Category Archives: McCall Smith, Alexander

‘Heavenly Date And Other Flirtations’ by Alexander McCall Smith

 It is always a joy to read Alexander McCall Smith.

Nothing to do with the post, but I can’t source any pics on my iPad on this dodgy connection. Alexander McCall Smith IS Scottish, though.

‘Heavenly Date’ is a collection of short stories about people going on dates, ranging from the middle aged couple in Switzerland who spend thousands on casual gifts for each other, to the man picking up a prostitute and the young girl who has a picnic with an angel.  Many, but not all, of the stories are set in Africa, in the last days of empire.  Alexander has a feel for this continent and that particular age, which is unmatched, something which is reflected in his First Ladies Detective Agency stories (although these are set in a later period).  He always writes with such gentleness and at the slowest of slow paces.  ‘This is what I will I’ll do it. Yes, I will do it.’  These words are not an exact quote, of course, but they hit the general tone.

However, on the subject of style, I was irked by the number of times sentences in the same paragraph began with the words ‘There is…’ or ‘There are…’ and also by reps.  Alexander writes amazing stuff, but I also know that he churns it out very fast, two or three books per year.

Some of the stories ramble,  ‘Bulawayo’, for instance, which concerns two very sheltered and innocent twenty somethings in old Rhodesia, who couldn’t bring themselves to consummate their marriage.  The story ends in a way we in the twenty first century would find particularly shocking, except that, the way Alexander wrote it, it didn’t seem shocking at all.  For such an easygoing author, his work is deceptively intense and thoughtful.  The man is a polymath, someone who understands art, poetry, music and philosophy, but he wasn’t philosophising in this collection of stories.

So, great stuff, as usual and definitely worth reading.  McCall Smith books tend to be very expensive these days, so I was thrilled to be able to pick this one up, secondhand, in a village fete.  Have you noticed the sort of books that appear in charity shops, fetes and secondhand bookstalls?  I can tell you that, apart from one or two classics, Heavenly Date was the only one off this particular stall for which I felt motivated to part with even 50p.  All those authors who area held up to us as role models, people we have been are encouraged to emulate,  their books are piled up in these places – Dan Brown, especially.

Must dash.  I’m passing the time in my polling station – again – writing this on my iPad which is now down to 13%.  Also the Internet connection is dodgy.  Seven and a half hours to go, and over a hundred voters (out of less than four hundred) have already voted.  (If you’re reading this some time after posting, you’ll realise that this is being written on General Election Day.). Close watchers of this blog will have observed that this is my second book review of the day!

Review of ‘The Right Attitude to Rain’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Would you read a book about a benevolent and philanthropic Scottish academic in which very little happens?  Well, Dear Reader, I’m recommending that you read The Right Attitude to Rain which is exactly like that.

Rain

Pixabay, Creative Commons

I love ironic book titles.  In particular, I’m attracted to books with titles that seem to infer that the content is so commonplace as to be not worth reading, or which provide a quirky slant on the ordinary, such as The Right Attitude to Rain.  Whatever attitude to precipation can be considered right?   A short story written about the same characters is entitled The Perils of Morning Coffee.  What indeed can these be?  That you burn your hand on your polystyrene Starbucks cup?  (But, no, no, these characters would never drink Starbucks.)

When you’re in the midst of something, you miss things.  When you return after a period of absence, you notice them.  This applies to reading as much as to writing.  There was a time when every other book I read was a McCall Smith, but, until I started The Right Attitude to Rain a week or so ago, I hadn’t opened any his books for some time, because I felt they were too same-y.   However, the minute I started on this novel, the third (out of ten) in The Sunday Philosphy Club series,  I was immediately struck anew by the charm of McCall Smith’s distinctive style.  As is usual in his work, plot material is thin.  Isabel Dalhousie, the philosopher, philosophises.  Having inherited wealth from her father, she is free to do this at her abundant leisure.  She potters around Edinburgh, reading submissions for the Review of Applied Ethics and indulging in a little academic bickering, viewing art in galleries and taking her coffee at the delicatessan of Cat, her neice.  As usual, she has more than warm feelings for Jamie, bassoonist and Cat’s ex-boyfriend, and she entertains some American cousins.  No murder (nor any other felony/misdemeanour) is committed – unusual in crime fiction.

McCall Smith’s literary style is unhurried, lingering over apparently inconsequential conversations, everyday events and small disagreements between

Edinburgh Castle

Wikimedia, Creative Commons

characters.  He doesn’t do tension or suspense.  It all seems as light as air, but it’s not, because Isabel Dalhousie applies philosophical constructs to ordinary happenings.  On one level you might believe, as does her American cousin, Mimi, that she over thinks, when she should just get on with it, but, on the other hand, perhaps McCall Smith is taking philosophy off its academic pedestal and applying it to everyday life  Isabel’s is a very comfortable life, of course.  The fact is that we all would love to be Isabel Dalhousie, endlessly drinking coffee, never having to worry about making a living, or family responsibilities, and therefore having the time and energy to meddle in other people’s affairs.

The Right Attitude to Rain is available from Alexander McCall Smith’s website.  I tried in vain to find a link to the publisher’s website; even this author website provides links to Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.  No wonder traditional publishing houses are going under!  I borrowed it through Overdrive, as an electronic book.  I am therefore virtuous because I was Supporting My Local Library.

Review of 'Emma' by Alexander McCall Smith

Available from Harper Collins.

This is the second Austen Project book I’ve read (following Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, reviewed in my last post).  I had been led to believe by the critics that it would not be as good, and it wasn’t, even though I’m probably Alexander McCall Smith’s greatest fan.  (Was I influenced by the critics, Dear Reader?  Should I have not looked?  Perhaps.  Probably.)

As Val McDermid did with ‘Northanger Abbey’, Alexander McCall Smith turned it inside out and made it his own, moving the Woodhouse pile, Hartfield, and the village of Highbury (I always think of the Arsenal!) from Surrey to Norfolk, although I don’t know why.   However, it was not easy to translate a story about a rich girl living in a big house in the country with nothing to do into modern life and portray her character sympathetically.  Inevitably, Emma becomes a bit of an alice band.  When the story starts, Emma has just graduated from Bath University with a degree in interior design, but without a real passion in the subject, and, whilst she is very childish in some respects, she is also prematurely middle-aged, with an overwhelming interest in her neighbours.   Like the real thing, she interferes in other people’s business, believing she knows better, with disastrous results.   Jane herself wrote of ‘Emma’, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (Wikipedia, quoting Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1926. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. p. 157).  Yes, Miss Austen, you did.

Maybe it’s because the setting is contemporary, or because I read the real ‘Emma’ a long time ago, when I was young and callow, but AMS’s characters seem more lifelike, to the point of being caricatures.  Emma herself really is horrid, Harriet Smith incredibly thick and gullible, and Mr Woodhouse so much of a hypochondriac that it’s a wonder he ever got out of bed.  In fact, in my opinion, Mr Woodhouse occupies too much of this adaptation, especially at the beginning, when we have to read his life story, with AMS converting him into a bit of a sage, with a knotty opinion on world affairs.   Another character who takes up too many pages is Miss Taylor.  Who she, you might ask, Dear Reader?  In the original, she has a very minor role, as Emma’s former governess who has recently wed Mr Weston, but, because – after Mr Woodhouse’s life story – we have to read about Emma and Isabella’s childhood, she looms large – and Scottish.  Miss Bates, one of the stronger characters in the real thing, appears only briefly.  Mr Knightley is shadowy, dull and worthy, a Darcy without the edginess.  True to the original, Emma realises she loves Mr Knightley only in the last few pages, but in both versions this is an unsatisfactory ending.

‘Emma’ is a story in which very little happens.  Many of the (only) 300 pages were taken up with typical Alexander McCall Smith meanderings, exploring what everyone thinks about everything.  These are normally a pleasure to read, but not here.  I do believe bringing ‘Emma’ into the present day was difficult task as parts of it belong wholly to the Regency period.

So do I recommend Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Emma’?  Yes, actually.  It was a pleasant read, more Alexander McCall Smith, though, than Jane Austen.