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Sunday, December 10, 2017

"The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness" by Paula Poundstone


Happiness is a funny thing. If you’re comedienne Paula Poundstone, searching for it is even funnier.

In the The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, Poundstone cleans out the junk drawer; learns how to email and taekwondoes herself down a dress size. She picks up a nifty nickname—“Sugar Push”—by  taking swing dancing lessons, hugs every audience member after a live taping of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”; talks to lizards while backpacking with her oldest daughter in the Angeles National Forest; spends a day petting her 16 cats and another watching mostly horrible movies with her three kids.

In the “get positive” experiment, Poundstone sticks motivational sayings in eye-catching places, but only the ones she can’t argue. Fear of scraping off the underside of the Lamborghini she rents for a day puts a damper on its happiness-effect. Volunteering at a senior’s home is “balou-ful”, but bittersweet.

In the meantime, her kids grow, laugh and talk back on their way into adulthood;  and the cats keep peeing on the carpet. “If I added up all of the quick head pats, the chin strokes with the top of my pen, the toss of the ball with the bell in it, the times I wished I’d had my camera, and the snuggles in bed, it would probably come to a sizeable slice of my happiness pie," writes Poundstone. "Maybe happiness doesn’t come in bulk. Maybe it’s sprinkled in.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy" by Anne Lamott

One afternoon a few years ago, two friends and I sat on my porch and mourned the gradual loss, over the years, of our nicer selves. “Where has she gone?” we each wondered. Reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that our “niceness”—our mercy—had simply worn down—an inevitable by-product of aging.

We are not the only ones lamenting our winnowing of mercy. Anne Lamott does, too. Enough to write a book about it.

There is hope, yet. We are not so far gone, my friends and I, that we have become the dogs in the famous New Yorker cartoon Lamott recalls in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.”

What if we are just out of practice? And, age aside, what if we, as a society, are all a little rusty on the mercy front? “Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms” writes Lamott.  “And when we practise mercy, it is restored to us."

And what if mercy is not a constant of character, some have it, some don’t, but retrievable when the situation requires?

Lamott describes moments in her own life when, instead of being “prickly and judgmental” she can stop “pull, back, take a breath. The next thing I know, I let others go first, or see that now is not the time to demand an explanation or apology…. And I get me back.”

Saturday, August 26, 2017

"The Little Red Chairs" by Edna O'Brien


In the diminishing light of a winter evening thick with frost, a dark-coated stranger arrives in an Irish town. His business card presents him as Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

No one checks his references.

“Dr. Vlad” claims “his part of the world” to be Montenegro. He does not say Bosnia. He does not say Sarajevo. If he had, the good people of Cloonaila might have been more alert. More inclined to inquire.

“Tis an honour to have you Sir,” says Dara, from behind the bar in the town pub.

In this, he is mistaken.

The doctor is careful; the village hospitable. Before long, he has established a place for himself. He will wait until they come to him. And they do. For Fidelma McBride, who comes too close, entwining herself in an affair where few questions are asked, the consequences will be harrowing when the doctor’s true history is revealed.

Estranged from her husband, self-exiled from Cloonaila, Fidelma becomes one of the people she only read of in the papers; homeless “people in predicaments, migrants with babes in arms fleeing atrocities and heading for nowhere.” In time, she will be stronger, able to face the remorseless man who shattered her life, and the lives of thousands of others in an unfathomable “smorgasbord of crime.”

In The Little Red Chairs, award-winning novelist and memoirist Edna O’Brien traces Fidelma’s fragile course from among the “footsore and weary, craving the valleys and small instances of mercy” to a tentative hold on life, where, one day, “hope and grievance” may be reconciled.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

"Everyone brave is forgiven" by Chris Cleave

To volunteer without being asked; to discriminate only for character, never for colour; to be truthful when the answer will cause hurt…such are the everyday braveries familiar to Mary North when war is declared on the third of September, 1939. And they are more than enough to propel her into action, service, love and tragedy in Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

To be brave, it helps very much to have brave friends watching over you. In this, Mary and Alistair Heath, separated by an ocean, are equally fortunate. For Mary, there is Hilda to jostle her into the ambulance corps:

“Why wander through your thoughts,” says Hilda, “when you could drive through them quite recklessly, with sirens? The worst that could happen is that we might help someone.”

For Alistair, requisitioned to the “unpromising rock” of Malta, there is Simonson, a fellow captain (and a character inspired by Cleave’s grandfather who served on Malta in the Second World War). Half-starved and under siege, the two keep sanity of a sort with nimble, grim-witted observations while the bombs rain down on the narrow island.

“What are you smiling about?” said Simonson.
“I had a love letter in this morning’s post.”
Simonson yawned. “I get three a week.”
“But my family is not disgustingly wealthy, so I can actually take it as proof of my looks.”
“Go to hell,” said Simonson, “and tell them I sent you.”
“I suppose you own the place.”
“Fifty-one percent, old boy. One maintains a controlling interest.”

To be forgiven is to have first made mistakes, to have disappointed those who least deserve it. By having each other to hope for, Mary and Alistair are rescued from despair in the war’s worst moments. But it is their sharp-minded friends who may know them better than they know themselves. They will keep them, if not entirely whole, at least safe and soldiering on through the long, dark in-between.