Given the sheer magnitude of his writings, we’re continuing our reviews of the works of Alexander McCall Smith along with a tried-and-true authentic Scottish recipe for shortbread (acquired by yours truly in Scotland from a Scottish woman). With Natalie’s recipe for an Earl Grey Latte and this shortbread, your perfect Afternoon Tea is complete.
The Sunday Philosophy Club: an Isabel Dalhousie Novel (series)
By Alexander McCall Smith Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Meg 4/5 stars
If you are at all familiar with McCall Smith, you’ve most likely heard of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe as the first female private investigator in Botswana. Reading audiences have loved acquainting themselves with the adventures and foibles of the various characters in this series as they solve crimes. It is the series that put McCall Smith “on the map” back in 1998. So in 2004 when he introduced his latest female figure – Isabel Dalhousie, in The Sunday Philosophy Club – some readers were disappointed. Why is that, you may be wondering, and why would we as a book club review this series over the more popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Here are 2 reasons why I’d love to suggest you explore this series:
- Philosophical Musings – One review of The Sunday Philosophy Club felt that the many pages of Isabel’s philosophical “musings” were ponderous and wouldn’t connect with anyone who hadn’t made it past Philosophy 101. And maybe to some degree that’s true. Unless your brain’s muscles are “in shape” they aren’t going to want to exercise their thinking powers to the degree that it *might* take to thoughtfully read this entire novel. It is supposed to be a “crime novel,” right? But it’s a crime novel without being very plot-driven. And that’s okay. I would encourage our readers to get outside of the quick-read comfort zone of many of today’s crime novels and give yourselves a means to think through something a little deeper. I loved her reflections on hypocrisy towards the start of the novel (even if I didn’t come to the same ultimate conclusions – differing worldviews, I suppose.) One of my favorite family movies – National Treasure – involves one character commenting to another “People don’t really talk that way anymore you know” to which the other character replies “I know, but they think that way.” McCall Smith’s Dalhousie and her meditations give us all an opportunity to keep thinking this way … and maybe even make it more of what we talk about now too.
- Person or Place – I’ll be the first to admit that I love a good flawed character. But some of the disappointment with Isabel is that she’s too flawless. She’s wealthy enough to live without really needing a job, and her housemaid arrives each morning to tidy up her flat and make her breakfast and coffee. So she enjoys leisurely mornings doing the crossword puzzle and thinking about life (reflecting on great poets, etc.) while someone else does the housework (possible resentment building up here…). Rarely does she “get into a spat” with anyone – her philosophical morality conquers all. Is anyone else connecting with this? And then of course she wisely uses her brain (compelled by “moral involvement”) to resolve the mystery presented at the beginning of the story. It’s charming in its own way. Even the New York Times called it “the literary equivalent of herbal tea and a cozy fire.” But is that all it is? I think instead Alexander McCall Smith is using a character to encapsulate everything he loves about Edinburgh – its charm and ability to blend the old with the new. Because in the end, the reader doesn’t really want to be like Isabel. Instead, we all want to move to Edinburgh. Where he succeeds is in getting us to love the place that he loves well (all while enjoying his outlet for his own philosophical musings). We at the Shabby Coat Book Club are already planning our own Edinburgh trip. Score one for McCall Smith.
By Alexander McCall Smith Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Meg 3/5 stars
Just a few quick thoughts on McCall Smith’s latest work – a collection of short stories inspired by “orphan photographs” (ie. photographs with nothing known about them – no names or specific dates connected). AMS stated that for a while now he has wanted to write something creatively involving orphan photographs, so this was finally his chance to do so. A quick and enjoyable read, these mostly reminded me of the collected short stories of L.M. Montgomery. While not all of them run in the classic “boy meets girl and gets married” vein, they do resolve without too much conflict or drama – or at least, the “conflict” is less developed. I can tell that he had fun with this – creating worlds around simple black-and-white photographs. This sounds like a fun idea for a creative writing class if nothing else. And if you want a light read, you may enjoy this too.
- 2 C. all-purpose flour
- 1 C. cornstarch
- 1 C. powdered sugar
- 1/2 lb. butter, slightly softened
Dust with flour – but do NOT grease – 2 round cake pans. Place all ingredients (listed above) into a bowl and mix into a soft dough. Divide in half and press dough into the cake pans. Mark the outside edges with a fork and price the very center with a fork. Bake for approximately 1 hour at 300 degrees or until golden brown (you do not want to overcook). Immediately cut into 12 pie-shaped pieces and sprinkle with granular sugar. Serve, store in an airtight container, or freeze.
NOTE: Overworking the dough or baking too long will cause the shortbread to be hard and crunchy instead of buttery and flaky. If there are issues, modify one of areas.
For a perfect pairing, try this with Natalie’s Earl Grey Latte recipe.
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