"A Trip To The Beach"

A Trip To The Beach by Melinda Blanchard and Robert Blanchard

It feels like a long time since I read a really good travel book. Or maybe it's just that it's the end of February and reading about a warm, sunny island felt like such a relief. Whatever the reason, I loved this story of a Vermont couple who move to Anguilla to open a restaurant and make a life for themselves there.

This is the kind of travel book I like best, the ones where the writers have done more than just vacation in their chosen spot - they have lived there and because of that they can give the reader a much richer experience. They immerse us in the culture, let us get to know some of the locals and see a bit of what their lives are like, and show us both how great and how difficult operating a business in this paradise can be. It's so much more than "a trip to the beach".

The Blanchards tell their story beautifully. I was completely absorbed. They put me right there on the island of Anguilla feeling the hot Caribbean breeze on my skin and breathing the salt air. I laughed with them over the cultural idiosyncrasies that sometimes tripped them up, shared their frustrations with the legal hassles and the laid back island attitude toward time, and grieved with them when they were victims of that enemy of tropical existence - the hurricane.

While telling their story the authours share some of their recipes in the book, including Grilled Tuna With Coconut Rice Cakes, Gazpacho, Cornbread, Crisp Tai Snapper and Banana Bread, a mix of Island and Vermont staples. They know food. Melinda Blanchard grew up cooking and perfecting her own recipes, and together they run, in addition to their highly rated restaurant, a successful business selling gourmet dressings and sauces.

As a last bit of enticement I'll leave you with these few lines from early in the book when they had made the decision to move and were sitting on the beach making plans for the restaurant:

"We had trouble paying attention in Anguilla. Unencumbered by walls, our blue beach umbrella created a delightfully distracting office. We forced ourselves to concentrate - to work in a spot where the rest of the world comes to play. We sketched floor plans, our toes wriggling deeper into the sand as each new idea struck. Fat lizards puttered around us, their tails creating intricate patterns in the sand. They snatched tiny bugs with the tips of their long, long tongues - we were hypnotized. Concentrate, we told ourselves, concentrate."

I most definitely recommend "A Trip To The Beach". I finished it a week or so ago and already I'm eager to read it again. It would be the perfect I'm-tired-of-winter book to soak up every year. If I can wait that long.

"The Three Weissmanns of Westport"

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

Betty Weissman is a seventy-five year old woman whose seventy-eight year old husband has just left her for someone much younger. She is shut out of her upscale New York City home while the lawyers argue over who gets what, so with her two middle-aged daughters, she moves into a cousin's dilapidated seaside cottage in Westport, Connecticut. Her daughters are Annie, a librarian, and Miranda, a literary agent. Annie, whose children are grown and gone, is the practical one who worries about paying bills and taking care of her mother and sister, and Miranda is the impulsive one, running away from scandal and looking for happiness wherever she can find it.

 From what I've read about it, this book is meant to be Cathleen Schine's "homage" to Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility. I see the similarities of course, but I was quite disappointed overall, which may have been inevitable. Just mentioning Jane Austen creates an expectation of excellence that few could meet and I didn't think this book even came close .

It started out pretty good. The storyline had potential and I thought the characters were developing well. It seemed to be heading in an interesting direction and I was looking forward to seeing how it unfolded, when it just sort of stalled. I got bored and oh how I hate it when that happens.

The language started to go downhill part way through as well. I didn't notice much swearing at all in the beginning, but there is lots of it later on. There didn't seem to be any reason or need for it; it didn't add anything to any aspect of the book that I could see. If anything it made the characters weaker and less interesting. I always feel like a writer is taking the easy way out when he has his character express himself with swear words rather than actually articulating what he's thinking or feeling. As a reader I feel cheated.

Do I recommend the book? No, I don't think I can. It's so frustrating when great reviews have you anticipating a book and then when you finally get a copy and read it you just don't like it. This was one of those for me, though I know many, many people have read it and loved it. Good thing there are lots of books out there for every taste. Maybe I'll have better luck with the next one: "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" by Wayne Johnston.

"Morality For Beautiful Girls"

Morality For Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

In this third book of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Precious Ramotswe takes on a case involving a "Government Man" who suspects his brother is being poisoned, and while staying as a guest of this man's family leaves her assistant in charge of the office. In Mma Ramotswe's absence, the assistant is visited by an official of the Botswana Miss Beauty And Integrity contest who wants the character of the contestants checked to ensure the crown will not be worn by someone unworthy of it. Hoping to prove herself a capable detective, she decides to take the case and handle it by herself.

While the two ladies are busy with work, something is going on with Mma Ramotswe's intended, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He has lost interest in his business and, it seems, everything else and is behaving strangely. To complicate matters even further, the Detective agency is having financial problems and difficult decisions need to be made.

I enjoy these books. They are quiet stories about good people trying to do the right thing, always with a little humour thrown in. The only downside for me is that I keep stumbling over all the African names. Most of the characters aren't called by their first names so I'm constantly tripping over long last names in my head. I would love it if the publisher would include a page spelling out the pronunciations for us.

Part of what makes these books enjoyable is the look we get at the lives of ordinary people in Botswana. At least I think that's what we're seeing; I hope the cultural insight we're getting is authentic. The authour paints a quaint picture, with things like limiting the use of contractions to create the feel of reading in another language, and the emphasizing the appreciation of simple comforts: "They will be very happy running their businesses and drinking tea together.", but there are other times when the people seem a little too naive to be real. At one point Mma Ramotswe asks what DNA is; she has never heard of it. In another conversation she asks a man a few questions and from his answers, draws this conclusion: "This patently good man was obviously telling the truth. Her suspicion that he could be behind a plot to kill his son-in-law was an absurd conclusion to have reached...". I know she's never seen CSI (if she had she'd know what DNA is) but one conversation is not much evidence on which to base such strong judgement. I'd want his financials, phone records, a criminal records check and work and family histories. But then, I have seen CSI.

Regardless of logic, this innocent outlook is a big part of the charm of these books and I look forward to reading the rest of the series. I hope you'll try them too.


Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

"My name is Unimportant." That's the opening line and we never do find out the name of this one character, who is also the narrator. It's just one of the many questions this somewhat strange book leaves unanswered.

Three stories are told simultaneously, that of Noah, Joyce and Unimportant, but Unimportant isn't heard from after the first chapter until about midway through the book. Slowly and subtly the connection between the three of them comes to light, but their paths only cross in the most fleeting ways and they never actually come to know one another. They are all loners about whom we learn little in the course of the story. Noah is followed a little closer, but still I didn't feel I got to know any of them.

I'm having the hardest time deciding how I feel about this book. I more or less enjoyed it when I was reading it, but when it was time to pick it up again I wasn't a bit interested. I made myself finish it for some reason I can't quite put my finger on. I had read reviews that said it was "magical" and "comical" but those aspects of it were lost to me; couldn't find them anywhere. And the funny thing is I think it's probably a very good book. It didn't click with me , but the thought nags at me that if I looked at it more closely, or discussed it with my book club, I might be saying it's amazing. I hope one day I'll care enough to read it again.

Here are a few of the things (possible spoiler alert) about which I would like to hear what other people have to say :

1. The narrator is never given a name other than Unimportant.
2. A book "with no face" is meaningful in some symbolic way all through the book, then seems to be irrelevant.
3. "Unimportant" is going...where?
4. One chapter has no characters in it. It is simply a description of a room.
5. The characters are for the most part transient with few or no family attachments, but there is a car named "Grampa" and a boat named "Granma".
6. The concept of "trash archeology".
7. The book is titled "Nikolski".  This is the name of a tiny town on a tiny island in the far north that seems to have only a trivial significance in the story. None of the story is set there. None of the characters go there at any point in the story. ?.

As you can see this is not your average story. It's patchy and broken up, sometimes with years between chapters. It's like a puzzle for which you can find most of the pieces, but in the end you'll have to be content with a number of holes unfilled. Still, the writing is good, the characters get to you on some level and I think I have to recommend it. There's just something about it. Read it. See what you think.