Monthly Archives: December 2010

‘Corduroy Mansions’, by Alexander McCall Smith

Corduroy Mansions is a boarding house in the Pimlico district of London. The building is  a lovely crumbling mansion block, and just like corduroy fabric it is slightly worn but still sturdy, and ever so comforting.

In this new series by Alexander McCall Smith (Sandy), we meet a Pimlico Terrier (a fictitious breed created by the author) and a host of characters whose lives intersect in a variety of ordinary but intriguing ways. What most of the characters have in common of course, is that they live in Corduroy Mansions. There are real people in this book, not stereotypes (with the exception perhaps, of Oedipus Snark, Liberal Democrat, who behaves as horribly as most people would expect of a politician).

There is a profound warmth and depth to McCall Smith’s characters in all of the series he has created, the most well known being the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series set in Botswana. In this new series, his seemingly scattered vignettes are skillfully woven together but the book is more about personalities than events. Less is learned about the setting – it is my wish to get on the train and visit Pimlico to see if I can find the Belgian shoe store!

Like 44 Scotland Street which was first published in installments in The Scotsman newspaper before it was bound into book form, Corduroy Mansions first appeared in installments online. In fact, the second bunch has been bound into a book called The Dog who Came in from the Cold, and the third is unfolding online as we speak, at the The Telegraph website. Have a look.

corduroymansionsbyalexandermcca

I’ve included below a CBC interview that Shelagh Rogers did with the author in Newfoundland. The interview is very funny and captures the author’s good humour and quick wit, and he has some very interesting thoughts on Africa.

tnc-special-alexander-mccall-smith.html

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, by W.B. Yeats

Swans are some of the most elegant, graceful, dignified, and beautiful creatures I have ever seen. When I mentioned to my son that I so much enjoy seeing the swans on my morning walk along the River Thames to the gym, he mentioned this poem to me right away. I love the graceful beauty of these magnificent birds. They seem to be timeless and unaffected by the worries of the world. But Yeats was not. He wrote this poem as a sad commentary on the grief and pain that comes with change, in his case because of the problems in Ireland.

Instead of reading the poem, just listen to it on this video and let the words wash over you.

If I am honest, I must admit that I am not a great lover of poetry.  So why am I featuring one in my new blog? Well, whenever I encounter a poem that has meaning for a time or event in my life, I do pay attention and appreciate this art form more. Yeats captures the power and the pain in change, using the swans as a marvelous image.

What’s noteworthy about Yeats is that unlike many poets, his writing became better as he grew older, and some of his best work was done after he turned 50 – now that’s encouraging!

When a close friend of mine was nearing death from cancer, she told me she had a mystical experience out in a boat on a lake with a number of swans. They were an encouragement to her then, and they are to me now as I settle in a new place, and they were to Yeats. Timeless.

‘Room’, by Emma Donoghue

Jack and his mother are locked in a shed (11 x 11) and the book is a story about how they survive. The tragedy of their situation soon becomes apparent as the reader listens to Jack’s innocent voice talking about their life in Room, but is himself unaware that there is anything really wrong. He loves his mother and like any child, enjoys the daily routines in his life. Jack’s mother does her best to be a good mother, ordering the days, trying to fend off boredom, protecting Jack from any danger, and yet she is abused and increasingly desperate in this confinement that has gone on for years.

Though I found the boy’s speech a bit distracting at first, it became possible for me to enter the tragedy through his innocent language, thus rendering this tragic story readable. The style reminded me of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Angela’s Ashes. The teller of the story is unaware, but the reader is not. Another book it reminded me of was I Am David, also about a boy who grows up in confinement and has not gained awareness of the wider world in the usual way.

I found the book incredible and riveting. The author is from Dublin and lives in Canada.

Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife, said this, “Room is a book to read in one sitting. When it’s over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days.”

See a trailer for the book on her website.  Don’t worry, there is no spoiler in it.

‘An Irish Country Doctor’, by Patrick Taylor

When young Dr. Barry Laverty arrives in Ballybucklebo to begin as a doctor’s assistant to Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, the first thing he encounters is the massive doctor literally throwing one of his patients out of the door and into the bushes.  An unorthodox introduction, but the start of the kind of learning that you don’t get in school. With a cast of eccentric characters that you would likely find in any pub, this is a story about community and service. Rules may be broken and textbooks left in the dust, but healing happens here, one way or another. The story takes off immediately as patients are seen and lessons are learned about how to practice medicine in a small town, use of placebos notwithstanding. Kinky Kincaid, the glue of the household, is the wise and sensible housekeeper who keeps things running smoothly despite the madcap capers of the old doctor and his apprentice. And she’s really good at getting mud out of pants. Throw in a killer cat and an alcoholic dog, and the book takes off by itself!
The novel has a real feel because the author was born and raised in the area  and is a doctor himself.

The book doesn’t hold much intrigue or many surprises but the lyrical nature of the book and the charm of the setting carries it through and it had just enough rough edges in it to keep it out of the “fluff” category for me.  I probably won’t read another installment just yet (yes there are more in the series!), but I will remember it when I next need a medicinal dose of a chuckle and a pint!

‘Cutting for Stone’, by Abraham Verghese

This epic novel  has touched everyone I’ve talked to who has read it. Spanning continents and generations, with unforgettable characters and a story that takes us from a small mission hospital in Ethiopia (gotta love the name Missing, mispronunciation of Mission Hospital) on to India and America. There is something for everyone in this novel: the often unique relationship between twins, the incredible love of adoptive parents, the struggles of doing medicine in remote places, the challenges of immigration to a new country, and the pain of losing someone that you love.

In the book, Marion observes that in Ethiopia, patients assume that all illnesses are fatal and that death is expected, but in America, news of having a fatal illness “always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took for granted that we were immortal”.

The title Cutting for Stone is more than a play on words about a surgeon called Stone. It comes from the Hippocratic Oath “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art”.  Verghese has said that this line comes from ancient times when stone cutters would go digging for bladder stones and the patient would usually die of infection.

Medical stuff has always intrigued me, but I love the part when Thomas Stone asks “What treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?” The answer is memorable. In order not to spoil it, I won’t tell you here, but if you’ve already read the book and have forgotten, just ask and I’ll tell you!

Introduction

My life has taken some interesting twists and turns, but throughout, books and reading have always been a part of it. I had the incredible windfall of being a librarian for a number of years as well, on a voluntary basis in Africa and even professionally when I was high school Librarian in Canada!

Now I find myself in London, England with some time on my hands. Oddly enough, the reason for starting this blog, in addition to the obvious reason of my love for reading, is that I am asked so often by people to recommend books to them. A number of years ago (in order to remember my thoughts on books I had read) I started a reading log. After reading a book I would jot down a few thoughts and impressions. Being a rather transparent person, I keep few secrets from people, especially my husband, but he recently discovered that I had been keeping this log all these years, and suggested I now launch it into a blog!

Keeping things simple is a high priority for me in almost every area of my life, and my blog will be no different. A picture of the book, perhaps a brief description, and some comments will suffice. You can always search a book online to get a full and more lengthy description (Chapters and Amazon are good).  It is important to note that the books I include are books I have read, not necessarily what I recommend. Whether you read them or not will be entirely up to you. But I hope that if you do read any, you will leave a comment and let me know what you think. Hearing from you will be the best part of what I hope will be a great dialogue on books and reading.

What I love about this picture of my daughter in Castle Howard, (York, UK) is the idea of resting among books. I’ve always said there’s something about reading that resets my brain. I love the fact that in the picture there is a book out of the shelf, lying off to the side. Books should not be left behind ornate glass doors, but used and enjoyed. And the fact that my daughter is gazing out of the light in the window – book worms are never turned inward by reading, though some may think so. Books turn our gaze outward and expand our horizons.