I have a weakness for Alexander McCall Smith and his usually delightful books about little nothings but I was not charmed by The Charming Quirks of Others, which is the latest installment in his Isabel Dalhousie series. The focus of the book, if I can even talk about focus for books that are more impressionistic than descriptive, is that Isabel is asked to investigate the background of candidates for a headmaster position and the whole task just seems underhanded and wrong. Shouldn’t candidates be chosen on the basis of their own merit, not interviews with their fathers — and certainly not interviews the outcome of which is buying a painting that would normally go to auction.
And perhaps the larger than usual dose of philosophizing about everything helped cement my distaste.
I can’t explain why I would pick up a book whose author I did not enjoy in the past (as in I see you Everywhere). Or rather I can, sheepishly: a dark late afternoon in the library with only the shiny jacket covers of Picoult and company as competition…
In any case, I took The Widower’s Tale home and grumbled on every page. The good news is that the hero of the tale is a compelling and likable character, neither a sweet old man nor a curmudgeon redeemed by new love. But the other characters are so flat, from the rebellious daughter who forgot to grow up and her sister who is so annoyingly grown up to the clueless grandson (Harvard student, of course, aren’t they all) and the struggling but immensely clever illegal gardener. Even the houses are caricatures, starting with the widower’s ancient and neglected stone house.
I was grateful for the final bonfire and family disaster (all redeemed, of course, in the final chapter — nothing is perfect).
Having loved the author’s quirky memoir of her psychotherapy-infused youth, Mockingbird Years, I set out to read her latest book, Book of Days, a collection of “personal essays”, as described in the subtitle, with anticipation. I was disappointed.
Not that the book is bad: the essays are insightful and effortlessly move from a simple observation, perhaps the complicated world of high school girls or (hilariously and repeatedly) the disappearing world of “faculty wives) towards a pithy analysis of what brings us humans to behave in such silly ways. So what’s the problem? The problem is that a big chunk of the book is a simple rehash of the earlier memoir, down to the smallest details such as how Lyndon Johnson greeted her when her dad joined the Kennedy administration. Why repeat so much, without, in my mind, much of a different or deeper interpretation? And occasionally it gets boring, as when she quotes lengthy passages from her doctoral thesis about Kafka. A small dose of tortured academic prose is hilarious. A larger dose — no thank you.
The Hundred-Foot Journey‘s premise is delightful: the son of a once-successful, now impoverished and widowed Indian restaurant owner, transplanted to a most unsuccessful life in London, blossoms when given a chance to cook with a classical, slightly dotty French chef and rises to great fame. Unfortunately, the best part of the book is the beginning, with the description of the family’s life in India and the UK, and that takes fewer than 50 pages.
Afterwards, caricatures take over, starting with the genius-chef and his difficult old maid-mentor. The story line is stretched with tales of epic provisioning. And the French details are often wrong (truffles growing with the chanterelles?) I hope the author had a good time researching the subject matter with plenty of extravagant meals. The book is not worth the food.
The Fever describes the ravages of malaria, starting with how it contributed to establishing slavery in the United States and weakened Scotland as it impoverished itself trying to build the Panama canal (to be followed by equally unsuccessful French speculators). It shows the very temporary triumph of DDT and the hoarding of a Chinese remedy as a military secret.
But malaria, now apparently contained, and not by chance, in the poorest countries of the world, seems marooned in a hopeless state simply because its sufferers have other problems that are much more dire than malaria, so that all the easy fixes the rich countries can invent seem doomed to failure. It seems that alleviating poverty is the only way to make real progress.
A sequel to Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality focuses on the benefits of irrationality. Like the earlier book, the writing flows well and the anecdotes are funny and often thought-provoking. For instance, high bonuses actually decrease performance for demanding jobs — maybe that’s the real explanation of the banking crisis? It turns out that the best motivator is, simply, to pay attention to people and to their performance. And irate customers react quite well to being told flat-out that problems happen — but only if they are shown some sympathy beforehand.
I liked this book much better than the other one, probably because it was a little more lighthearted. It turns out that it may be good for our psyches not to be 100% rational!
More bonobos! Ape House is a novel, not a memoir, and it makes bonobos to be even smarter than they normally would be, but it’s easy to get caught into the mystery of the kidnapped bonobos, their injured keeper-scientist, and the stalwart reporter who tracks them down. Many of the characters are overly caricatured (including a very successful overbearing mother-in-law, an evil scientist, and an exotic dancer with a good heart) but it’s all in good fun and eventually the bonobos do find paradise. A little too easy, a little overdone, but much better than the memoir.
Bonobo Handshake is the memoir of an Australian journalist turned scientist-helper who works with bonobos in a sanctuary founded and run by a determined Belgian woman in the midst of a bloody civil war in the republic of Congo. The bonobos are heart-breakingly human, intelligent, and manipulative of their caretakers. Unfortunately, the private life of the author and of the sanctuary director are quite boring, and the author never seriously addresses the wisdom of running such necessarily small sanctuaries compared to preserving animals in the wild — or, indeed, taking care of the humans of Congo.
Having loved Room, the dramatic gem by Emma Donoghue, I decided to try one of her earlier novels, Slammerkin, and I was thoroughly disappointed. It’s a historical novel that describes the mostly imagined life of a young servant who murders her mistress and is found to have been a prostitute rather than a respectable dressmaker. Much of the novel tiresomely describes her trade and the only relief are the many description of life in the late 18th century, from the dire poverty in the streets of London to washing day in a small town.
As I plodded through the tedious pages, I was reminded of a much better book on a similar topic, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Read it instead of this one!
It’s hard to imagine a cheerful novel from the author of Out Stealing Horses so I was not surprised by the pervasive sadness of I Curse the River of Time. This is not a book to read when you’re feeling down. There’s a dying mother, a dead brother, a political cause that required sacrifice but is now exposed to be in vain. And lots of drinking, presumably to forget. In that situation I think I, too, would indulge. Beautifully written and rendered. Just not cheerful, at all.