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Archive for the ‘Alexander McCall Smith’ Category

Another charming installment in the Scotland Street series–radiating good fellowship and love of our fellow man. The dreadful Irene is still detained in Saudi Arabia, having been mistaken for one of the wives belonging to a certain prince (while awaiting her release from the harem, she engages in Consciousness Raising exercises with the other ladies, and–of course!–starts a book club). Meanwhile, Stewart and his two sons enjoy blissful freedom from her repugnant reign. Stewart’s delightful mother, Nicola, comes to help him tend the boys, and while she is there, Bertie is released from his ludicrous super PC routines–no more yoga, no more therapy–BLUE jeans instead of pink jeans!–and even, PIZZA for dinner on occasion! Poor lad–it doesn’t last, Irene eventually returns.

At one point, Nicola recollects the painful moment when Stewart told her about his engagement to vile Irene, and the choice a parent has to make under such circumstances. She is a wise woman.

“You do like her, don’t you?”
“Of course, darling, I think she’s…She almost said horrific instead of terrific, but stopped herself in time. “She’s just right for you.” She was not. She would ruin his life.
Nicola was astute. Like most parents who saw their offspring making the wrong choice of partner, she understood that the options were stark: you either accepted the boyfriend of girlfriend, or you lost your son or daughter. It was that simple.”

The book closes with an impromptu party, with good food and fine drink (a lot of fine drink) and ending with one of Angus’ luminous poems, brimming with love and good fellowship. And throughout, there are accounts of the delicious far-ranging conversations that he and his friends have in the course of their days–the sort of wonderful chat that makes life worthwhile. That I had once with my beloved late husband, and that I am lucky enough to still have with my family and friends.

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.”

(from Persuasion, by Jane Austen)

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I was initially dubious about the ‘Austen Projects’–an amusing idea someone at Harper Collins had, of asking modern authors to re imagine the six famous Jane Austen books, setting them in the present time. There were some difficulties with the transposal—a woman in her 20’s is not viewed as hopelessly on the shelf these days—the marrying age today is more late 30’s if not early 40’s. And an unmarried woman is not doomed to a hateful life of dependence on her family. Not to mention that we are so relaxed about unmarried sex (could this be so without our excellent and dependable birth control, I wonder?) which is completely opposite to 18th century mores.
But people are much the same, after all, and a valetudinarian like Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse has MUCH more scope for his obsessions these days than in the 1800’s—think of the brimming aisles of vitamins and fish oil and organic health products! Not to mention the internet with its enthusiastic embrace of trendy new health fads! Emma is a perfect fit for McCall Smith—and he had great fun with Mr. Woodhouse. Not only does he have the modern health nut worries–chemicals in the food, poisoned air and so forth–he also has horrible misgivings about modern machinery. There is a simply BOFFO bit as he contemplates buying a new mower, and the catastrophic blood bath it might result in–see quote here.
And when Isabella (Emma’s older sister) goes off with a young man on his motorcycle, poor Mr. Woodhouse is frantic with despair–imagining the terrible and inevitable accident, the subsequent death of his beloved daughter. Silly stuff, but McCall Smith is obviously having a ball with this, and I found myself laughing out loud. Motor mouth Miss Bates is also wonderfully transposed into the present–ah, so much scope for silliness!
There were one or two moments in the book that were a little heavy going—you KNOW the plot, you KNOW what happens next. But the author has a light touch, and really, it was such fun.
And now, on to Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility! AND Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey!

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Someone already read this and mentioned that she wasn’t thrilled with it. I regret to say that I agree–this is not so fine, so rewarding, as his other books. It was easy to read, though, and the stories are good stories, even if the enclosing story is unbelievable and a little clumsy. Well, possibly it could happen, in a better world, that 4 strangers might entertain one another telling stories during a long train journey–but I fear I would be the one scowling in the corner, willing them to shut up. There is an elegiac quality, a remembrance of things past, which is rather winsome, and the story of the one woman’s parents, who tended a railway station in deepest Australia, was both touching and engaging. The 3 other stories were mildly entertaining–and I certainly read the whole book without complaint–but the device of the railway carriage seemed a little contrived, and there was not enough to hold the 4 stories together. Still, as I say, I read it and was pleased enough. It exactly fits the description of the appropriate book for bedtime reading. I do not sleep well in any case, and trying to sleep after reading something gripping or frightening is a doomed endeavour. Gentle stories about railways much more the thing.

1862-Egg

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Amazon kindly sent me the latest Scotland Street book, Sunshine on Scotland Street–was it a gift from someone? Did I order it? Did, perhaps I PRE-ORDER it? If the former, my deepest thanks. Please identify yourself! If either of the other two possibilities is the case, how wise I am, to be sure. It arrived just in time to serve as the perfect birthday gift for someone (who shall here be nameless).
I naturally set to reading it, wanting to make sure it was as charming as expected–not wishing to disappoint the birthday celebrant, as you may imagine (thus following the example of Winnie the Pooh who eats most of the jar of honey set aside for the luring of the heffalump, in order to make sure that nobody “put cheese in at the bottom just for a joke”).
Well, I was that amused! In fact, TOO amused, and as I was eating the last of the blueberry tart at the time, my hearty laughter had an unfortunate consequence in that a tiny speck of blueberry now marred the page I was reading. Zut alors!
Here is what made me larf:
See, Angus Lordie is getting married, and Matthew is his best man. On the big day, Matthew arrives to find Angus glumly contemplating his kilt–which has a big hole in the front. After a discussion of Scottish plaids, kilts, weddings, men’s feelings about weddings–weddings really more for women than for men, groom hardly regarded at all–and other topics, Matthew tells Angus they can get the plaid fixed, and that they must quickly go to the shop for an emergency tailor intervention.
So, Angus retreats into his bedroom to put on a suit so they can go out.
“Angus emerged from the bedroom. The chalk-stripe suit was a bit crumpled but at least his white shirt seemed clean and the tie, although Matthew would not have worn it himself, was relatively inoffensive.
‘All right,’ said Matthew, as breezily as he could (his best-man’s voice again, he thought). ‘All right: now I need the ring.’

Angus looked at him blankly. ‘What ring?’
Matthew gasped. ‘You’re getting married in. . ‘ he glanced at his watch, ‘in just over two and a half hours and. . . The wedding ring, Angus. The wedding ring.’
Angus grimaced. ‘You know, I’ve been so busy with all this. . . all this wedding stuff. I hadn’t really addressed the issue of a wedding ring. I suppose it’s important?’
Matthew sighed. ‘Of course it’s important, Angus. You have to put a ring on her finger and she has to put one on yours. It’s symbolic.’
Angus frowned. ‘Symbolism’s very interesting, isn’t it? I remember when we were at the Art College we had a marvelous talk from Robin Philpson, I think it was, about symbols. I rushed out and bought a second-hand copy of Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Do you know it, Matthew? It’s a wonderful book.’
Matthew stared at Angus mutely. He had seen a book entitled A Guide for the Modern Best Man, although he had not bothered to buy it. He wondered now whether there was a chapter that dealt with a situation where the best man had to ask himself whether the groom was sufficiently grounded in reality to get married.’
Well, well, it goes on and of course they do find a ring (at a pawn shop) and the kilt is mended in time for the wedding. And, the book is just as charming as I expected it to be.
Thank you, Alexander McCall Smith! Joyce is back on the shelf for the time being–on call, as it were. A little interlude in Edinburgh before returning to Dublin will set me up amazingly.
Hope

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Don’t know why the Isabel Dalhousie books didn’t grab me whenever it was that  I encountered the first one—this time I found it completely charming, often taking me by surprise: surprised by joy–in fact, read right through four of them without stopping.

  • The Sunday Philosophy Club
  • Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
  • The Right Attitude to Rain
  • The Careful Use of Compliments

Reading them on the Kindle allows me the delightful–if expensive–luxury of going directly to the next one after finishing the previous one. Charming, charming books, that delighted me by the careful depiction of the many moral dilemmas that we face every day. Little things: should I pay for parking even though there is no parking attendant–that sort of thing. Moral issues, not much considered in every day life.
Anyway, I am loving the Dalhousie books–gentle, good hearted, sweet natured books.

Also, I had a grand time with The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. I typed up a quotation, from when the children went to visit the washer woman mother of their much loved cook and nurse:
“We had thought she was speaking of some national calamity such as Papa prophesied in his leader, but she was speaking as a washerwoman. It seemed that her life, the lives of all who practiced her craft, had been made twice as difficult because gentlemen had adopted the heathen custom of wearing pajamas. She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron, and she never hung a pair of the horrid things on the line without saying to herself, ‘Ah since I come of a seafaring family I know what nasty savage parts you come from.’ But she was not very unhappy about it, and soon she was telling us we could make lardy cake at home. We must go to the baker and buy a lump of his dough, and take it home and roll it out, and then fold it up as if it were a length of cloth we were going to send as a present through the post, and put in between each layer some lard and brown sugar and spices and currants and raisins., and bake it in our own oven, and remember to shake sugar over it just as we took it out. ‘Gentlemen always like it’, she said, looking at Richard Quin as if he were some wild but valuable variety of animal on which she was lecturing, ‘you will find in every family that the mistress tries to have nothing low served up in the front of the house, but what pleases the master better than anything is to get hold of a good lardy cake or a piece of dripping toast.’ Oh. wanton papas, letting Eastern gods into this green and pleasant land by wearing night-clothes hard to iron, and getting their hands greasy with coarse fare forbidden by refined Mammas….

Lardy cake

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