Books discussed in this post:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith
Still Life by Louise Penny
All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Puccini’s Ghosts by Morag Joss
St. Alban’s Fire, The Second Mouse, and Tucker Peak by Archer Mayor
At year’s end, for several years now, I’ve been collecting lists of the Best Books of the Year as they appear in the print media and online. The most dependably comprehensive of these appear in the book sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Although my book mania compels me to do this, it is invariably a dismaying exercise. How can I have been reading so furiously all year, paying such close attention to reviews, and yet managed to miss so many (supposedly) outstanding works? Meanwhile, the new year is under way, with the predictable must-reads already piling up. Columnist Joe Queenan summed up the problem very neatly in an article in the New York Times Book Review entitled, “Why I Can’t Stop Starting Books.”. He describes an experiment in which he tried to limit himself to reading no more than three books simultaneously (!!). Then someone lent him a book about the French misadventure in Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and his resolve cracked. “Here, in a nutshell, is the problem” he admits ruefully: “No matter how good the book I am currently reading may be…… I am always ready to drop everything and start reading a 39-year-old book about Dien Bien Phu.” Oh, Joe, you really do understand! (http://preview.tinyurl.com/yv6maz )
[Queenan also has some choice words for people who hand you books, declaring that you simply must read them: “…cavalierly foisting unsolicited reading material upon book lovers is like buying underwear for people you hardly know.”
A perusal of the lists from the Times, the Post, and several other periodicals produced the usual mix of books I’d already read, books I couldn’t get into (What exactly did the reviewers see in THAT??), books I’d read all the way through and must have enjoyed at least minimally (or I would have set them aside), and books I had intended to read but hadn’t. When conducting this annual review, I always keep an eye out for books that appear repeatedly on different lists. For the year 2006, one of those was THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan. I had already seen a number of laudatory reviews of this title through out the year. The book is subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals.” The main reason I had not read it was that I was having trouble figuring out exactly what it was about.
THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, it turns out, is an amazing book. The amount of research Pollan did on how food is produced, processed, marketed, and bought in this country is very impressive. He observed wherever he was permitted to do so; when it was possible, he actually inserted himself into the process. He participated in the slaughtering of chickens at Polyface Farms in Virginia, a fascinating place in its own right: http://www.polyfacefarms.com/ . He hunted wild pig; he dove for abalone in northern California’s frigid coastal waters. Above all, Pollan writes about potentially tedious and convoluted subjects in such a lucid and engaging manner that the reader is readily swept up in his experience. While many of these experiences are fascinating, even exhilarating, a few are repugnant. And needless to say – although I certainly will say it – the sections of the book in which Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) are described is hard to read.
The primary purpose of the CAFO’s is to make possible the cost-effective and efficient production of food. In this, they do succeed; one just wishes it could be done some other way.
I cannot recommend THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA highly enough. In his evenhanded treatment of his material, Pollan makes it plain that his intent is not to push an agenda but rather to get at the truth about this most essential and quotidian of human activities: the getting and consuming of our daily bread.
I have just had the interesting experience of listening to two novels by Alexander McCall Smith, one right after the other. The first was the sixth entry in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, BLUE SHOES AND HAPPINESS. The second was THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TO RAIN, the third entry in a series set in Edinburgh and featuring Isabel Dalhousie, an independently wealthy philosopher and some time amateur sleuth. On the face of it, Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie would appear to have very little in common. Mma Ramotswe is proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. Her little “start-up” provides her with sufficient income to lead a comfortable, if frugal, existence. On the other hand, Isabel Dalhousie is a highly educated – and highly intellectual – woman. She is also the fortunate heir to a sizeable estate and is thus relieved of the necessity of having to work for a living.
There are some values which are shared by Isabel Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe. Both women love their respective countries of origin, feel privileged to live in them, and cannot imagine living anywhere else. They are also committed to living lives characterized by integrity and honorable behavior. Isabel, who edits a journal devoted to applied ethics, is the more intellectual of the two, but having said that, it should also be noted that Mma Ramotswe is an unusually thoughtful person. She has to be, in that some of the cases she takes on require some very delicate maneuvering. Her second-in-command, Mma Makutse, serves as her foil in some ways. Mma Makutse tends to jump to conclusions a bit too quickly; she also prey to making impulse purchases, especially of fashionable, excruciatingly uncomfortable footwear. But it will not do to underestimate Mma Makutse; she is a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, having earned a whopping 97% on her final exam there. References to this impressive achievement are constantly cropping up in this series, to the amusement of its many devoted readers.
Some of these same readers have told me that the Edinburgh series doesn’t work for them. I think that is because the No.1 Ladies Detective series is shot through with McCall Smith’s gentle wit. Humorous scenes alternate with poignant ones, such as the one in BLUE SHOES in which Mma Ramotswe encounters two elderly American women at a wildlife preserve. That particular passage moved me to tears, in fact, but not to worry; McCall Smith never lets these characters or their situations descend into bathos. This is also true of the Edinburgh series, but the tone of those books is in general more sober. Isabel is by nature a reserved person; it takes a while for the other characters, as well as readers, to get to know her. Many readers also feel that exotic Botswana has the advantage as regards setting, but in my opinion, McCall Smith’s intimate knowledge of Edinburgh’s byways makes for equally fascinating reading.
I have to admit, though, that THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TO RAIN is an odd little book. This is mainly due to the fact that although it is supposed to be a mystery, I did not detect the presence of the usual mysterious elements anywhere – at least, not in the conventional sense. There is the usual (usual for Isabel the philosopher I mean) quotient of musing in which the mystery of human behavior is considered and analyzed.. This process may sound dull, but it’s actually fascinating. In this passage, for instance, Isabel is mulling over articles submitted to a journal, The Review of Applied Ethics, of which she is the editor. The subject under consideration is self-knowledge. One writer suggests that what he calls “the unity of the self” should consist of the narrative that begins at birth and ends with death. Isabel ponders this for a moment, and then decides that there must be more than that to this crucial search:
“Self-knowledge required more than an understanding of how things work as a narrative; it required an understanding of the character traits that led to the narrative being what it is. And for this, she concluded, we might attempt to mould our character in the future. I can be better, she thought, if I know what’s wrong with me now.”
I suppose that you could say that the novel is about the mysteries of the human heart: in RIGHT ATTITUDE, Isabel Dalhousie, age 42, finds herself powerfully attracted to a younger man. Many complications present themselves, not the least of which is that Jamie, the object of Isabel’s desire, is the cast off lover of her niece Cat. In the previous paragraph we glimpsed the cerebral Isabel; here, on the other hand, is this same woman awakening in the morning and gazing at her still sleeping lover: “She thought: How beautiful he is, lying there. I have never seen anything as beautiful, never, than this young man with his smooth skin and there, just visible, the shape of his ribs.” Ah well! Isabel is certainly not the first person to discover that the ability to analyze ethical dilemmas is not of much use where matters of the heart are concerned.
THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TO RAIN and BLUE SHOES AND HAPPINESS both came out in 2006, and I would include both of them on my list of outstanding mysteries for that year. There are two other books, though, that I would say occupy pride of place for 2006: STILL LIFE by Louise Penny and ALL MORTAL FLESH by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I read STILL LIFE a year ago, and I’m having trouble recalling exactly what it was that so captivated me about this slender little novel. It starts out in the time-honored manner of your basic whodunit: Why would anyone murder sweet, elderly Jane Neal, lifelong resident of the village of Three Pines in Quebec? Once again, the setting is a major plus here: in some ways, a small village in Quebec is a more intriguing venue for American readers than the small English villages in which so many of our favorite mysteries are set. Still, there is some hard to define element in the storytelling here that captivates the reader. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to – and I’ve recommended it to many mystery fans over the course of this year – has come back with the same reaction: ” I loved it!!”
The appeal of ALL MORTAL FLESH is a bit easier to identify: its all too human characters are trying desperately to do the right thing even as their aching hearts pull them in another direction entirely. This is a particularly dicey situation when one of the characters is a married policeman and the other is an Episcopal priest. I’m going to quote myself here; this short critique written by me appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine: “Julia Spencer-Fleming has taken her superb series to new heights with this novel, which is full of humanity, passion, and anguish. And what a cliffhanger of an ending!! I have no idea what’s in store next for these flawed, all-too-human characters whom she has made me love.” (Mystery Scene is a delightful publication Visit it on the web at www.mysteryscenemag.com. )
Before I continue on the subject of the Best of 2006, I want to give you a heads-up on a novel which will almost certainly be among my best of 2007: ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan. An excerpt appeared as a short story in the Winter Fiction issue of the New Yorker Magazine. I have not read such a spellbinding passage of fiction in ages! A young couple in post World War Two England are on their honeymoon. They are very much in love, but in that time and place, sex was not discussed – at least, not openly. The story is told from the point of view of the bride, who is plainly terrified at the prospect of her wedding night. I was riveted by this extraordinary story; the writing is simply superb – granted, what you would expect from the brilliant McEwan, but even so… As of this writing, it is available online: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/12/25/061225fi_fiction1 . The novel is scheduled to be published in the U.S. on June 5.
Okay – no more digressions! In addition to the mysteries I’ve already mentioned, here are several more outstanding novels of crime and suspense from 2006:
PUCCINI’S GHOSTS by Morag Joss. Joss is yet another writer being favorably compared to Ruth Rendell. In her case, this is no exaggeration. Puccini’s Ghosts is a highly original novel of psychological suspense in which a group of rank amateurs from a Scottish backwater decide to mount a production of Puccini’s most singular, exotic opera. Read the novel yourself and find out how the “Burnhead Association for Singing Turandot” came into being – and why the good people of Burnhead wish to God it had not!
According to a reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, Archer Mayor is the author of “…the best police procedurals being written in America.” Here here! Archer has long been one of my favorite crime writers. In his series of police procedurals set in Vermont, the characters are tremendously true to life, and he writes great dialogue also. Descriptive passages, while none too numerous, are a pleasure to read, Vermont being a state that confers picturesque riches on a skilled writer like Mayor. The plots in these novels always evolve organically from an initial event, usually, but not always, a murder. Things go from simple to complicated, but in Mayor’s deft hands, subsequent developments, no matter how bizarre, always seem plausible. The chief protagonist is Joe Gunther, an exacting but compassionate police officer. Others on his team are Sammie Martens and the irascible Willy Kunkle. While Joe is in charge, the others on his team are likewise dedicated. The 2006 entry in the series is ST.ALBAN’S FIRE; the most recent is THE SECOND MOUSE. I recommend starting back a few books in the series – say, with TUCKER PEAK – because a situation in Joe’s personal life is reaching a crossroads and it would help the reader to understand what is happening and why if he or she is familiar with events that lead up to this point.