Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith

Title:  Love Over Scotland

AuthorAlexander McCall Smith

Illustrations by:  Iain McIntosh

Paperback:  357 pages

Publisher:  Anchor Books (div. of Random House)

Publish Date:  2007

ISBN:  9780307275981

Miscellaneous:  This is the third book in McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series.

There was no electricity in the village, of course, and when night descended – suddenly, as it does in the tropics – Domenica found herself fumbling with a small Tilley lamp which the house servant had set out on the kitchen table.  It was a long time since she had used such a lamp, but the knack of adjusting it came back to her quickly – an old skill, deeply-ingrained, like riding a bicycle or doing an eightsome reel, the skills of childhood which never left one.  As she pumped up the pressure and applied a match to the mantle, Domenica found herself wondering what scraps of the old knowledge would be known to the modern child.  Would that curious little boy downstairs, Bertie, know how to operate an old-fashioned dial telephone?  Or how to make a fire?  Probably not.  And there were people, and not just children, who did not know how to add or do long division, because they relied on calculators; all those people in shops who needed the till to tell them how much change to give because nobody had ever taught them how to do calculations like that in school.  There were so many things that were just not being taught any more.  Poetry, for example.  Children were no longer made to learn poetry by heart.  And so the deep rhythms of the language, its inner music, was lost to them, because they had never had it embedded in their minds.  And geography had been abandoned too – the basic knowledge of how the world looked, simply never instilled; all in the name of educational theory and of the goal of teaching children how to think.  But what, she wondered, was the point of teaching them how to think if they had nothing to think about?  We were held together by our common culture, by our shared experience of literature and the arts, by scraps of song that we all knew, by bits of history half-remembered and half-understood but still making up what it was that we thought we were.  If that was taken away, we were diminished, cut off from one another because we had nothing to share.

-Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith, pages 174-175

Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith was both the first book out of the 44 Scotland Street series that I’ve read, as well as my first experience reading Alexander McCall Smith.  It will not be the last on either account.

At first, though, I was uncertain if I would like it.  McCall Smith has a quiet writer’s voice.  Whereas other authors may have said Irene was a self-absorbed, narcissistic mother who lived her life vicariously through her six-year-old son Bertie, McCall Smith does this by simply having Irene constantly saying, “Melanie Klein says” this or that, as if to let the other person know they are a stupid twit and should stop talking (including her own husband, Bertie’s father).  Irene is an absolute helicopter mom, and McCall reveals this about her through Bertie, who thinks, “nobody [is] always there, except perhaps [my] mother.”  McCall Smith’s writing is subtle, and instead of compelling the reader forward, he floats you along on the currents of the story.

While being a 3rd book of a series, Love Over Scotland is perfectly capable of being a stand alone novel.  It may have helped in the beginning had I had the background, however the characters show themselves and develop quite well on their own in this book.

Quick Summary of Love Over Scotland:  44 Scotland Street is the address of the apartment building in which most of the characters live, with the exception of Angus, Matthew, Pat (who lived there in the previous novels but has moved), and Big Lou, who owns the coffee shop they all frequent. 

  • Irene, Stuart and Bertie are a young family in one flat, and the “Bertie Project” is Irene’s attempt at making Bertie into a super-genius and prodigy.  She pushes and bullies people, only listens to Dr. Fairbairn (Bertie’s therapist) because he’s the only one who is as intelligent and informed as she, and even goes so far as to manipulate the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra into admitting her six-year-old son, much to Bertie’s lament and opposition.
  • Pat and Matthew are co-workers and Matthew has a thing for Pat, who sees him as being a “nice guy,” which means boring.  Pat, on the other hand, meets a man who calls himself “Wolf” and is smitten (or bitten?).  But honestly, is it possible for a guy named Wolf and who uses “Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood” for his pick-up line to be any good?
  • Domenica is an anthropologist who has gone to study pirates in Malaysia.  When she arrives at her bungalow in the village, she is told the young man on the porch is there to serve her in every way. :-D  While Domenica is having her tropical adventures, her friend Antonia, who is writing a historical fiction about sixth century Scottish saints behaving badly, is subletting her 44 Scotland Street flat, and isn’t getting along very Angus.  Cyril, Angus’s dog is dog-napped while tied up outside an Italian market and has to make his “Incredible Journey” back to his man.
  • And Big Lou’s heart is in the right place when she loans her fiance Eddie a big chunk of cash (£34,000) to open his own restaurant AND made him co-owner of her coffee bar.  When Eddie begins telling her of his new waitresses, ages 16 and 18, and his aspirations to open a gentleman’s club (complete with pole dancing) instead of the restaurant, Big Lou remembers his past legal troubles in the US with underage girls.

The book is altogether fun, with a message of loving and accepting each other and that you can greatly increase the happiness in the world by giving someone a gift. :-)  The book is written from an omniscent third person POV, but not exactly the omnipresent.  You kind of flit from mind to mind, listening to the thoughts of each participant briefly, including peeks into Cyril the dog’s thought processes.

My favorite characters were definitely Bertie, Angus and Cyril, and Matthew, and I was rather fond of Big Lou, too.  I have mooched 44 Scotland Street from PBS and added Espresso Tales (the second book of the series) to my wishlists.  ALSO, there is a fourth book in the series, The World According to Bertie, that came out last year, and I’ve added it to my WLs, as well.  I’m going to have to give The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books a go, too.  *sigh*  So many books, so little time!

For it’s fun, light hearted and warm storyline and characters, I give Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith 5 out of 5 stars.

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The following video clip is of a street performance in Edinburgh.  I thought it encompassed Bertie’s love of music, Wolf’s smexiness, and the city the book takes place in, not to mention the desire being felt by several characters and the exotic setting of Domenica’s pirates….  and okay, I admit it… the lead drummer is hawt! :-D

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Title: Matrimony
Author: Joshua Henkin
Paperback: 291 pages
Publisher: Vintage (division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780307277169

“So how’s your book going?”

“Glacially,” Julian said. “It’s like that joke about Joyce Carol Oates. Someone calls her up and her secretary says, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Oates can’t come to the phone right now, she’s busy writing a book,” and the person says, ‘That’s okay, I’ll hold.’ Only with me it’s the opposite. Rip Van Winkle wakes up twenty years later and I’m still writing my novel… I’ve been at it almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve got two hundred and fifty pages, though I’ve probably thrown out twenty for every one I’ve kept. I’m laying waste to whole forests.”

“What’s the book about?”

Julian hesitated. Even to Mia, he hadn’t confided much; he didn’t want to jinx himself. Growing up, he’d had a special cup he drank from and a lucky number, eight. When he watched the Metsat Shea Stadium in 1973, five years old, in the corporate box seats with his father, he always wore his baseball glove… because he believed it made the Mets play better… Writers, Julian believed, came in all types, but one way or another they were control freaks, and superstition was nothing if not an attempt to exert control. Besides, he thought a good novel resisted summary; it had to speak for itself. Still, he felt he owed Carter an answer, for Carter was his friend and he’d written fiction, too.

-Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, page 142

First of all, I want to say that when I first received an email from Josh to review and host a giveaway for Matrimony, I was preparing for a real life visit from my Second Life boyfriend. I was excited and in love, and all that other ooey-gooey stuff brought on by the overproduction of the brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. I read the summary and it sounded sweet and lovely and wonderful. However, by the time the book arrived, things between him and I had started going south (reality really ruins fantasy), and I didn’t want to read about happy people falling in love and living happy lives with each other and living happily ever after. So, I drug my feet so hard that I’m surprised I don’t have grooves in my floors.

Then Josh sent another email excusing me from the review having not read the book, and asking me if I still wanted host the book giveaway. I felt guilty for not following through on my side of it, deciding to grin and bear the book , and facetiously set the giveaway for the first day of Lent, stating the two sacraments, marriage and penance, went well together.

So I sat down Sunday morning and started reading Matrimony. Immediately I realized this book was, by far, NOT what I had expected. Josh’s characters are shocking and quirky, vibrant and memorable, drawing me in and guaranteeing I would read the book through to the final punctuation mark.

Julian’s roommate is convinced the other guys on their dorm floor pee in the communal shower and resolves to wear flip-flops when bathing. His writing professor, embittered by the treatment of his novel in a failed attempt to turn it into a movie, refuses to admit anyone who writes with the intention to write books for the film industry. What’s more, Professor Chesterfield writes commandments on the blackboard, 117 by year’s end, like “THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD ‘KERPLUNK’ IN YOUR SHORT STORIES,” and “ THOU SHALT NEVER USE PASS-THE-SALT DIALOGUE.

It is in this writing class Julian meets Carter Heinz, and the two become best friends. During their freshman year, Carter meets and falls in love with Pilar, as does Julian with Mia when they meet in the dorm’s laundry room. Thus begins Matrimony, as Henkin takes the reader on a 15 year journey in the life of Julian Wainright, born to wealth but refusing the comforts and connections the privilege would bring, his struggles to fulfill his dream to publish his novel, and the joys and heartaches life brings.

Unlike Sinclair’s Jungle, whose characters make small gains in one chapter, only to have catastrophic losses in the next, until you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, the ups and downs the lives of the characters in Matrimony are believable and to whom the reader can fully relate. When Mia feels lost and alone as she watches her mother waste away from breast cancer, I wanted to hug her and comfort her and tell I knew what she was going through because my father died from cancer. I was reassured by Julian’s difficulties as a writer, knowing I’m not alone in my own feelings in my own sluggish progress with my novel. And when trouble arises between the couple after Julian learns about an infidelity nine years before, I completely understood his sense of betrayal and loss.

But Henkin hasn’t just written a compelling and involving tale of characters so real that you expect to find them at the grocery store or mall, Matrimony offers lessons in writing that I’ve taken to heart and inspires the reader to action. After reading how Mia copes with their separation, foregoing the comfort of their bed, sleeping instead on the futon from their college days and hoping to catch Julian‘s scent in it, I realized I was holding on to a person, knowing our relationship has ended.

After his visit, I had taken the bed sheet he’d slept on, folded it up and put it away, refusing to wash it because HE was in it; his skin cells, hair and scent were woven into the threads themselves. However, after reading Mia’s feelings, thoughts and actions, I grabbed the sheet and threw it in the washer, letting go of the hurt and disappointment and sense of loss of what could have been. I deleted his phone numbers from my phone and his address from my computer. Then I took a long look at the months I spent in Second Life, and asked myself what did I haveto show for it. The answer I arrived at was this: For the five months I spent escaping to a virtual (fantasy is a better term) world, I had neglected my responsibilities to my family, the housekeeping, to my reading and blogging, to paying bills, became forgetful of appointments and activities, and have had one of the worst cases of winter depression (I have Seasonal Affected Disorder) that I have had in a long time. I have very little good to show for it. Once I realized this, I removed everything related to Second Life from my computer and I’m debating canceling my account (I have decided to wait a month before doing something that drastic, though, as I’vealready paid the rent for my apartment). Though it was painful at first, I feel a profound sense of relief and freedom at having made a decision and taken action, taking control of the situation instead of being a passive victim of life.

I have told all of that to say this: The difference between a good read and a great book is whether or not the reader is changed and compelled to act on that change. A good read is enjoyable and fun, but is forgotten in a year or two; it is the chips and Twinkies of the literary world. Contrastingly, a great book may be an uncomfortable labor to take in, but the reader cannot walk away the same person he or she was before opening the cover and peeking within; it is the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years of desert wandering, and is preserved for future generations’ understanding and inspiration. Great books become classics, and Matrimony, if there is any wisdom in the reading world, will be counted among them.

For its truth, wisdom, tangible characters, its meaningful and timely content, and its power to inspire and to illicit change, I give Matrimony by Joshua Henkin 5 out of 5 stars, two thumbs and toes up, and a perfect ten (even the German judge agrees). It ranks among the few books I’ve read that becomes a permanent resident of my library. I know I will reread this book, which is very rare for me. I just cannot praise Matrimony enough.

Thank you, Josh, for writing this book and for inviting me to experience and share it. *sniff… tear* :)

 

Don’t forget to sign up to WIN a personalized, autograph copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin!  Enter here to win! :-)

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