incredibly sad, because at this point in my life, I understand Harold's need to be and to do something profound. It also made me sad because it is so easy for long-term marriages to fall into the kind of monotony that assails Harold and Maureen. 

The Blog Critic reviewer mentions that Rachel Joyce is a screenwriter,
and she has an eye for character--a cast of characters who are all too realistic next to Harold’s quasi-spiritual pilgrimage. "While everyone else wants to sanctify him we begin to see him in a new light—a light which shows his human failings while only making him more endearing to the reader." The reviewer also reminds us that this is a quest novel in the tradition of the Odyssey or Huckleberry Finn, or Marilynn Robinson's Gilead, which I read a couple of years ago.

Most of us are on a pilgrimage to be true to ourselves and to the source of our hope. That was what my friend was trying to do when he journeyed home from a mission. That is what I do as I tell my grandchildren stories of my childhood, stories of my family. That is what we do when we "put one foot in front of the other" and keep moving through life as joyfully as we possibly can.

Rachel Joyce:s website:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Blood Pressure Down

by Janet Bond Brill
 Three Rivers Press, 2013
338 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Blood Pressure Down is another book about losing five pounds, eating more valuable foods like bananas and spinach, and exercising, although this time the book is about lowering your blood pressure. High blood pressure is not one of my physical problems, although I am eating less, eating mineral-rich foods and exercising more for other ailments that happen at my age. I still found the book valuable. I didn't know as much as I should about magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Brill, who has a PhD in nutrition, has a personal stake in getting people's blood pressure down; several members of her family have died from ailments related to high blood pressure.

This is a very clearly written guide to lowering blood pressure. It talks a lot about vitamins and minerals that aid in lowering blood pressure--magnesium, potassium and calcium in particular. It encourages the reader to cut the salt out of his/her diet and take Vitamin D3, CoQ10, Omega 3 fish oil, and low-sodium vegetable juice. It suggests a blood pressure reducing diet, and an exercise plan. Included are several good recipes and meal plans.

The best advice, I think, is to drink one glass of red wine every day and eat one to two squares of dark chocolate. This I can do!  Everything in Blood Pressure Down is very clearly stated, logical, and relatively easy to follow. Her message is this: “High blood pressure is the most preventable cause of premature morbidity and mortality in the United States and the world, and that lifestyle therapy is the cornerstone of treatment of the disease.” Her simple message is this: 

 1. Lose five pounds
2. Cut the salt out of your diet
3. Eat bananas
4. Eat spinach
5. Eat yogurt

This book came to me from the publicist. I can recommend it to readers who are struggling with blood pressure.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Case of Redemption

 by Adam Mitzner

Gallery Books    2013
322 pages     Fiction

We expect three things out of a legal thriller--twists, turns, and drama. We expect that the lawyer will be smart and intuitive, and that he will be compassionate and willing to take on the unwinnable case. We expect that the lawyer will be great in the courtroom. We also expect that the lawyer will not be living an ordinary life. Oh, and we also expect some beautiful woman will cause romantic problems for the lawyer. Those are some of the makings of a good legal thriller.

All of these are at play in Adam Mitzner's new novel, A Case of Redemption. Dan Sorenson had just become a partner in a prestigious New York Law firm, when his life is shattered by the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. He descends into a stupor of grief and alcohol from which he cannot seem to emerge, so he takes a leave of absence from the firm. He is drawn back to work by a young lawyer named Nina who wants him to defend a rapper named Legally Dead. LD, as he is known, is accused of killing his girlfriend, who is an up-and-coming pop star. The weapon seems to be a baseball bat given to the pop star when she sang the national anthem at a baseball game. 

Nina drags Dan out of his drunken state and they begin to create a defense for a man who from every standpoint appears to be guilty. Slowly Dan finds himself coming back to life. He also finds that his emotional recovery seems to be dependent upon a growing romance with Nina and the innocence of LD. Of course, all is not as it  seems, and the conclusion of A Case of Redemption is especially surprising and catastrophic.

Mitzner does a particularly good job of making us sympathize with Dan's emotional turmoil. The hell he descends into at the death of his family is laden with guilt because he feels that he had devoted himself too much to his work before the car accident and not given his family enough attention. Even the lure of the beautiful Nina doesn't completely assuage him of his grief. I like that Mitzner understands the nature of grief--its ability to come and go--and how often guilt gets mixed up in grief. Dan is a totally believable character; his grief is painful to read about. 

The other well-realized character in the book, Nina, is another story. We think that we know her, but there are parts of her that just don't ring true. I rather liked this element in the plot; it's like your doubts about her give you an inside track to the solution to the puzzle. She does a great job of motivating Dan to come back to his career, but you still have an uneasy feeling about the whole relationship thing. Something's just not right.

Do you have to be a lawyer to write a good legal thriller? I rather think so, because the pacing of the trial is crucial to the plot of a legal thriller. Mitzner is particularly adept at keeping the reader on edge during the trial. His other book, A Conflict of Interest, which came out in 2011, was equally well paced. I expect that we will see more books featuring Dan Sorenson, when he comes back from his self-imposed exile on the beautiful island of St. Martin.

A good review in Kirkus Reviews:
The review in the New York Journal of Books:
 Another lawyer thriller that you might like would be Defending Jacob by William Landay.