Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

My Thrilling List

Book titles catch my eye but I really don’t have a list. I write them on little slips of paper, the backs of envelopes, at the bottom of the plumber’s list, on the paint swatches – all in a pile I keep planning to organize.

All night thrillers seem to attract me the most lately, vicariously providing satisfaction from feeling powerless over the verbal abuse by the plumber’s secretary, along with false promises and purposeful delays on a seemingly endless renovation.

A few books lately have offered some respite:

Megan Miranda’s Such A Quiet Place had the same twisting switchbacks as her earlier book The Last House Guest. This story has the neighborhood in a small college town disrupted by murder and the return of the murderer, when she is released early from prison. Speculation, gossip, and manipulative friendships twist the plot, and the idea of being a good neighbor gets a makeover.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott sets the scene in a small, old ballet studio needing a renovation after a fire caused by a space heater. With my recent experiences with a renovation, I could relate to some of the lines: “He has to finish that renovation sometime” and “Aren’t there some states, she’d heard Detective Mendoza joke to Walters, where murdering your contractor is a misdemeanor?” A creepy thriller with a twisting plot. You may never think of the Nutcracker the same again.

Finally, The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry starts as a routine police procedural but quickly morphs into a strange tale of a serial killer with touches of sci-fi. This page turner follows a journalist investigating the murder of a young attractive real estate agent. Her chase leads her through time and space into parallel universes as the reporter discovers she’s not the only one who’s in pursuit of the murderer, who keeps killing the same woman in different versions of her life. The time travel keeps the pace fast, and the ending may have you wondering which version of the good life you are living. Lots of fun.

What books offer you an escape?

Comparing The Undoing and You Should Have Known

Caught up in the new HBO series The Undoing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, I could not remember much about it, despite  having read the book it was based on, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz when it was first published.   Remembering the plot of a book I’d read five years ago was improbable for me;  I had the haunting feeling the young son had done it, but that could have been the plot of a number of books I’ve read since then.

Then I saw an interview with one of the lead actors on the Stephen Colbert Late Show. An older Hugh Grant was still handsome with the well modulated voice of British wealth and privilege; I knew him from romantic leads like Notting Hill but I also remembered his villainous role in Paddington 2. When Grant spoke of what Colbert referred to uncomfortably as “Barbie porn,” Hugh Grant’s suave demeanor suddenly morphed into a smarmy character. He was good at pretending; maybe he was the killer.

Since I couldn’t wait for the episodes teasing me each week with cliff-hangers, I decided to buy the ebook (now only $7.99) and find out for myself.  As is usually the case, the book was so much better.  I recognized the major constructs in the film, finding many conveniently changed, but curiously, Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, the psychotherapist, was the focus.  Her husband, played by Hugh Grant, was never on stage.  The reader discovers him through Grace, through his fellow doctors, and by innuendo.

In the HBO series, the plot becomes a mystery thriller, chasing down red herrings, looking for the killer.  Most of the books’s tension is changed from introspection, betrayal, and self discovery to the thrill of discovering whodunit.

I won’t spoil the ending of the book for you, but if you are not an HBO fan or have not begun to watch the series, renamed The Undoing, do yourself a favor and read the book first.

I’ll keep watching The Undoing; it has the same delicious thrill as Big Little Lies with the same writer, David E. Kelley, adapting the book for the screen.  Maybe he changed the ending.

Addendum

The series finale on HBO delivered a thrilling ending, and kept the author’s final nod to the killer with a Hollywood movie flare.

Just As Good the Second Time I Read It

Sometimes I get tired of being the one who is responsible; it often means I get stuck doing everything myself. My mother told me to ignore little imperfections and let others do some things for me, but it isn’t easy. I’m working on it, and sometimes people surprise me.

In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, Marie Curie lurks in the background as the model for two responsible girls who aspire to make a difference in the world of science, and would rather do it themselves. Kit Owens doesn’t realize her full potential until she is challenged by the seemingly perfect new girl in class, Diane Fleming. Best friends and competitors, the two rise to a final challenge when they meet again as adults, and then their worlds explode.

Secrets challenge the reader’s expectations, and Megan Abbott writes in the same vein as Ruth Ware, with complicated characters and twisting plot notes. Lots of murders dot the landscape, and the story is scary.

When I started to read this book, I thought I had read it before; pieces seemed familiar Sure enough I found I had reviewed it last year, but I had forgotten the plot and how it ended. Has that happened to you?

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.”