I’ve written before about a group of friends with whom I have lunch once a month. This past Monday, our conversation was, as usual, lively and stimulating. Angie’s description of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, a recent selection by her book club, reminded me of Eric Weiner’s immensely enjoyable recounting of his search for The Geography of Bliss.
Having asked her book group members what made them happy, Angie turned the question over to us. We all admitted to being immensely moved and comforted by simple, everyday acts of human kindness – including, in one particular case, compassion and support freely offered when a disturbing diagnosis was divulged. Then the to-be-expected happiness creators were named: Children! Grandchildren! Beloved pets! In a subsequent email, Angie mentioned that her group also credited music with lifting their spirits. And there is so much more; one cannot help but be grateful.
(Angie also said something – I can’t remember exactly what – about entering the realm of the sacred. She added that this was not necessarily a specifically religious sensation. This may be true for some people – but I have a vivid recollection of standing in Ripon Cathedral and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, several people receiving communion in a small side chapel. The elusive sun of northern England shone through the stained glass windows. At that instant, I felt as though an arrow from God had come straight at me.)
We were also celebrating the birthday of one among us, Ann. For her birthday, gift, she requested reading recommendations from each of us. (You can see why I’m so fond of this exceedingly enlightened group of women!) Here are Angie’s suggestions: (I too am a great fan of the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series written by Martin Walker and set amid the timeless beauty of France’s Dordogne region.)
These recommendations came with Angie’s usual lively commentary. She also added an apology for not naming any British titles, one of Ann’s stated preferences (such a discerning person!). Naturally I rushed in to fill that particular void:
In addition, I suggested these:
Kay was not able to join us Monday, but she still sent along her recommendations. Her annotations are so good, I’m going to include them as well:
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. Lucy Hull hadn’t intended to be a librarian, but when offered the job of children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, she accepted because she had no other prospects and didn’t want to live at home. This is the one element in the book that really strains credulity, because clearly she was born for this job. In fact, she is so good at it that a 10-year-old misfit, whose born-again parents keep censoring his reading, talks her into running away from home with him.
This is a wonderful, funny, sad, and engaging tale about Lucy’s flight with Ian from Missouri to Vermont. Ian can be positively obnoxious (he’s 10 after all), but their shared love affair with books and frustration with evangelical America (Ian’s mother has enrolled him in a reeducation program for possibly gay kids) is one I know I’ll read again.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively. At age 77, Charlotte has retired from a career as the sort of teacher who changes students’ lives. Though widowed, she volunteers to teach adult literacy and is fiercely independent–right up to the moment that a mugger throws her to the pavement, breaking her hip. Forced to live with her daughter and son-in-law while recuperating, she agrees to have one of her adult students come to the house for tutoring. This sets the plot in motion, changing the lives of many people around her.
I’ve always enjoyed Penelope Lively’s novels, but this one is stellar. In one sense, it’s a portrait of a born teacher who will probably go on teaching in one way or another till the day she dies.
But it also contains some wonderful reflections on what reading means to us dyed-in-the-wool bookworms:
“Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction even. She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her–then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.”
This passage captures my own life-long affair with the book. The short novel is brimming over with such reflections, and it explains why I’ve got “How It All Began” on my Kindle to read and reread again.
(I haven’t yet read How It All Began, but I share Kay’s enthusiasm for the works of Penelope Lively.)
Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet. Wonderful! A cozy with a kick. The vicar served in MI5 for 15 years and is nobody’s fool, albeit a decent and kindhearted chap. The victim is a woman who bullies everyone in the Women’s Institute beyond bearing; so many people have a motive to kill her that the detective has an embarrassment of suspects on his hands. The writing is superb, a bit like a Granny Smith apple. Not too sweet, but mellow and full bodied.
(Kay’s reviews can be found on Goodreads.)
Wednesday night Angie called me. She had just finished Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. and needed to talk about it. Among other things, our conversation convinced me that McEwan’s cunning and inventive novel is going to be a great choice for book groups.
That Monday evening, while working at the research desk at the Central Branch of the library, I caught a particularly juicy readers advisory question. Having read some fiction by John Grisham and some Mary Higgins Clark, a young man declared that he wanted to read thrillers with “more depth.” Oh my, where to begin?
I told him that I have a category in my personal reading pantheon called “Thrillers with brains.” More recently, I’d written reviews of All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen and The Fear Index by Robert Harris. I had sought out these two novels out of frustration with four mysteries I’d read recently. Those mysteries had been engaging in various degrees, but their plots moved at such a glacial pace that I was left yearning for a true page turner.
Upon hearing this customer’s request, one title that came immediately to mind was William Landay’s Defending Jacob. It was not, alas, available right then at Central. Defending Jacob may be the best legal thriller I’ve ever read, but my interlocutor was only mildly intrigued. He was looking for something more along the lines of psychological suspense. (I must interject here, though, that in Defending Jacob, I encountered exceptionally acute – and astute – descriptions of mental and emotional anguish.)
At any rate – this is what I ended up giving him:
Later, after he’d left, I was annoyed at myself for forgetting Dan Fesperman, who wrote two novels of international intrigue that I greatly admire: Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son. And then there’s The Horned Man by James Lasdun, one of the most disturbing novels I think I’ve ever read. (I am currently reading a nonfiction work by this author entitled Give Me everything You Have: On Being Stalked. I am reminded once again what a superb writer James Lasdun is. I can hardly put this book down – although there are other times when I’m reluctant to pick it up. Talk about mental and emotional anguish….)
Recently, the Howard County Library System has garnered praise from the local media, both for its recent spectacularly successful “Evening in the Stacks” fundraiser, and for its overall excellence. Naturally I had to add my own two cents, in a letter to the editor.
I must apologize for my prolonged silence, occasioned by travels out West and various matters that needed to be attended to here at home. While I’m working my way back to writing – so much harder than I ever though it would be! – I thought I’d point you to some recent articles of interest.
This past week, our local paper had a feature story on the Howard County Library System.
I appreciated the Washington Post’s recent editorial in praise of President James A. Garfield. But I do wish that the editors had mentioned Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, a riveting biography of this courageous and compassionate man.
If you search online for book reviews as much as I do, you’ll notice that content from Goodreads almost always appears near the top of your results. The New York Times recently featured a backgrounder on this site, one that is hugely popular with both avid readers and authors.
While subbing at the Glenwood Branch Library yesterday, I came upon an article in a recent issue of Library Journal that neatly echoed my own recent experience at the Miller Branch. “First Words: Where the Librarian Surpasses the Warrior” – marvelous title! – is by Michael Kelley, newly appointed editor in chief of the magazine.
Roberta goes to the library to pick up a few items and, finding herself surrounded by riches (in several formats), avails herself of them liberally, then runs out of steam…
One sunny Saturday morning, Roberta decided to visit the library. Her intent was to pick up two books she had reserved, perhaps one or two additional mysteries, and a volume on art history.
Miller is Roberta’s local branch, a repository of more fabulous stuff than you can shake a stick at. (Please pardon the recourse to clichés – one is not up to much else, at present!) Roberta headed straight upstairs, where the new books for adults awaited her. I mean, why pass up a chance for some serendipity thereabouts? And lo: serendipity there was – in spades (those pesky clichés again). Her resistance held firm on the fiction side but broke down around the corner in nonfiction. Why here was Every Good Endeavor, a new work by Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, whose wisdom, compassion, and eloquence had so impressed her in The Reason for God.
Okay – I am now officially switching to the first person. Writing about yourself in the third person is just too weird! (Who is that woman, anyway?)
I am also currently reading The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. For 21 years, Rabbi Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. In this book, he attempts to reconcile the claims of faith and science; indeed, he believes that the perception of a schism between the two is erroneous in the first place. Rabbi Sacks writes with wit and elegance. Me, I am happy to receive good counsel from wise men and women, whatever their affiliation!
Moving from the 200s (religion and spirituality) to the 500s (science), I found several items of interest. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of writers who are able to explain exciting new developments in physics and astronomy in ways that are accessible to what one might term the lay reader. For example:
Here I must confess to a tendency to take such books home with the best intentions, only to return them to the library unread. I did, however, finish – and greatly enjoy – those last two titles. (Before the Fallout is as much a history book as a science book and made for really riveting reading. Preston begins by describing what happened to one woman when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. I reads Before the Fallout when it came out in 2005 and that scene has remained vivid in mind, in Preston’s measured retelling, a true horror story. “Silver treasure” indeed….) Mirror Earth currently resides on my night table – or one of my several night tables. Wish me luck.
It’s the kind of book I love: you can just dip into it from time to time and get your fill of wonder. Isabel Kuhl begins her survey with the great pyramids of Egypt – that chapter is subtitled “The First Houses Built for Eternity” - and ends with some spectacular structures by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, and others:
And in between these two astonishing extremes of time and place, one jaw dropper after another:
[Click here for panoramic views of Chambord.]
Whew! I’m just about done in. And I so wanted to explain about the mysteries and the DVD’s – almost exclusively British mysteries….Ah well, it will have to wait. But I do want to mention a CD that I picked up: This was true serendipity, aided by prominent placement on a display of audiovisual materials on Miller’s richly endowed first floor.
Among the musical selection on this disc is one I especially love, Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest.” I plugged the title into the YouTube search box and got some marvelous results. Here are two of my favorites.
First, the 2004 wedding of Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson of Australia (by way of Scotland, as can be seen by her father’s attire);
I was thrilled by this one. It’s an Anglophile’s dream – this Anglophile’s, at any rate:
I owe a debt of gratitude to the good people of the Miller Branch, a place that, in my retirement years, has become a home away from home!
The chairs were arranged so that Alexander McCall Smith would enter the room via a central aisle. This he did, shaking hands with audience members as he made his way to the podium. I was pleased to note that he was attired in a kilt, but I could not get a photo due to the surrounding crowd.
From the moment this distinguished gentleman began to speak, he had us in the palm of his hand. He was by turns informative, serious, lively, and thoughtful. But more than anything, it was his ready, facile wit that produced great entertainment for his captivated audience.
The ostensible topic of McCall Smith’s talk was “The Very Small Things of Life.” And from time to time, he did return to that subject. But mostly he ranged far and wide, covering a variety of topics, from precocious young authors like Daisy Ashford, to favorite first lines of novels, to the vagaries of book clubs, to various aspects of his own works and his life as a writer. (He digressed – and then he digressed from his digressions!)
First lines, he assured us, must be as memorable as you can make them because often reviewers and critics get no further than that into the work at hand. This does not stop them from reviewing said work. He was very definite about this.
He cited two of his favorite first lines. The first is from Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, also known by her pseudonym Isak Dinesen:
‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.’
The second of his favorite first lines comes from The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay:
McCall Smith was especially entertaining in the subject of book clubs, though he trod somewhat carefully, knowing there were plenty of participants in this activity in his audience. First, he begged us to be merciful, as the authors we were discussing might be suffering from a painful malady, like gallstones. Particularly gallstones. (I didn’t quite “get” this specific reference. Perhaps he himself has had to endure that particular affliction?) He opined that nearly every book club has one member who knows far more than everyone else and isn’t shy about parading that fact in front of everyone. As a remedy for this problem, he suggests quoting Proust, adding that he own a Proust concordance that’s marvelously handy for the purpose. It allows him to quote the great French novelist on virtually any topic without having actually read the novels! He also suggested that book groups draw up a constitution. Then, when someone is engaging in irritating behavior, someone else can point out that she – and it’s almost invariably a “she” – is violating the rules laid down by said document.
(At a meeting last night of our mystery discussion group, the Usual Suspects, we began implementing this last suggestion, in spirit anyway. Members were asked to raise their hands when they wished to speak. And a small bell is now rung in order to bring the group – great talkers all, especially on any matter related to books or libraries – to order. As yet, we have no written constitution.)
At this point in the proceedings, McCall Smith interrupted himself – “You may wonder where this talk is going?” He reminded us of the title, The Very Small Things of Life, but really, no one was worried about what direction he was taking; we were all having too much fun!
He now segued into a discussion of his work. Calling himself a victim of “serial novelism,” he revealed that he is currently writing no fewer than five distinct series! There is, he informed us, no cure for this ailment. One simply keeps writing additions to the series and then one dies. For example, take Patrick O’Brian, distinguished author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. These number twenty, with a twenty-first entry left unfinished. The fact that O’Brian is now deceased proves McCall Smith’s point about “serial novelism” being incurable!)
The most famous series now being written by McCall Smiths is, of course, the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Apparently the eponymous first novel was supposed to be a one off, but McCall Smith left the question of the Precious Ramotswe-J.L.B. Matekoni nuptials unresolved. His editor suggested that he resolve it in a sequel. Unfortunately, Tears of the Giraffe failed to offer this resolution, and so another novel needed to be written. This was Morality for Beautiful Girls. Still no wedding! In fact, the marriage does not take place until the fifth novel in the series, The Full Cupboard of Life. (Don’t miss the terrific narration of these books, done by Lisette Lecat.)
A vital component of Precious Ramotswe’s back story involves the dying wish of her father Obed Ramotswe, that loving father and fine judge of cattle. His directive to his daughter: sell the herd and use the funds to start a little business. Now McCall Smith actually had some trouble deciding what that business should be. It might, for instance, have been a dry cleaning operation. He considered whether this might have initiated a whole new subgenre of literature. Think how libraries and bookstores might then have looked. You’d wander through them and see aisles marked History, Biography, Politics,…Dry Cleaning…
Here, McCall Smith brought up the subject of the Detective Agency’s sole and vital reference work: The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Anderson. This book, he declared, is driving him crazy! Apparently readers keep asking him how to obtain a copy. It is, of course, purely product of his amazingly fertile imagination, but who knows – He may have to break down and write it some day.
Meanwhile, though, he gave us a delicious tip: In a future installment in the series, the Great Man himself will travel to Botswana and honor Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi with a visit to the Detective Agency office! It is then that the two women discover something rather surprising about Clovis Anderson…but Readers, I will let you find out for yourselves, in a future installment, what that something is….
McCall Smith reassured us that there will be “tiny white van developments” down the road. Many readers, it seems, have mourned the death of this faithful yet aged vehicle, Mma Ramotswe’s much loved mode of transportation in the earlier novels. McCall Smith then shared a happy reminiscence of an appearance he made in Santa Barbara, California, where a fan – several fans? – had purchased white vans in honor of Mma Ramotswe! (McCall Smith made several piquant observations about California: The polite form of greeting involved telling your interlocutor about your various problems. and the tiny white van anecdote served as a reminder that Californians were in need of something to do!)
On the subject of the Isabel Dalhousie series, the author stated that the eponymous protagonist and he share an interest in ethics. (Isabel, holders of a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge, is the owner/editor of a small, highly respected professional journal called The Review of Applied Ethics. McCall Smith was the chairman of the British Medical Journal’s Ethics Committee until 2002; he has also served as a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. ) He also revealed that initially, the relationship between Isabel and Jamie, who is fourteen years her junior, was supposed to be purely platonic. Advised that the development of a full blown romance between the two would be “empowering” for his legion of female readers, McCall Smith altered the nature of the relationship accordingly.
[I'd like to inject a personal note here and say that although I am a great fan of Mma Ramotswe and company, I'm an even greater fan of the Isabel Dalhousie novels. Each one is better than the last! I love the rich admixture of art, literature, philosophy, and passion. The entire series is a love letter to the city of Edinburgh. (If you've been there, then you'll know that splendid small metropolis to be a worthy recipient of such deep affection.) McCall Smith depicts the happiness and heartache, the vulnerability and certainty that are alternately the lot of Isabel Dalhousie in a way that I find completely convincing. I would have liked to hear more from the author about this extraordinary creation of his, a woman who seems so real that I feel as though I actually know her.
I tried the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and did not care for it, but after Sunday’s talk, I’m intrigued with McCall Smith’s two other series. Corduroy Mansions features, among others, a dog named Freddie de la Hay. Freddie is a Pimlico Terrier – and please, people, don’t go looking for a breeder; he made it up! Corduroy Mansions has been running as a serial in The Telegraph, just as 44 Scotland Street has been running in The Scotsman. . Regarding the aforementioned canine character, The Telegraph informs us:
Freddie was the star of the second book in the Corduroy Mansions series, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, in which he was recruited by MI6 to infiltrate a gang of Russian spies.
( American newspapers might wish to consider doing something along these lines, as they struggle to keep their circulation numbers from plummeting.)
Click here for more information about McCall Smith’s series.
Finally, returning to the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, McCall Smith informs us that he tries to visit Botswana regularly, in order to renew his knowledge of the country and its people. He admitted that he tries not to be too specific concerning the political and/or technological aspects of society. For instance, there are cell phones in Botswana, but not, he assures us, in his novels about the place. “Anything I don’t like, I ignore,” he stated cheerfully, adding, “There’s a lot to be said for denial!”
The 45 minutes allotted for McCall Smith’s talk flew by. Then it was time for questions.
Someone asked about the film versions of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. We were overjoyed to hear that there are two more features based on the series in the works at HBO! McCall Smith loved the first series of films, as did most of us who’ve seen them. They are deeply imbued with the spirit of the novels. This was largely due to the unwavering commitment of Anthony Minghella, whose untimely death occurred on the day the first feature film was scheduled to be shown in Britain. (It was shown anyway, as per the family’s wishes.)
McCall Smith was asked about casting for the role of Precious Ramotswe. Apparently many “traditionally built” women presented themselves to him as candidates! He actually did have his own idea about casting question: he favored Sheila Tlou, an acquaintance of his who happens to be Botswana’s Minister of Health. In the event, it was arranged that Ms Tlou would appear in one of the films and have a single line of dialog. Here’s an article on the making of the films. And here’s the trailer:
Someone asked how it is that McCall Smith writes so convincingly from a woman’s viewpoint. His rejoinder was instantaneous: “Well after all, I’m wearing a skirt!” He went on to say that empathy is one of the novelist’s most powerful tools. It’s what enables him to write his woman characters so effectively.
The final question – posed by my book-loving friend Meredith – had to do with a book she particularly esteems: La’s Orchestra Saves the World. McCall Smith thanked her for her question – in fact, he thanked each person who’d had a query for him. I haven’t read this title, and I learned that it involves Polish fighting forces and Polish prisoners of war in England during the Second World War. McCall Smith spoke with some emotion on this subject. Apparently recognition of the contribution of these individuals was very late in coming, an injustice that was only barely rectified in time. Here’s a review of the novel, and here’s an interesting article in Wikipedia. The book is also about the healing power of music, something in which McCall Smith strongly believes.
Alexander McCall Smith exited as he had entered, shaking hands with those fortunate enough to have aisle seats. I cannot praise his gracious demeanor enough. And his wit and warmth made for a very memorable occasion!
I’d like to put in a word of praise for the way library staff handled this event. The crowd was large, as they knew it would be. It was apparent that plenty of advanced planning had been done. Everything went smoothly, with McCall Smith staying to sign books afterward. President and CEO of the library Valerie Gross thanked him warmly, and thanked the various sponsors who made it possible for the Howard County Library to host the appearance of this internationally acclaimed author. She reminded us that this event was in keeping with the library’s educational mission, and that thanks to the aforementioned sponsors, the many volunteers, and the Friends of the Library, it was offered to the public at no charge.
The second: a video from the Best Friends Animal Society describing the work they have done to rehabilitate Michael Vick’s abused dogs:
The fact that these people gave themselves so selflessly to this effort is enough to reaffirm your faith in mankind.
I’ve been a supporter of Best Friends for a long time. You can see why.
Last night the Howard County library held its annual fundraiser, “Evening in the Stacks.” This year the theme was “Along the Silk Road.” For one evening, the East Columbia Branch was transformed into a combination of exotic souk and sultan’s palace. Decorations were lavish; food was plentiful and delicious. (I was especially grateful for the chicken curry!) At the silent auction, everything from concert tickets to fencing lessons was up for grabs.
(A primary sponsor of this yearly event is the Washington Post. A representative of the paper offered ringing assurances of the Post’s continuing viability: “The Washington Post is not going anywhere!” It was all I could do to keep from calling out, “Give us back our Sunday Book World supplement!“ Ah well – I would not have been heard at any rate, due to the considerable volume of ambient noise .)
The high point of the evening was provided by the evening’s guest author, Manil Suri.
I listened to The Death of Vishnu several years ago, and I remember how surprised and delighted I was by Manil Suri’s laugh-out-loud manner of storytelling. So I was not surprised at his lively, engaging speaking style. Mr. Suri possesses the kind of charm that emanates from genuine personal qualities – warmth, wit, erudition, empathy. The assumed facade that one often perceives in a setting like last night’s was nowhere in evidence.
Mr. Suri spoke with eloquence and tenderness of his childhood and youth in India, and of his family’s fascinating history. He discussed the way in which aspects of his personal history were transmuted into the stuff of fiction, especially in The Death of Vishnu. He talked about his own growth as a writer and about the process of getting published; Bollywood lore played an entertaining part in this saga.
After his remarks, Mr. Suri took questions from the audience. Referring to The Age of Shiva, one person declared herself amazed by the author’s ability to project himself into the mind and heart of a woman character. Suri was extremely gratified by this comment, as well he might be. After all, this uncanny ability has long been one of the qualities most admired in Leo Tolstoy, who breathed life into one of western literature’s most vital and enduring creations, Anna Karenina.
Initially, there was a slight delay in the proceedings while the audience was being seated. Undaunted, Mr. Suri launched a power point presentation; this was followed by a truly hilarious video. He did all this spontaneously, before he had even been officially introduced. He strikes me as the ideal guest speaker, unfailingly gracious in the face of delays and/or sudden script changes.
In addition to being a novelist, Mr. Suri has a “day job” as professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).
This is a man who possesses brains, talent, and personal attractiveness in rare combination.
At last last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, participants were asked by festival organizers to follow their readings with “something embarrassing.” Prof. Suri responded to this challenge by performing his very own – and probably never to be duplicated! – Bollywood Dance: