When my birthday was divine
Since I share a birthday with Martin Luther King Jr., I always get a 3-day birthday weekend. Brandon and I usually spend the majority of the time trying to slow down. So for 3 days we slept, mixed cocktails, watched the TV series Firefly on DVD (why do our favorite shows always get cancelled?), and read.
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On Saturday I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street. McCall Smith is author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, featuring the charming and “traditionally built” Precious Ramotswe. 44 Scotland Street is similar to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series in that it introduces the reader to the everyday goings-on of some small corner of the world—in this case, an apartment building in Edinburgh instead of Botswana, Africa.
What’s different about 44 Scotland Street is that it was originally published as a serial novel in The Scotsman newspaper. So each of the 110 chapters are 2-3 pages long and occasionally back track at the beginning to remind the reader where the story left off. I think I would have enjoyed the story more in its original form, catching each daily snippet with my morning coffee, than I did reading it through as a collection. McCall Smith’s plots are light-hearted, without a lot of drama, and in this case, the story comes through more as a collection of tangents rather than a single plot. Like all of his books, it is the eccentric characters that keep you reading.
In one passage, for example, Angus Lordie, the portrait painter, is describing to the young woman Pat about a commission he got to paint the moderator of the Wee Free Reformed Presbyterian Church (Discontinued). I work in an environment with a lot of Dutch Reformed influence, so I found the following passage perhaps too amusing:
“I had set up a large canvas, you’ll understand – I normally paint portraits on a generous scale. But now, as I looked at this tiny, crabbit man, sitting there in his clerical black suit and staring at me with a sort of threatening disapproval, I found that I sketched in a tiny portrait, three inches square, right in the middle of the big canvas. This just seemed to be the right thing to do. He was a small-minded man, in my view, and it seemed utterly appropriate to do a small portrait of him. . . . he had no idea of the picture which was emerging in the idle of the canvas – a picture which set out to express all the sheer malice and narrowness of the man. I thought it was very accurate. I had boiled down his spirit and it came to a tiny half-teaspoon of brimstone.”
The wacky characters but disjointed storyline reminded me of McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which similarly disappointed me last year. I plan to keep up with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but I’m not sure I’ll return to the other series soon.
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We spent Sunday afternoon of my birthday weekend at Longwood Gardens, our favorite place to unwind. Settled into the Court of Palms in the newly-remodeled East Conservatory, where we could see and hear the waterfall, I read When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
This is a novella about a brother and sister, born in California to Japanese immigrants, who are rounded up with other Japanese Americans and sent to an internment camp during World War II. The kids abandon their pets, their home-sewn cowboy-and-indian patterned curtains and comic books, and travel by military-escorted train with their mother to Utah. The dusty barracks surrounded by barbed wire become their home for the next three years and five months. During this time, their father is held and interrogated by the U.S. government at a separate facility.
The kids have never been to Japan and speak only English. The crime for which they freeze in winter, stand in line to use the latrine, and are called by siren twice a day for the camp headcount is the crime of being the wrong ethnicity in the wrong political climate.
“If a Japanese battleship is torpedoed in the Pacific do you feel happy or sad?” the boy wonders.
But it’s not really a political book, just an interesting window into the life of Japanese Americans during the war, told by each member of one family. I don’t know that I would say it’s “shockingly brilliant,” as does The Bloomsbury Review, but Otsuka’s prose is spare and evocative, and the history well-researched. I look forward to her second novel.
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Then on Monday, I started Terry Ryan’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, my church book club’s February selection. I didn’t get far though, since my husband whisked me off to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for my birthday dinner (have you ever had steak you can cut with a fork?), so you’ll have to stay tuned for more about this memoir!
Note to my very patient readers: It took me awhile, but I finally responded to more of your comments on Too Late the Phalarope, so you might want to re-visit the comments on that post.