Saturday, July 22, 2017

It's Not Yet Dark

By Simon Fitzmaurice

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2017
176 pages     Memoir

As I was reading this heart-warming and heart-breaking memoir earlier this week, there were 10 children laughing and playing in our pool. The juxtaposition was jarring but also comforting, because I had the constant assurance that life goes on, that laughter happens amid disaster, and that courageous people can prevail. Additionally, because Fitzmaurice has five children of his own, I knew that he was listening to his children’s play even as he was writing this memoir of his life and death struggle with ALS.  

Fitzmaurice is a filmmaker diagnosed with ALS nearly 10 years ago. Given four years—at most—to live, he has defied the odds, created a beautiful film, My Name is Emily, and been the subject of a documentary that was released at Sundance this year. His memoir was written with eye gaze technology and contains short, stream-of-conscious musings about his life, his illness, and his purpose. It's Not Yet Dark is remarkable. In short entries, Fitzmaurice tells us a bit about his life, both before and after he became ill. He also describes what he is musing and where his brain, undefined by the illness, is taking him. Like most filmmakers, Fitzmaurice is very visual, and his writings are as visual as his movies. For example, in the midst of a major health crisis and a long hospital stay, he writes: “I don’t know. I feel different today. Happy. It is a different feeling from anything else. Last night I dreamed I turned into the wind and flew. Round and round in cirrus spirals. So high it was beyond height. I woke up and felt like a king.”

It was hard to separate my own life experience from that of Fitzmaurice’s wife, Ruth, who appears to be an incredible woman, full of spirit and drive, with a deep understanding of her role in her husband’s well being. She and the children are the major reason why Fitzmaurice is alive. When I was a young wife with a husband dying from a terminal illness, I knew that Lee was fighting every day to stay alive for us, and I would do whatever I had to do to help him live. It’s Not Yet Dark is as much a testament to Ruth’s strength as it is to Fitzmaurice’s will to live.

You will want to read this life-affirming reflection when it is released on August 1. Later this year, the documentary about his life, his work, and his family will be released to Netflix. Colin Farrell speaks for Fitzmaurice in the documentary. Here is the trailer.

This is a very good CBS Sunday Morning feature about the My Name is Emily movie and an interview with Fitzmaurice. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Cruelest Month

By Louise Penny

Minotaur Books     2007
311 pages     Mystery

The wise Chief Inspector Gamache prevails for the third time solving a murder in Three Pines, Quebec. And again, the crime involves the colorful villagers and the scary Hadley house. For a variety of reasons, some of the villagers who meet frequently at the village pub decide to use the services of a visiting psychic to stage a séance—first on Good Friday evening at the pub, and then on Easter night at the “haunted” Hadley House. The second séance causes the death of one of the newer village residents, Madeleine, who has come to live with the long-time resident Hazel and her daughter Sophie. All outward appearances seem to indicate that Madeleine was scared to death at the séance, but of course, it was murder, and Chief Inspector Gamache returns with his associates from the Sûreté du Québec.

It took me until nearly the end of the book to figure out the murderer and the reason for the murder. This is a good thing because I became engrossed in the secondary—but perhaps more important—plot, which pits Gamache against the other officers of the Sûreté. Some are out to seek vengeance on Gamache, and they go to great lengths to expose and incriminate him. How could anybody be out to get such a lovely, caring, insightful man? In an interview, Penny acknowledged that she was really pleased with the concept of the “near enemy” in this book. I think that is probably what fascinated me most. The reader, who is so sure of Gamache’s intuition, wonders how he couldn’t see who his enemies really were? Or was he blind to the treason?

One of the things that I like about Penny’s writing is the artful way she makes the setting one of the characters. The village is as important as Clara and Peter the artists, Myrna the bookseller, the couple that run the pub and B&B, and Ruth the crazy poet. “But Three Pines itself was a village forgotten. Time eddied and swirled and sometimes bumped into it, but never stayed long and never left much of an impression.” The Hadley House, at the edge of the village evokes a sinister presence over this benign village. At the end of The Cruelest Month, however, the goodness of the village prevails over the evil of the Hadley House.

By The Cruelest Month, the third in the series, Louise Penny has hit her stride, and the reader becomes very comfortable with the village, its residents, and Inspector Gamache. One of the strengths of her writing is that she doesn’t need to spend much time retelling the past mysteries to allow the reader to move into the setting and the characters.

Do the books need to be read in order? I have read Still Life and A Fatal Grace in order and I think that it helped me through The Cruelest Month. I plan to begin the fourth mystery next week in anticipation of a trip to Louise Penny land in Quebec with a friend. Never done anything like this before. Penny releases her newest book, Glass Houses, on August 29, and we will be there to meet her. More about that later.

Generally, I am not a big fan of books in series, but I truly enjoy meeting Inspector Gamache, and the delightfully quirky village residents of Three Pines. Now, on to book 4. Watch this space.
Louise Penny website.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Child

By Fiona Barton
Berkley 2017
364 pages     Mystery

As you know, I am pretty much an uncritical reader when I am reading for pleasure, and I anticipated that The Child by Fiona Barton, which I began on the plane ride home from Iceland last week, would be that kind of book. It had been much touted in the book review world, and I got an advanced reader’s copy for a review. I pretty much accepted the premise and the plot—enjoying it every time I picked it up to read a bit—and it wasn’t until I closed the book for the final time that I paused and thought, “Well, so what!” Let me tell you a bit about the plot.

The bones of a newborn are discovered in a construction site. DNA testing confirms that it is an infant who has been dead for 40 years. So, why is it buried in a 30-year-old newspaper? Four women tell the story: Kate, a newspaper woman who seizes on the story; Emma who is following the story with great interest; Jude, her mother; and Angela, who it appears is the mother of the infant. Angela is sure that the infant is hers, but Emma insists that she is the mother.

Barton introduced Kate the investigative reporter in her first novel, The Widow. Kate is in her early 50s and is trying to maintain her career in the midst of enormous changes in the newspaper world. She works tenaciously to keep on top of the story and keep the editor happy. It is rather refreshing to have a woman news reporter serving as the case solver, and although intricate, the story is more personality driven than plot driven.  Kate has many pithy thoughts about the current state of journalism and she proves to be an appropriate witness to what most of us are thinking about newspapers and news reporters. Through persistence, Kate gains the trust of the three women individually, and because of that, she is able to solve the case. She believes that a reporter must get close to “tell the full story.” “Without empathy, without feeling someone’s pain, how could you tell a story.”

Journalist Maureen Corrigan, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post, believes that Kate did not maintain an appropriate balance as she tries to support the women and keep the news story going, even as the clues become more convoluted. Corrigan thinks that the character lost her professional balance. Frankly, Corrigan eviscerates the book. The Child is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil.” And while I admire Corrigan and her work, I believe that she is too hard on Barton. The Child was better than that, particularly in the characterization of Emma, whose whole life has been disoriented. I have known women like Emma. I also liked Kate’s tenacity and drive. I have known women like Kate as well.

Anyway, I finished The Child yesterday at the beach. It was a perfect beach day and a perfect beach read.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman

W.W. Norton 2017

304 pages

Audio Book

My husband and I have just completed one of the major adventures of our lives—a trip to Norway and Iceland. In preparation for the journey, and on our way to daughter Sabrina’s wedding, we listened to Neil Gaiman read his new book, Norse Mythology. Equally brutal, poignant, and humorous, the retellings were a perfect introduction to my imagination. We learned the legends of Odon, Thor, Loki and Freya in a clever, non-threatening way.

When we got to wedding, we met Freya, the young girlfriend of the groom’s son. It was more than a coincidence because she was beautiful enough to be the Norse Freya I imagined from the book. Then, when we got to Norway, my spirit immediately went to trolls and giants, something that the landscape produced. The landscape is so rugged and jaw-dropping, it is easy to see how the legends emerged. For example, here is a picture I took of what I imagined a troll to be.

And when I looked at the volcanic mountains of Iceland, I could see how those ancient story tellers envisioned those brutal Gods and giants.

Gaiman’s stories are spirited and humorous—easy reading for the middle grade student and easy listening for the elderly listener. Because I was not very familiar with the graphic and movie versions of the stories of Thor and company, I was fascinated with Gaiman’s retelling—lighthearted enough for early readers. On the other hand, those more experienced with the stories might think that Gaiman’s stories are lightweight.

In her review in the Guardian, Ursela Le Guin takes exception to Gaiman’s retellings. She says, “The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.”  

For me, Neil Gaiman’s audio book of Norse Mythology sparked a creative response so strong that when I got on the plane in Iceland for our return home, I immediately picked out a troll-looking passenger as well as one who could have been one of the giants. Finally, I could not get “There are giants in the sky” from Into the Woods out of my head. Gaiman's stories were my constant companion on my trip and for that, I can't thank him enough.

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.