An Evening in the Company of Alexander McCall Smith

An endless supply of quotes exist telling us we should do what we love in life. Though many are cliché, I found myself rooting around for just the right one after hearing Alexander McCall Smith read from his latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Having read most of the books in his No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, I was eager to see and hear in person the man who brought me the much adored Precious Ramotswe. As I entered the Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, it was evident that I was not alone.

Since I probably haven't had the pleasure of listening to someone read to me since kindergarten carpet time, it was with happy nostalgia that I sat cross-legged and elbow to elbow on the bookstore floor, listening to the cadenced voice of Mr. McCall Smith. Bewitched by his lilt and laughter, he quickly transformed the packed room of overwrought adults into a sea of sunny, eager faces as he read his favorite passages from Tea Time.

Now if you haven't read any of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, it would be prudent to inform you of their beautiful simplicity. Sprinkled with charming formalities, this modern day series lends itself an air of forgotten sophistication and decency so integral to the traditions of Botswana. The detective, Mma Ramotswe, cheerfully runs her laid-back operation with both cunning and disarming common sense. In signature McCall Smith style, these modest mysteries quietly play themselves out while the background literary score pays tribute to the deep-rooted customs and ways of Botswana. Referring to himself as a "serial novelist" in the Q&A portion of his appearance, the author made no apologies for the multiple series he now has moving through the markets, and quite frankly we don't want him to. With three series in addition to The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, the prolific McCall Smith claims to write on the road, in the air, or wherever his travels take him. When asked how he keeps all of his characters straight, a broad smile takes over his face as the question inevitably cues up their images. Like a proud father, confusing his creations is not a problem; he knows every nuance of his characters including voice, personality, strengths and vulnerabilities. Clearly born out of creative love, McCall Smith regards his characters with a wistful and paternal adoration only solid nurturing can bring about.

Taking in the vibrant crowd, I sat marveling as each brief pause between questions brought about the fervent waving of hands, showcasing that age old "pick me! pick me!" determinism. One such hand belonged to an enthusiastic, heavyset woman in the front row. Quite overcome, she tearily thanked Mr. McCall Smith for making Mma Ramotswe a "woman of traditional build." She said that having Precious Ramotswe portrayed as a heavier woman "made her feel beautiful again."

Equally poignant was the comment shared by a dark, lovely woman, dressed in her bright yellow Sunday best. Waving throughout the majority of the appearance, the author finally chose her to end the session. Beyond pleased, she broke into the traditional greeting of Botswana, charming both Mr. McCall Smith and the audience at large. We listened intently as she thanked him for portraying her country in such a positive light. She added that her people constantly hear about America and that it is nice to be able to share the beauty of her homeland with others.

As I made my way home, I realized that this excursion meant to satisfy my curiosity had actually shaped itself into something far more humanitarian. Rather than self-promotion, Mr. McCall Smith seemed absolutely delighted to simply share both his words and our company. As readers, we wonder about the author behind the works that move us, and hope deep down that the real life version measures up. We give ourselves over to the imagination and creativity of others, also with the hope of finding growth and inspiration. For me, Alexander McCall Smith's sunny, engaging manner simply validates the importance of pursuing our passions in life. After all, as philosopher Albert Camus once said, "But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"

Suggested Links
For a biography of Alexander McCall Smith and links to excerpts of a number of his books, visit BookBrowse
For an extremely comprehensive bibliography listing books by publication date in the UK and USA, BookBrowse recommends

Freelance writer Megan Shaffer has both her Bachelor and Master degrees in Education. She currently works in the schools of Birmingham, Michigan where she shares her love of literature. When Megan is not in the classroom, she is actively involved in the local literary scene and maintains a blog about new books and authors. Megan's reviews at BookBrowse

As you say you haven't had the pleasure of having anyone read to you since kindergarten, may I recommend listening to Mr McCall Smith's audiobooks, the reader of the Ladies Detective Agency series is exactly right, and really makes the books come alive, as do the readers of his other series....
# Posted By Derby Jones | 6/22/09 2:59 PM
Alexander McCall Smith is one of my absolute favorite authors. I think his Sunday Philosophy Club series is outstanding, and often find myself laughing out loud over many of the thoughts of Isabel!
# Posted By Book Club Guide | 9/3/09 12:14 PM
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