Just One More Chance 

Is vengeance savage or sweet? You be the judge.

While searching for the host at a raucous party, Bob McIntosh was kicked to death — by someone to whom his wife later gave presents, someone whom she now says is her friend.

Forgiveness is not a halfway thing. You can't talk yourself into it or be convinced. Down deep, we are all Pontius Pilates and Hatfields and McCoys and angels of mercy. You can smile or say it's up to God or I got closure. But to actually absolve: to unclench, to stop picturing hot pokers — well, either you do or you don't.

McIntosh was a father of toddler twins: a triathlete and lawyer who liked wearing funny costumes and polishing his Porsche. After dinner on New Year's Eve 1997, he left his house on a plush cul-de-sac near Vancouver to see whether a party thrown by his out-of-town neighbor's young son was spinning out of control. It was. Bob's wife arrived at the hospital: "I am stunned. He has been intubated. ... I am confused by the vomit smeared on the side of his head and dripping from his ear. Someone explains that it is normal for the stomach contents to be expelled as the body shuts down."

Katy Hutchison's memoir is Walking After Midnight ( $24.95). Published in Oakland by New Harbinger, subtitled "One Woman's Journey Through Murder, Justice, and Forgiveness," it plies the membranes of grief and aftermath by counterpoising gut feelings with precision: a balancing act honed through Hutchison's successive careers in ballet and business. As her storybook life collapses and "the shouts and the tears rip through the protective cocoon of tea, firelight, and suspended time ... crushing sadness" is a "horrible jagged puzzle." Yet, selling her house and fleeing with the twins to her hometown's sparkling shores, Hutchison wishes the killer no ill: "I answer the predictable questions about the anger and vengeance the world wants from me but that I seem incapable of feeling. ... I loved Bob with all my heart. But that doesn't mean I have to hate the person or people who committed the crime."

Wow. Just — wow. Convinced that "anger is a dead end," and losing several friends in the process, Hutchison strives to brighten the horizons of Ryan Aldridge, who in a drunken twentysomething showoff moment booted McIntosh in the head four times, severing an artery. Arrested in 2002, five years after the killing, "he needs to begin releasing himself from his emotional shackles." Meeting Aldridge in prison, Hutchison can hardly keep from hugging him. They exchange letters, gifts. Her daughter asks: "How many people do you think bake cookies to share with the person who killed their husband?" Aldridge expresses remorse. He displays his sketchbook: "A Christmas dinner, a newborn nephew, a beloved family dog. ... I weep." Paroled in 2005, Aldridge now shares lecterns with Hutchison during antiviolence speaking engagements at schools and jails.

Dylan Schaffer was five when his father moved out. "He left me to be raised by a crazy woman," the Oakland lawyer seethes in Life, Death & Bialys (Bloomsbury, $24.95). A departure from Schaffer's previous fare — mystery novels featuring a Barry Manilow fan — but just as hard-bitten and hilarious, it's a memoir that starts in 2003 when said father, whom Schaffer has scarcely seen for more than two days at a time these past thirty years, enrolls them both in a fancy baking course at Manhattan's French Culinary Institute. Schaffer is shocked. Why him and not his other three siblings? What could his history-professor dad, a Humpty Dumpty lookalike with shocking table manners — "he hacks at his crab like it's ivy" — possibly hope to achieve? Schaffer has never recovered from that long-ago divorce. It consigned him to his suicidal mother, a mental patient turned psychiatrist who screamed and smashed things and worked fourteen hours a day while her four kids "consumed enormous quantities of Apple Jacks." His dad was "gone, and I'm mad." So now — croissants?

"I should mention that my father has metastatic lung and bladder cancer. According to the doctors, long before he can discover the secrets of baking beautiful and distinctive artisan breads, he will be dead."

But he wasn't. For anyone besides gung-ho oven-thumpers, the details of father and son manipulating dough will be less gripping than Schaffer's childhood scenes (his bed with its Peanuts blanket; his parents' wedding rings, which he hurled down a sewer drain) and grown-up observations ("My urge to punch him is mounting") and then those final days with a man who "does not deserve to be forgiven, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't forgive him anyway." Walking his dog naked at midnight, too sick to worry anymore, "he's so childlike that I've stopped thinking about how he failed me," Schaffer marvels. "For the first time in my life, I'm not angry.

"I love him. So I forgave," muses the author, who represented dog-mauling defendant Marjorie Knoller on appeal in 2002. "But I hate him, still. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

These books are absolution chronicles. They electrify because they are so personal, written from that secret mercy seat. It's impossible not to wonder what issues award-winning translator Eliot Weinberger — he has in the past rendered works by Octavio Paz and the Marquis de Sade — might be working out with his latest effort, Muhammad (Verso, $10.95). Its jacket-blurb calls it "a shimmering, lyrical biography of the Prophet." Weinberger's afterword calls it an "essay," based on "information" derived from the Quran and other clerical texts. Lyrical it is, casting lush, quirky scenarios of a figure whose forehead beams light, whose food talks, a figure with "the conjugal power of forty men." Released to coincide almost five years to the day after 9/11/01, this slender volume by a New Yorker seems a fawning, please-don't-hurt-me pardon for that morning's attacks.

Christian Longo slew his wife and three kids in Oregon, then fled to Cancún and announced that he was New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel. Ironically, around the time Longo was arrested, the actual Finkel was fired for faking a story. The pair became penpals, forging a friendship such as only "two liars," as Finkel calls them, could foster: Longo got sympathy; Finkel got book fodder. By the end of True Story (Harper Perennial, $14.95), everyone is begging for forgiveness. Longo wants it from the court. Finkel wants it from you, for his journalistic crime. In a letter written from Death Row, reprinted in the epilogue to this paperback edition, Longo lashes Finkel for raking up painful memories. But after considerable thought, the murderer asserts: I forgive you.

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