Thursday, October 17, 2013

I'm always thrilled to see a new Agatha Raisin mystery.  Her latest adventures are chronicled in the book Hiss and Hers by M.C. Beaton.  As usual, Agatha is short-tempered and man-hungry, yet somehow she manages to solve mysteries that have the police stumped.

Agatha is a 50-something owner of a detective agency in the picturesque Cotswolds.  She lives in a thatched cottage with her two cats, Hodge and Boswell.  Her ex-husband, James Lacey, lives next door, but as he's a travel writer, he's frequently away from home.  She also has an on again/off again relationship with Sir Charles Fraith, the flighty and somewhat undependable peer who drops into her life from time to time, only to disappear again without warning.

So Agatha is an easy target for the latest unattached man to move to the village, the hunky gardener George Marston.  Her garden has never looked so beautiful, as she's constantly calling George over to work on it.  She never misses an opportunity to flirt with him, and he seems receptive, so she's hopeful that there will be a romantic relationship soon.  To move things along, she arranges a charity ball and gets George to promise her the first dance.  At the ball, however, George is a no-show.  Agatha determines to get to the bottom of why he stood her up, so she goes to his cottage.  To her dismay, she discovers George dead in his backyard.  After the police arrive, they discover that George was killed by being drugged and then having a bag of poisonous snakes tied over his head.  All that idyllic living in the countryside surely does create some colorful killers!

George's sister hires Agatha's agency to look into the circumstances surrounding George's death.  As Agatha and her staff begin to research George's life, she is quite upset to learn that George was having affairs with nearly every woman in the village over the age of 50 -- except her.  Agatha spends a lot of money on personal maintenance.  Every time she sees another of George's "frumpy" conquests, we are treated to a catalog of her expenses for tweezing, plucking, dying, etc.  Unfortunately, she also smokes and drinks and subsists on microwave meals, so throwing money around is perhaps not the most practical physical fitness solution.

As Agatha and her crew get closer to the solution, someone begins a campaign to throw her off the track.  She has excrement pushed through her letter box, is sent a box of chocolates (that proves to contain yet another snake) and a woman sitting in her garden is murdered (apparently mistaken for Agatha).  To make matters worse, her old friend Charles has gotten engaged, which makes Agatha even more desperate about her husband-less state.

I enjoyed Agatha's antics, as always, even though there were some things that were rather glossed over.  For instance, when Charles and his new love go to France, Agatha is able to "go on the computer" and find out what hotel they're staying in.  Say what?  Later on, Charles goes online to find all the hotels in town and resorts to the old-fashioned method of calling them to find out which one Agatha is staying in.  While this approach makes more sense, I have to wonder if modern security policies would allow employees to give out information of this sort.

Still, these are minor quibbles.  I really enjoyed my visit with Agatha and her friends (and cats).  I can only hope she's gearing up for a new adventure soon!

Final verdict for Hiss and Hers Four Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with a neurotic old friend

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

According to the most recent statistics, the average American owes nearly $5000 in credit card debt.   Over three quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with nothing saved for emergencies or their future well being.   As the recent government shutdown (over the nation's debt)deomonstrates, Americans from all walks of life have severe problems with money.  While there are many books and programs available that promise to help people get out of debt, the common-sense approach offered by Dave Ramsey has helped millions of people to re-think their relationship to money.  The Total Money Makeover outlines the principles that are mentioned on the national radio program The Dave Ramsey Show

Although he has a background in finance and real estate, Dave Ramsey has also had a personal struggle with money.  As a newly married man with two small children, he went bankrupt.  This traumatic event caused him to re-think his approach to debt -- basically, that it was never a good idea to have debt of any kind.  The principles of his program are easy to follow and adaptable to every situation.  The steps to getting out of debt are listed in "the Baby Steps."  Baby Step One is to have an emergency fund of $1000. Baby Step Two is the heart of his system -- the "debt snowball"-- which consists of listing debts smallest to largest (regardless of interest rate), and paying as much as possible toward the smallest debt until it's eliminated.  Once that debt is eliminated, work on the second smallest debt. His view is that it is psychologically uplifting to see debts being eliminated, which will help keep people motivated.  Although getting out of debt might be difficult at first, Dave's philosophy is to spend that tough time "living like no one else" (meaning, not buying the latest gadget, eating out more than at home, or taking expensive vacations on credit) so that later, you can "live like no one else" since you will have abundant extra cash that's not being used for payments or interest on debt.  The steps after paying off debt include paying off the mortgage, saving for retirement and starting a college fund for your kids.  This book comes with helpful worksheets in the back for everything from making a "Monthly Cash Flow Plan" to creating your debt snowball.  There are also many stories of real people throughout the book who have used Dave's plan to get out of debt, even though their original circumstances varied widely.  There are also small boxes of "Dave's Rants" where he gives his (strong!) opinions on the "conventional wisdom" of financial issues.  I can truly say that I'm happy to have found the Dave Ramsey plan, because it inspired me to get out of debt and even pay off my house early.  Everyone can benefit from the principles in this book.  If only we could give Congress a Total Money Makeover!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Although residents of the United States and Great Britain theoretically speak a mutually intelligible language, there are enough differences to make for an amusing and entertaining study.  In the book Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America by Terry Eagleton, various aspects of the two versions of English are compared and the reasons for the differences in meaning and expression are explored.  Historical comments on the American character from authors such as De Tocqueville and Dickens are also included.

In addition to different ways of speaking, Americans and British people also have very different approaches to the world in general.  British people go out of their way to be reserved, quiet, and avoid unnecessary attention.  Americans, on the other hand, are much more open, accessible and free with their opinions.  Why should this be so?  The author presents several interesting explanations.  For instance, in the United States, we generally have not had a history of obvious class divisions.  Every child is constantly told that he or she can be whatever they want, as long as they work hard for it.  In traditional British society, you were born into a class and generally stayed there.  American pioneers, with their straight-laced Puritan backgrounds, had to immediately get to work, and therefore developed a more direct and honest approach to language.  The aristocratic class in Britain, with nothing to do but enjoy their leisure, developed a more florid and ironic manner of speech.

On the other hand, more recent events in history in Europe have somewhat put a damper on the expression of things like patriotism, nationalism and heroism, things that are never far from the surface in any American form of expression.  Additionally, Americans are not afraid to be sentimental in public, with politicians, newsreaders, judges and other public figures often tearing up when in front of a microphone and camera.  In Britain, such display of emotion would be considered unseemly, embarrassing and somewhat vulgar.  The author attributes this lack of emotion on the part of the British to not wanting to show weakness in front of their "social inferiors" or "colonial subjects."

Americans and British people don't just differ in language, according to the author.  He claims that American, upper and lower class Britons, and Irish Catholics and Protestants are all dissimilar enough in appearance as to be instantly recognizable and labeled.  There is also a discussion of the American tendency to bend and interpret religion to suit whatever purpose is required.  Americans frequently insistent that, because the country is so prosperous, it must mean that God likes us best and therefore it's perfectly fine (if not a downright duty!) for us to "share" our values and culture with the rest of the world.  In the words of Mr. Eagleton, "sometimes you have to destroy the world to save it."

America's puritanical roots also show in their tendency to blame and punish people who fail to conform to societal norms.  Not only must the weak and guilty be punished, but those doing the punishing seem to take irrational delight in the misfortunes of these miscreants.  If you are successful, it is because of your hard work and determination, and if you aren't -- well, that must be because of something you did as well.  There is also the tendency in the US to think that human beings are inherently bad, and therefore signs and notices prohibiting all conceivable forms of misconduct confront the casual visitor everywhere.  No mention of the British penchant for CCTV cameras covering nearly every inch of the British isles, though! 

The differing national characters are also apparent in terms of the solitary nature of the British, compared to their more outgoing, gregarious American cousins.  The British people do not get worked up about government or politics, unless it impinges on their ability to get on with their lives without too much interference.  The Americans, on the other hand, get worked up at government regulation of almost any sort -- it might interfere with their ability to make a profit.  The British love to grumble and complain, chiefly about things that are out of their control (like the weather).  They also take a morbid delight in negative things; trying to one-up your neighbor with tales of medical disasters, domestic breakdowns and job-related negligence is a national pastime.  This is not generally the case in the US, where striving for achievement is the all-consuming passion.

I thought this was a very fascinating look at the evolution of two forms of English, as well as the differing national characteristics of the United States and Britain.  One thing I found somewhat amusing was that when the author was attempting to illustrate a point by making up a supposed quote by a typical American, there were some "Britishisms" included.  For instance, he discusses the American tendency for "chatty book titles" by mentioning a fictional one titled Phobia: How I Learnt to Conquer My Fear of People Who Have Squeaky Voices and Are Under Five Feet Eight Inches Tall. However, I've never heard an American use the word "learnt" so this fictional title he mentioned must have been the British edition!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Across the Pond from W.W. Norton in exchange for this review

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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4gherkinsb Good, innit?

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