Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sunshine on Scotland Street (Novel)

For most of us a discussion about the things that really matter – the fundamental questions of how we are to live our lives and, just as important, how we are to make sense of the lives we live—is a rare event. We do think about such matters, but our contemplation of them tends to be sporadic and darting. And when it comes to talking about them with friends, embarrassment often prevents us from anything but the most superficial discussion.

The above quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith sums up why I continue to read books in the 44 Scotland Street Series and Alexander McCall Smith’s two other major series, the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. Alexander McCall Smith does dare to talk about “the things that really matter” but no one talks about. Alexander McCall Smith’s books were the ones I immediately thought about when Connie Willis said that books saved her life. These books continue to save me, and I don’t feel so alone in this world. That said, Sunshine on Scotland Street, the eighth book in the series, is also a lot of fun to read.

In Sunshine on Scotland Street a number of characters undergo life changing events. Angus and Domenica get married. Bruce meets his doppelganger. Yet, there is at least one character who chooses not to have their life changed too much. In addition, after a wee too much cheer, Mathew agrees to be filmed for a Danish documentary. And, both Bertie and Angus have some adventures. I’m sure I repeat myself every time I write up my reaction to an Alexander McCall Smith book. So few authors dare to talk about matters of the heart. I am grateful that AMS still does. At some point I know the series will end, but until that time I will continue to look forward to each book. I’ll close with another lovely quote from Sunshine on Scotland Street.

“Goodnight, my boy,” said the Cardinal. “And God bless.”
It was a kind thing to say to a dog, and a good thing. Because the least of us, the very least, has the same claim as any other to that love, divine and human, which makes our world, in all its turmoil and pain, easier to comprehend.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Significant Objects (Short Stories, Social Experiment Book)

Significant Objects edited and partially written by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn has been my lunchtime companion for the last few months. It is an odd little book that I found at Half Priced Books. It almost said: “I’m coming home with you, you know.” I was looking for a book of short stories, and this seemed to fit the description. When I got it home, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe it is a book of short stories; maybe it is some odd hybrid. Yet what it has been is thoroughly engrossing. “So, what do you have for me today, my odd little lunch companion?” I wondered each day.

Significant Objects began as a social experiment. Walker and Glenn acquired over a hundred odd objects: for example, a necking team button, a duck vase, a rooster oven mitt, a seal pen, a motel key. Some were given to them. Some they bought at flea markets or thrift stores for very little money. The editors then asked authors to write fictional stories about the objects. Pictures of the objects and their stories were posted on E-bay, clearly indicating that that the stories were fictional. Part of the experiment was to see how the stories increased the value of the objects.

The book describes the experiment and contains the pictures and stories. The book is not slick. The photographs leave a lot to be desired. Many of the objects are on the pathetic side. But, I enjoyed the stories; many are odd, some touching, some horrifying, most clever. Most of the stories can be read in a minute or two. This odd book is the perfect companion for those odd moments when we just need a tiny bit of entertainment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Fantasy Novel)

That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together….

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth…

Beautiful. What a beautiful little novel. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman so gently touched my heart. The main character as a child reminds me a lot of seven year old Bertie from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series.  Gaiman’s character has that same innocence. Both authors have a talent for looking at life and what it is like to be human. Unlike Scotland Street, The Ocean at the End of the Lane also contains a liberal dose of magic, a bit of horror, and a smidgen of sexuality. The story is deceptively complex, both a simple fantasy and an allegory.

After the narrator returns to his hometown to attend a funeral, he finds himself returning to the Hempstock’s farm. There he remembers something that happened to him as a child. A new boarder had run over his beloved cat. Later the boarder was found dead by suicide. While his father and the police officer were busy, the narrator met the Hempstocks, including Lettie, who is eleven but she isn’t. He learned about the ocean on their property. The death unleashed a magical force. While Lettie promised to keep him safe, something unfortunate happened when he lets go of her hand. The Hempstocks attempted to put things back right. But, they wonder whether they did the right thing.

This image of the ocean at the end of the lane has appeared in my life while I have been exploring a mediation in my real life. The ocean is a perfect and vivid metaphor. As I sat down today, I couldn’t help but think of Lettie and her ocean.

Sometimes I think of the winners of the various awards as representing the world at a particular point in time. I want The Ocean at the End of the Lane to represent us to future generations: burnt toast, fathers and sons trying to understand one another, and magic. And it will. The novel won the Locus Fantasy award and was nominated for the 2013 Nebula, 2014 Mythopoeic, and 2014 World Fantasy Award.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Strange Country (Fantasy/Supernatural Fiction Novel)

There had been a time in her life when the world hadn’t been all that complicated — do the job and get back home. Even if sometimes getting home had been difficult or even dangerous, it was knowable. Doable. Things weren’t that way anymore.
As soon as I started reading the Strange Country by Deborah Coates, I was gone, totally immersed in the story, totally oblivious to my usual ruminations. Strange Country is a sequel to Wide Open and Deep Down. This part mystery, part supernatural fiction novel deals with some of the unfinished business that took place in the earlier storylines, including Death’s proposition to Hallie.

The story opens with Boyd Davies responding to a call about a possible prowler at Prue Stalking Horse’s home. Boyd doesn’t find a prowler, but when he looks around Prue’s home something doesn’t feel right. When they go outside, Prue is shot and killed by a high powered rifle. While searching Prue’s home, investigators find a long dead body and some mysterious stones. The stones are similar to the one carried around by Laddie, an unlucky psychic and a friend to Hallie and Boyd. In the meantime, Beth, Boyd’s sister-in-law and the daughter of Death, shows up at Hallie’s door. And, someone or something is leaving mysterious notes for Hallie, telling her to face her fear. Who murdered Prue? What does her death have to do with events that happened over twenty years ago? What does it have to do with recent supernatural events involving Hallie, Boyd, and others?

Strange Country renews my love of the Taylor County Series --I had loved Wide Open, but had been disappointed with Deep Down-- The rural settling and the characters are almost laid back, yet the plot surges forward. The plot just melts like chocolate or a spoonful of ice-cream, easily creating an immediate experience. While the novel ends with a sense of completion, it keeps open the possibility of more secrets that might lurk in Taylor County or in the lives of Boyd or Hallie.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Old Man and the Sea (Pulitzer Winner)

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her.


The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is beautiful, sad, and haunting.  The wonderful experience of reading this 1953 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction makes suffering through some of the other winners worthwhile. The story is short, perfect, powerful, and complete.

The old man is Santiago, who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. The villagers consider him unlucky. He eventually even loses his apprentice because the boy's family is concerned that the bad luck will rub off.  So one day Santiago goes out alone and finally catches a fish, a huge marlin, and the two of them dance/battle. The interaction goes on for days, with the marlin dragging Santiago further and further away from shore. In the end, the sea takes its toll on Santiago.

The Old Man and the Sea reminds me of a Native American hunting story, yet it is the story of a Cuban fisherman. Deep in his heart, Santiago know the sea. He feels love and respect for the marlin, referring to him as “brother.” Yet, the story acknowledges the sea's dangers. Santiago isn’t puffed up with bravado. He accepts that he is an old man, yet all his years of fishing have made him masterful.

The Old Man and the Sea touched my heart and changed it. Part of me knows the story is also metaphorical, but I don’t want to think about that. I am content to let the metaphors reveal themselves in their own time.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Anything You Want (Business Book)

When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.
Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers is filled with advice for an entrepreneur. Often running his business contrary to conventional thinking, Silver created the successful CD Baby, which gave musicians a way to sell their CDs on-line. The book is inspiring and easy to read. Because it is small, it is perfect for throwing into a purse, briefcase or backpack to read in spare moments. But, I am skeptical about how easy the ideas would actually be for most people to apply and be successful. I suspect it would take a person with an unconventional personality, who is comfortable in their own skin. Still, it is well worth reading and pondering.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Caine Mutiny (Pulitzer Prize Winner)

The sea was the one thing in Willie’s life that remained larger than Queeg. The captain had swelled in his consciousness to an all-pervading presence, a giant malice and evil; but when Willie filled his mind with the sight of the sea and the sky, he could, at least for a while, reduce Queeg to a sickly well-meaning man struggling with a job beyond his powers.


If I had read the ending of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk first (as I have sometimes done in the past with books), perhaps it would not have taken me over three months to finish reading the novel. I was seriously considering giving up my goal of reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners. Something within me rebelled against the story. Perhaps, I couldn’t stand yet another war novel. Perhaps I was convinced that at the end of the book a likeable character would be hung for mutiny. Perhaps I am too tired of reading real-life stories of the abuse by people in power. This week, I finally forced myself to finish the last three hundred pages of the 500+ page book in one day. In the end, I appreciated Wouk’s storytelling ability and felt that I had a glimpse of the 1950’s mindset. While The Caine Mutiny is a novel about war, it is also a “coming of age” story.

Even before The Caine Mutiny was a film, it read like a 1950’s movie. It contains the classic scenes of love, bravery, and courtroom drama. The novel takes us from Willie’s first days in the Navy to his last. For me, Willie is sometimes an antihero and other times a hero. What impressed me most about the book was how, scene by scene, Wouk builds the events that lead to the mutiny aboard the Caine, a minesweeper. In the courtrooms scenes, Wouk helps the reader understand Captain Queeg, the captain the men rebel against, as well as the nature of command in the Navy. The courtroom scenes and the conclusion of the novel made me question the perspective I originally had about the mutiny.

I keep on feeling that I am comparing apples to oranges when I compare my experiences of reading the Pulitzer winners to my experiences of reading other types of novels. The Caine Mutiny, the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner,  is a thought provoking, well-crafted novel. My escapist fiction loving personality did not enjoy reading the novel, though toward the end I found my reading rhythm. The Pulitzer winners provide a different type of pleasure, one of experiencing admirable craftsmanship.