Review of ‘The Right Attitude to Rain’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Would you read a book about a benevolent and philanthropic Scottish academic in which very little happens?  Well, Dear Reader, I’m recommending that you read The Right Attitude to Rain which is exactly like that.

Rain
Pixabay, Creative Commons

I love ironic book titles.  In particular, I’m attracted to books with titles that seem to infer that the content is so commonplace as to be not worth reading, or which provide a quirky slant on the ordinary, such as The Right Attitude to Rain.  Whatever attitude to precipation can be considered right?   A short story written about the same characters is entitled The Perils of Morning Coffee.  What indeed can these be?  That you burn your hand on your polystyrene Starbucks cup?  (But, no, no, these characters would never drink Starbucks.)

When you’re in the midst of something, you miss things.  When you return after a period of absence, you notice them.  This applies to reading as much as to writing.  There was a time when every other book I read was a McCall Smith, but, until I started The Right Attitude to Rain a week or so ago, I hadn’t opened any his books for some time, because I felt they were too same-y.   However, the minute I started on this novel, the third (out of ten) in The Sunday Philosphy Club series,  I was immediately struck anew by the charm of McCall Smith’s distinctive style.  As is usual in his work, plot material is thin.  Isabel Dalhousie, the philosopher, philosophises.  Having inherited wealth from her father, she is free to do this at her abundant leisure.  She potters around Edinburgh, reading submissions for the Review of Applied Ethics and indulging in a little academic bickering, viewing art in galleries and taking her coffee at the delicatessan of Cat, her neice.  As usual, she has more than warm feelings for Jamie, bassoonist and Cat’s ex-boyfriend, and she entertains some American cousins.  No murder (nor any other felony/misdemeanour) is committed – unusual in crime fiction.

McCall Smith’s literary style is unhurried, lingering over apparently inconsequential conversations, everyday events and small disagreements between

Edinburgh Castle
Wikimedia, Creative Commons

characters.  He doesn’t do tension or suspense.  It all seems as light as air, but it’s not, because Isabel Dalhousie applies philosophical constructs to ordinary happenings.  On one level you might believe, as does her American cousin, Mimi, that she over thinks, when she should just get on with it, but, on the other hand, perhaps McCall Smith is taking philosophy off its academic pedestal and applying it to everyday life  Isabel’s is a very comfortable life, of course.  The fact is that we all would love to be Isabel Dalhousie, endlessly drinking coffee, never having to worry about making a living, or family responsibilities, and therefore having the time and energy to meddle in other people’s affairs.

The Right Attitude to Rain is available from Alexander McCall Smith’s website.  I tried in vain to find a link to the publisher’s website; even this author website provides links to Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.  No wonder traditional publishing houses are going under!  I borrowed it through Overdrive, as an electronic book.  I am therefore virtuous because I was Supporting My Local Library.

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A Bad Blogger… and a Rusty Writer

They say you should blog frequently and write something else daily.

White Colne, Essex
White Colne, Essex

I can vouch for the benefits of both.  Posting often definitely generates more views, more likes and more comments.  Writing every day facilitates fluency, with words and phraseology, as well as helping the writer to keep track of plots, settings and characters, but, Dear Reader, there are so many OTHER THINGS I have to do: work, things to sort out at home, people I need to speak to and spend time with.   So you go and do the other things.  Many of these things, certainly the people, actually are indeed more important than your writing, so you should prioritise them, but, whatever your reason for Not Doing It, your writing becomes offside, the other things in your life get a free kick, then writing gets pushed to the touchline and off the pitch altogether.

You think to yourself.  This won’t do.  I must write… but what shall I write?  You dredge up a story that’s been in

White Colne, Essex. Lake.
White Colne, Essex

your mind for some time.  You get on to the computer.  You think of the thousand and one other things that you must do on your computer urgently, and you do them.  Half an hour later, you open Word.  You look at the blank screen for a minute, then – gingerly – type the title of your piece, but it’s terrifying seeing that title there in front of you.  Actually, you don’t like the font, so you change it… and the margins… and the line-spacing.  Ah, at last you can get on.  You type the first few sentences which you compiled in your head during the day… but, oh dear.  Already three reps and four adverbs are mocking you from the screen.  As you go back and change it, you realise that second part of your carefully honed sentence repeats the gist of the first part.

…Then you go and make a cup of tea.

I find that not writing for a while destroys my confidence.  Over the weekend I set myself the task of writing a short story for my real (face-to-face) writing group, on the topic blue.  I’d known, for about two weeks, that I would write it about being a football fan, but on Saturday night I couldn’t assemble the various ideas that were flitting through my head.  All that I knew was that it wasn’t working.  Lying in bed on Sunday morning, I thought about it some more and over breakfast I did something I rarely do.  I wrote down all my thoughts randomly in bubbles around the edge of a piece of scrap paper.  I did not attempt to put the thoughts in any time sequence, because, in the past, that has overwhelmed any sort of planning.   When, after church, lesson preparation and other things, which took far longer than I’d anticipated, I eventually got back to it, that piece of paper was a crutch.  Although I didn’t write up every bubble and the content of many of the bubbles changed as I went on, the blank page no longer frightened me and, the more I wrote, the more easily the story came.  I finished the story yesterday afternoon and in the evening wrote a book review for The Copperfield Review (which I’d meaning to do for a long time).

Turtle in Blackwater, Essex
Turtle in Blackwater, Essex

Which only goes to show, if I had been writing something every day, I wouldn’t have had a problem.  Ho-hum.

I appreciate that the photos have nothing to do with the text, but these pictures show that, contrary to the commonly held view, Essex is a beautiful country.  (Facebook friends, I’m afraid you will have already seen the turtle sitting on a log in the River Blackwater.)

 

Review of ‘The Last Tycoon’ by Scott Fitzgerald

Monroe Stahr is a top Hollywood film producer, seemingly secure, the man who hires and fires stars and writers, whose slightest mildly expressed opinion makes or breaks a production or a star.  A  repressed individual, we see nothing of the man behind the producer, certainly not when we, the readers, are taken through his typical day. He works all the time, a widower, scared of himself and thoughts of his past, as we discover later.

When, during a minor earthquake (in which no one was injured!!!), two women come sailing down an impromptu water course, on a film prop of the god Siva, Stahr spots two women, one of whom closely resembles his beautiful deceased wife.  He has to find her.  He sets all  his Hollywood machinery into finding her, only he locates the wrong woman… at first.  Then there is Celia, twenty year old daughter of Stahr`s dissolute partner, who has been in love with him for ever.  The first chapters of the novel are written by Celia in the first person, although much of it concerns events that Celia could not have witnessed and the PoV drifts into third person omniscient for large sections.  (You can hear the Writers Circle feedback here.  “For me, this would have worked so much better with a consistent point of view, Scott.”)  In fairness, what I read (what is published) is very much a first draft, and Fitzgerald, a vigorous editor, would have almost certainly fixed it, if he`d lived.

What made The Last Tycoon so magical were the vivid descriptions, largely of people, their actions, and the way they did things, of love and desire.  Read this, for instance:

…already he knew the down on her neck, the very set of her backbone, the corners of her eyes and how she breathed – the very texture of the clothes she would wear.

And this:

She opened the door of the verandah and pulled in two wicker chairs, drying them off.  He watched her move, intently, yet half-afraid that her body would fail somewhere and break the spell.  He had watched women in screen tests and seen their beauty vanish second by second, as if a lovely statue had begun to walk with the meagre joints of a paper doll.

I love the detail, what he’s thinking, how it might have been, what it reminded him of.  So much to learn!  (How did I Solar light socket being used as ashtray.ever believe I could write?)  You may wonder why on earth I’m including a photo of a solar light socket being used as an ashtray.  To me, it’s so Fitzgerald, something good, in this case, environmentally green, being abused for something bad (smoking).

First published in 1941, this is Scott Fitzgerald`s last novel, which he didn`t finish, before he died of a heart attack… alcoholism, high living, and the stress and worry of having to provide for a wife with mental health issues. Almost as interesting as the novel itself is the Extra Material at the end of the book – a synopsis of the unwritten chatters, an account of Fitzgerald`s turbulent life and brief summaries of his other works.

Available from Alma Classics Ltd …but I borrowed it from the library.

I’ve spent today being a poll clerk in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and local authority elections.  The tuIMG_1513rn-out at our polling station was pathetic, so I was able to get on with other things during long lulls.  I was going to finish this post and publish it while I was there, using 4G, but time, which had crawled this morning (starting at 6.30am), ran on bobbins during the last couple of hours.  I also intended to write something profound about elections and polling, but the photos below will have to suffice, of wooden (and plastic) polling booths and ballot boxes like picnic bags.  Very quirky and old fashioned.IMG_1511 IMG_1510

Cliches

After spending the day with our friends in North London last Saturday, we returned home to a NOISE, a loud buzzingfreezer noise, emanating from the freezer.  Everything inside seemed to be still frozen… but not for long.  By Sunday morning, all the food in there was frosted like my windscreen early on a February morning and by the evening it had gone mushy.  Our dear neighbour (thank you, Helen) having offered board and lodging in her freezer to one-and-only-husband’s meat supply, we are now eating our way through the rest.   These things always happen on Bank Holidays.  Is that a cliche or a truism? Imo it’s a truism, but it leads me neatly into this week’s topic.

Every writing expert will tell you to avoid cliches, phrase cliches like to think is to act.  Of course, that’s right, but don’t you get fed up with the other sorts of cliches?  I mean, characterisation cliches.

On sex and puberty…
  • She was thrilled to be the first girl in her class to wear a bra.  (Really?  Most girls are deeply embarrassed about breast development.)
  • On having sex for the first time.  “Phew! Glad that’s over!”  (Have you ever heard any real person express this point of view?  For most young people, the whole thing is much more complex.)
On religion…
  • Churchgoers are always stuffy and hypocritical.
  • Roman Catholic priests are always Irish.
  • Anglican vicars are always male, even though we’ve had female priests in Church of England since 1994.
On gender…
  • Young women like shooooes, and shoppinggggg and chocolatttttte.
  • Men always leave the loo-seat up.
On age…
  • Teenagers sound like Harry Enfield’s Kevin.
  • Teenagers/ children can use a computer better than any older person.  (Really?  I used to teach sixteen year olds, Dear Reader.)
On nationality (and regionality – is this a word?)…
  • French wear striped t-shirts, berets and ride bicycles with strings of onions around their necks.
  • Germans are spotlessly clean and ruthlessly efficient.
  • Italians wear too-tight jeans and are sentimental about children and their mothers.
  • Americans shout and come out with stupid statements like “I love history.  It’s so old.”  (Conversely, the Americans write we Brits as all having bad teeth and speaking like something out of a 1930s film.)
  • All farmers have West Country accents.
On successful women…
  • If they can somehow tear themselves away from their board meetings and attend school sports day, all their parenting duties have been discharged.
  • These women are too grand to do housework.  The dirtier their house, the better they are… at work, as lovers and as parents.
  • Similarly, when required to donate to school bring-and-buys, they ‘distress’ cakes bought from the supermarket to make them look homemade.

Using these sorts of cliche shows both laziness and that the writer isn’t properly into his/her characters.   At its worst, it’s stereotyping and, just this week, we’ve seen how people’s perception of football fans – at that time – as hooligans, drunks and thugs led us to believe lies that were told to us by police and others.  The problem was, in the late 1980s, football hooliganism was a big problem, especially in the UK, but we, the general public, indulged ourselves by extending from the particular to the general.

In her blog A Writer of History, I see that M K Tod is currently spending three weeks in Paris researching, for her next book, how things were in that city in the 1870s.  That’s proper research which will, I’m sure, generate authentic characters.

lcfcWhile I’ve been typing this, I’ve just heard that another cliche has been… er… outFoxed, the lcfc1one about Leicester City never winning anything.  Well done that, City of my birth, supported not just by myself but my father and grandfather before me.  We are the champions.

It’s all getting too much.  I’ll have to go and eat something more from the freezer…