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.”

The Matisse Stories

9780786158270_p0_v1_s192x300Only three short stories in this small volume – The Matisse Stories – by A.S. Byatt, with each story revolving around a Matisse painting.

Each includes a feminine protagonist pushed to her limit. The women are ordinary at the beginning – an older classics professor and her hairdresser, an overworked mother and her housekeeper, and a college dean with the task of deciding the fate of an erratic doctoral student.  The beauty of Byatt’s writing is the familiarity of the circumstances that morph into crisis mode.

in “Medusa’s Ankles,”when the professor is sitting in the chair listening to her hairdresser, you may recall your last conversation with yours.  Most likely, though, your hairdresser was doing the listening.  In Susannah’s case, her patience snaps when she is faced with a redecorated salon and a substitute messing with her hair.  Ironically, the hairdresser sublimely sees Susannah’s extreme action as a sign to move on – perhaps to another career.

In “Art Work,” Mrs. Brown, the housekeeper, patiently observes her frantic overlords – a woman trying to juggle career and family as the primary breadwinner, with an artist husband who thinks too much of himself and his untalented work.  In the end, Mrs. Brown launches her own artistic sensibilities into a lucrative career, and perhaps motivates her former boss to finally follow her own dream.

The last story, “The Chinese Lobster,” focuses on a luncheon conversation between the graduate dean and the advisor of a doctoral student in art, whose final project has drawn criticism and the possible end of her pursuit of a degree.  In retaliation, the graduate student has filed a complaint against the advisor, who adamantly holds that the student is incompetent, does not appear for classes, and does not complete requirements – all true.  The standoff is now in the hands of the dean, who is trying to convince the advisor to pass the student on, forget about her, give her the degree, and move on, to avoid the trauma of a long investigation.

At first, the advisor is appalled, but in the end proclaims: “At the same time, exactly at the same time, I don’t give a damn…” – unfortunately, a situation I have seen in my own experience many times.