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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Fitter Faster

by Robert J. Davis
with Brad Kolowich, Jr.
Amacom     2017
226 pages            Health and Wellness

Health journalist, Dr. Robert J. Davis, and personal trainer, Brad Kolowich, have developed a plan for overcoming barriers to fitness that have defined many people's life experiences. Their goal was to redefine exercise so that it's less time-consuming and intimidating and more convenient and enjoyable. Their plan includes an easy-to-follow workout plan that requires as little as 15 minutes a day, including aerobic, muscle-building, and fat-burning benefits. They have incorporated high-intensity interval training and circuits for strength training. Some of their exercise plan increases efficiency by providing aerobic and strength benefits at the same time. Everything can be done at home or outdoors.

The easy-to navigate book is divided into four sections: Get Ready; Get Smart; Get More Out of Exercise; Get Going. This is followed by a section of workouts from basic to intermediate. All the exercises outlined can be varied or customized. Everything looks doable--even for novices like me.

I found this book to be easy to navigate and understand. All the information and advice is laid out in easy to digest bits of knowledge that can be read and assimilated. For example, the author answers at the very beginning of the book what exercise can do for you. It can help you live longer, improve heart health, cut your cancer risk, boost your brain power, improve your mood, and fend off feebleness. Interspersed with all the pertinent information are stories of people who found help through improving their exercise.

The reviewer for Publisher's Weekly mentions that "what separates this guide from others is its commitment to facts and plans backed by science and research." This is what attracted me to Fitter Faster. I am working hard to regain strength and improve my mood following several months of working too hard and exercising too little. This is a valuable guide for both my husband and me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Fatal Grace

by Louise Penny
Minotaur Books     2006
313 pages     Mystery

Chief Inspector Gamache complained to his wife that the case he is on, the murder of C.C. de Portiers, is wearing him out. He says, "It's this case. It's become about more than murder. Somehow it's about belief." She responds, "Every murder you've been on is about belief. What the murderer believes, what you believe."

A Fatal Grace is all about belief, and more importantly, it's about grace. Not that the novel is religious, because it's not, but it is filled with the grace with which Chief Inspector Gamache runs his operation, how he treats his staff, and the gentle way he deals with the suspects as well as the people affected by the crime. He is a remarkable man, and this is a remarkable novel.

Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines, Quebec, which we first became acquainted with in the first Inspector Gamache novel, Still Life. This time, a new resident of the community, C.C. dePortiers is murdered. No one in the village liked her; she is actually despised because she had alienated everyone, including the three elderly women that form the backbone (or the tall pines) of the village. They revile her on many levels, but most importantly because of the way she treats her husband and her young teenage daughter. When C.C. dies a horrible death by electrocution, they become Garmache's first suspects. They know a lot more than they are telling him, but did they murder C.C.?

Three Pines is the most incredible village inhabited by genuine and deeply developed characters. Penny's greatest skill is bringing life to the community and its inhabitants. The Publisher's Weekly reviewer mentions that the novel may be bogged down by too much back story, but I really enjoyed meeting the characters again. Especially Garmache, whom I have grown to love. It is obvious that Penny loves him too, because she has endowed him with almost mythic qualities. She says of him, "Garmache's job was to collect the evidence, but also to collect the emotions. And the only way he knew to do that was to get to know the people. To watch and listen. To pay attention. And the best way to do that was in a deceptively casual manner in a deceptively casual setting. Like a bistro." 

It is Christmas time in Three Pines, so weather plays a huge role in the novel. It is snowy and bitterly cold. Even the natives of the region recognize that it is cold—and snowy—and below zero.  One of the major events of the Christmas holiday season in Three Pines is a brunch and a curling tournament. This is where the murder takes place. It is a community outing, and everyone is there, even the victim, but no one sees the murder happen. Strange! By the way, you have to live in Canada or Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin or the U.P. of Michigan to know what curling is. There is a huge debate whether curling is a sport or a game, witness the article in the Washington Post. In the case of curling in Three Pines, it is a lovely game that is played out on the pond, and people sit in the stands and watch. Apparently watching the game and not the murder! 

I encourage you to move in your mind to Three Pines, the lovely village in Quebec, and see the homicide in A Fatal Grace evolve through the eyes of Canada's greatest detective, Chief Inspector Gamache. 

Louise Penny website