Five Unrelated Books to Get Through the Winter

images  As February slams the country with icy winds and snow, my part of the world stays relatively warm, with only rain and wind interrupting the sunshine.  Although most locals welcome the opportunity to wear their sweaters and jeans, the tourists strip down to muscle shirts and shorts, rightfully thinking sixty degree weather is warm compared to the below freezing climes they left.  Suggestions for reading around the fire, sipping hot chocolate are moot here.

I have a list of books helping January blend into February, listing them below before I forget I read them – have you read any?

The Collector’s Apprentice B.A. Shapiro

Another mystery by Shapiro with art suffusing the narrative.  I connected with Shapiro when she wrote The Art Forger, and then The Muralist.  I always look forward to her next thriller.  In this one, I found myself researching the art pieces stolen – from Picassso to Matisse, one of my favorite artists.

Happiness: A Novel by Aminatta Forna

Don’t be fooled by the title, happiness is elusive in this compelling novel of two unlikely connections who collide in London – Jean, an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, specializing in refugee trauma. Attila has arrived in London to deliver a keynote speech on trauma and to check up on the daughter of friends who hasn’t called home in a while. He discovers she has been swept up in an immigration crackdown and her young son Tano is missing.

Jean joins him in his search for Tano, mobilizing her network of fox spotters. mostly West African immigrants: security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens. As the search continues, Attila and Jean reveal the true nature of happiness in a world where everything is connected.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

A family secret haunts a small town in post World War II Mississippi, as Grisham addresses race and war trauma in his latest thriller. The story begins with the decorated war hero, Pete Banning shooting the town’s Methodist minister and refusing to explain his motive.  The major clue is his sending his wife to an insane asylum for her nervous breakdown.  The big reveal comes in the last pages. A quick read, and I was tempted to skip to the end.

The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

In the style of popular books by Patrick (The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper) and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), this translation of Lundberg’s story focuses on an old character, in this case a 96 year old woman.  Unlike her counterparts in other novels,  who seem to be getting more lively as they get older, Doris is alone and confined to her home, with only a weekly Skype session wit her grandniece, caretakers who come and go, and the memories triggered by the names in her little red address book. Doris is writing her memoir, and each name in the address book creates a short chapter revealing an adventure in her life   Soothing and cozy –  best read with a cup of hot chocolate near a fireplace.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

Prompted by a recent article in the New York Times, I looked for this ten year old book set in the nineteen sixties with one of my favorite healthy eating advocates, Dr. Andrew Weil, as the focus.  This nonfiction narrative explores the relationship of Timothy Leery, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith   Full of surprises – Well wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Use of Nutmeg as a Psychotropic Agent – the book reveals not only the connection of these four men but also witty observations of their influence as they grow from university researchers to future gurus.  In his 2010 review for the New York Times, Dwight Lanier captured my thoughts on the book:

“I’d be lying… if I said I didn’t enjoy just about every page of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” This groovy story unfurls — chronicling the lives of men who were brilliant but damaged, soulful but vengeful, zonked-out but optimistic and wry — like a ready-made treatment for a sprawling, elegiac and crisply comic movie, let’s say Robert Altman by way of Wes Anderson.”

Hardwiring Happiness

9780385347327_p0_v1_s260x420Written like a textbook with summaries at the end of each chapter, Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness offers practical zen-like exercises and reminders that a sense of well-being is often an individual choice.  With the same mindfulness theme prevalent in many books that promote self-actualization, Hanson offers examples worth trying from imagining an idyllic scene somewhere else while in the dentist’s chair to “reframing” – finding positive meaning in negative events.

As a neuroscientist, Hanson reminds readers that the brain can be shifted from negative mode to positive with just a little practice, and offers a twist on meditation.  Instead of totally clearing your mind, focus on a positive experience for a sustained time to promote its permanence in the brain – a resource that can be called up when needed.

Although only a little over 200 pages, the book seems longer, and I couldn’t help comparing the message of positive psychology to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided and Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil – both referencing biological rather than psychological science and both avoiding the didactic tone that Hanson adopts.  But this is the season to be both positive and happy, so another book revealing the secrets to true happiness can only be good.

True Food by Andrew Weil

The advocate of the healthy life should live it by example, and Dr. Andrew Weil does.  Using his  background of botany and medicine, Weil has established himself as a leader in “well being” through his books and columns.  Complementing his latest venture, a restaurant in collaboration with chef Sam Fox, Weil has produced a cookbook – True Food.

Cookbooks can be adult picture books, full of enticing pictures of delicious dishes that drip off the pages, with recipes that you may or may never actually try.  Weil’s True Food offers ideas for those trying to eat healthier, without sacrificing taste.  Although the book leans toward vegan offerings, Fox’s influence is obvious with a few recipes for meat; the last chapter also includes drink mixes, some with vodka and whiskey – and a pomegranate martini.

I marked a few appealing recipes: the kale pesto, bison chili, pistachio dream; others to skip –  Korean broth, glazed burdock root.  The sea buckthorn fruit drinks might be worth tasting – if you can find sea buckthorn – the latest berry with promises of immortality – like acai, before being immersed in sugary drinks and smoothies.

Weil’s comfort not only comes through food; his introductions to chapters include quiet and forgiving thoughts on the merits of fresh natural ingredients that can just as easily be whipped into a delicious meal as those with less quality.  His comments on added ingredients used to mask staleness or inferiority, reminded me of a commercial I watched recently, proudly proclaiming that the restaurant added pancake batter to their scrambled eggs.

His food pyramid has chocolate at the top – no better recommendation for me to keep this book.

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Spontaneous Happiness – this is the season

How are you?  Are you Happy?  Would you like to be?  Looking like a modern Santa Claus with a full white beard and perpetually smiling face on the cover of his latest book – Spontaneous Happiness –  Andrew Weil, the prolific Harvard educated medical doctor, offers his recommendations for overcoming depression –  a common ailment during the holiday season.

Known for his involvement in integrative medicine and his healthy lifestyle regimen – good eating, exercise, change of lifestyle, etc. – Weil’s caution that pills are not the path to happiness is no surprise.  In the book’s first section, Weil offers evidence that the “biomedical model now dominant” neither cures nor prevents depression and just offers easy access to medication with a promise for treatment.

If you are already convinced that your life would be better if you could follow a naturally healthy path, you might skip directly to section two with his specific recommendations…

“…designed to increase your emotional resilience, alow you to move your emotional set point toward more positive moods, …that come from within… always available…{and} does not depend on external circumstances or the vagaries of fortune.”

No surprises here: take vitamins, especially Vitamin D; add fish oil to your diet; exercise; sleep well.  Weil adds a few that have made recent health news:  find ways to satisfy the need for physical touch; meditate and practice mindfulness; stop dwelling on your problems (negative thoughts) by using positive psychology (write down three things that are going well each day; do volunteer work).  By using his own struggle with dysthymia – “a chronic type of depression in which a person’s moods are regularly low or sad, with symptoms not as severe as with major depression” – Weil focuses on how his “anti-inflammatory” diet and lifestyle can cure depression and anxiety disorders, and  he includes extensive case studies and medical research to support his recommendations.

His description of the “mantra” surprised me.  I had heard of the practice of silently repeating in the mind’s ear, certain Eastern religious sounds, but Weil adds Western religious phrases to the mix – using the Roman Catholic rosary as an example.  I  remember the nuns’ suggestion in elementary school to revert to repeating “Holy Spirit, enlighten me” whenever experiencing test anxiety – and it usually worked;  maybe Weil would consider that a successful application.  In his “secular spiritual approaches to emotional well-being,” he also adds non-religious avenues for connecting with nature, including pet therapy, laughter, forgiveness, and avoiding all those people who bring you down with their pessimism – “emotions are contagious.”

In his last section Weil offers a plan with questionnaires and specific action to address the answers – taking into account each of the subtopics he previously addressed in the book.  The plan is simply stated – with bulleted lists – and includes progress report self-evaluations as well as his famous anti-inflammatory diet in the appendix.  Weil tacks on suggested readings, websites, and other useful resources at the end – a complete encyclopedia of advice for improving your well-being.

The book is organized like a well-written text, with clear subheadings and a summary of important points at the end of each chapter.  You could read the summary first and then go back to fill in the information you want.  If you are an advocate of Weil’s healthy lifestyle, the book offers a quick reminder of all that you are supposed to be doing; if you are new to the plan of giving up junk food, smoking, and blind allegiance to the television tube, you might find some useful pointers for starting.  Despite his tendency to be preachy, Weil’s Spontaneous Happiness combines all his experience from years of trying to be good, and welcomes you to join him.

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