The Kindness of Strangers: NYC Version

I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.

Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.

I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.

It was in the cab.

You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?

I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…

An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”

So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.

Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.

I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place

It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”

“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”

The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.

We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.

The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station.  It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.

As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”

And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands.  He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.

And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.

The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.

It was a good day.






An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith

I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander McCall Smith on Thursday night at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. He was here to promote  his new book, The House of Unexpected Sisters. You can buy it here.

It can always be a bit dicey meeting someone you admire, because you’re never sure whether he will live up to your expectations. In this case, however, the author was exactly as his books reveal him to be: erudite, kind, funny, and charming. I hung back at the end of the signing in order to present him with one of my books (a presumption I had to work myself up to) and was able to observe his patience and warmth with every single one of the three hundred-some people who waited in line for his autograph.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 7.12.54 AMIt is difficult–if not impossible–to say anything original about a man so well-known, and, indeed, a Commander of the British Empire, but my attempt follows:

We live in troubled times. Although in the West we have lives of comfort and ease beyond the dreams of any other era of humanity, we wake, I believe, most days, with the sense that something has gone deeply wrong.

And then we realize that our Iphones are safe in the next room.

Modern life, in its material richness, is often plagued by anxiety. And when we have read the dire stories in the news, witnessed the crudeness and vulgarity of mainstream culture, and exhausted our capacity for cruelty and vituperation on Twitter, our minds and souls are in desperate need of an escape. If we have any sense at all, we turn to books as our refuge.

Alexander McCall Smith is the master of escapist literature. I use that term with deep admiration. It requires firm principles, deep courage, and a steadfast heart to look around and find joy and things to laugh about. Perhaps it also requires a bit of desperation.

His books, however charming, express both a deeply held moral philosophy and biting social satire. And whether it’s Isabel Dalhousie in her beautiful house in Edinburgh, Mma Ramatswe in Botswana, or seven year old Bertie reluctantly practicing yoga at 44 Scotland Street, his protagonists have a firm determination to do what’s right: to be honest, to express and appreciate beauty, to find meaning, and most particularly, to be kind.

The humor can be subtle or riotous, but the beauty, and warmth, and rich value of everyday people living everyday lives of meaning and virtue is at the core of every book. And today—indeed, in any era—that is a powerful and important thing.

Escapist literature is a banner of hope in a dark world. And, as Mma Ramotswe says: “… it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

Our guest, tonight, is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and story writer, over the course of many years. He is the author of multiple series—including my favorite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which features the hapless Herr Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld—and along with this new addition to his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and to the 44 Scotland Street Series, has another new children’s book about to be published in Britain. He is the recipient of many honors, and a Commander of the British Empire.

The truth is, he needs no introduction to any of you, but I really wanted to meet him.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Alexander McCall Smith.


Milwaukee Book Launch at Boswell Book Company


Goat photo courtesy the Washington Post (Flickr/Bagsgroove)

Come and celebrate the publication of The Audacity of Goats with me at Boswell Book Company on Friday May 20th, at 7 pm.

You can buy your copy there, or pre-order.


Support your local bookstore!

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Friday May 20 at 7 pm

Boswell Book Company

2559 N. Downer Ave.

Milwaukee, WI 53211

(From their website)

This is the only location. Don’t let a yellow pages tell you otherwise. The store is located on the same block as the Downer Theater, up the bluff from Lincoln Memorial Drive. They’re north of Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital and south of UWM. We’re also pretty much on the southernmost tip of Lake Drive.

COMING SOON: The Audacity of Goats


For Immediate Release

Contact: Felicia Minerva, Publicity Manager



Book Two in the Award-winning North of the Tension Line Series.

[New York, NY] Second in the award-winning North of the Tension Line series, The Audacity of Goats (Beaufort Books, April 2016) is the continuing tale of Fiona Campbell, and her reluctant adventures among the pleasures, mysteries, and exasperations of life on a remote island.

J. F. Riordan has been called “a modern day Jane Austen” for her lyrical prose and rich characters. Her books are a tribute to small town life and the beauty of the ordinary. Peopled with sharply drawn characters whose experiences are by turns serious, mystical, and ridiculous, The Audacity of Goats brings into sharp focus the pitfalls and vicious politics that prevail in small towns everywhere.

In an age of celebrity, this series honors the well-lived life of the common man and woman. Its protagonist, city-bred Fiona Campbell, is a strong-willed, independent woman with an intellectual bent, and a sense of irony that comes in handy during her frequent lapses into public humiliation. Although she doesn’t quite fit into her adopted community, her resolute attempts are wryly observed—and endorsed—by her circle of vaguely eccentric friends.

Elisabeth and Roger are not yet back from their honeymoon when a series of unsettling nighttime incidents leave the islanders uncertain whether they are victims of an elaborate teenage prank, or whether there might be a malevolent stranger lurking on the island. Out-of-state owners of a new goat farm seem to consider themselves the self-proclaimed leaders of the island; Pali, the ferry captain, is troubled by his own unique version of writer’s block; and Ben, the captain’s ten year-old son, appears to be hiding something. But it is only when the imperturbable Lars Olafsen announces his retirement, and Stella announces her candidacy for his office that the islanders realize trouble is brewing. Fiona must decide whether it is time to leave the island for good, or to make another reckless gamble.

The Audacity of Goats is literary escapism that will appeal to both adults and young adults, in a return to characters who feel like old friends amidst the picturesque and mystical way of life North of the Tension Line.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A transplanted Midwesterner, J. F. Riordan lives in exile from Washington Island with her husband and two and a half dogs. She blogs at

The Audacity of Goats By J. F. Riordan $24.95, 5.50” x 8.25” Hardcover 9780825308260 E‐book 9780825307553 Available April 29, 2016 .For more information, a review copy, or to schedule an interview with J. F. Riordan, please contact: Felicia Minerva, (212) 727‐0222,

North of the Tension Line Reviewed in National Review

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It’s behind the paywall, but here is the text of the review found in the April 20 edition of National Review.


Women’s Lives

April 20, 2015, Issue

North of the Tension Line, by J. F. Riordan (Beaufort, 478 pp., $24.95)

My initial impression of this book was: I’ve walked into the novelistic equivalent of a chick flick. What am I doing here — by myself? I go to these only in my wife’s company and at her behest.

Other male readers are likely to have the same first reaction. North of the Tension Line is a novel by a woman about women. Is it for women? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s not for women — but my judgment in the end is that it’s also for men, perhaps even primarily for men. A gifted female writer — one with a nearly Austenian gift for observing human nature and describing the quirks and foibles of the entire cast of characters one finds in the human drama — has produced a novel that reveals some things to us guys about how women’s minds and hearts work.

Women themselves, of course, already know these things. They can read North of the Tension Line for entertainment. Men should read it for instruction.

Fiona and Elisabeth, our heroines, are intelligent, attractive thirtysomething single women — and best friends. They have interests and professions — satisfying but not high-powered — and are far from preoccupied by the need to find Mr. Right. They are open to his walking into their lives and hopeful that someday he will: Finding him would be a good thing — indeed, a very good thing — and they’re not making the perfect the enemy of the good by holding out for the Ultimate Mr. Right when Mr. Right Enough will do. But neither are they pining away, or pursuing their avocational and professional interests as mere distractions while they wait. They have lives — lives worth living, lives in which non-romantic friends, jobs, passions, goals, and challenges of various sorts occupy them meaningfully and worthily.

Yet J. F. Riordan’s point is not the old feminist canard about a woman’s needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Quite the contrary. Fiona and Elisabeth are, like most women, sensible. Their hearts yearn for a special bond with one of those creatures on the other side of the mysterious line dividing the sexes, and their minds tell them that such a bond is worth the sacrifices — including some degree of loss of independence — required to establish and sustain that bond. They are not boy-crazy, nor are they imagining a knight in shining armor who will come astride a white charger to sweep them off their feet. What they want is a decent, honorable man, a man who is comfortable in his own skin and who is willing to be a man — a fellow whose gentle strength would complement their own strong gentleness.

There is nothing more familiar to readers and viewers these days than the story of a woman who manages to be caught up in an unhealthy relationship with every man in her life. She has, or had, an unhealthy relationship with her father; an unhealthy relationship with her first boyfriend, then her second, then third, and so forth; she has unhealthy non-romantic relationships with her guy friends, her boss, her dentist, her pastor, her plumber. She has an unhealthy relationship with her husband — one that doesn’t improve when he becomes her ex-husband. By the time her son is a teenager, she has an unhealthy relationship with him, too. Is the problem with her — or with them? In the standard plot, she begins by blaming herself.

But, of course, enlightenment eventually comes when she realizes that the fault is not with her at all, but indeed with them — and even more fundamentally with the institutional sexism and sexist (and, of course, heterosexist) culture that is ultimately what is driving both their bad attitudes and behavior and her initial impulse to blame herself. Pretty soon she is “off men” and living happily ever after in a lesbian commune in central Massachusetts.

What’s refreshing about Riordan’s novel is that her protagonists have healthy relationships with men. And it isn’t because Fiona and Elisabeth — or the guys with whom they have romantic and non-romantic friendships — are perfect. They’re not. In fact, North of the Tension Line is a sort of study in how imperfect but fundamentally decent women and imperfect but fundamentally honorable men can relate to each other (whether their relationships are romantic or not) in constructive ways, and find satisfaction and contentment in their relationships. In fact, part of her message is that the project of navigating the mysteries involved in relating to people of the opposite sex can — and where our relationships are healthy almost certainly will — challenge us and change us in ways that make us better men and women than we were: a little less imperfect. Relating to each other across the mysterious divide takes effort, but it’s worth it. The payoff is genuine. There must be something to the idea that men and women are made for each other — that by entering each other’s lives they supply a lack and have a lack supplied.

What about the relationships between women and other women and men and other men? Perhaps part of the reason Riordan’s characters can relate in healthy ways to those of the opposite sex is that they have deep, constructive friendships with people of their own sex. The friendship between Fiona and Elisabeth is front and center, and a beautiful friendship it is. The two women delight in each other’s company and each appreciates and cares deeply for the other. They are cognizant of each other’s imperfections, but each is no less aware of her own deficiencies. And each is grateful to the other for the gift of her friendship. They are fast friends, loyal friends. Yet neither woman jealously worries that the entry of a man into the other’s life will weaken the lovely bond between them. On the contrary, they are pulling for each other on the boyfriend front — precisely because they appreciate that there is something good, something uniquely fulfilling, that even the deepest friendship between two women (or, I daresay, two men) cannot provide.

Most of the guys in the book are good guys, and their friendships with other guys are good friendships. J. F. Riordan finds countless ways — usually suitably subtle ways — to call attention to the deep bonds of affection good men can form with each other. Of course men, being men, don’t talk about their feelings much, but rather express them in actions — including in actions toward women or for their sakes. Because of the setting Riordan has chosen for her study, most of the men in the novel — at least those we get to know best — are skilled workers. They build things, or fix things, or do things (like run a ferry from the mainland to an island). They are not intellectuals. Indeed, most are a bit less intellectual than the women. But they are not less intelligent, nor are they less thoughtful. What they are, God bless them, is old-fashioned, even chivalrous. They respect the womenfolk, and even look up to them in various ways; but their instinct is to help them and protect them because . . . well, because that’s what good men do.

You may, gentle reader, be worried that North of the Tension Line has no villains, mean dogs, or ghosts. But fear not: There is an excellent villain — a woman, by the way — a scary mean dog, and an exemplary ghost. To avoid spoiling things for you, I’ll say no more about them than to report that Riordan’s verbal artistry is up to the challenging task of handling villains, mean dogs, and ghosts — which is saying something when reviewing a writer’s first novel.

Mr. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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