Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Matchmaker of Périgord


I have absolutely no idea how or where I first saw this book.  All I can remember is that Julia Stewart’s book caught my eye when it was published in 2007 and I knew that I had to read it.  Perhaps it was because I am acquainted with the Périgord region of France (and in particular the real towns mentioned in the novel although I was unaware of that before I read it). 

I received it as part of a Christmas present and it was waiting for me when I returned from New Zealand.  I finished it a few hours ago over a leisurely lunch. As I was reading it (which I managed in a matter of a few days – a record for me when not on a plane?) I was occasionally reminded of Tom Sharp’s Blot on The Landscape (1975) and Porterhouse Blue (1974) which I read in the ‘70s.  I enjoyed them but I could never get into any of his other books and abandoned the attempts. 

As soon as I started it I needed to know how it ended.  On occasions it irritated me.  On occasions I just enjoyed the style and prose which borrows from the same school as Alexander McCall Smith when it comes to describing things.  The Matchmaker, for example, never wears plain ‘sandals’ but always ’supermarket leather sandals’  It is, however, an absolutely delightful read with not a nasty thought to be found on any page. 


‘I’ve never eaten frogs in my life.  Nobody in their right mind would.  Have you?’  ‘Of course not!  Only tourists do.’

Love is like a good cassoulet, it needs time and determination.  Some bits are delicious, while others might be a bit rancid and make you wince.  You may even come across the odd surprise like a little green button, but you have to consider the whole dish.

Without love we are just shadows.

Once the villagers had settled their argument as to whose limbs were whose, they got to their knees and it wasn’t long before they were able to stand.  Eventually they found they could focus, and even remembered their own names.  When they staggered out of the bar and saw the frightful state that the village was in, their hearts immediately soared, knowing that the chances of the English buying homes in Amour-sur-Belle were now even more remote.

…the Comité des Fetes announced that the celebrations to mark Patrice Baudin’s recovery from vegetarianism would be held that afternoon.

However, possibly the best quote of all is the last two sentences of the book and to get there you’ll just have to read it.  I think it was worth it.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I mentioned in March that I’d read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and that I knew that I’d made notes at the time.  I never found them.  They may, of course, have been in one of the two notebooks I lost over the last few months.  I know from discussions with others who have read it that views about it are not always the same as mine.  In fact several people couldn’t finish it; not because it was a bad novel but because they detested the realism of the images it portrayed.

To me the plot, actually the plots, involving all the usual suspects in a war novel – love, sex, hatred and violence only scratch the surface – is almost irrelevant to the impact the book had on me.

I was trying to recall the plots around which the novel is woven and the fact that I managed to do so says more for the plot than it does for my memory.  For me, however, what I remember was the raw emotion and detail in which the horrors of life in the trenches and, worse still, the tunnels under the trenches, is described.  My imagination is not good but I didn’t need it to feel as though I was there with the narrator in hell.  I found it even worse when I realised that so many people whom I had known, and know, experienced that and never mentioned it.  I understood why some people such as my school teachers who had been in the trenches were as they were.

This book is not an easy read.  To me, however, it had a greater impact than almost any other book I can recall.  Somehow the horrors of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which I read in two different translations I enjoyed it so much,  were unreal in comparison.  But I was much younger then!  If I were to compile a ‘must be read’ list then this book would be very near the top.


We are contemptuous of gunfire, but we have lost the power to be afraid.  Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking.  There is still blood though no on sees.  A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker.  They stepped over him.

No child or future generation will ever know what this was like.  They will never understand.   When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.  We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.  We will seal what we have seen in the silence of out hearts and no words will reach us.

The Careful Use of Compliments


Now I’m getting really frustrated.  I’m a devotee (second time I’ve used that tonight) of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isobel Dalhousie Novels – or are they the Sunday Philosophy Club Novels?  The publishers don’t seem able to decide.  So why am I frustrated?  Because I thought that I’d read this novel fairly recently but it was obviously some months ago.  And therein lies the problem with these novels.  They all seem to run one into another but not necessarily in sequence and even trying to work out some of the underlying plots which transfer from one to another can be difficult even a few weeks after having read one.  In this case I didn’t even note any quotes for repeating.  

The next one in the series is The Comfort of Saturdays.  I shall, of course, pick it up off the coffee table some time soon and read it and enjoy it and, hopefully, blog on it more speedily.   One thing I can be absolutely certain about is that it will contain a reference (or two or three) to Auden.  Another is that I will, as sure as it will rain tomorrow, enjoy it.

If you are, by any chance, a person who hasn’t read one of the series then do so, starting at the beginning with The Sunday Philosophy Club.  I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed.

Death of a Gossip


It’s a while since I read this and I realised when I started this sentence that I couldn’t even recall the plot.  Presumably someone died at some stage.  Then it came back to me.  There is something rather comforting in the predictability of books such as this.  It’s undemanding and involves death through murder in a feel-good sort of way.

As a devotee of the BBC series Hamish Macbeth based on these novels I was surprised to discover that the Hamish of the TV series does not quite fit with the Hamish of the book; well, not the one I remember anyway.  I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised but I did rather prefer the TV Hamish.

Even I (a person who reads novels, even light ones, as though they were legal tomes) managed to read this in a few hours in small bite-sized chunks.  It can safely be said, therefore, that it’s not long or demanding.  But it is good fun and there are much worse ways of spending a few hours - even if they did happen to be on a ‘plane journey when the alternatives were hardly throwing themselves at me.

Would I recommend it?  Yeah, why not.  I’m sure you’d enjoy it ‘cos, frankly, there’s nothing not to enjoy about it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom


A little while ago Katherine from The Last Visible Dog asked me if I had read Alexander McCall Smith’s The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom.  Given that I have read most of his novels published to date I couldn’t really understand why I had had this in my bookshelves for several years but had not read it.  So I got it off the shelf and put it on the coffee table.  That usually means that it’ll be read ‘sometime’.  In fact I read it almost immediately.

It is described as Frasier Crane meets Inspector Clouseau.  I think that is a pretty accurate description.  The principal character of the books (It’s three books amalgamated into one volume) has all the worst aspects of Frasier’s character although I have to say that I didn’t really see any of his more endearing traits.  Come to think of it I’m not sure Frasier had any either.  I have to admit that Clouseau wasn’t one of my favourite characters.  So we were off to a bad start: an unlikable central character and stories of undisguised slapstick.

One of the criticisms I have sometimes levelled at McCall Smith is his use of novels as a vehicle to demonstrate his prodigious knowledge and very considerable intellect to an audience who would not normally read his works on legal ethics and moral philosophy.  This volume is a shining example of that.  He quotes Auden (I wonder if there is a novel in his two Scottish series in which he has not done so), Kant, Proust and so many more and uses plenty of untranslated  languages other than English.  Fortunately for me my German and Italian is good enough for this book.

The book’s title comes from the central character, Von Igelfeld [hedgehog field!] who ‘had heard the three of them described as the Three Pillars of Wisdom, but looking at Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer he came to the conclusion that perhaps The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom might be more appropriate.  This, he thought, was rather funny.’  

The book is a very clever book.  It’s also very typical of AMcS’s easy, unchallenging, style.   The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the 44 Scotland Street and the Sunday Philosophy Club series all have the same unchallenging easy style but they also have wit and charm woven into the less appealing side of some of the characters portrayed in them.  This does not have that charm.

Did I enjoy the book?  Oddly I did quite enjoy it for all that I have said about it.  It had some wonderful moments and prose in it.  Would I recommend it?  No.  Would I recommend his other series?  Absolutely.


Professor Dr Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. [The opening words of the book.  Wasn’t that what the Pharisee said according to Luke?]

Von Igelfeld wondered whether there is a moral obligation to read a letter.  Surely the moral principles involved were the same as those which applied when somebody addressed a remark to one. One does not have to answer; but inevitably does.  Yet, why should one have to answer: was there something intrinsically wrong about ignoring somebody who said something if you hadn’t asked them to say something in the first place?

That must be safe;  there was nothing threatening about Belgium.  Ineffably dull, perhaps; but not threatening.

The mind, you see, is full of dark furniture.

…unlike Germany, where everybody seemed to be . . . well, they seemed to be so cross for some reason or another.

Von Igelfeld had little time for Belgium.  In the first place he was not at all sure that the country was even necessary, in the way that France and Germany were obviously necessary.