Sunday, July 25, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith ****

In England, primary school children are taught their island is shaped like a man riding a pig. East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk counties) is the back end of the pig and given little respect throughout Great Britain. Years ago I worked in East Anglia, flat farming country, in a small market town called Saxmundham for more than a millennium. Change comes slow to this part of the world; their website shows the same town I recall from two decades ago.

This agrarian setting is perfect for Alexander McCall Smith author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series set in a similar milieu half-way around the world in Botswana. La's Orchestra Saves the World takes place during World War II and follows Lavender Stone, newly widowed, in her efforts to fit into life in East Anglia and adjust to the war.

As with the Botswana books the simple folks separated but aware of the bigger world provide a backdrop to the individual micro-crises for a wonderful variety of ordinary characters. The attraction of these books is the juxtaposition of the ordinary course of life against the larger picture that tries to exert itself, but somehow fails.

A most enjoyable read.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton ****

Coverture is the legal principle that husband and wife are one person - the husband. In Abigail Adams by Woody Holton we see a detailed example of a 18th century woman who believed coverture was unfair and successfully worked around it for herself and her female relatives.

There is undoubtedly more documentation on Abigail Adam's life two centuries ago than there is for yours or mine. Two factors contributed to the treasure trove of over 1,200 letters documenting her life. First, she lived in a time of written communications: letters, not the ephemeral verbal and electronic communication of today. But more important, and specific to Adams, for much of her life she was separated from her husband John Adams as he worked on the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, international negotiations with France and England, and the job of Vice President and President of the United States. The geographical separation of husband and wife, in a time before telephones and Internet, yielded a extensive volume of letters.

Most interesting, these letters revealed how Abigail amassed a large personal (contrary to the principle of coverture) fortune and used these resources during her life-time and managed to pass it on to her female relatives.

The book provides a unique view of the founding of the United States from the female point-of-view. Perhaps of more interest is Adams life-long drive to provide education and financial resources to all women.

The extensive source material is a two-edge sword: one the positive side, much is known about the life of Abigail Adams. One the negative side, so much detail slows the narrative, as much of daily life is reported in repetitive detail.

An excellent choice for history buffs.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Night and Day by Robert B Parker ****

Did you ever notice that most hardback novels are the same size? 9 1/2 " x 6" and 1 1/4" How does this work? It's done with font size, line spacing, and margins - all tricks students now learn in junior high when writing 5 page essays. Publishers can also fudge the paper thickness. Compare Night and Day by Robert B Parker with under 300 pages and 50,000 words (hardly a novel at all, maybe a novella) with Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult with over 400 pages and 150,00 words - both virtually the same physical size.

Night and Day is the eighth novel (novella?) featuring Jesse Stone, a Jimmy Stewart-like character who's clipped sentences make me imagine the author is being charged by the word. He's certainly no Dickens, who was paid by the word.

Anyway what is this mystery about: Sex - preadolescent sex. A junior high principal who checks the girls for appropriate underwear, a peeping tom, a swinger's club, and, of course, Jesse's ex-wife who sleeps with whomever might advance her career. Given the contents, don't be surprised that much of the other dialogue concerns immature sexual innuendos and much sophomoric tittering.

Maybe, my best recommendation is that it is short and without surprises.