Saturday, June 28, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith: Blue Shoes and Happiness

This is the seventh title in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Gabarone, Botswana – where the Scotsman McCall Smith once lived. The series has been a huge hit and was recently made into a film for television directed by Anthony Minghella. McCall Smith doesn’t hesitate to use these books to let his readers know that there is a different side to Africa. He shows us the good relations between people, how they help each other, how friendships and family relationships have meaning, how the land and traditions are important, and above all how one African country at least can be well managed and successful. The books have had some success in that quarter, as I’ve heard that in Botswana there are now tours to show visitors around the places mentioned in the books. (I don’t know if actual visitor numbers have increased, but I would like to think so.) Although McCall Smith doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of life in Africa (but he’s yet to touch on the Kalahari Bushmen issue), I fully support his focus on the more positive aspects of life. There is far too much bad news coming out of Africa, and also a misguided propensity to see the continent as one whole.

Not a great deal happens in the stories; there are minor moments of action that gently nudge the narrative along, and along the series we have followed the “traditionally built” Mma Precious Ramotswe through a very long engagement and finally marriage to the best mechanic in town, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Mma Ramotswe has an assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, who is addicted to unsuitable shoes and has had her share of difficulties in finding a suitable husband. In Blue Shoes Mma Ramotswe investigates the blackmail of a college catering service manager, the atmosphere of fear at a game reserve, and the malpractice of a general medical practitioner from Uganda. Mma Makutsi runs into a misunderstanding over exactly what kind of feminist she is with her fiancé, and buys a new pair of shoes. Brain candy – delightful summer reading!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
An Isabel Dalhousie novel - second in the "Sunday Philosophy Club" series.
I think of McCall Smith books as “brain candy”: sweet, delicious, easy on the brain, with a smooth aftertaste that leaves one wanting to pick up another. This series is set in Edinburgh; the main character, Isabel, a well-educated and comfortably well-off woman in her early forties, divorced, is editor of the Review of Applied Ethics (a job which provides for plenty of philosophical topics to ruminate on as she goes about her daily errands). She’s also endowed with something more than the usual sense of curiosity and need to see things through. In this story she meets a man who’s undergone a heart transplant and has been seeing uncomfortable visions; he asks her help in figuring out why this is happening. There are many interesting digressions on life after death, cellular memory, the morality of getting involved, and the relevance of age differences in romantic relationships (Isabel is rather stuck on an attractive young man fifteen years her junior). McCall Smith is a past professor of medical law and served on bioethics bodies, so he knows what he’s writing about when it comes to the medical and ethical issues – although he doesn’t allow Isabel to get weighed down or go into too much detail. There is, however, slightly more depth to this series than one finds in the series set in Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Extremely enjoyable light summer holiday reading!