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.”

Say Something Happened and The Country Wife

bud-clipart-mp3_player_blackAs I listen to British radio plays on Audible, I pretend I am walking the streets of London, hearing familiar voices intoning the accent – and laughing out loud with a favorite British author.   The plays are short enough to hear in a sitting – or, if I am motivated, on a short walk.

Say Something Happened

Alan Bennett’s short radio play on Audible – Say Something Happened – confronts the same difficult topic in audio as Roz Chast attacked in cartoon form in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?    

June Potter, a trainee social worker, visits an elderly couple to collect information for a government survey on old people.  Of course, the couple have their own opinions on being old, and turn the tables on June, offering her advice on how to improve her life.  A few sad moments reveal their relationship with their children, and when June asks who would take care of them – say something happened – it’s clear they only have each other.  June’s solution to the problem is hilarious in its typical government approach.

With Bennett’s flair for humor, this short piece will have you laughing and crying, as he addresses the dilemma of growing old.

Related Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

 

The Country Wife

This seventeenth century Restoration play  by William Wycherley has Maggie Smith playing the title heroine,  with wry asides and bawdy humor.  Listening to the subtle innuendo, it’s easy to imagine her in a role she made famous on the British stage as Mrs. Margery Pinchwife.

Harry Horner, a rakish bachelor, pretends to be impotent to gain the trust of his fellows and access to their wives.  When newlywed Margery Pinchwife comes on the scene, the action gets fast and furious with disguises and fast exits – as funny as a Marx Bothers movie.  Margery is dissatisfied with her stuffy husband, and tries for a second husband.  You need to listen carefully to catch all the complicated twists, but, even if you miss a few, Maggie Smith will keep your attention.

The Buried Giant

9780307455796_p0_v1_s192x300The New York Times “Paperback Row” recently featured Kazuo Ishiguro’s fable of an old man and woman as they travel their last journey together in The Buried Giant, triggering my search for the book.  Although the story is set in post-Arthurian England, when the Anglo-Saxons conquered the Britons, this strange tale with ogres and dragons holds analogies for today.

As the story follows Axl and Beatrice’s journey to find their son,  they meet a knight, a warrior, and a young man – all on a quest to kill the dragon.  The dragon’s breath, under a spell by Merlin, has obscured all their memories of the past – most of all, the horrors of war and the bitterness between the Saxons and the Britons.  Although the story reads like a fairy tale, Ishiguro, whose Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize, numbs the reader into wondering about the simplicity of the characters and the plot.  At times, Monty Python’s “Spamalot” seemed to seep into the dialogue.  And the universal historical amnesia almost becomes universal hysterics.

When Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman along the way, he advises them about the final journey of death each must make across the water alone.  Only a few make the journey together in the same boat; those who can prove to the boatman that their love is perfect and true, without bitterness or jealousy or shame, can cross the water together. They are determined they will do so, despite what the clearing of the amnesia-producing mist might help them recall about infidelities and cruelty to each other. They need to remember their past, but they are afraid of what those memories might bring them.

James Wood, in his comparison of The Buried Giant to another of Ishiguro’s books for The New Yorker, focuses on the mist that takes away memories, both good and bad.

“The mist functions, then, a bit like one of the possible replies to the great question of theodicy: to reduce or eliminate suffering, free will would have had to be reduced or eliminated. Yet if we recoil from actual suffering, we also shudder at the prospect of a world without the freedom to do good or bad.”

Maybe so, but the elderly couple was my focus, and their interaction to each other as they grew older and frailer along the journey.  They have reached the age when their minds hold only a fog of memories – names, people, and milestones in their lives are no longer clear.  In the final chapter Ishiguro reveals who Axl and Beatrice really are and where they are really going.

I had hoped for a happy romantic ending but Neil Gaiman’s review for the New York Times said it so well:

“…no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone…”

The final scene left me with a sense of melancholy and brought me to tears.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

9781608198061_p0_v13_s260x420We all die eventually, right?  And, with a little luck – or not, depending on our state of health – we may live to a very old age.  But most of us would prefer to be in denial about death, old age, debilitating illness, and any talk about the inevitable future. Roz Chast, cartoonist for The New Yorker, addresses these uncomfortable issues with grace and humor in her graphic novel/memoir – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

If you have lived through the agonizing ritual of watching your elderly parents decline and die, Chast’s comments may offer some comfort when you realize you are not alone in your conflict of resentment vs caring.  Issues of her parents’ slow decline, their resistance to change and to any discussion about change, despite their increasing inability to manage ordinary tasks – are handled with poignant humor.  I laughed out loud at some of Chast’s punch lines, but also cringed a little at how close she had come to knowing how I had felt when dealing with my own 94 year old mother.  Could it be Chast has discovered some universal truth about aging daughters with elderly parents?

Whether or not you have experienced Chast’s story of watching her parents age well into their nineties and die, her story of human behavior and parent-child relationships has the notes of humor, nostalgia, guilt, and love easily relatable to anyone.  You may be crying at times – but mostly you will be laughing – maybe at yourself.  Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  has that Dr. Seuss quality of delivering truth with a good dose of reality, as you smile through the drawings and words of wisdom.

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

9780525954682_p0_v2_s260x420Brooke Davis offers a humorous and thoughtful view of death, grief, and growing old in Lost and Found.  Motivated by the sudden death of her mother, the Australian author uses the voice of Millie Bird, an abandoned seven year-old, to examine loss. Millie’s mantra may seem harsh, but it is also reassuring:

You’re all going to die. It’s okay.

The story revolves around three main characters and a mannequin:  Millie Bird, a seven year old with an unusual interest in death  – abandoned by her widowed mother in the ladies underwear department; Karl the Touch Typist, an elderly refugee from assisted living, still mourning the death of his wife; Agatha Pantha, an 82 year old recluse, bitter over the death of her unfaithful husband; and Manny, the life-sized store dummy dressed in an Aloha shirt.

The four fugitives connect and start a road trip in search of Millie’s mother.  Led by the perspicacious Millie, who has dubbed herself superhero Captain Funeral,  the elders discover strength in breaking the rules – they are not dead yet.   As she changes voices, from the wise young heroine to the two adventurous elderly protectors, Davis observes and philosophizes about old age and death – and inserts a variety of irreverent scenes for comic relief.   The ending is hopeful and realistic, but not happy.

Davis includes her journal article “Relearning the World” in the appendix of this short tale (289 pages), offering clear insights into her mindset as she wrote the book. Telling the story as a seven year old gave her permission to be funny and quirky while revealing a thoughtful perspective on a difficult topic.