Friday, March 26, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World

Alexander McCall Smith is the author who has given us Precious Ramotswe, the woman who  establishes herself as a private detective in Botswana by starting her own private detective agency, and whose exploits and relationships are shared in regular installments of the series The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The pleasure of reading these books lies less in the mysteries she solves and more in the world she inhabits. Smith is masterful at conveying settings, giving us the feel of the day, the colors and smells of the city or bush, the details of the homes and offices where action takes place, the need for, and refreshment of, a cup of "bush tea" at just the right time. He also creates vibrant characters whom we come to know, and like.  How they think, what they say, and especially, how they feel about things is written so well that they soon become friends and companions. We want to spend time with them.

In a recent stand-alone novel, Smith turns his attention to a very different time and place. The story takes place in war-time England and is not exactly a mystery. The plot and action are adequately entertaining but succeed especially at serving as a platform on which the author can construct and animate characters that exhibit the same wonderful traits traits that we have come to expect from his Number 1 Ladies series: good-heartedness, endearing flaws and frailties, uncertainty, determination, and ultimately, the warmth and kindness that reflect the best of humanity.

La (short for Lavender) Stone, Cambridge University graduate, finds herself widowed at a young age as the Second World War begins. As the Blitz (bombing of London by the Germans) begins, she moves from London to a remote village in Sussex to fix up a cottage, tend a garden and sort things out. Because of the presence of troops and airmen nearby, she starts an amateur orchestra to give everyone enduring this limbo something to do and some reason to congregate.

The presence in the village of a wounded Polish airman no longer able to fly with the Polish forces in the Battle of Britain provides the emotional ingredients and enough mystery to move the plot along. His work helping with pig farmers reinforces the earthiness of this story.

That's it. Not a mystery. A short book, perhaps a novella. A familiar setting. A cozy world, threatened by the terror that is war. A sympathetic main character whose very ordinary life is being lived out in a world that is out of control. Amusing and entertaining support characters who help make a good story.

Some books are meant to provide full and comprehensive reading experiences. They can dazzle us, or consume us. We rise to the expectations set by the author and share in a challenging reading experience.

Reading others, and La's Orchestra is one of them, is more like indulging in a really delicious pastry. A baked good focuses your satisfaction on a few simple combinations of the best ingredients, combined and cooked in a way that can create something so intense,  sweet, and gratifying that eating more than one at a time seems pointless. Crust and filling, sweet and spice, crisp and cream come together. Reading La's Orchestra is like consuming such a pastry. One cannot survive on a diet of pastry. We can reach our limit quickly. We will always seek out the full and satisfying meal. Still, the world is a better place because pastries are on the menu, and the day is a better day when one can indulge in such a treat.

La's Orchestra is that kind of treat. I found myself slowing down as I read, absorbing the details of the narrative. La's initial entry into her rural cottage, and her encounter with the wild and overgrown garden that she will shape and nurture, is in itself a masterpiece of descriptive writing. It is not overly dramatic. The house and garden are ordinary, even plain. Smith allows you to understand this and then, through La's thoughts and feelings, shows us the potential she sees in both cottage and garden. We, as La is, are consoled and invigorated with hope and life.

I gave this book to a friend in the hospital. I was looking for something beautiful and delicate, nothing too challenging but, for this reader especially, substantial enough to satisfy and transport. I wasn't thinking of this book as I roamed the bookstore but as soon as I saw it, I realized at once that bringing this book would be like bringing a box of chocolates, just right for the occasion.

If you are in need of such a treat, consider La's Orchestra Saves the World. Then, if you haven't yet met Precious Ramotswe, introduce yourself to The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. You will come back for more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Author Readings

Among my literary diversions are occasional attendance at author appearances at bookstores. Sometimes I meet an author with whom I am very familiar. Sometimes, I meet someone whom I have not yet read. Occasionally, a reading will introduce me to someone completely new. These opportunities to see and hear the writer talk about his or her work are very satisfying. I usually leave with a desire to read something new, or something again, and I almost always gain a renewed appreciation for the work and dedication that it takes to create literature.

Some time ago, I must have seen a reference to a blog by a writer named Sonya Chung, probably on a blog called The Millions. I enjoyed her commentary on writing and life in New York and began to follow her own blog, Sonya Chung. In recent months, Sonya's blog  began to describe the building momentum toward publication of her first novel, written over three years ago and just now becoming available to us, the reading public. When I saw that she would be doing a reading in March at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore on Prince Street that was new to me, I decided to go hear this writer  and scope out a new bookstore at the same time.

The event was a treat. Sonya's book, Long for this World, is described on its jacket about being the story of a family divided between contemporary America and a small Korean town. From the reading last night, I now know that the novel is also about mothers, daughters, and friends. A third intriguing theme revolves around the profession of the protagonist, a young woman photojournalist who has been covering wars around the globe.

I haven't read my autographed copy yet so I cannot review it right now. I can say that it was illuminating to have a young author speak so directly, and so articulately, about her vocation and her craft as a writer. She shared her own energy and commitment to the importance of story, and the importance of language and seemed to have great respect for the readers who are partners with the writers in creating and sustaining literature.

She revealed that it was upon reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she knew that she wanted to become and would become a writer. This is one of my favorite books and I remember sharing it with my oldest daughter many years ago as a model for observation and writing. I don't know exactly why Sonya's blog entries caught my attention, but no doubt there is something about her own understanding of writing that speaks to me and I was not surprised that we shared a favorite author in common.

Writers create and share stories through a very personal, solitary process. They are observers and thinkers and artists. Seldom are they performers. The arena of book readings, where they are required to repeatedly share their very personal work in a very public setting, and then answer a series of questions on why and how they do what they do cannot be all that easy or enjoyable. I can imagine that as the seven o'clock hour approaches,  and the folding chairs begin to fill up, they might wish that they could just wander through the store, anonymously, browsing books and watching people.

So I offer a word of appreciation to Sonya and to all the authors who participate in the ritual of the book tour, and give their time and attention to the reading public in this way. We know that it cannot be all that exciting to see us, the audience of readers, assembled, expecting to receive some special understanding, or even a special blessing from an author whom we have come to hear. You have already given us a book to read; isn't that sufficient? But we do want to meet you and see the person who created the book and learn something new about you and what you write.

I hope that these writers realize that the smiles and nods of approval, and even the clumsy questions that we offer at these gatherings are simply signs of appreciation that we individual readers feel while engaged in our own solitary activity of reading their creations.  We are  grateful for the rare opportunity to convey our enjoyment, our appreciation and our respect in person.  We are pleased to give something back to the author who has given us something good to read.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spider Skills

I see in the Daily News that Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, has just lost his job! Now I will have to compete with a superhero in my search for employment. As strong as my resume is, I am not able to shoot webs, climb walls, and swing from tall building to tall building. He has  "spider sense" that helps him anticipate danger. His skill set is just better than mine.  I can picture it now: I will be interviewing in some office building when I see, waiting for the next appointment, Spiderman, all spiffed up in a clean spider suit, dangling outside the window. He also has claim to a great tag line for his resume: "With great power comes great responsibility." How am I supposed to top that?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Serve Them All My Days

Twenty years ago, Heather, an English teacher in the independent school where I was working told me that one of her favorite books was To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield. I added it to my mental list of books I might read and within a few years I had obtained a used hardback copy of the book.  Since then, through a number of moves and changes, it has occupied a place of honor on the front shelf in my home library. Unread.

Why unread? It looked long.  I was working in schools and this novel about the career and life of a teacher/headmaster in a boys "public" (i.e. private) school in England between the two World Wars threatened to bring workaday problems into my private reading. The cover of my
 edition was a little stodgy (men in academic gowns perusing the cricket field in front of a curious red brick building.) Was it dated?

In a recent move to  cull my shelves, I considered removing it from view. Perhaps even discarding it. Permanently.

Then, I saw a reprinted edition of the book in Barnes and Noble. You should know that I am very influenced by marketing messages and tricks. In fact, my children joke that I am a marketers's dream customer as I travel down the shelves of a supermarket and I confess that book marketing may have the same effect on me. I am not proud of this but I am trying to be honest here.  I began to think that this book that I had been living with for twenty years was being reprinted for a reason. Did it speak to a new audience somehow? Had I neglected a gem, a classic?

I took the book from the shelf at home and placed it on my bookwagon. Then I read it.

David Powlett-Jones, twenty years old, has been seriously injured while fighting in the trenches in World War I. He has been in the army since the age of seventeen when, as a promising student in a small Welsh mining town, he was called to serve his country. Severely shell-shocked, he has spent months unconscious and much of a year in recovery. To survive, he must rebuild a sense of self and an ability to trust.  His doctor advises him to find a small community with enough but not not too much social interaction, preferably at a high altitude where the air quality will be of some benefit. 

P.J. travels to a remote, rural region in Devon, to interview with the headmaster of a lesser-known "public" (i.e. private) for boys located on the moors. The school, originally founded to educate the sons of local farmers now serves the sons of England's middle-class citizens, and is under the direction of Algie Herries, a kind man with liberal views of education. Despite his visible "shakes" during the inteview, P.J. is immediately hired as a teacher and the novel continues to describe his life and career teaching and caring about the boys and the community of Bamfylde and its lifelong effect on him. 

The remainder of the novel concerns P.J.'s gradual healing from the trauma of war, his development as a teacher,  his emotional growth, his personal loves and family, his political development, his daily routines and relationships with students and colleagues, and eventually his ascension to leading the school community that welcomed him and drew him in when he was in need of a healing community.

Delderfield writes in a direct, unadorned style. His plot is sufficient to move the story along and contains a mixture of drama and routine. Some of the plot is predictable but still compelling. The plot of the story is not the attraction of this book. Delderfield's real success is in drawing the reader into the interior life of P.J. and the flow of life in the school over many years. He describes sittuations, episodes, students, and teachers in such a way that over the course of the book the reader feels as if he is living at the school, experiencing these people and these challenges himself. 

This book captured me completely and I read nothing else until I finished it.

Delderfield actually sets up three dimensions in this story, or three tracks, and enables the reader to experience the dynamics and changes in each of these dimensions. There is P.J. himself, his upbringing in a worker's family in a Welsh mining town and his youthful experience of war setting the stage for his personal and political evolution through his life. There is England between the two world wars, both a nation and an empire, shaken and wary after a generation of loss and waste in the trenches of Europe and reluctant to resort to violence despite the rebirth of German militarism. This track also includes a very informative view of British politics from World War I, through prosperity and depression, and to the brink of World War II. Finally, there is the school itself, Bamfyld, and its role in the story as both a microcosm of Great Britain and an almost mystical source of teaching,  healing, and growth. These three dimensions of the story are smoothly, seamlessly, integrated. Success in any one of these spheres would make a good book. Success in all three makes this a great book.

I do not know why the book has been reprinted for the American market now. Perhaps the Harry Potter phenomenon has generated curiosity or familiarity with the traditional British school system. The book provides some of the same satisfaction as the Harry Potter novels, if those novels had been told from the perspective of Dumbledore and there were no visible magic happening. Perhaps its views on education and the challenges of developing character, values, and responsibility while instilling knowledge and skills add to our conversation about how and what to teach. What I do know is that I am very pleased that I was finally moved to pick up a book I had contemplated reading for so long only to find myself immediately and completely immersed in its world. Thank you Heather!