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Whilst I love all of McCall Smith’s writings, I think this series of his is my favourite. And to sooth my soul as I embarked upon revision I have just been re-reading a selection of the series: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate; The Careful Use of Compliments; The Comfort of Saturdays; and The Lost Art of Gratitude.

For those of you not familiar with the series you can hear McCall Smith talking about it in the Philosophers Zone (which discusses many other interesting things and you can subscribe to as a podcast). Isabel Dalhousie, the central character, edits the journal of Applied Ethics, and her life is a rich philosophical one.

The problem, or blessing, for Isabel is that of moral proximity. She believes that once we are in moral proximity to someone their issues or problems become our issues and problems, and it is this stance that draws Isabel into situations. Whether hearts have memories, the faking of paintings, ruined careers, and how to respond to a plea for help that may not be innocently made. Along the way Isabel makes many mistakes, and yet she is always forgiven, and always brings things to a suitable conclusion, because at heart she is a good person and means well. In between her solving of problems Isabel edits her journal, secures her younger lover, and discovers the wonders of motherhood, watched over all the while by brother fox.  

Like all of McCall Smith’s writings these books are deceptively simple, and yet they are exceedingly rich in moral speculation. Isabel grapples constantly with the issue of how we should live our lives. To whom do we owe what? What are our duties? Who has a right to make a demand on us? She shows us how we can become better people, by living just a little more deeply and questioning just a little bit more.

And through all this she gets her pleasures in life through the simple things. From the chilled glass of wine, served with a simple omelette, from the feel of the sun on your skin, from taking the time to meet friends for lunch and living in and savouring the moment when she thinks, “Will I remember this, every moment of this, being here, in this beautiful place”. And she makes me aim to do the same, and that is why I’m ever so grateful to McCall Smith for having created her.

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While a young man Simon Wiesenthal was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. One day whilst he is doing manual work at a High School turned into a military hospital he is called by a nurse to the bedside of a dying SS member. The man wishes to confess his crime – that of taking part in the massacre of several hundred Jews – to a Jew and to receive forgiveness. Simon Wiesenthal walks away from his bedside without a word.

The rest of the book is turned over to 53 responses to Wiesenthal’s story and question: did I do the right thing? Responses are drawn from illustrious individuals, such as the Dalai Lama, Primo Levi, and Desmond Tutu, to name a few. They discuss the concept of forgiveness, its possibilities, who can, and has a duty to, dispense it. In doing so they force you to consider the book’s relevance to today’s world as it raises questions about man, his nature and what our personal duties to both each other and ourselves are: issues that every individual has a duty to consider.