The Double Comfort Safari Club

DSC_8889The Double Comfort Safari Club is, I believe, a superb summer read. There’s a little mystery, several chuckles, a few snorts, a large dollop of satisfaction, a sob of grief, and beautiful words like quietude. When is the last time you’ve read quietude? It’s light reading that nourishes and feeds.

There is a moment that capsizes me. It’s when I read a phrase or paragraph that so perfectly captures what I’ve always known, but rediscover as though it is a new truth through the author’s description. That click makes me say Yes!, Of course!, or How did you know?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Some kind people may not look kind. They may look severe, or strict, or even bossy, as Mma Potokwane sometimes did. But inside them there was a big dam of kindness, as there is inside so many people, like the great dam to the south of Gabarone, ready to release its healing waters.

And this:

…this woman, moved by some private sorrow as much as by the words being spoken, cried almost silently, unobserved by others, apart from Mma Ramotswe, who stretched out her hand and laid it on her shoulder. Do not cry, Mma, she began to whisper, but changed her words even as she uttered them, and said quietly, Yes, you can cry, Mma. We should not tell people not to weep—we do it because of our sympathy for them—but we should really tell them that their tears are justified and entirely right.

What makes me love Precious Ramotswe? The way she thinks of and remembers her late father; her sense of justice and putting things to right; her gratitude for the life she’s been given; her directness when dealing with difficult questions; her acceptance of the imperfections of life; her musings on the changes in Botswana, her unswerving hospitality; her patience with the impetuous Mma Makutsi. In a word, she is kind.

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Public_transport_in_Gaborone(Public transportation in Gaborone, Botswana – photo Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander McCall Smith did a good thing when he crafted the character of Mma Precious Ramotswe. In each book, she is consistently the kind, traditional, perceptive, tender-hearted, contented woman I’ve come to regard as my friend.

And yet, he doesn’t filter out all the unsavory aspects of Botswana life. In this 12th book of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, we see a young mother who treats her children with utter indifference, cattle killed, a menacing man and a cowed woman.

I recently finished The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the twelfth book. I’m reading them out of order, according to library availability.

The title of the first chapter is The Memory of Lost Things; could it be an allusion to Proust?

As with every book in this series, I care about Mma Ramotswe’s culture ten times more than whatever mystery needs to be solved. There’s a dig at mobile phones, complainers, fathers who don’t take responsibility for their children. On the plus side is Mma’s abiding love for her late father and for her ‘late’ tiny white van, her compassion for those who suffer, the poetry of night sounds, her gratitude for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her encouragement to an undeserving recipient, and the joy of an abundant wedding feast.

There is a tender moment between two bereaved women. I have a late baby, Mma. It is a long time ago. ~ I have a late child too, Mma. McCall Smith understands the permanence of grief. Almost every book has a small reference to the baby Mma Ramotswe lost.

In the end Grace Makutsi marries Phuti Radiphuti, which means she will never have to ride in public transportation again, and she can indulge her love of loud shoes. The wedding doesn’t have the prominence that the title gives it, but that’s OK.

Here is a quote to whet your appetite.

Nowadays, people are always thinking of getting somewhere—they travelled around far more, rushing from here to there and then back again. She would never let her life go that way; she would always take the time to drink tea, to look at the sky, and to talk. What else was there to do? Make money? Why? Did money bring any greater happiness than that furnished by a well-made cup of red bush tea and a moment or two with a good friend? She thought not. 230


The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

mma1When I first read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I chirped with evangelistic fervor about the series. But, a few disappointing books cooled that impulse to the point that I quit reading the last three books in this series.

A library hold came available so I read the books out of order. But the 14th book The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon has rekindled my love for the traditionally built Mma Ramotswe and and her quirky assistant, Mma Makutsi. This book might appear to be about a newborn baby, but on every level it is about friendship, about rearranging a relationship that expands from business to personal. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi remind me of Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables.

Any book by Alexander McCall Smith will have his trademark humor. There were three snort-and-holler moments in this book. I don’t want to give them away, but prepare yourself for horse laughs.

Only to the extent that they reveal human nature do I care about the solving of mysteries in this book. No. I read for the gentle wisdom, the poignant words of Mma Ramotswe. She thinks, she ponders, she reflects. Death, sunlight, music, change, marriage, the pace of life, beauty, differences between men and women. And she truly loves Botswana. It’s so refreshing.

I don’t like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two mechanic apprentices: Charlie and Fanwell. Their characters are a waste of print. But I was surprised at Charlie’s response to the baby. He admires it, he wants to hold it; his cooing amuses and puzzles the women.

I want to highlight two passages whose beauty astonished me. One is a foot washing scene. Mma Ramotswe visits Mma Makutsi at her new home (she married Phuti Radiphuti) after a heavy rain. Her car gets stuck; she exits the car barefoot and walks through the mud to the front door.

Sidenote: only once have I participated in a foot washing ceremony. It was at a church retreat. The women gathered in a room and each one washed the feet of the person next to them. I felt humble shyness, willing to wash someone else’s feet but reluctant to have a friend wash my feet. It was emotional. It was potent. It was unforgettable.

“Let me wash them, Mma,” she said. “You sit there, I’ll wash your feet for you.”
Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her; that an old friend—and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi—should do this for you was strangely moving.

And this short note on reconciliation:

And with that, she felt that most exquisite, and regrettably rare, of pleasures—that of welcoming back one who has left your life. We cannot do that with late people, Mma Ramotswe thought, much as we would love to be able to do so, but we can do it with the living.

Five solid stars and kudos to Alexander McCall Smith.

Reading Year in Retrospect

DSC_1833“I am an inveterate browser of people’s bookshelves, always curious to see what other people have been reading, and which books they choose to display. but I am equally curious about the manner in which they array them. Are their books neatly aligned, like the leatherbound books in the Levenger catalog, or do they teeter on the shelf at odd angles?”  — David Levy in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital AgeI love looking back at my reading year, and yet I also shrink from the raised eyebrow of my inner critic. Deciding on categories and distributing my titles in those gives the same thrill that I get in organizing my books. This is my reading year in retrospect.

My own Book of the Year? It’s a tie! N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent was both the slowest and most profound read. I read it aloud to my husband a page or even a paragraph at a time. But reading through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence was also deeply satisfying. (confession: I have 60 pages to finish)

This Rich & Wondrous Earth Linda Burklin (life in boarding school)
When a Crocodile Eats the SunPeter Godwin (living in Zimbabwe)
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Lawrence Anthony (animal conservation)

Over the Gate Miss Read (cozy read)
Lark Rise to Candleford(trilogy) Flora Thompson (a portrait of a culture)
Lady Anna Anthony Trollope (novel of a marriage)
Cousin Henry Anthony Trollope (a study of a guilty conscience)
Tyler’s Row Miss Read (not my favorite Miss Read)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Bruce Marshall (story of a Scottish Priest)
Father Hilary’s HolidayBruce Marshall (priest gets involved in political intrigue)

Death by Living N.D. Wilson (memoir/family heritage/travelogue/random thoughts)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer (crammed with good stuff)
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield (unusual story)

From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun (500 years of cultural history, EXCELLENT) Scrolling Forward David Levy (e-book or bound book debate, written a decade ago)

Early American
Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories Washington Irving (some classics improve as we age)

Fit to Burst : Abundance, Mayhem, and the Joys of Motherhood Rachel Jancovik (wise)
Real Marriage Mark and Grace Driscoll (yes and no: all the stats got old)

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed Philip Hallie (5K Jews saved by people of Le Chambon)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery (postmodern novel, quotable sections)

First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph Ellis (very enjoyable read)

Kid Lit
Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (priceless)
Anne of Avonlea LMM (sad to lose Matthew Cuthbert)
Anne of the Island LMM (away at school)
Anne of Windy Poplars LMM (winning over the Pringles and Katherine Brooke)
Anne’s House of Dreams LMM (early marriage, bereavement)
Anne of Ingleside LMM (a houseful of kids and dear Susan)
Rainbow Valley LMM (add the Meredith kids to the Blythes: delightful)
Rilla of Ingleside LMM (I love Rilla; more Susan; a great view of WWI at home)
Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (12 short stories, Anne is just a cameo)
Further Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (includes a delicious story of a revival meeting)
The Story Girl LMM (she can make a story reciting the multipication tables)
The Golden Road LMM (a hilarious mistaken identity story)
Kilmeny of the Orchard LMM (a mute girl plays the violin)
Emily of New Moon LMM (appeals to all aspiring writers)
Emily Climbs LMM (word lovers will love Emily)
Emily’s Quest LMM (overcoming obstacles to writing)
The Blythes are Quoted LMM (more short stories)
Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, (classic, test-drove with a grandson)
Island Magic Elizabeth Goudge (Guernsey family, classic Goudge)

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers Maria Augusta Trapp (must read for S o M fans)
God’s Arms Around Us William Moule (heart-pounding tale of family in WW2 Philippines)
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism Temple Grandin (she translates autism)
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (terminally ill mom and son read books)
A Little Moule History William Moule (life of a vagabond adventurer)
Appetite for Life Noel Riley Fitch (bio of Julia Child)
The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad (daily life in Afghanistan)
The Alpine Path LMM (frustrating in its brevity)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley (I ♥ Flavia de Luce)
Speaking from Among the Bones Alan Bradley (another Flavia book)
Chop Shop Tim Downs (Bug Man is a forensic entomologist)
First the Dead Tim Downs (almost had a heart attack reading this)
Less than Dead Tim Downs (difficulty breathing while reading this thriller)

Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare (mistaken identities)
The Tempest Shakespeare (full fathom five thy father lies)
The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare (TWO sets of identical twins)

Little Black Sheep Ashley Cleveland (the gift of willingness)
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk Heather Kopp (story of addiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot (spellbinding story of HeLa cells)

TV Reading (one-night read without substance)
A Lancaster County Christmas Suzanne Woods Fisher (English stranded with Amish)

Shadow of the Silk Road Colin Thubron (China-Turkey by one of my fave travel writers)
In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson (winsome writing…mostly)
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry (witty, sometimes coarse flyover)
Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways Larry McMurtry (he drives the interstates)

The Whistling Season Ivan Doig (the Wendell Berry of Montana)

What have you been reading?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which allows me to buy perhaps one or two new books a year. But I’m thankful if you decide to buy a book through the links.)

The Giraffe That Walked To Paris


My first exposure to the Egyptian pasha’s gift to the king of France came by reading Michael Allin’s book Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris (my review). Since then I’ve wanted to buy an affordable edition of Nancy Milton’s children’s book The Giraffe That Walked to Paris. An inter-library loan (thank you Enterprise Public Library) allowed me to test-drive it with a 7-year old and a 3-year old. Two thumbs up!

This is the kind of book which can create a thirst for history. There are 20 pages of solid text, denser than a typical picture book, but with illustrations that keep kids interested.  Imagine it is 1826, and a nation that had never seen a giraffe. Think through the logistics of moving such a large animal before the time of cars and trucks or trains.  A ship was fitted to transport her from Alexandria across the Mediterranean Sea to Marseilles. She walked from Marseilles to Paris, about 425 miles! The illustration shows one man leading the giraffe. Actually it took four men with four ropes to keep the giraffe secure. A gift for the king can’t be running off! For France, it was the Next Big Thing: there was an explosion in giraffe art, giraffe china, giraffe linens, and even a giraffe hairstyle.

I am fascinated how one animal can so greatly impact a culture. If you happen to be in Paris, you can see La Girafe’s remains (what does one call the non-living specimen?) mounted, on display. If you happen to be in Paris, make sure you visit Jardin des Plantes, the second oldest zoo in the world.

One could easily springboard from the reading of this book to a short introduction to geography, zoology, taxidermy or meteorology.

Here’s a fun quote:

It isn’t easy to make a raincoat for a giraffe,
but Professor Saint-Hilaire designed a good one
that covered her whole body and buttoned down the front.
It even had a hood to keep her head and long neck dry.


I want to read two other children’s books about La Girafe: Mary Holmes’ A Giraffe Goes to Paris and Judith St. George’s Zarafa: The Giraffe Who Walked to the King.

In a most delicious synchronicity, it turns out my other grandsons went to the San Diego zoo and saw giraffes.


Art in Africa – Fine Art Friday


Rumour has it… Willa Pitcher , Zimbabwean artist

I received a card from a friend who is working in Zambia.
I couldn’t find this painting online so I took a photograph of it.

I love it so much, I’m going to frame it.

I looked for more information, more images by Willa Pitcher.
Here’s what I found at Art of Africa.

Willa Pitcher’s art career did not get off to a promising start,
as she ruefully recalls being thrown out of the art class
at the Harare convent for being a disruptive influence!
After the tragic death of her farmer husband in the Rhodesian war,
Willa moved to Harare and from 1983 had art lessons
with Ann Lindsell-Stewart for a few years.
She also studied figure drawing with Rose West
and watercolours with Martin van der Spuy and Rose Trewatha.
Since then she has partaken in numerous group exhibitions in Zimbabwe,
and has two lined up for this year, at the Wingate Club and the Verandah Gallery.

Wash Day, Willa Pitcher

Going Home, Willa Pitcher

Rumours, Willa Pitcher

Zarafa, A Curious Book for the Curious Reader


The cover of Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris caught my eye and came home with me from the bookstore a few years back.  Last month while I was browsing my gold mine of books to read–wanting something different–this caught my imagination.

The book has a map that shows the starting and ending places of Zarafa’s journey from Khartoum to Paris.  The prologue (you can read it here) will delight the heart of any reader blessed with curiosity. The author provides the context of how he discovered the story of a giraffe given by an Egyptian ruler to the king of France in 1827.  A special ship was built to accommodate Zarafa who walked to Paris from Marseille .

If you are the curious type, you will enjoy reading this fascinating book.  If you are particularly interested in Egypt, Napoleon, Muhammad Ali (not the former Cassius Clay!), Muslim-Christian relations, the Rosetta Stone, giraffes, travel or the nineteenth century don’t delay in getting this title. Most of the charming illustrations are from nineteenth century artists. 

Fun facts I learned from reading this book:

The Nile is shaped like the letter S in Sudan.

Printing presses brought to Egypt by Napoleon were later used by Muhammad Ali to modernize Egypt.

Of all land animals, giraffes have the largest eyes…enabling them to communicate with one another visually from as far as a mile away.

Zarafa walked 550 miles from Marseille to Paris in 41 days.

This book will do for folks allergic to history what Longitude did for this science shy person.

A children’s book, The Giraffe That Walked to Paris, was written by Nancy Milton about Zarafa.

Little House on the African Highlands

Sometimes she [Tilly, the author’s mother] spoke aloud in my presence
without exactly speaking to me; I was a kind of safety valve, helpful to
her feelings even in a passive role.

Pioneer stories capture me.  I cut my reading teeth on the Little House books; I have a secret desire to test myself in a lifestyle where one has to adapt, work hard, keep cheerful, play with pig bladder balloons and make corn husk dolls for one’s daughters.  Even though I’m a capital W-Wus, I like to secretly preserve the happy fiction that with courage and determination I could survive in the Big Woods.  

At such times, when all the furtive noises of the night beyond that
speck of firelight crept unasked like maggots into your ears, you
could feel very isolated and lonely.

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood is an extreme version of the Little House books.  When Elspeth was six her parents, Robin and Tilly, purchased a desolate piece of land northeast of Nairobi, hoping to establish a coffee plantation.  The year was 1913. Naturally, the mores and the customs of the Africans and the Europeans were not in sync.  Robin and Tilly have the friendship of other colonial settlers, but have to learn how to operate their “farm” with the native workforce they’ve hired.

Tilly was downcast; as with all perfectionists, it was the detail
others might not notice that destroyed for her the pleasure of
achievement. I doubt if she was every fully satisfied with
anything she did.  But she breasted each failure as a dinghy rides
 a choppy sea, and faced the next with confidence and gaiety.

Flame Trees differs from Little House in that you never fully hear the author’s childhood voice.  No other children appear, she never calls her parents Father and Mother and curiously Elspeth-Huxley’s first name- is never once mentioned, nor is a pet name like Half-Pint.  She has an exotic story, but Huxley’s prose made this book.  Rich, delightful, capable of expressing universal responses:

This declaration put a full-stop to the conversation,
as Hereward’s remarks were apt to do, whereas
with Lettice and Ian, or Robin and Tilly, talk would
volley gently to and fro until halted by some external event.

One story line, told with tact, of neighbor Lettice’s infatuation with Ian (as in not-her-husband) and the resulting tension, would never be included in Laura’s world.

“[Shooting] is much less alarming when you fire [the gun] off
yourself than when other people do,” Tilly explained.

“Like sins,” said Lettice.

“What sorts of sins?”

“Any sort. 
When other people commit them you are startled,
but when you commit them yourself,
they seem absolutely natural.”

Naturally, a book set in Africa will have mosquitoes and mosquito nets:

No sound concentrates so much spitefulness and malice
into a very small volume as the pinging of mosquitoes,
as if needles tipped with poison were vibrating
in a persistent tattoo.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Flame Trees of Thika.  I have half a dozen Africa books in my Read Around the World plan, and I am eager to compare this book with others on my list.

To Kenya

Do you like my new laptop tote? 
It’s kind of cute, eh?

It (and contents) is on its way to Kenya. 
My heart, a huge chunk of it, is on its way to Kenya. 

Katie, a family member by love instead of blood,
(meaning we’ve adopted each other as family)
is going to Kenya to work as support staff
at a Trauma Healing Conference.

Representatives from more than 15 African countries
will get training to help those who have been through
war, natural disasters and other traumas.

Katie spent her childhood in Zimbabwe.
She has been back to Africa multiple times.

Go well, my friend.