Monday, November 10, 2008

The World According to Alexander McCall Smith

Random House recently sent me one of Alexander McCall Smith's newest books, The World according to Bertie. I say ONE OF his most recent books, as McCall Smith is the most prolific author I can think of. A publishing season wouldn't be the same without a McCall Smith book in the works; just this year we have The World According to Bertie (part of the 44 Scotland Street series), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (in the Isabel Dalhousie series) and soon to be released (Mar 09) Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, featuring Mma Ramotswe in his most famous series, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
In addition, he has a standalone novel coming out shortly, La's Orchestra Saves the World (set in Suffolk between 1936 and 1962), AND the dvd is now available, at least in the UK, of the film of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, filmed in Botswana. All of this along with a daily serial in the online Daily Telegraph, called Corduroy Mansions.

Whew. Pause for breath!

I have read every single item published thus far by McCall Smith. I know some people like Mma Ramotswe best, and some like Isabel Dalhousie, and some prefer Bertie! Not to mention lesser known Professor Von Igelfeld. But I love them all. And I adore the man himself; he seems such a moral, quietly funny, interesting and invigorating kind of man. Here he is talking about his new online serial, Corduroy Mansions:

I would recommend all of his books -- if you like gentle mysteries in a stunning setting, try Mma Ramotswe. If you'd like a Scottish based soap opera, read the 44 Scotland Street series. If you want a more intellectual, philosophical book, try Isabel Dalhousie. For a beautiful set of stories in the Canongate Myths series, read his Dream Angus, the one most different from his other works and I think one of my favourites. For hilarious academic shenanigans, read the older Von Igelfeld trilogy. Is it clear yet that I adore McCall Smith and every facet of his varied imagination?

Well -- I will now try to talk about the specific book I was just given. The World according to Bertie is the fourth volume in the 44 Scotland Street series, which began as a serialized newspaper story. It features the denizens of 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh, and all their interactions and romances and disagreements. After the first volume it has also spread out to include the stories of persons incidentally connected to the original characters, including a wonderful gold-toothed dog, Cyril, and many singular individuals both young and old -- including, of course, the 6 yr old saxophone-playing, yoga practicing, Italian speaking prodigy, Bertie. In this volume, Bertie (who has not aged throughout the series) is trying to figure out his world. His annoying mum and new brother Ulysses are thorns in his side, and Bertie, being the intelligent child he is, wonders why Ulysses looks so remarkably like Bertie's psychotherapist, Dr. Fairbairn. There is so much humour, philosophical musing, and understanding of personal foibles in this book (as in most of McCall Smith's work). The philosophical asides, usually attributed to a character's internal monologue, are one of my favourite things about his writing, and here are a few quoteable bits to share with you -- hopefully it will entice you into picking up this series yourself:

...people might equally well look at their lives and ask what the point was. Or should one really not ask that question, simply because the question in itself was a pointless one? Perhaps there was no real point to our existence - or none that we could discern - and that meant that the real question that had to be asked was this: How can I make my life bearable? We are here whether we like it or not, and by and large we seem to have a need to continue. In that case, the real question to be addressed is: How are we going to make the experience of being here as fulfilling, as good as possible?

And then, she thought, there were those books bought and not read. Somewhere there might be those who read each and every book they acquire - read them with attention and gravity and then put them carefully on a shelf, alongside other books that had received the same treatment. But for many books, being placed on the shelf was the full extent of their encounter with their owner.


  1. I didn't realize he had written so many different series. I have read and loved several in the Mma Ramotswe series. Love the title of the latest - Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. So funny.

    Thanks for all the information, Melanie. And for more books that I want to read immediately.

  2. I enjoy reading AMS's books. I am not caught up in all the series though. I am up to date with No. Ladies and Isabel Dalhousie (rather I have the latest one sitting on my shelf to read shortly). I have read one of the Professor von Iggelfeld books, and I own some of the childrens books as well.

  3. I recently read the first in this series, but didn't love it. Maybe I'll have to pick up #2 and give it a go...

  4. Oops - should admit, I forgot the children's books. I haven't read those ones.


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