Neshama’s Choices for May 23rd

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The Swimmers  

An underground pool offers solace and joy to a variety of users, including Alice who’s in the throes of dementia but becomes temporarily restored when she’s in the water. Then the facility closes, and we shift focus to Alice’s diminishing life through her daughter’s eyes as well as her father’s and even those of the well-run but depressing institution that houses her. Otsuka uses the second person (you) to bring us squarely into the experience of witnessing such depredation. So immediate, so observant. I was especially taken by a scene where sufferers develop a love of trees.  (When my father, born and bred in NYC, descended into Alzheimer’s, he would exclaim ecstatically whenever he caught sight of one.)  

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Liesl, due to retire soon, becomes acting director when her boss suffers a devastating stroke.  Donors love acquisitions, so when a very rare one slated to be the centerpiece of a big party vanishes, tensions ramp up severely. Another treasure disappears.  University higher-ups are unpleasant (the head of the university, a primary donor) and a staff member who got passed over seethes with resentment. Francis, once involved with Liesl, is more supportive but problematic as well. Despite injunctions not to call the police, they step in when a librarian goes missing and is found dead. Liesl must do her own sleuthing and we don’t find out who the stole the books until the very end. Then she’s entreated to take over the position permanently. Through leverage-- a secret that would deeply embarrass the institution-- she reforms and diversifies the department.  Fun with academia and inside dope on the rare book trade.

A Harmless Lie

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Scandinavian mystery, and Blaedel does them very well.  Two protagonists: Louise, on leave from her job as detective, and Camilla, an old friend, who comes back to the town where they grew up to cover a story. Both women are struggling with domestic sorrows. Louisa’s brother Mikkel has attempted suicide twice and his wife has disappeared. A cold case heats up when a long-missing girl’s body is found and Camilla contacts members of her high school class to uncover what really happened the night she vanished. Camilla, flattened by her grief over brother and a falling-apart relationship, finally rises out of her stupor and uses her skills to reveal the teens’ confusion and treachery back then and the pathology that lingers into present day.  Especially creepy stuff with insects.  

Young Mungo

In a tough Glasgow housing project, Mungo (named for a saint even though his mother doesn’t believe in them) feels very out of place. His brother is a drug dealer/gang leader, his sister does well in school, and he kind of dreams and drifts.  He meets James who finds solace with this rooftop pigeons and their star-crossed friendship grows into something more. (Mungo is Catholic, James is Protestant, and the two factions are continuously skirmishing.) So many sorrows and an ending that left me hanging but hoping. A painful, intense, luminous book.