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.”

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

9781594634635_p0_v2_s192x300Helen Oyeyemi’s name was in the wind.  I heard her mentioned in the book I was listening to on Audible, The World Between Two Covers, and a friend suggested reading Oyeyemi’s celebrated Mr. Fox for a book club discussion. When Nancy Hightower of the Washington Post described Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours as ” a series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice,” and NPR called her writing masterpieces,  I decided it was time to read her.  Besides, the library conveniently produced What Is Your Is Not Yours in a day.  The universe must be calling.

Keys and locks connect the nine short stories, and as I read the first – “books and roses,” I had the same feeling I get when reading Haruki Murakami – what was I missing?  Some important undercurrent lurked just beyond my grasp, and if I could decipher the meaning, the reward would be great.  Despite rereading the first story, I’m still not sure.

Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. The strange connection between the two women’s unrelated stories surprisingly merge at the end when Montserrat discovers she and Lucy are linked, as the keys unlock a beautiful garden, and a window into their lives.

Oyeyemi used revealing language to underscore her messages, and comprehension of her plots seemed secondary to reading her words, so I continued.

“Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay.  Or yet another member of the county police force was found to have been an undercover gangster.  If not that then a gang member was found to have been an undercover police officer. An Ottoman-style restaurant opened in a town nearby; it served no food but had a mineral water menu tens of pages long, and fashion models came to drink their way through it while we played football with their bodyguards.”

The second story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” begins with a house of locks and two friends, a rock star, and you-tube. Sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman.When the rock star is exposed by the victim on you-tube, his fans’ reaction is to praise rather than condemn him, and he cynically uses his exposure as a vehicle for his next popular song.  Young Aisha, an ardent fan, now demands not only accountability but also his repentance.  The ending is satisfying, if other worldly, but had me wondering how we would all like to see some comeuppance for those who tend to “get away with it.”

Happy to have found Helen Oyeyemi, I will keep reading – seven more short stories in this book, and hope I will be able to discuss them with someone who has read them.

Have you?

Related Review:  Haruki Murakami