“The Quite Side of Passion” by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith must be one of the best-selling storytellers alive today.

He is the author of the beloved No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels and a number of other series as well as stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and are best-sellers throughout the world. This new one is the twelfth in the Isabel Dalhousie series.

It tells the story of this Edinburgh lady who has money of her own and spends her time editing articles for The Review of Applied Ethics. Or that is how she would like to spend her time. She is married, however, to Jamie, a successful bassoonist with an orchestra in Edinburgh. They have two little boys, the second one still a baby, whom they like to be with.

In this book, they agree to get help, with both the children and the editing. These young women have emotional problems of their own and this book tells us how Isabel’s kindness and keen intelligence get her involved, even as she wonders whether an employer should ever inject herself into her employees’ affairs. McCall Smith has an intimate knowledge of Edinburgh and this book, like all his others, gives a wonderful picture of that very special city.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Written World” by Martin Puchner

Martin Puchner is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His prize-winning books range from philosophy to the arts. He is best-known for his six-volume Norton Anthology of World Literature which brings four thousand years of literature to students everywhere

In The Written World, he outlines what people have written and read over the last 1,000 years. It makes for an ingenious history of civilization. To do this, Puchner travelled across continents “from Mesopotamia, Nineveh, clay tablets, cuneiform and Gilgamesh.”

The Apollo 8 read from Genesis using an alphabet that had been created in Greece. He wrote the lines on paper, a convenient material that originated in China and came to Europe and America via the Arabic world. He used the Bible bound as a book, a useful Roman invention. The pages were printed, a Chinese invention that had been further developed in northern Europe.

Puchner’s main point is showing us that it was only when storytelling intersected with writing that literature was born. Before that, storytelling had existed in oral cultures, with different rules and purposes. Puchner puts his focus therefore on the evolution of creative technologies, such as the alphabet, the book and print.

He sees the larger story of literature unfolding in four stages: the first dominated by small groups of scribes who alone had mastered the difficult writing systems, such as the Hebrew Bible, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; the second by charismatic teachers such as the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus. In the third stage of literature individual authors emerged, such as Cervantes in Spain; finally, in the fourth stage, the widespread use of paper print brought in mass production as we know it.

Puchner shows how stories and literature have created the world we have today.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Vi” by Kim Thuy

The author of this new book, entitled Vi, was born in Saigon in 1968, and left Vietnam with the boat people at the age of ten to settle with her family in Quebec.

She has done a great many successful things, including studying and practicing law, as well as working as an interpreter, restaurant owner, and commentator on radio and television. She has published an earlier book, Ru, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

In Vi she uses her own experience to describe the life of four children of which Vi is the youngest, and the only daughter. They escape the Vietnam war, but her father, who was rich and spoiled, stayed behind, leaving the family to make a new life for themselves in Canada. Vi turns out to have a lot of courage. Apart from life in Montreal, she headed to Boston, and later was present at the fall of the Berlin Wall. This book gives an intriguing picture of one woman’s enterprise and shows us again what those Vietnamese people had to go through.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“My Twenty-Five Years in Provence” by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle was a well-known English journalist who worked in London and New York and wrote fifteen books, including trips he had made abroad, mostly to southern France.

His favorite spot, to which he and his wife Jennie kept returning, was Provence, in the south of France. They found the three hundred days of sunshine, as well as the fine countryside, historic old building, special food and a world-famous variety of the Wine, Rose.

They finally took the plunge and decided to leave England permanently and move to Provence. This book tells of their experience in finding an agent who finally turns up a beautiful house on the northern side of the Luberon Mountains in the village of Gordes, which had a wonderful peaceful view. We learn of some of the problems of settling in, learning the language (instead of sticking to English only and remaining with the group who never really entered French life). What they thoroughly enjoyed was the ebb and flow of village life, especially joining in to the group dropping in to the cafes for meals. They learned how to grow their own truffles, which was difficult, and got help in caring for their small vineyard.

Mayle is candid about the difficulty of leaving one’s own country forever – – made somewhat easier by the fact they had no children, only two dogs, who seemed happy with the move. His happiness is infectious, however, and the book is written with all his usual charm.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Calypso” by David Sedaris

David Sedaris has been writing ingeniously funny stories for over twenty years. He has done this from England, where he lives, as well as an apartment he keeps in Paris and a beach house on the Carolina coast in the United States, which he calls the Sea Section.

Three of the titles of his collections are: Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. They are hilarious and misanthropic at the same time. In Calypso, Sedaris tackles middle age and mortality. He is as funny as ever but the hilarity darkens as he realizes that life is made up of more past than future at a certain stage. Critics call this book simultaneously Sedaris’ darkest and warmest book yet and possibly his very best. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and BBC Radio 4.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“Bloody Scotland” edited by James Crawford

Scotland has always had a romantic side for many people, with its old castles and misty moors. But these same castles can also have a dangerous turn.

In this book, the writer gives twelve such examples. James Crawford is a Scot, who lives in Edinburgh. He is Publisher of Historic Environment Scotland, the organization that cares for over three hundred historic properties and holds Scotland’s national collection of archaeology and architecture.

He tells of how he went with a small group a few years ago to visit the ruins of Castle Campbell, in the Ochil Hills above the small town of Dollar. When they were walking down to the terraces in front of the castle, they suddenly heard a gunshot. After a moment of genuine alarm, they started laughing and decided it must be a farmer. Some time later, Crawford was talking to the co-founder of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival. They considered asking twelve of Scotland’s top crime writers to write short stories inspired by twelve of the most iconic buildings.

This book is the result. There are twelve excellent photographs of the buildings they chose — as well as provocative stories to go with them. It may not be the Scotland we know and love – but it makes for a good read.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse” by Alexander McCall Smith

The new book by Alexander McCall Smith takes a new tack, which turns out to be just as touching as his world-famous series on Mma Precious Ramotswe, as well as stories from 44 Scotland Street.

The hero in the title of this one is “The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse” who proves to be a lovable Boston Collie. This dog was owned by a farmer in the UK who beat him regularly. This was discovered by a neighbour, a city girl called Val Eliot, who was recruited to the farm next door as part of the war effort in the Women’s Land Army. She rescued the dog and gave him a safe home.

She was soon to meet an American air force reconnaissance pilot stationed nearby, called Mike. He loved Peter Woodhouse and very soon the dog was living at the base and spending most of his time flying with the pilots where he was most content and became Dog First Class, mascot of the U.S. Air Force. There is a disaster when Mike is shot down, but Peter Woodhouse plays an amazing part in the rescue. It is altogether an exciting and fascinating book and will doubtless join Alexander McCall Smith’s amazing list translated into over forty languages and sold as bestsellers throughout the world.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“A Secret Sisterhood” by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

This book tells the quite fascinating stories of a number of famous women writers and the support they received from female friends.

The authors are successful women writers themselves who have become friends through their writing – and so they know wherof they are writing in this book. We are all familiar with male literary friendships – all the way from Byron and Shelley to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the most celebrated female authors are mostly known as solitary geniuses or isolated eccentrics.

In this book we learn of the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants called Anne Sharp, who used to write plays for the children and helped criticize Austen’s work. There is an amazing description of the way Harriet Beecher Stowe, a successful writer, sent off a letter to “My Dear Friend” across the Atlantic to an equally successful writer who had taken the nom de plume George Eliot, and they became friends. As did Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. This book does a very successful job of offering a new perspective on established literary figures.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is a well-known Irish writer with a number of prize-winning novels to her name. In this one, she looks at the near-death experiences that have jarred her own life. She takes the title from another writer, Sylvia Plath who, in The Bell Jar, wrote: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

O’Farrell describes the man she meets on a mountain path who puts his binocular strap around her neck, but then frees her, only to turn up later in police records. O’Farrell was born with a childhood illness, encephalitis, which damaged those parts of her brain involved in movement and balance. She tells of some occasions when this caused real danger. She also had a dangerous experience in labour in an understaffed hospital and almost lost her child.

She had other children, however. One of them, a daughter, is living in permanent danger from a condition called anaphylaxis. It is a daily struggle for O’Farrell to protect her from this medical condition that leaves her vulnerable to many dangers. It is no wonder O’Farrell feels nothing is given in this life, every day is precious, every moment a gift.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Ghost Orchard” by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is a prize-winning writer, living in Kingston, Ontario who loves to write about nature, agriculture, and how people relate to them.
This book was inspired when she found a White Winter Pearmain – considered the best-tasting apple in the world – growing beside an abandoned cabin near her home. The book has superb colour photographs of this apple as well as a number of others. It has an imaginary chapter on how Pearmain might have been discovered, in England, AD 1200. But there are lots of actual facts about the history of apples, including how bountiful orchards run by the indigenous people of North America were stolen or wiped out by the white settlers and their armies. It was reckoned that there were some 17,000 varieties of apple available in the 1800s, and the U.S. Department of Pomology made a record of these.
There is a fascinating chapter on Robert Frost, the poet, who had an orchard on his farm in Derry, New Hampshire and puts apples in many of his poems. When he moved to the UK, he became friends with Ezra Pound, as well as the English poet Edward Thomas, who loved to walk in the country, look for apples, and put them in their poems. It all makes this a charming book.
Reviewed by Anne McDougall