Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Bedlam's Door: True Tales of Madness and Hope

by Mark Rubinstein MD
Thunder Lake Press     2016
  275 pages     Nonfiction

Dr. Mark Rubinstein is a physician and psychiatrist, but in his heart, he is a storyteller. He has published several novels and medical nonfiction works over the years in addition to practicing psychiatry. Bedlam's Door, his newest book, is a series of reminiscences about patients he encountered through his years as a psychiatric resident and then in his private practice. 

Each chapter of Bedlam's Door is a case study, from a Hungarian man who thinks that he is the King of the Puerto Ricans, to a suicidal woman suffering from post traumatic shock following the death of her husband.  Each story is unique, heartbreaking, and eloquently told. Rubinstein says: "It's really quite ironic. I fell in love with psychiatry because each patient—through sharing human commonalities—has a uniquely personal story."  Following each case study, Rubinstein outlines the diagnosis and the pathology, or the reason for the treatment. Often he offers a postscript to the story about how the patient fared following treatment. The after words are extremely valuable to help the reader understand the case.

My favorite story concerns a  man named "Mr. Smith" who was brought to the hospital by the police. He had been hanging around a famous New York hotel, saying that he had plenty of money and that he wanted to rent a suite at the hotel. He was dressed in expensive, although worn out, clothing and was carrying a large briefcase and said that he had a lot of money inside. He looked around the hospital and decided that instead of the fancy hotel, he wanted to rent a room in the hospital. Dr. Rubinstein played along with the charade all the while trying to assess Mr. Smith's mental stability. But it was not until Mr. Smith opened the briefcase to show the money—thousands of dollars of Monopoly money—that Dr. Rubinstein concluded that Mr. Smith really did need a room in the hospital.

Patricia, the suicidal woman suffering from post traumatic stress following her husband's death, had been under treatment for several weeks when  Dr. Rubinstein visited her and found her much calmer and more in control of her life. He mentioned that what she had needed was a chance to begin healing. Her response spoke volumes. "Thank you for not letting me make a permanent decision in a temporary frame of mind."

The tag line of Bedlam's Door is True Tales of Madness and Hope. Rubinstein illustrates graphically how there is almost always hope—hope that comes with intense counseling and balanced medicine. This is the great value of the book; while the stories are fascinating, the upbeat tone and implicit sense of hope pervades everything.

I have been trying to think about who benefits most from reading Bedlam's Door. Certainly it would be valuable for medical students deciding whether to pursue careers in psychiatry, but it would also be valuable for families facing psychiatric treatment for loved ones. Dr. Rubinstein's message of hope will resonate in many settings.

Linda Fairstein, a well known novelist, recommends Bedlam's Door. “Bedlam’s Door is a riveting read about madness and mental illness. Mark Rubinstein—award-winning novelist, physician, and psychiatrist—is the perfect guide for this journey through the mysteries of the mind, from despair to hope, and he does it in brilliant form. If you enjoy psychology, crime fiction, a good story, and forensics, this is a must-read book.”

Here is Mark Rubinstein's website.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Book that Matters Most

by Ann Hood
W. W. Norton     2016
368 pages     Fiction

A book club! Most of us who read book reviews or are on Goodreads belong to a book club. Ava, a university French professor in Providence RI, had been wanting to be in a book club for several years. But when a place opens up in the library book club run by her friend Cate, the librarian, she is ill prepared to join. Her husband has just left her for a younger woman and her children are far away. However, she knows that contact with others and intellectual stimulation will be valuable for her mental health, so she accepts the invitation and meets the group. "All these faces, looking open and ready for something, she needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books."

 The group's theme for the year is "The Book that Matters Most", and each club member needs to choose a book that the entire group will read for discussion—one book a month. Most members of the group choose books from the American school reading lexicon—Catcher in the Rye; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Pride and Prejudice; To Kill a Mockingbird; One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Great Gatsby among others. Ava chooses From Clare to Here by Rosalind Arden, an obscure New England author. Ava has her own reasons for choosing that particular book, and therein lies the plot of The Book that Matters Most.

I had never read anything by Ann Hood, although she has several books in her lexicon, and she is well-reviewed.  I appreciated the book's theme, structure, and character development, particularly that of Ava and her daughter Maggie. I loved that Ava didn't read Pride and Prejudice and instead watched the movie. I have to admit that there have been books that I didn't read for our book club, like Wolf Hall and Madame Bovary. (Actually nobody in the club read Madame Bovary!) 

Ava is a woman struggling to regain her footing following her divorce, and when we are privy to the other baggage that she is carrying, we are very understanding of her reticence to participate fully in the book group. Maggie, the other main character, is also deeply flawed, but at the same time deeply appealing. She is ostensibly on a study abroad in Florence, but has gone to Paris without her parents' knowledge and has gotten herself into a scary situation with an older Frenchman. Drug and alcohol addled, she is struggling to come to the surface and really begin her life. The reader longs for her to come to her senses.

As the book club explores the reasons why each month's book was important to the member who chose it, we see that books have the power to aid in the recovery from all the various types of loss. Each book club member has his or her own story.  I was intrigued by the concept of The Book that Matters Most and raced through the book. I spent a lot of time pondering which books mattered most to me, and why most people pick books that they read as young adults. Perhaps that is when they are the most vulnerable. 

While the character development is strong, the plot suffers from the author's desire to move the story line to resolution using very obvious plot devices.  A couple of times I said "Oh, for heaven's sake!" out loud, the plot twist was so obvious. The surprising thing to me was that I didn't need a "happy" ending for the book to be fully developed. Apparently that was the author's need, not mine.

I have written this book blog for six years—it has been an exercise for me—more like a diary than a review tool. I have explored more than 400 books with the purpose of finding what matters to me in each book I read. In those six years, some books have stayed with me longer than others—some I have no recollection of at all. Some books mattered a great deal; sometimes one little detail was what mattered; sometimes the author's intent was the most important thing.  When reading The Book that Matters Most, all of my mental effort went into thinking about why we read, why books matter, and why some books become so important to us. If that was the author's intent, then she succeeded. If her intent was to create an illuminating plot, she didn't succeed quite so well.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

by Anu Partanen
Harper     2016
432 pages     Nonfiction

Americans have long heard about the superiority of the Nordic form of Socialism, and more recently we have heard about the Finnish schools and the superiority of their education system. Frankly, this is not news to me. I have been hearing about it for years from my Norwegian sister-in-law, Arna. For all the years she has been married to my brother, she has bragged about how much better the Norwegian theory of everything is compared to the American theory of anything. And then, lo and behold, a book by virtually the same name, The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen appeared on my Kindle from the publisher. Would I review it? Of course, I thought. Now I can finally figure out what Arna was talking about. Well, it has taken me several months to get through the book, which I read in fits and starts, but I can now assure you that for the most part, Arna is right. The Nordic way is the best way for many of life's situations.

Partanen is a journalist who came to the United States when she married an American. She begins by discussing all the things that most confused her when she arrived in the United States, including the things she took for granted in Finland, her home country. (The same social conditions she speaks of regarding Finland apply to the other Nordic countries as well). For example, she had a difficult time figuring out co-pays for health insurance. No such thing in Finland. Taxes were also a problem, including the complicated nature of the forms and deductions. One of the things that most surprised her was parental leave and childcare—something that is taken for granted in the Nordic countries.

The central thesis of the book is contained in the prologue: "What could a bunch of tiny, cold, insignificant countries, where everybody looks the same, acts the same, and thinks a good time is a plate of pickled herring have to offer the diverse and dynamic United States?"

The Nordic Theory of Everything addresses four major concepts that Partanen finds difficult to understand in the United States: healthcare, the educational system, the family unit, and governmental participation in everyday life. I found the entire idea of family leave and childcare to be the most fascinating, particularly because we in the United States are embroiled in a huge debate regarding these issues. Partanen calls this the "Nordic theory of love." She says that "authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal." Most Nordic countries are quite egalitarian when it comes to new parents. Both parents are allowed leave when there is a new child in the family, and the parents return to their jobs exactly where they left off. Although companies in the United States are getting better about family leave, there tend to be many more constraints on the leave than in the Nordic countries.

And then there is education—free education for all through university. My nephew Will, born and raised in the United States, is a Norwegian citizen because of his mother. He is attending graduate school in Norway tuition free. University education for all is a concept that is also being debated in the United States, and Partanen has a lot to say on this matter as well. All of her informative book is well-researched but also shows a great deal of common sense. She believes that the Nordic model for the role of government in the lives of a country's citizens is not inhibiting, but frees the citizen for social mobility, entrepreneurship, and effective citizenry. Ultimately, she believes that America's social systems are out dated and old fashioned, but in the closing chapter of the book, she maintains that the United States can fix many of our social concerns and constraints and reinvigorate our society if we follow the Nordic model.

So—I was discussing the book with my nephew, Will, who is finishing his fifth year living in Norway with all his education free. He espoused everything that Partanen says in her book. When I asked what he felt were the weaknesses in the system, he suggested that the Nordic countries are quite insular and unwilling to accept people unlike themselves. "Are they racist?" I asked. "Yes," he replied, "I would have to say that there is a streak of racism in the culture." My conclusion is that no culture is without its problems, but Partanen offers a "careful and judicious" case for some remodeling that should be happening in the American theory of everything.

A review in the New York Times.
A review in the Seattle Times.
Anu Partanen website

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child

by Ross W. Greene, PhD
 Scribner     2016
281 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

At a family picnic the other day, my granddaughter (age 5) was having a hard time focusing on eating her dinner. There was a lot of food on her plate, and she had touched none of it. My daughter said to her, "I think that you have two options here: one option is to just sit here staring at your plate until the picnic is over. The other option is to come up with a solution with me about how much you need to eat and then eat that amount so that you can go and play." My granddaughter decided that the second option was the best. She said that she was worried that there was too much food on her plate. She and her mother figured out the amount she needed to eat; she ate quickly; and then got up to go play with her cousins. One of her aunts watched the entire exchange and remarked, "Gee, I wish I had known that strategy 10 years ago when I needed it."

In his excellent book, Raising Human Beings, Dr. Ross Greene has created a plan to encourage collaborative partnerships between parents and children that can help to resolve the many scenarios that parents and children have to negotiate on the pathway to adulthood. The goal, of course, is for parents to help their children develop skills to become independent without becoming adversarial. 

To go back to my granddaughter's food situation. Dr. Greene suggests three sets of options, One option is Plan A, the plan in which the parents are in control. "You are going to sit there until you finish that food." Plan B is the plan my daughter chose. It takes into account the child's problem and together they seek to find a solution. Plan B actively uses three steps (empathy, define adult concerns, and invitation) to establish understanding and work in partnership to come up with solutions that address every party’s concerns.

 Dr. Greene also offers Plan C in which the parent defers to the child's skills, beliefs, values, preferences, personality traits and goals. An example of this would be another granddaughter's decision not to play soccer anymore and to try out for the cheerleading squad, instead. Still athletic but more social. Her parents deferred to her decision-making skills, even though her father was disappointed because soccer had been an interest that they shared.

Raising Human Beings has a child rearing plan that goes way beyond the "Because I said so!" form of decision making to a much more collaborative and affirming style of parenting. Ultimately the child becomes a far more confident decision maker—ready and able to become independent. The reviewer in Publisher's Weekly concludes: "This book is a game-changer for parents, teachers, and other caregivers of children. Its advice is reasonable and empathetic, and readers will feel ready to start creating a better relationship with the children in their lives."


Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Crepes of Wrath: A Pancake House Mystery

by Sarah Fox
Alibi       2016
257 pages     Cozy Mystery

The setup of The Crepes of Wrath is good. Marley comes to the small beachfront Washington community to help out her cousin Jimmy who has landed in the hospital with pneumonia. Jimmy runs a popular diner in Wildwood Cove called The Flipside Pancake House. Marley takes a leave of absence from her job as a legal assistant in Seattle to help out. We never meet Jimmy because he is murdered on his way home from the hospital. At that point, Marley becomes consumed with trying to figure out who has murdered him. The town is small and everyone becomes a suspect in Marley's eyes.

The setting is also good. The Crepes of Wrath takes place off season in a small beach community. I could visualize the spot and the people who live there. The Flipside Pancake House restaurant reminded me a bit of Gull Landing, the little restaurant in our vacation spot of Pentwater Michigan. It stays open all winter and only serves the community. The Victorian house that Marley inherits when Jimmy dies sits on the beach, but houses are being torn down all around it to make way for new development, which of course, is an anathema to the townspeople. Hence the tension in the community and potential murderers who may want Jimmy's beach front property.

The plot moves along rapidly, which is good, and the climax is a bit of a surprise. I found myself engrossed in the final chapters as it becomes more and more dangerous for Marley to move around in the community as she seeks to solve the murder. Although there was foreshadowing as to who the murderer might be, I was surprised when the murderer was revealed.

What is totally lacking in The Crepes of Wrath is a reason to read the book. I felt that the author Sarah Fox was just going through the motions—clicking off all the components of a cozy mystery—setting (check), motive (check), recipes (check). As a reader, I never connected with the characters. Even though the story is told through the eyes of Marley, we never really know her, and we know her love interest, Brett even less. And speaking of love interest, both of these characters—Marley and Brett—are supposed to be in their thirties, but this is the most chaste, 14-year-old romance ever. (Would readers of cozy mysteries be offended if the main characters did more than just feel "the electricity" between them.)  Romance (check)!

If you want to know what a cozy mystery should contain, I refer you to the Cozy Mystery blog, which gives you a run-down of all the components. And oh, by the way, the recipes at the end of the book are very good. If the rest of the book were only as good as the recipes. . .

So, why waste time reading a so-so cozy mystery? For the same reason that we sometimes mindlessly click through TV channels or flip on ridiculous websites; our brains need a rest. It had been a rough week, and I needed a rest. Now, I am ready to tackle meatier fare. Oh, and by the way, have you watched The Night Of on HBO?

The Crepes of Wrath is available as an ebook for $3.99. Cheap therapy!

Here's a review by a blogger who felt like I did about the Crepes of Wrath.