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Likely Stories - The Sweet Remnants of Summer by Alexander McCall

I am a big reader. Recently, I've been reading Alexander McCall Smith's Sunday Philosophy Club Series. The latest installment, The Sweet Remnants of Summer, offers an intelligent and emotionally sensitive exploration of the light-hearted and profound.

The Sweet Remnants of Summer welcomes us into Isabel Dalhousie's cultured world. A philosopher of independent means, she lives in a prosperous tree-lined district of Edinburgh.

The book opens with questions: "Is it possible, do you think, to be too good?"

Isabel Dalhousie asked her husband, Jamie, this question.... "I've been wondering why we dislike people who are just too good."... She was sure we did.

"... [W]e've all done things we regret. . . ." Jamie thought for a moment. "Couldn't we all say that about ourselves?... We shouldn't have done what we did.”

"You mean Britain shouldn't have done what it did? Or America? Or Spain?”

"Yes," said Jamie. "But not just them.... Pretty much everybody.... The past is pretty shameful once you start to look at it more closely."

"[W]e have to be careful," she said. "It ties in with what I was saying about being too good. Being too aware of your past can paralyse you.”

Against this backdrop, Laura, a leading community figure, seeks assistance with a delicate family matter. Thrust into a complex familial history featuring a misunderstood son, an intractable father, and a conciliatory wife and mother, Isabel worries she'll make matters worse.

Here's McCall Smith again:

This was what Jamie had warned her about.... Word got out that you helped people, and then the requests came in-the thinly veiled pleas, the hints, the overt and unignorable cries for help.

We repeat our mistakes, she thought.... creating... familiar difficulties...we know we should avoid, but never do. And yet, ... how could anyone say to another: I don't want to hear what you have to say? She could not, and she would not.

A high view of moral duty calls Isabel to attend to others, especially those asking for help. She learns much about herself and brings Laura's family to understand one another more generously. A bonus is Isabel's mothering of her own two boys and questions about character, parental fallibility, and intergenerational responsibility.

Humane insight and smart writing make the book a splendid read. We need vital moral imagination. We need reminders of the duties and pleasures of full lives. If these things matter to you-and I sure hope they do-Alexander McCall Smith's Sweet Remnants of Summer belongs on your must-read list!

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Douglas Henry is Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. With a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt and a love for great literature, he’s taught students of all ages everything from Homer’s Iliad to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He has made Waco home for over 20 years, and is deeply engaged in the local community, showing the usefulness of philosophy for life by developing a small pocket neighborhood, The Cloister at Cameron Park, and helping to launch Waco’s wonderful community bookshop, Fabled Bookshop & Cafe.