Saturday, August 05, 2006

Espresso Tales, by Alexander McCall Smith

Ed and I have had the pleasure of reading a number of books by Alexander McCall Smith. We started out with his series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which features the formidable Precious Ramotswe, a traditional Botswana female detective. I don't recall how many books there are in the series now, but we've read them all, the last one being Blue Shoes and Happiness.

Last night I finished Espresso Tales, which is a sequel to the book 44 Scotland Street. Both of these are the collected series he had been publishing in one of the Edinburgh newspapers on a daily basis (if I understand it correctly) and they are an interesting and often funny satire on an odd group of characters living in an Edinburgh apartment house (the address of which is 44 Scotland Street). There is Bruce, the narcissist, who owns the building and shares his flat with Patricia (they have separate rooms -- just roommates, you see), who has taken some time off between high school and college to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She ends up working at an art gallery owned by Matthew, whose rich father has set him up in this little gallery with the knowledge that his son is no good at business, but at least this is better than him doing nothing.

Matthew spends a lot of time drinking coffee in a shop owned by a woman called "Big Lou," who is in her 40s. The shop used to be a bookstore, so she is reading anything she can get her hands on in order to make up for a missed education. Also frequenting the coffee shop is a painter named Argus who has an interesting dog, Cyril, that likes to wink at women and drink beer (as well as coffee), among other things. One of Argus' friends in Domenica, a 60-something anthropologist who also has a flat at 44 Scotland Street.

There is another interesting little quartet of people who figure into the story, but who aren't as tied together as the others. This is Irene and her husband Roger. They have a son named Bertie who is quite gifted, and whom Irene keeps pushing in so many ways. In the first book Bertie is only 5 and he's taking saxophone lessons, learning Italian, attending yoga classes, and seeing a psychiatrist (Dr. Raeburn). Actually, Bertie only sees the psychiatrist for about 15 minutes each session because his mother spends most of her time talking with the man. And Bertie only see the psychiatrist because his mother insists on it from extensive reading of some other psychologist of the Freudian school. Oh, it's a maddening read when you see what this kid is going through, but it's a great send-up of the screwy ideas people get into their heads about raising children.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good book to read, I'd recommend Espresso Tales. You don't have to read the first book, 44 Scotland Street (in fact, I found many of its story lines frustratingly unresolved), in order to get a grasp of what's going on in the latter, but it could make a well-rounded experience with these characters.

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