Thursday, November 12, 2009

Portugese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

Lately, I'm feeling really overwhelmed by my to-read lists.  And all the unread books sitting on my shelves, making me feel guilty by their mere presence.  And of course, all the thousands of books that tempt me every time I go volunteer at my local library branch.  I love helping out, but every time I go in the stacks to shelve or search for books, it's as if there are thousands of tiny little voices saying, "Pick me! Pick me!"  And of course, I can't help myself, sometimes I impulsively check out books that -- gasp! -- aren't on the list.

A couple of weeks ago I was searching in the audiobooks aisle and two ladies were discussing this book and how funny it was.  I've read quite a bit of McCall Smith's works, but never gotten around to these (I love the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but I'm indifferent to the Isobel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street series). If nothing else, I've always been amused by McCall Smith's witty titles -- the other books in series are The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances; my favorite titles in his other series include Morality for Beautiful Girls and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

This book is a nice, light read, a welcome respite between weightier works.  There's not even a real plot, just a series of vignettes about the life of Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a rather pretentious, self-absorbed professor of philology (I admit, I had to look that up -- it's another word for linguistics).  His claim to fame is the seminal work on Portugese irregular verbs, and one story about the book is a good example of Dr. von Igelfeld's ridiculousness.  Although almost a thousand copies of this tome have been printed, the publishers have sold only 200, and at the current rate they won't sell out for more than 100 years.  The publishers then contact Dr. von Igelfeld, suggesting that they sell the books to an interior decorating firm, who would like to use the books (with a slight change in the title) as fodder for their clients' bookshelves -- basically, turning this academic achievement into mere furniture.  He is of course outraged, and decides to suss out his friends to see if they've actually purchased his book.  The results are both amusing and a little touching. 

The book contains eight short stories (all numbered in German) about Dr. von Igelfeld and his slightly ridiculous colleagues, and it's illustrated with charming woodcuts which give it a vaguely European feel.  Some of the stories are funny (like when the three colleagues attempt to learn how to play tennis from an instruction book), and some I found a little pointless. The best thing about this book is McCall Smith's great sense of irony.  None of the stories are particularly related to one another, and this makes it easy to pick up now and then.  I wouldn't call it laugh out loud funny, but I smiled, I smirked, and I even snorted once or twice, so I would call it worth reading, if you need a little change from your usual books.


  1. One day I will read something by this author. I will.

  2. I don't know if this is necessarily the best place to start. He's a little dry, but if you don't take it seriously, it's funny. I've heard it's funnier if you know academics, or Germans, or both.

  3. I enjoyed this entire series when I was on my McCall-Smith kick -- I read almost every book he wrote (fiction at least). It was in my pre-blogging days where I wasn't sure where to find my next book to read, so I just went with authors I knew!

    I too was rather indifferent to Isabel Dalhousie but didn't mind 44 Scotland street. I haven't read any McCall-Smith since that binge (about 2 1/4 years ago now). That what blogging does to your TBR! I understand.

    I would agree though that this isn't the best place to start!

  4. Since I agree with you about his Botswana and Scotland books, I think I will try this one as kind of a refresher between other book courses soon!

  5. These are a nice little break, easy to sneak in between other readings.

  6. I've only read the Edinburgh based books and thought they were quite good light reading. Maybe it helps if you are Scotland based yourself. I can't imagine anyone taking McCall-Smith seriously.