Sunday, December 30, 2012

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil

 Alexander McCall Smith
New York, Anchor, 2013
224 pages     Fiction

“How complex this world is, (von Ingelfeld) thought; how easily may things appear to be one thing and then prove to be another. And how easy it was to see the worst in humanity when what we should really be looking for is the best.”

Well, folks, Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld is up to his ears in pomposity once again in the latest episode of The Portuguese Irregular Verbs series by Alexander McCall Smith. If you have not met Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld, you must. His last name, by the way, means hedgehog field, and we are reminded of that fact several times in each book. Von Ingelfeld is a professor at a German university and one of several linguists who make up the cast of characters of the four books in the series. A well respected linguist, (primarily in his own mind) von Ingelfeld’s main call to fame is a book called "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" that he wrote several years previously; at 1200 pages long, the book never made the best seller list, obviously. McCall Smith calls Unusual Uses for Olive Oil “an entertainment” and it is truly entertaining because, although only five chapters long, it makes fun of academia and all of its pretensions. Each chapter is an episode (or an entertainment) in the life of von Ingelfeld, who is myopically attuned to the arcane meanings of words and to his own use of those words.

Von Ingelfeld’s co-workers are equally self-involved and self-important, except for the librarian, Herr Huber, whose life totally revolves around his aunt who lives in a nearby nursing home. Von Igelfeld wonders if Herr Huber has enough blood pressure, and he muses: "There are some people who gave the impression of having a great deal of blood coursing through their veins – robust and ruddy people who moved decisively and energetically. Then there were those who were pallid and slow in their movements; people through whose veins the blood must move sluggishly, at best, with only the pressure expected of a half-inflated bicycle tyre. The Librarian belonged in that group, von Igelfeld thought.” It is this kind of observation that makes the book fun to read. Even as von Igelfeld observes the absurdity of his world, we are observing the absurdity of von Igelfeld. 

There is so much to love in books by Alexander McCall Smith. His characters are unique, and in the case of Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld, totally ridiculous. The plots, although slim, are fully developed. And they are completely entertaining and satisfying. There are two important aspects for anything written by McCall Smith: you will close the book with a smile on your face, and your intelligence is never underestimated. McCall Smith has several series of books that he continues—each with a set of unique characters and settings. The other von Igelfeld book I read and blogged about is Portuguese Irregular Verbs. My all-time favorite, of course, is the #1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I have blogged about several including The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party and  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

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