Columnist Jim Cahillane: Summer reading with international flavor

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Published: 5/23/2017 7:47:08 PM

During my business career, everything that I read was of a practical bent.

We had a subscription to Automotive News. I read the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the business page of The New York Times. In conversation, I found that talking retail strategies made even my best friends’ eyes glaze over.

Eventually, I matured to the point that I read for pleasure as well as for growth. I favored histories and biographies of men and women whose lives changed the world for better or ill.

War is a commanding subject because it has been endemic in my lifetime and long before. Tribalism marks the human condition as we look to like for self-preservation. The “other” is everyone different from us and to be feared until proven friend.

Our 21st-century America has become stifled by a multiplicity of choices. At every turn we must make decisions. Turn on the TV and there are movies we’ve never heard of, last night’s or last week’s sitcom we thought we’d missed is waiting for the click of a remote. Should we go back to that one or do we have time to binge watch the old one? Choices.

Supermarkets are the same. Too many options, too few checkouts when we’re tired and just want to leave. Television news is nothing but Trump ad nauseam.

For mental health, the off-switch is our best choice.

Now we’ve made time to consider books. My old preference for business, politics and biographies never stopped me from reading fiction, except for the dutiful constraints that eat up our days. I once came out of hospital in such a weakened state that I was unable to concentrate on a book. In-hospital inactivity and tiring rehabilitation had unfocused my brain. It was an unsettling experience because reading had always been second nature.

My good wife suggested that I go for lighter topics, fiction but with underlying history to satisfy my fact-based reading habits. I read the first book in what is now a 13-book series detailing the life and adventures of Masie Dobbs. She, following humble beginnings, became a “psychologist and investigator.” I was soon hooked on this new character who is, at bottom, a lady detective.

Masie’s creator is Jacqueline Winspear, who lives and writes in California, but has a British Isles background. Masie’s adventures are set in the early 20th-century in the United Kingdom and Europe. I don’t currently belong to a book club. However, if I did, I would not hesitate to recommend Masie Dobbs.

Alexander McCall Smith is a professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, and a prolific writer. He lives in that beautiful Scottish city, but was once a resident of Botswana. His first book “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” was self-published before it became a 20 million-copy bestseller in English, and then was translated into 40 languages. I commend his books because they contain “gentle wisdom and good cheer,” which is what the world needs now.

McCall Smith’s lady detective is Precious Ramotswe and her radical idea to found a ladies detective agency offers hours of comfortable escape. Ramotswe describes herself without apology as a solid, “traditionally built” lady. Precious on people: “She thought how strange it was that we so very rarely said complimentary things to our friends, and how easy it was to do so, and how it made the world seem a less harsh place.”

Her honest, low-key husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owns Speedy Motors next door and is widely known as an excellent mechanic. I will not expand further on the author’s Botswana tales so that you too may discover the small joys to be found in Ramotswe’s Africa.

McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series is set in Edinburgh. Bertie Pollock is a 6-year-old boy who doesn’t age. Bertie is observant to a fault. His overbearing mother is determined to make him a genius. He goes to a Steiner school where his best friends are Tofu and Olive. Tofu asserts that his name is founded in Irish royalty.

Bertie is all innocence and, though bright, describes the world precisely as he views it and finds adventure in rolling with life’s punches. Always at the center, Bertie reveals society’s foibles, which surround him.

Next is Donna Leon’s Venice, and her invented detective of Italian uniqueness, Guido Brunetti. We once had an anniversary visit to La Serenissima. To have been there for just a few days adds little to Leon’s detailed descriptions of its pace and moods. We did find that you could walk all across the city—bridge after bridge — if you had the legs and energy to make it.

Inspector Brunetti solves crimes in between fine meals at home, repasts that come to salivating life on the page. Guido is married into one of the city’s old families, providing glimpses to how the other half lives, even as he deals with the criminal class. Leon has authored 26 novels in the series and he won’t leave unsatisfied any mystery fan or foodie hooked on Brunetti.

So there you have three ways to travel by book, solve little mysteries while not wasting your precious hours with repetitive TV newscasts. Have a great literary summer on the beach on in your favorite armchair.

P. S. Support local libraries! Be extra kind to librarians!

Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg and spends time in the town’s great Meekins Library. He writes a monthly column.




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