The Charming Quirks of Others, by Alexander McCall Smith

quirks

I’ve been working my way through this series set in Edinburgh featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Well, work isn’t really correct since each story is delightful. As a moral philosopher, Isabel “considers” problems and mysteries that others request her help with. Once someone has asked for her help, she believes she is morally obligated to try.

In this, the seventh entry in the series, Isabel has been asked by the wife of a trustee to help an exclusive boy’s school in their search for a new headmaster. The shortlist contains only three names, but the trustee has received an anonymous letter saying that one of the three has a skeleton in his closet that would disqualify him. Isabel is asked to look into their backgrounds to determine which is the problematic candidate.

After agreeing, despite her fiancé Jamie’s usual objection to her investigations, Isabel is surprised to discover that her niece Cat’s new boyfriend is one of the three. Cat is rather intense, going through boyfriends like candy and frequently arguing with Isabel, yet the young woman runs her successful deli with a firm hand. Jamie was once one of those boyfriends, and his relationship with Isabel—they have a charming toddler and plan to marry imminently—is a constant, if minor, source of tension between Cat and Isabel. However, underneath it all, the two women are devoted to each other.

Isabel practices her philosophy not only as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and the now-defunct Sunday Philosophy Club of the earlier books in the series, but in every aspect of her life. When one of her former colleagues-cum-enemies on the Review magisterially informs her that he is going to write a review of the new book from his partner in crime—the crime of trying to force Isabel off the magazine—Isabel debates the ramifications of each possible response. If she refuses, would that be seen as an act of vengeance? Should she be generous and forgive the two men for present and past indignities?

She also considers just how generous she ought to be when a tragic young cellist falls for Jamie. Jamie is a bassoonist and rather younger than Isabel which feeds her insecurity about their relationship.

It is this application of philosophy to the smallest details of life that I find intriguing in these books. Many people know the author from his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Like those books, the Dalhousie books belong to what Dave King calls the gentle genre: “straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.” Authors like D.E. Stevenson, Miss Read, and James Herriot manage the difficult task of composing these stories that become comfort reads for many of us, without falling into “either banality or saccharine gooeyness.”

The solution Dave King identifies is the use of a small town with many characters interacting, noting that “Even Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, technically set in Edinburgh, are limited to a neighborhood that acts in most ways like a small town.” “In fact,” he goes on, “most gentle novels draw their tension from this forced association. The connections with people who think very differently from yourself can help amplify the importance of small things.”

That’s certainly true here, with a variety of characters, some new and some familiar from earlier books. However, it’s the philosophy that elevates Isabel’s stories, not the labored dense prose that I struggled with in Philosophy 101, but a common-sense application of moral considerations to the minutiae of daily life.

Added to that are the descriptions of Edinburgh itself and the surrounding countryside. I recently visited that city for the first time, and I love the memories these books call up. The books aren’t perfect, of course. Jamie and Cat are rather two-dimensional, and Isabel herself doesn’t change much as the series progresses. Also, her rather privileged life may rub some readers the wrong way.

For me, they make a nice counter-balance to my other, more challenging reading. Like Alexander McCall Smith’s other books, these make for perfect bedtime reading, when you want to calm your mind and prepare to enter a world of good dreams.

Which Alexander McCall Smith series is your favorite?

Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon

Leon

It’s been a few years since I’ve read the early books in Donna Leon’s mystery series set in Venice. With all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading that are set there, it seemed like a good time to revisit them.

In this second book in the series, Commissario Brunetti is called when a body is pulled out of a canal, apparently the victim of a mugging. It turns out to be an American sergeant, a health inspector from the U.S. base at Vicenza. Brunetti’s superior officer, Vice-Questore Patta, whose only concern is politics, wants the case tied up quickly so tourists are not spooked and the Americans in Vicenza placated. However, Brunetti believes there is much more going on here than a mugging.

As you would expect for a senior police officer, Brunetti is working other cases, including the theft of paintings from a well-connected businessman—someone whom Patta wants to cosy up to.

One of the unusual features of this series is the weight given to Brunetti’s life outside of work, primarily his home life with his astute wife Paola and their two children—sixteen-year-old Raffi and thirteen-year-old Chiara—who are growing up too fast for Brunetti. The theme of parents and children runs through all the storylines here, subtly enough that I didn’t realise it at first.

We might all wish to have a Paola in our lives: a wise counselor who can bring us back to earth when we get carried away or confused, not to mention creating a delicious risotto for dinner. The warmth of their family life—Chiara bargaining to stay up to finish her book, Paola joining Brunetti on the balcony—is lovely, while the occasional irritations or silences keep it realistic.

Writers often talk about making the setting a character in a novel, and certainly Venice is a major character in Leon’s books. The author accomplishes this by incorporating details of the culture and customs as well as the buildings and canals. There are Brunetti’s movements around Venice, stopping for a coffee and noting the slight nod that orders a shot of grappa be added. There’s the game he plays with himself where he rewards himself with a drink when he spots a previously unnoticed architectural detail. And the way a night watchman slips an orange card into the iron grating outside each shop to prove that he has come by.

The evocation of Venice and Brunetti’s life there is more important for me than the mystery. I would be perfectly happy with these books even if there were no mystery at all.

Brunetti’s efforts to solve the mysteries are complicated by the corruption and profiteering in government and business, both deeply intertwined with the mafia (the novel was first published in 1993). Naturally this made me squirm a little, since here in the U.S. these crimes have been flagrantly committed at the highest levels of the government in the last few years.

Much here reminded me of John Berendt’s portrayal of Venice and the shenanigans around rebuilding La Fenice. My understanding of the geography gained from that book and the others I’ve been reading enhanced my enjoyment of this book, filling out my imagination as I traveled the streets and canals of Venice with the commissario, a character with whom I would gladly spend any amount of time.

Have you read a mystery or other novel set in Venice?

The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

berendt

Although I’ve traveled to Italy several times, I’ve never been to Venice except in my imagination. I may never get there, given its fragility. Yet this third nonfiction book set there actually makes me feel as though I’ve wandered its narrow streets, listened to the lapping water of the canals, and chatted with the people who live there. The biggest reason for this is Berendt’s captivating prose and the people and their stories he brings to life. I found the endpapers helpful too, with their map of Venice marked with locations from the book.

Berendt, best known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, arrives in Venice three days after a fire destroys the historic opera house La Fenice on 29 January 1996. His vivid description of the fire draws on first-person accounts, notably that of eight-six-year-old Archimede Seguso, a master artisan of glass sculptures. His family’s home is just across a small canal from the back of La Fenice, but after testing the wind direction Seguso decides there is no danger and they stay watching the mostly wooden structure burn.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Notre Dame in Paris, which like La Fenice was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire. How much harder to fight such a fire in Venice, especially since the canal behind the opera house which would normally be used as a source of water by the firefighters had been drained for dredging.

The story of La Fenice runs through the book, the swirling rumors and recriminations, the false starts and failures in rebuilding. Meanwhile Berendt shares with us the other stories he pursues, such as the controversy around Ezra Pound’s papers, said to have been misappropriated by a couple, unconsciously replaying Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a novel set in Venice.

The author finds people who share extraordinary stories with him, such as this one about Peggy Guggenheim, the last owner of the Unfinished Palazzo: “‘Peggy was notoriously stingy. She hired the city’s corpse collector as her gondolier, because he was available at a better price. She didn’t seem to mind that he serenaded her with funeral dirges and that he was very often drunk.’”

We meet many fascinating present-day (the book was published in 2005) people as well, such as a young man who desperately wants to preserve his family’s life in Palazzo Barbaro, even as the Venetian law that inheritances must be split equally among siblings (one of whom spends his time watching replays of space launches and composing a national anthem for Mars) means they must lose most of it. We meet a man who shares his theory for successful rat poison, which has made him fabulously wealthy, and an elderly aristocrat who is “writing a book proving the existence of reality! It is already two thousand pages long.”

Best of all, we get a sense of how things work (or don’t) in Venice. One person tells the author, “Everything is negotiable in Venice. I mean everything . . . even jail terms . . . You should even get to know a taxi driver, too, because otherwise the rates can be horribly expensive.” Another points out that the murky end to the investigation into the fire is the perfect ending: “ ‘an unsolved mystery . . . It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want.’”

That last is a little unsettling given the current climate in the U.S., but the advice Berendt is given at the start of the book sets the tone for his experience: “Everyone in Venice is acting . . . Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.’” And if that makes you think of the Liar’s Paradox, then welcome to Venice.

Is there a place you’ve always wanted to visit? Have you read a book that seemed to put you there?

A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant

venetian affair

I’ve been thinking about romance. I’m still on my virtual visit to Venice, which may be the most romantic city in the world.

What I remember of Denis de Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World—it’s been over forty years since I read it—is that in our western civilisation, the definition of romantic love is one that is doomed (think Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

Until relatively recently, marriage was a business relationship, adhering to social and religious rules. The idea of romantic love, while glorified by medieval troubadours, has only lately become a requirement for marriage. It has been argued that adding the weight of passionate love to the already heavy requirements of marriage—a spouse must not only be one’s financial support and partner in raising children, but also one’s best friend and true love—is a reason so many marriages falter.

For me, romance novels end just when they get interesting. Yes, of course, there’s the fun of the chase, the misunderstandings and so forth, but what happens after the wedding? How do the couples fare over the decades to come with all their challenges? That’s why I’m drawn to authors such as Anne Tyler who take the long view of a marriage.

Back to Venice, though. Here we have the true story of a couple’s doomed love. In the mid-1700s, the last decades of the Venetian republic, twenty-four-old aristocrat Andrea Memmo, heir to one of the city’s oldest families, catches sight of beautiful sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne. It is a coup de foudre for both. Sadly, her social position is too much lower than Andrea’s for them to marry.

Not only are both families opposed to the match, but at that time a marriage must be approved by the secular and religious authorities. Giustiniana’s father is dead, and her mother rightly fears that Andrea may ruin her daughter since he cannot marry her, and thus forbids them to see each other.

Of course that only adds fuel to their flame, and they plot one rendezvous after another, creating their own cipher to encrypt their notes. They come up with schemes to persuade their parents and the authorities to allow them to marry.

The story is told through the couple’s letters to each other over their secret seven-year-affair, with historical and cultural context added by the author who is in fact descended from Andrea Memmo. That, too, is something out of a romance: the discovery of a packet of frayed compacted letters found in the attic of Palazzo Mocenigo, the home of the author’s father (It was also Byron’s home when he lived in Venice).

What I loved best about this book was the rich detail of the history, politics and customs in Venice at that time. There are little things, such as the names and meanings given to patches depending on where they are placed on the face, and larger things, such as the need to deal with the Inquisitors. And there are always the palazzos on the Grand Canal, masks and Carnivals. There are also incidental characters, real people such as Casanova, who befriend the young couple and whose letters and memoirs have contributed to the book.

I was afraid the story might be too dry or dull, but I was fascinated by it. I did listen to the audio version narrated by Paul Hecht with the letters from the two lovers read by Lisette Lecat and Jeff Woodman. I don’t know if reading it would have been less engaging. I loved how it added romance and an understanding of eighteenth century Venice to my virtual vacation.

If you want a true account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century, with a vivid rendering of the social and political context, give this book a try.

Help me keep my trip to Venice going. Can you suggest any other stories set there?

The Unfinished Palazzo, by Judith Mackrell

palazzo

To make up for not being able to travel, I’ve been taking virtual trips to various places around the world using books, movies, and online resources. Italy called out to me, so I picked up this nonfiction book, subtitled Life, Love and Art in Venice. It is the story of three women who, in succession, owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Venier was built in the mid-18th century by a powerful Venetian family, but left unfinished because of financial problems and the lack of an heir. Thus it became “il palazzo non finite”.

For wealthy noblewoman Luisa Casati, the dilapidated palazzo held an air of mystery and romanticism that appealed to her. Separated from her husband, Luisa took on lovers, including poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose credo that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art” matched her own efforts to make an ever more spectacular splash in society. In addition to designing her own outrageous costumes and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals, she gave elaborate belle époque parties that made her famous, including one where she rented the Piazza San Marco itself for her guests, with police to keep out locals and tourists.

The 1929 crash combined with Luisa’s expenditures eventually forced her to sell the palazzo. In 1938 it was bought for British socialite Doris Castlerosse, who had gone from working in a shop to being the mistress of powerful men. Her parties too were legendary, as she hosted film stars and royalty such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Prince Philip while recklessly running up debts.

Ten years later it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with Venice some years earlier and was looking for a place to reinvent herself. She remade the palazzo into a living museum for her modern art collection, opening her home to the public on certain days of the week. Dying, she turned it over to the Guggenheim Foundation which has made it into one of the most famous museums in the world.

The three women come to life in this smoothly written book. There’s lots of drama, but it doesn’t slip over into melodrama or tabloid revelations. You’ll run across lots of famous names, but Mackrell’s respect for her characters keeps the story from seeming too gossipy.

I always like to read about independent, creative women. These three were all a bit over the top: I wouldn’t have liked them in real life but found their stories fascinating. Luisa in particular appealed to me, in part because I too in my less spectacular way believe in treating my life as a work of art. Also, I admired her resilience as she found ways to continue doing so even when she had almost no money.

While the story is really about the three women’s lives and very little about Venice or the palazzo itself, it is an enjoyable read, one I recommend, especially to art lovers or those curious about society during the early twentieth century.

What books have you turned to for distraction during a difficult week?

Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself. In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?

Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan

waiting

This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?

Playlist 2020

Alchemy

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. For this strange and difficult year, my theme was comfort. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Aria From The Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Julie Steinberg
Eclogue, English Suite Gerald Finzi, English String Orchestra
Shafe konnen sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze)-BWV 208, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma
In Your Grace (Maa), Ajeet Kaur
As It Seems, Lily Kershaw
Promised Land, Lily Kershaw
American Tune, Paul Simon
Over The Hill And Over The Dale, Nowell Sing We Clear
A Fair Maid Walking, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
Beach Spring, Alchemy
Si Bheag, Si Mor, 3rd String Trio
We Meet Again/Barham Down, Alchemy
Grey Funnel Line, Windborne
Tom Kruskal’s (Sapphire Sea), The Dancehall Players
Braes Of Dornoch, Bare Necessities
St. Margaret’s Hill, Bare Necessities
Easter Morn, Bare Necessities
Fair And Softly, Bare Necessities
Tickle Cove Pond, Nightingale
Beeswing, Keith Murphy
The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams, Academy of St. Martin in the Field
Suite No. 1 in B Flat Major, HWV 434, George Frideric Handel, András Schiff
Requiem, Gabriel Fauré, Choir Of Trinity College Cambridge
Aria from the Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Nuclear Option, by Dorothy Van Soest

nuclear

At 77, Sylvia Jensen believes her activist days are over. She is still involved with community groups and delivers Meals on Wheels, doing what she chooses to do rather than what she feels she ought to do. Then, at a funeral for a woman who had been an inspiring leader during Sylvia’s years protesting domestic and military nuclear proliferation, she is astounded to meet a ghost from the past.

In her 40s, at a meeting planning protests against Nectaral, the biggest military contractor in the state, Sylvia had met Norton, a kindred spirit with green eyes and a crooked smile. Since he was married and had a young son, they tried desperately to keep to friendship. What Sylvia didn’t know was that Norton had a time bomb inside, that he was an atomic veteran.

Now, all these years later, Norton’s son Corey, full of rage and anguished loss, crosses her path, ready to take his protests to another level. How can Sylvia not try to save him from himself?

The mystery unfolds on two levels: the past, where Sylvia and Norton and their friends are on trial for their part in the protest, and the present, where Sylvia has to draw on all her skills as a former foster care supervisor, her courage, and her friendship with investigative reporter J. B. Harrell to untangle the webs being woven around her beloved Norton’s son.

I did not know about the atomic veterans—no surprise since their existence was hidden behind the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreement Act until it was repealed in 1996. They were ordinary soldiers used as guinea pigs during nuclear tests, ordered to stand without equipment near the blast in order to study the effects of radiation, or sent in to clean up afterward, again without protective gear or being informed about the danger.

I did know about and was involved in the 1960s in protests against nuclear proliferation. The bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very much in the forefront of things to worry about. Yet until Van Soest’s book (Full disclosure: Dorothy is a friend of mine), I hadn’t realised that anti-nuclear protests were still going on; that fear had receded into the rear of my personal chamber of horrors.

Like Sylvia and, I’m sure, others who were active in the 1960s and 70s, I have been reluctant to get involved in protests and marches again. Busy raising children and keeping a roof over their heads, I focused on what seemed immediately most important, I suppose making me no better in a way than the corporate heads prioritising short-term profits.

But the last four years have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Protestors fill our streets once again. And now this story, with its interweaving of past and present, invites me to consider what more I might be doing. It chimes with what I’ve been reading and discussing and thinking about all summer: how can I leverage my privilege—for I am surely privileged in many ways, despite my years of poverty—to help make the changes our stricken society so badly needs?

What Van Soest has accomplished in this, her fourth novel, is quite remarkable. She has given us a gripping mystery, with characters who will haunt us long after the last page is turned, placing them within a real-world context that alerts us to dangers we may not have considered. The story never falters, as we are swept into Sylvia’s quest for justice and safety for us all.

Have you read a stirring mystery lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn

salt path

I was talking with some writers the other day about evoking emotion in our readers, and one asked if there could be too much emotion in a book. The incredible teacher/agent/writer Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction, would say no; the problem is almost always that there isn’t enough.

Yet it’s true that sometimes I don’t have the emotional stamina for a particular book on that day. Sometimes what I need is something from what Dave King calls the gentle genre.

When I first heard of this memoir, I knew I had to read it. When Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lose their beloved Welsh farm, the one they’ve devoted decades to restoring and working, where they brought up their now-grown children, they are devastated. The long court battle to prevent their former friend from seizing their farm, lost finally on a technicality, has emptied their savings. No home, no job, no savings. In their 50s, being self-employed they have no work references, and after the court case no credit. Then they learn that Moth has a terminal illness. He might eke out a couple of years of increasing disability.

Winn writes so movingly of leaving the farm, choosing what few keepsakes to hang onto, unable to lean on their children who are in school or starter jobs that I was overwhelmed. I’ve been there myself: empty-handed, with no choice but to turn to a frayed social safety net. Yet right now, with so many griefs and losses and fears in real life, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to go through this with her.

Yet I had to read it. Homeless, their temporary solution is to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which winds around Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. They will have to sleep wild since they don’t have money for B&Bs or campgrounds, and they will have to subsist on minimal food bought with the £48 a week tax benefit that is their only income.

I walked part of this path with friends a couple of years ago and found it challenging enough, even with B&Bs and luggage transfer. So I had to know how they managed, what they encountered, how they were changed.

And they are changed. Winn doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties, yet finds space to describe the glories of the rocky headlands, the cliffs, the surging sea, the gulls and oystercatchers, the badgers and deer. The writing, like the path, is spare and occasionally glorious. She and Moth encounter quirky and often generous people on the path. And they find, as I did on a much smaller scale, that they are stronger—physically and emotionally—than they thought.

Their story moved me to tears. I cried at the beginning and at the end, for different reasons, filled with different emotions. Too much emotion? Not at all.

Have you read a memoir that taught you something about yourself?