Monday, June 29, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

The Fifth of the 44 Scotland Street novels by Alexander McCall Smith, this volume does not disappoint. It is as comfortable and reassuring as I have come to expect of AMC's Edinburgh books. One of my quibbles with AMC has been that he has a tendency to show off his prodigious knowledge and obviously considerable intellect in some of his novels with no apparent reason other than to show that he has that knowledge. In other words there appears sometimes to be no benefit to the novel of the inclusion of the information. I think that that has been remedied in this volume. Either that or I've just got used to it!

Most of the characters will be familiar to readers of previous novels in the series but we do learn more about the Jacobite Pretender - a rather fanciful and unnecessary incursion in my view but then Big Lou has to have some disaster in her relationships. Come to think of it that seems to be all she has in her relationships.

Bruce is back too. Can he possibly be a reformed character?

One thing that AMS's characters have on the whole is goodness. Even the villain, Lard O'Connor, is a likable gangster. ' A gangster?' I hear you ask. Yes. Really. A very useful one too.

It is that essence of goodness which brings out the serious side of AMS. He is somewhat of a believer in the role of goodness in life. I was going to say 'moralist' but I'm not sure that he is quite that.

The best way to form an opinion is to read the books. You don't just have to have a knowledge and love of Edinburgh to love these books. I have to ration myself. I have a great temptation to go and buy all the remaining ones and devour them one after the other.

If you can feel miserable after reading one of these books then I will be completely overcome with surprise. I was going to throw down a challenge but it all got too complicated.

She [Agatha Christie] said that an archaeological husband was an ideal husband as the older the wife became the more interested he would be in her.

Angus smiled. the moral energy, the disapproval, that had fuelled Scotland's earlier bouts of over-enthusiastic religious intolerance were still with us, as they were with any society. It wore a different cloth, he thought, and was present now in the desire to prevent people from doing anything risky or thinking unapproved thoughts.

And a coffee cup, as we all know, is not something that it pays to look into if one is searching for meaning; coffee, in all its forms looks murky, and gives little comfort to one who hopes to see something in it. Unlike tea, which allows one to glimpse something of what lies beneath the surface, usually more tea.

And here he [Mathew] was in the sharks' element utterly at their mercy - although mercy was not a concept one associated with sharks.

They prevent people from being who they are; they forbid them to express themselves in the name of preventing offence. Cyril's offensive to cats, but is he to stop being a dog?

I might as well have written those words on water.

Moisturiser and a good cry: two things for modern man to think about.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

This is the eighth volume in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. As I said in my posting on The World According to Bertie McCall Smith is the spag bol of reading for me. I find it impossible not to be comfortable when reading his three main series. There are, of course, continuing gripes. I'm not sure whether it is a charm or a major irritation (or both) that there is so much repetition: of things past, of Mme Ramotswe's love of her father, red bush tea, Mr J L B Matekoni etc etc. The list of repetitions is endless and if they were not there then the series could, I'm sure, be reduced by two volumes. But would I have it so? No.

The plot (if such one could call it) in this volume, as in the others, is largely irrelevant. These books are not read for the plot but for the simple pleasure of reading a simple story well written.

Heaven forbid that McCall Smith should ever fall into the trap that Lillian Beckwith did with the sequels to The Hills is Lonely and end up with larger and larger print and smaller and smaller books. Come to think of it I think he's probably started where L B left off anyway. But do I care? No.


The previously unloved may find it hard to believe that they are now loved; that is such a miracle, they feel; such a miracle.

'There are many men for whom there does not appear to be any reason,' ....... '....even when he is standing there, doing nothing, I don't think that.'

She wanted something, she felt, but she was unsure what it was. Love? Friendship? There was a loneliness about her, as there was about some people who just did not seem to belong, who fitted in - to an extent - but who never seemed quite at home.

....but nothing ever approached the level of incompetence that these young men so effortlessly achieved.

So the small things come into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself, what was their own solution?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

When Will There Be Good News?

Some years ago I read Kate Atkinson's first novel: Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I recall that I found it slightly strange and rather unrewarding. Notwithstanding that I have maintained an interest in her subsequent books and on my way back from New Zealand in April I read her When Will There Be Good News? I was not disappointed. If I'm honest although it is only 6 weeks since I read it it seems a very long time ago and I have only the good impressions rather than the detail in my mind.

It is a detective story without being a whodunnit. It's a story about individuals with whom you can identify or empathise; whom you can like or dislike; who have a realness about them that I certainly didn't remember from Behind the Scenes.

It is serious. It is funny. The story carries through the twists and turns of time and circumstance with clarity. It is (in my humble opinion) exceptionally well written. I enjoyed it very much and I will return to read the rest of her books. I hope you will too.
Reggie would have liked to say, 'And you're too old to wear it [make-up],' but unlike, apparently, everyone else in the world she kept her opinions to herself.
When they went shopping for an engagement ring in Alistair Tait's in Rose Street [Edinburgh].... [Been there, done that. There's a comfort in books set in familiar places].

Lying in bed Louise could see the rings glinting in the dark, even when the safe was shut. Band of gold. Band around the heart. Heart of darkness. Darkness evermore.

A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Patchwork Planet

I bought this book because it was by Anne Tyler and she wrote The Accidental Tourist which was much recommended and which I abandoned after starting it before I left Lewis for New Zealand last October. I keep wondering, now that I've read The Patchwork Planet, whether I would have started it had I known what I now know. Answer 'No'. Question 'Why?'

I think that I look for something in a novel which gives me an emotional interest; perhaps even a challenge providing it's not too much of one. If there is not an emotional interest then a 'good story' is a must. This book provides neither for me.

It explores the ordinaryness of the very ordinary lives of its characters. It is about trust: the way we react to those who may not trust us and the way those who may not trust us react to us. It is about change: the way we may try and change as a reaction to the way those around us view us. Having said that I'm not sure that I found any of it particularly convincing nor interesting.

Would I recommend it? No.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Sorrows of an American

I was wandering through a bookshop (how unusual) and saw this novel by Siri Hustvedt.  The blurb intrigued me. Until recently I have never borrowed novels from the library.  I decided not to risk buying this but borrowed it.  Correct choice: it's not a book for my collection.  Apart from anything else I should have been warned by the endorsement on the front cover from Salman Rushdie. I'm not one of his admirers.  But I digress.

The dominant plot - there are many plots and sub plots - revolves around a mystery unearthed by the narrator, Erik Davidsen (a New York psychiatrist of Norwegian parentage) who is grieving for his father, and his sister Inga (an academic).  They are going through their father's papers when they discover a cryptic note about which their mother knows nothing. 'Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing (sic) about what happened,' it reads. 'We swore it on the Bible. It can't matter now she's in heaven or to the ones here on earth.'  The author of this note is a mysterious 'Lisa' no one can trace.  

This is not, however, really a story about finding the meaning of the note but a look at the human mind and its reactions to, and contained in, the many plots and sub-plots.  The book is very much an analysis of the characters contained within it.  It obviously does that well and is acclaimed for that.  There is an element of autobiography in the book in that the memoirs quoted are those of Siri's deceased father quoted almost verbatim.  It is true, too, that one can learn a smidgen of psychiatry and psychoanalysis from the book.

It did have an element of compulsion and once started I had to finish.  It was not time well spent. If you desire a satisfying outcome to a mystery then this is not for you.  It may be strong on personal analysis but it's weak on storyline.  Despite discovering that the book is almost universally acclaimed by the critics it did not make me want to read any more of her, also highly acclaimed, novels.


It's odd that we're all compelled to repeat pain, but  I've come to regard this as a truth.  What used to be doesn't leave us.

"We don't experience the world.  We experience our expectations of the world." (Inga)

Our memories are forever being altered by the present - memory isn't stable, but mutable.

"Injustice eats your soul" (Inga)

"...the [psychiatric] patients are now referred to as customers." " That's revolting."  "That's America."

[Telling a story] Burton made another dash towards his point.

And so we held vigil in the eerie space of the ongoing present, an interval drained of all significance, except that it was suspended between a child's fall and some future moment when we would know.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hunting and Gathering: Revisited

On 11 December (gosh, is it really that ling ago?) I posted a blog about Anna Gavalda's book, Hunting and Gathering.  I have since watched the film with Audrey Tautou as Camille.  This caused me to re-visit the book.  As an aside the film, though enjoyable enough, is startlingly superficial when compared to the book.  I suppose that's an inevitability given the complexities and detail of the characters within the simplicity of the story.

In my original comments I had wondered whether the book was simply a holiday read or a more serious work.  If I were writing that posting now I would have absolutely no hesitation in saying that it is a work of considerable depth in its exploration of the characters who inhabit its covers. Nor would I have any hesitation in suggesting that it should be read.   

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Lovely Bones

I bought a copy of this book some time ago in, I think, a charity shop in the UK.  I kept meaning to read it.  It disappeared. I was standing in a bookshop in Napier just after Christmas contemplating the purchase of another copy when a young lady (customer) started explaining very enthusiastically why I should read it.  She had just finished it and was consuming The Time Travellers Wife.  I recalled that my Brother was very enthusiastic about that book so decided that her taste must be good.  So I bought the book.  I'm so glad that I did.

A fourteen year old girl (Susie) is murdered.  From heaven she gives a commentary on how her family, the murderer and those affected by the murder cope or, more to the point, don't always cope.  

So you now have a synopsis of the story;  a synopsis that tells you nothing. 

The book explores relationships and feelings (particularly grief) which are compelling aspects of life when dealt with this sympathetically and perceptively.  It mixes the subjective emotions with very day to day aspects of life and how people might react and interreact in both areas.  One very mundane and practical moment which I found particularly moving was when Lindsay (Suzie's sister) first shaved her legs.  Her Dad was the one who, despite his misgivings that she was too young, guided her through the process and showed her how to change the razor blade.

The book appears to portray Lindsay, who is one year younger, as the person who suffers the most from the tragedy because she is "the victim's sister" and loses her own identity as a result.  No one can look at her without thinking of Susie.  I think, however, that she deals with the situation better than her parents and brother. 

Suzie's portrayal of a heaven is non-religious.  Whether Alice Sebold is religious I neither know nor wish to know but she gives an account of heaven which, in my view, equates to it being a state of mind portrayed in physical terms rather than a physical heaven.

The description of a novel as 'Number one best seller' is one of my dislikes and tends to put me off books.  This is, however, a compelling read.  Would I recommend it?  Without hesitation.

Inside the snow globe on my father's desk there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white striped scarf.  When I was little my father would pull me onto his lap and reach for the snow globe.  He would turn it over letting all the snow collect at the top, then quickly invert it.  The two of us watched the snow fall gently around the penguin.  The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him.  When I told my father this, he said, "Don't worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He's trapped in a perfect world."

"When the dead are done with the living, " Franny said to me [Susie], "the living can go on and do other things."

With the camera my parents gave me, I took dozens of candids of my family.    ..    ..    ..  I had rescued the moment by using my camera and in that way found a way to stop time and hold it.  No one could take that image away from me because I owned it.

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life. 
Life is full of coincidences.  Production of the film of The Lovely Bones (which is, I understand, being filmed at the moment) has moved from Pennsylvania to New Zealand.  

Thursday, January 1, 2009

I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere

With the exception of those by Somerset Maugham I am not a lover of short stories. However I can now add Anna Gavalda to Maugham. This book comprises a dozen short stories and a novelette (if there is such a thing) entitled Someone I Loved. When, a few weeks ago, I commented on her novel Hunting and Gathering I said that it was, apparently, a departure from her previous two books in that it was not a dark story of love denied nor lost nor roads not taken. As I had not read this book I relied on a reviewer for that information. Yes, this is a book of 'what if' and love denied and lost (and found and rejected for that matter) but I'm not sure that I would describe it as dark.
I have the feeling that many, many people if they were to read this book would feel distinctly uncomfortable. I spent a lot of time during the reading of Someone I Loved denying that I had ever acted like that. I had always been honest. Or had I? Whatever else this book achieved it made me feel uncomfortable.
Anna's style (I'm living in New Zealand at the moment and we don't do surnames here - OK I did for Maugham but that's different!) is controversial. It's staccato and leaves the reader to fill in a lot of the foliage. This would be totally alien to anyone who likes Anthony Trollope or admires descriptive writing for its own sake but for people like me who, generally speaking, cannot be arsed with the fluff and description and just want the story (because I'm a very slow reader who reads a novel as if it were a law book) her style of writing is ideal. I actually find it very pleasing as well.
Anyway I thought this book was quite thought provoking in a fairly light way and I enjoyed it very much. Would I recommend it? You know, I'm having great difficulty with that question. CJ recommends without hesitation books which I would never dream of reading. Not because they are not good books (I'm not sufficiently well-read to pass an opinion on that) but because they are subjects which don't interest me. Anna writes of people, situations and emotions. You will learn from her books nothing of history, nor science, nor, perhaps, very much for that matter. But they will stir you. And if they don't then you and I are very different people. There is only one way to find out.
Ah, yes, we are are we not?
A bottle of Côte de Nuits, Gevrey-Chambertain 1986. Baby Jesus in velvet britches. [Possibly the most extraordinary descriptive phrase I've read, but I think I understood what was meant.]
One of the few things I remember from school is a theory by one of those ancient philosophers , who said the important thing isn't where you are it's the state of mind you're in. He wrote that to one of his friends who had the hump and wanted to travel. He basically told him that it wasn't worth the trouble since he was bound to lug his load of problems around wherever he went. The day the teacher told us that, my life changed.
I guess that your face is a place that touched my life.
The trap lies in thinking that we have the right to be happy.
"You like squash and I like swingball, and that explains everything..." . . . . ". . People who are rigid inside are always bumping into life and hurting themselves in the process, but people who are soft - no, not soft, supple is the word - yes, that's it, supple on the inside, well, when they take a hit they suffer less...I think you should take up swingball, it's much more fun. You hit the ball and you don't know where it's going to come back, but you know that it will come back because of the string, and it makes for a wonderful moment of suspense. . . . . "
"You, you're like my father, you have nostalgia for the mountains."
"Which mountains, Mouschka?" I would ask.
"Why, the ones you've never seen, of course!"