Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

By Alexander McCall Smith

New York, Pantheon Books, 2011

211 pages Fiction

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the thirteenth book in the hugely successful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, and it is just as delightful as all the rest.

As in all the books, Precious Ramotswe and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, help the people of Gabarone, Botswana solve small mysteries. Their most common clients are wives looking for wayward husbands and husbands trying to discover if their wives are cheating on them. Precious uses common sense and a book called The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Anderson to find solutions for her clients.

As I read this installment of the ongoing story, I was struck by several things, not the least of which is its simplicity. McCall Smith has taken a very simple concept, combined it with some outstanding characters, and created small masterpieces with each book. The most exciting thing that happens in this book is that Grace buys a pair of shoes for her wedding and breaks the heels on them as she goes running after what she thinks is Mme Ramotswe’s little white truck which everyone thought had been relegated to the trash heap. Other exciting plot developments include finding out that Charlie, a mechanic at the garage, may be the father of illegitimate twins, and a real case involving a couple of dead cattle.

One might say, “What! This is just a bunch of nonsense. Why read something like that?” And yet, I have to say that I read very few books that I find myself sighing as I close the book for the last time. There are very few book series that I anticipate the next installment so fervently. There are very few books that I plan entire vacation trips around.

In each volume, McCall Smith reminds us of all the virtues and vices that are at play in the daily interaction of ordinary people. Precious, more than anything is a student of human nature. She understands what motivates people and why people fail to live up to expectations. She treats everyone with the respect they deserve, and as she exposes their weaknesses, she leaves them with as much dignity as she can.

Additionally, the books are a tribute to the small country of Botswana and its inhabitants. We know so little of the daily life of Africans; McCall Smith spent his childhood in what is now Zimbabwe and lived for a time in Botswana. He knows African people intimately, and his love of Africa permeates every word of the book.

Precious Ramotswe, Grace Makutsi, and the others are people we would want to know; people with ordinary but interesting lives. I couldn’t help thinking about one of the women in a safari camp where we stayed in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. The young women there as well as the men who drove the mokoros (canoes) were all skilled at weaving baskets. The woman who was the leader of the group at the camp had taught the men to weave. These men were far away from their families during the safari season; they were working there because the money was very good. She had convinced them all that the visitors to the camp would be very interested in their baskets and that they could make additional money if they sold baskets. Of course, we each bought a basket and had our picture taken with its creator.

When we went to the next camp, there were also baskets for sale. I asked the camp manager if he had made any of the baskets. He told me with great derision that making baskets was women’s work, and he wouldn’t be caught dead making baskets. He was a character right out of a No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book—a man with an appetite for alcohol and young women. Maybe he will show up in the next installment.

Here is a review I wrote last year for another of the books, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built:

Alexander McCall Smith’s web address:

Here is Alexander McCall Smith talking about The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pitch Uncertain: A Mid-Century Middle Daughter Finds Her Voice

By Maisie Houghton

Cambridge MA, TidePool Press, 2011

210 pages Memoir

Maisie Houghton is a woman of about 70, and a few years ago in a memoir writing class, she began working on a memoir of her childhood. She had thought that she would be writing a biography of a family friend, the actress Ruth Draper, but instead, she was encouraged to tell her own story. Pitch Uncertain is the result, and coincidentally she found a publisher in her hometown of Cambridge MA who wanted to publish her story. She says, “All my life, I have been lucky.”

All of us have stories, and Maisie Houghton is no different. Although she has lived a more privileged life than most, her stories could be most anyone’s—in fact, I identify with much of what she writes. When she was a baby, her father was overseas fighting in World War II, as was my father. She is one of three girls; so am I. She was raised in a close relationship with her grandparents, as was I. She had a beautiful mother and a charismatic, but distant, father. Could be my parents. The major difference between her childhood and mine was money and status.

Houghton has keen insight into the child’s point of view because she was a child who saw and felt everything. As the middle daughter, she struggled to be heard and “noticed in the family hierarchy.” She says, “. . .in thinking about those childhood years, I realize I cannot extricate myself from the ‘we’. ‘We felt, we played, we knew.’ Where was the ‘I’”?

I have felt the same safety in relationship with my sisters, as she notes, “linked together in a curious alchemy of early instinctive loyalty and later deep, satisfying intimacy.” For Houghton and her sisters, the bond of sisterhood had been passed down to them, because their mother was one of five girls. She says her mother was beautiful, and yearned: “Don’t look at me, but tell me I’m attractive, intelligent, worthwhile.” The same probably could have been said about Maisie who suffered from the same insecurities as her mother.

One chapter is devoted to each of her parents, and their complicated and strained relationship fills another chapter. I read with interest the chapter about their summer home at Dark Harbor on Ilesboro Island off the coast of Maine. I have been at my sister’s summer home on Lake Michigan for the past two weeks. Last week was spent in a kind of “Grandma camp,” much like the summers Houghton spent at her grandmother’s home and then at her own family’s home. At one point, we had 17 people at the cottage. I chuckled as I watched the older children hone in on the adult conversations. Houghton mentions that she learned a great deal about life by listening to those adult conversations on lazy summer evenings. “What we did during those summers in Dark Harbor was minimal. What we noticed was a lot.”

I enjoyed, as well, the references to life in the 1950s, the role of women during those years, and the niceties and formalities that seemed so important. Things like linens and silver and fine china—these things that have been lost in the casualness of today’s living. Does anyone know how to polish silver anymore? Any woman “of a certain age” will enjoy those parts of Pitch Uncertain, as well.

Pitch Uncertain is a valuable book; not because Maisie Houghton is an important celebrity, but precisely because she is not. Her childhood was memorable because of what she noticed, what she remembered, and what she learned. The reviewer in the New York Review of Books reminds the reader of another Maisie: "Maisie Houghton might well have entitled her beautifully written autobiography What Maisie Knew. For her penetrating account of growing up in a dysfunctional upper-class family is inevitably bound to evoke for the reader Henry James’s keenly observant protagonist. Both Maisies are astonishingly perceptive; both Maisies are trying to figure out how they fit in and who they are." All of us have that opportunity to make sense of our lives and pass on our stories to our children and our children’s children. Her book is an excellent example of a life memorialized.

My sister has begun writing our family stories and her memoir. I will most definitely give her this book as an example of a well-written memoir. I received this book from the publicist, and I am most pleased that she sent it to me. I enjoyed the common ground that I found with Maisie Houghton.

Here is a reference to her memoir in Vogue:

The excellent review in the New York Review of Books:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Keys to the Kingdom

By Senator Bob Graham
New York, Vanguard Press, 2011
310 pages    Fiction

Senator Bob Graham is a retired US Senator from Florida, and he also served as the governor of Florida. In his years of service as the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he was part of the lead up to the Iraq war and privy to all the inside information on weapons, oil, Osama Bin Laden and everything else that has preoccupied the American people over the last ten years. The author of several books of policy, this is his first novel. In an interview with the LA Times, Graham said,  "One of the reasons I wrote the book is that coming out of 9-11, I was convinced that there were some secrets that had been withheld from our congressional inquiry, most of which involved the Saudis. I thought that maybe a novel would be the way I could talk about some of these issues."
His alter-ego in Keys to the Kingdom is Sen. John Billington, a retired Florida Senator. Hmmmm. Initially I was suspicious that the book was going to be all about him and his ability to solve the world’s problems. The description that helped set this mood occurred in the first chapter when his assistant Tony muses that Billington “was one of the few individuals Tony had met in public life who seemed to be able to take in the big picture—past, present, and future—in one view.”

But perhaps luckily, Billington is killed off by page 45, and Tony becomes the protagonist as well as the heir to the Billington philosophy and all the world’s problems. Biillington’s daughter Laura, as well as Tony, and another policy analyst named Carol, travel the world in a few short days trying to solve Billington’s murder and a vast conspiracy that evolves into the first nuclear attack since World War II.
The plot is dense; there is plenty of action in exotic locales. This is the stuff of most novels of intrigue. What separates it from most other books of this genre is the unique insight of the author. One has to think that Graham has been plotting this book for a long time, mulling over potential scenarios and characters.
 Keys to the Kingdom has a definite point of view and follows the political leanings of the author. The reviewer in the Jacksonville newspaper mentioned,. “Graham may know ‘where the truth lies,’ but he is not telling us. This is not a whistle-blower or even an insider novel. It's just another run-of-the-mill thriller.” It would have been interesting if Bin Laden had been killed before Keys to the Kingdom was written, because his presence permeates the plot.
What is lacking in this book is some finesse; it is clumsily written and awkward. A description of a former lover of Tony: “Their lovemaking was as competitive as their tennis.” A nervous Laura: “Laura felt a slight moistening of her underarms.” The Secretary: “Everything in this city is politics, not politics as in Socrates, but politics as in power. I feel as if I don’t even belong here anymore.” There’s plenty of sex, too, but in the words of a reviewer: ". . .the novel does have a lot of kiss. But the sex scenes are down-right embarrassing. It's like having your beloved grandparents discussing the act or watching Bob Dole tout Viagra.”

Graham’s analysis of the war is rather concisely put toward the end of the book with Tony saying, “I’m thinking we need a strategy for cutting our losses and refocusing like a laser on al-Qaeda in Pakistan and the other places it has established a beachhead, beginning with Somalia and Yemen.”

In a novel of intrigue, character development is not a priority, nor is dialogue or literary style. Plot is everything, and this novel is no exception.  I kept reading because I became engrossed in the details of the plot, not because I cared about any of the characters. If Graham is to continue to write novels, he will want to breathe more life into his characters and spiff up his writing style.

I read this book at the behest of the publicity company. Despite its flaws, Keys to the Kingdom is an exciting read.

Monday, June 13, 2011

I'm Kind of a Big Deal and Other Delusions of Adequacy

By Stefanie Wilder-Taylor
New York, Gallery Books, 2011
206 pages    Non-Fiction Essays

Stefanie Wilder-Taylor has been a waitress, a limousine driver, a would-be dating show contestant, a joke writer for television shows, and now is an author of short, humorous essays about her life and her career. I’m Kind of a Big Deal is her third such book. Part memoir, part stand-up act, part sitcom set-up, Wilder-Taylor entertains with short pithy stories about how she almost, but not quite, became something funny, famous, influential, or rich.  A few of the essays are poignant—particularly the essay about her alcoholism and the essay about her father, who used to be “kind of a big deal.” Many are self-deprecating. Most are funny.

The funniest is a letter written to Angelina Jolie following the birth of her twins. Wilder-Taylor has three young daughters including twins, and the letter is a send-up of the differences in the parenting styles of the two families based mostly on Jolie’s ability to afford nannies, housekeepers, and other help. I remember watching an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker when the interviewer remarked about how wonderful she looked following the birth of her son. Parker reminded the interviewer that she was just like all new mothers, except that she had the money to hire a trainer and lots of child care.

I'm Kind of a Big Deal stops being funny when Wilder-Tayler suggests that all her searching for a modicum of fame in the killer atmosphere of Los Angeles had resulted in her becoming an alcoholic. According to a New York Times article, she indicated that drinking became the way she coped with parenting and the other aspects of daily life.  She says, “It seems to be that because I worked so hard to avoid the simple lows, I inadvertently couldn’t experience the simple highs. Now (as a recovering alcoholic) I get them all. And it’s mostly good. The other night I was playing a rousing game of Candy Land with Elby when I realized something: I was always the sort of mom who would be down for a game with the kids but I’d do it knowing that there was an end point and that end point included an adult beverage. All of a sudden I got it: Candy Land is the point.” I was glad that I found the Times article and her website, because it helped me identify with her in ways that her book didn't. I would encourage you to read the article to help you understand Wilder-Taylor better.

Last week we went to see comedian Jerry Seinfeld in Grand Rapids MI. He was marvelous. I was laughing so hard that I was crying and couldn’t catch my breath. In April for my birthday, I saw David Sedaris in Kalamazoo. I had a similar experience. He had one routine about visiting Beijing that had everyone rolling in the aisles and vowing to never visit Beijing. In both cases, both men have such ironic views on life, we laugh at what we know. We see our own humanity in their stories.  And here is my complaint about I’m Kind of a Big Deal. We get too few glimpses of Wilder-Taylor’s humanity. The Kirkus reviewer reflects this opinion: “Wilder-Taylor's often self-deprecating candor is the book’s greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness. While she freely provides gossipy tidbits about her life and adventures, her capacity to move beyond the superficially funny into the meaningfully humorous is lacking.”

I never got to the “rolling in the aisles” point with I’m Kind of a Big Deal, but I was amused. I will probably give the book to my daughters-in-law to read as they sit on the beach watching the children play in the water at Lake Michigan next week. It is a book that can be read in short spurts without a lot of caring involved.

I received the book as part of a blog tour. It hit the bookstores last week.

Stefanie Wilder-Taylor’s website:  These are her observations about parenthood that will probably be her next book. They are very funny by the way.

The New York Times article about Wilder-Taylor:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

By Kelle Groom
New York, Free Press, 2011
238 pages     Memoir

Kelle Groom, the author of I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, was an alcoholic at 15, and a pregnant college student and mother at 19. The guilt that settled in when she gave her son, Tommy, to an aunt and uncle to raise caused her to descend into the watery depths of alcoholism, self-mutilation, blackouts, and horrendous relationships. The descent continued with the death of Tommy from leukemia when he was barely a year old.

It took Groom several years to become sober, finish her education, and have a career as a creative writing teacher and poet. It took her even longer to ask the necessary questions in order to gain some peace about her son and the circumstances surrounding his death. But for the twenty-five plus years since her son’s death, Groom has visited his grave, watched other children and their mothers, and seen herself in a life she never had. I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl deals primarily with her addiction, her stalled life, and her tentative recovery—all through the lens of her child.

Kelle Groom is a renowned poet, and her memoir is a long prose-poem. The Kirkus reviewer says: “The language of this brooding and obsessive memoir is exquisitely compressed, yet beneath the taut imagery and diction are palpable, powerful surges of emotions.” The heartbreak is so omnipresent that sometimes the beautiful language is the only thing that pulls the reader through. Here is what she says about herself as she begins to recover: “For the first time, I’m grateful for being alive, as an everyday thing. Not just in flashes. I thought I had to become someone I would be willing to approve of, love. I didn’t know I was her already.”

As a woman in her 40s, she has a long weekend visit with her aunt and uncle and is able to talk with them about her son Tommy for the first time, and the three of them arrive at some closure—the pain has been debilitating to them all. On her return to her job she is “reluctant to talk about anything that happened, afraid I would talk it away. The way so many things can be talked away, minimized into anecdote by a listener, a commenter.” A friend told her that the visit had been “a touchstone for change.”  This book, then, becomes that touchstone for change in her life.

Six weeks ago, our son and daughter-in-law waited in the next room while a young college woman gave birth to the baby girl who would become their daughter and our sixth grandchild. Although we were hundreds of miles away, I was there in the room with that young woman, surrounded as she was by her own family. I was so excited for the new parents but in grief for the young woman. How must she be feeling? How palpable must be her agony? Now I know.

Kelle Groom is the author of several books of poetry. This is her first foray into prose literature. I read I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl as part of a blog tour sponsored by the publisher, The Free Press. The book appears on shelves in bookstores today.

Kelle Groom’s website:
This is the trailer for the book:

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self and Society

by Jay Bakker with Martin Edlund
New York, Faith Words, 2011
205 pages     Spiritual

The question I asked myself when I began reading Fall to Grace by Jay Bakker was: “What can an 68-year-old theological school trained liberal Christian learn about grace from a punked-out thirty something alternative preacher?” The answer is: “A lot!”

Fall to Grace is a study of the Apostle Paul’s book of Galatians. With paraphrased scripture and real-life examples, Jay Bakker makes the case that the message of the New Testament is a message of extravagant grace—grace so overwhelming that it is there for the grasping by anyone. He tells his readers that grace is revolutionary. Instead of an unwinnable game, “Christ presents us with a game we can’t lose.”

After a brief introduction in which Bakker establishes his credibility as the “fallen” son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, themselves fallen televangelists, he weaves a narrative of revolutionary grace: first the revolutionary grace that changed the course of Paul’s life, the revolutionary grace that changed the course of Jay Bakker, the revolution that comes to the self when grace takes over, and then the revolution that comes to society.

One of his key concepts is that of “grace plus.” He believes that many Christians understand in a limited way the concept of grace, but they are unable to accept it for themselves and others around them without adding a plus to it—and that plus is something else that you have to do in order to be fully accepted by the God who is doling out the grace. “Grace Plus argues that we’re truly saved only if ‘little rules’ are tagged onto the end of receiving grace. This works in subtle and dangerous ways. We don’t talk about circumcision or clean foods in the church anymore, but we do make new rules, just as arbitrary that are used to determine our damnation or salvation.” He says that every generation writes their own version of this and make up new rules to be obeyed, new rules to frighten, and new rules by which to judge others.

One of my favorite concepts is what Bakker calls gossiping about God. He says: “We gossip about God in all sorts of ways. When we tell people that they have to wear the right clothes to church, or listen to the right music, or not see certain movies to be a good Christian, we make God petty and small. When we say that he favors one group of people over another, we make God mean and heartless. When we take it upon ourselves to use God’s judgment to intimidate someone else, we abuse God’s good name."
Bakker feels that once a person accepts the radical grace that is extended from God to everyone, nothing is ever the same. The individual looks at him/herself in a totally different light and looks at those who surround him/her with the same glow of God-induced love and acceptance. This is the message of Galatians and Paul’s message to the world. Accepting God’s grace means looking with new eyes at the world and the people in it.

This is not a new message, but with Bakker’s candid, fresh take on the scripture, it becomes profoundly new once again. It is direct, unvarnished, unwavering. And when Bakker says God’s grace is for all, he truly means “for all.”

I was totally taken aback when I was reading other reviews about Fall to Grace and I came upon a review that condemned the book and Bakker because of his acceptance of GLBT persons as equally worthy of God’s grace. I had to say, “Wait a minute!” Did the reviewer even read this book? Did he even read about “Grace Plus?” Did he even read the stories about grace at work in the lives of families of homosexual young people? Did he even read the Biblical references?

I am the mother of a gay man. At the point that I realized my son was gay, I had to tell myself and those around me that this son was no different than my other son; that this son was conceived and born with the same love, baptized in the same church, raised in the same Christian home. Why would my gay son be outside the grace of God? No arbitrary rule, no judgmental someone, or no legalistic doctrine was ever going to separate my son from God’s love and grace. NO ONE!

This is the message of Jay Bakker’s concept of grace. It is powerful and true, and I was blessed to be reminded of it once again.

Here is a lovely review of the Fall to Grace by a fellow blogger:

Jay Bakker’s New York Revolution Church website: Watch the video from Yale Divinity School.

Jay Bakker was the subject of a six-part Sundance Channel documentary called: One Punk Under God. It is available on Netflix. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Good Turn

by Kate Atkinson
New York, Little, Brown, 2006
418 pages     Fiction

Just for the record, I love Kate Atkinson. I think the structure and the characters of One Good Turn are brilliant, and it is a fitting sequel to Case Histories which is the first in the series of four books about Jackson Brodie who “used to be a policeman.” One Good Turn is followed by When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early Took My Dog. You can find my review of Case Histories here:

Jackson Brodie is an ex-cop, ex-private detective, new millionaire, and full-time conflicted personality. The beauty of Jackson Brodie is that he is endearingly conflicted about his relationships, about being the “idle rich,” and about his place in the world. He is, in the eyes of a woman detective, “someone who had weathered the world and still had something left to give.”

Unlike Case Histories, which spans a lot of years, One Good Turn involves a lot of people over a few days. It is the week of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Jackson comes to be with his girlfriend, Julia, who is acting in a play at one of the venues. Jackson has a lot of time to spare and in his wanderings is involved in an incident of road rage. The people impacted by the incident all spiral together into a total mess of murder and mayhem which sorts itself out over the next few days. Jackson Brodie is not the most important character in the plot; he just happens to be one of those involved.

In a book by Kate Atkinson, it is not the mayhem itself that is important, it is how the carefully crafter characters respond to the mayhem. As the New York Times reviewer says, “how much easier it is to explain a death than to solve a life.” These lives are extremely complex, and the reader finds herself so engrossed in the messed-up lives and messed-up relationships it feels like there are several jigsaw puzzles to be put together.

The plot ties all the diverse characters together. And there are plenty of questions to be answered. Why hasn’t Gloria told the company that her husband, the owner, has had a stroke and is dying in the hospital? How did teenagers Archie and Hamish find the memory stick with Martin’s book on it? What is the mystery involving Martin and a prostitute in Moscow? Who is the girl who washed up on the beach? Who in the world is the man who caused the road rage that caused these events to spiral out of control? Why have we read no more about the man in the Peugeot? And what in the world do the Russian nesting dolls have to do with anything?

Atkinson is such an insightful and humorous writer that I found myself wanting to write down comment after comment and wry insight after wry insight. I wanted to share it all. Let me just share a few. Here is what she says about Martin: “He had never strived for greatness and his reward had been a small life.” Martin’s sister-in-law: “. . . a woman who ran with hyenas.” A gay character: “. . . more camp than a scout jamboree.” Well, I could go on and on. Ultimately, Atkinson is so clever, so funny, and so insightful that the words and phrases fairly jump off the page. This is not the usual stuff of murder mysteries.

The reviewer in The Guardian says this about Atkinson’s writing in One Good Turn: “She’s less interested in bringing perpetrators to justice than in exposing the engines of complicity, weakness and ego that drive seemingly innocent witnesses and victims.” And: “. . .the pleasure of One Good Turn lies in the ride, in Atkinson's wry, unvanquished characters, her swooping, savvy, sarcastic prose and authorial joie de vivre.”

As the book was winding down, and I was sighing with the delight of it all, Jackson Brodie rides off into the sunset in his rented car, windows open with Motown music filling the air. And the Motown group that was singing was the Velvelettes—Kalamazoo’s call to musical fame! It was like the book was written just for me.

Here is the New York Times review:

The review in the Guardian:

An interview with Kate Atkinson on NPR:

The Case Histories series has been turned into a BBC six-part series with Jason Isaacs in the role of Jackson Brodie. I couldn’t find when it will be on BBC America. Hopefully soon.