Sunday, June 26, 2011


I'm hopelessly in love with anything Alexander McCall Smith writes, so of course I enjoyed every minute of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, his 12th book about Mma Ramotswe, the detective from Botswana.

It's not the book to start with. You don't necessarily have to read the series in strict order, but you should definitely begin with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency  (the link will take you to a boxed set of the first five books, because you can't stop with just one). If you're like me, you'll fall in love with the characters, and you'll love the way McCall Smith gets into their minds, and you'll appreciate books that feature really good people who are not the least bit sappy.

In this latest installment, Mma Ramotswe investigates a feud between neighboring cattle ranchers (who killed the cows? and why?); Mma Makutsi prepares for her wedding to Phuti Radiphuti (what shoes will she wear? and why is Phuti so bashful about kissing her?); and Charlie, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's apprentice, panics when he learns a former girlfriend has had twins.

I don't read these books for the plot, however. I love them for their gentle humor, as in this paragraph about the delightfully obsessive Mma Makutsi:
She set off a few minutes after Mma Ramotswe, locking the office door behind her and leaving a notice pinned to it saying, Temporarily closed for investigations. She had been rather proud of this notice, which informed any prospective client that the detectives were somewhere else on unspecified but important-sounding investigate work. But as she pinned the sign into position, it suddenly occurred to her that a quite different impression might be created, namely that the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was itself under investigation, and consequently had been closed down by the authorities. That would never do, so she reopened the office and carefully typed out a new sign. The wording this time was far better, and, she hoped, quite unambiguous: Temporarily closed while detective personnel are engaged elsewhere. That was much better ... or was it?  Could it be read as suggesting that the entire staff of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was, in fact, working for some other concern? That was certainly not the message she wished to convey, so she inserted a third sheet of paper into the typewriter and typed: Back soon. There was no room for misunderstanding there, although there might be some people who demanded, "And what does 'soon' mean, may we ask? How soon is that?" Such people, however, would never be satisfied with whatever one said, and would always be picking holes in even the simplest notice. No, you did not need to worry about people like that.
I also love these books for their insights into good relationships, as in this conversation between Mma Ramotswe and her husband:
"What would you do if I did something that you thought was a very bad idea, but that I really wanted to do? What if that thing was a thing that made me very happy, but looked ridiculous to you?'

He frowned. "Something your heart was set on?"

"Yes," she said. "Something that my heart said I just had to do."

"In that case, I would say to myself: It is an odd thing that Mma Ramotswe has done, but if that is what makes her happy, then I am happy too."

She looked at him fondly; that he had been sent to her, when there were so many other, lesser men who might have been sent, was a source of constant gratitude. That we have the people we have in this life, rather than others, is miraculous, she thought: a miraculous gift.
And I love them for their philosophizing (which is also one reason I love McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series, whose protagonist philosophizes a good deal more than Mma Ramotswe does):
She did not think that people now were any worse than they used to be, but it was very clear to her that they had less time. In the old days Botswana people were rarely in a rush to get somewhere else - why should they be? Nowadays, people were always thinking of getting somewhere - they travelled around far more, rushing from here to there and then back again. She would never let her life go that way; she would always take the time to drink tea, to look at the sky, and to talk. What else was there to do? Make money? Why? Did money bring any greater happiness than that furnished by a well-made cup of red bush tea and a moment or two with a good friend? She thought not.
Add to her list: Does money bring any greater happiness than a couple of hours reading the latest Alexander McCall Smith novel? I think not.
To read more of my reviews of books by Alexander McCall Smith, scroll up, click on "Fiction/Poetry," and click on the links.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


“For decades, the American financial system was stable and safe. But then something changed. The financial industry turned its back on society, corrupted our political system, and plunged the world economy into crisis. At enormous cost, we’ve avoided disaster and are recovering.

"But the men and institutions that caused the crisis are still in power, and that needs to change. They will tell us that we need them, and that what they do is too complicated for us to understand. They will tell us it won’t happen again. They will spend billions fighting reform. It won’t be easy, but some things are worth fighting for.”
Those are narrator Matt Damon's closing words in Sony Classics' Academy Award winning Inside Job, a 2010 film about the worldwide financial meltdown that began in 2008.

Economics may be the dismal science, but this is not a gloomy movie. Infuriating, yes. Scary, for sure. But the fast-paced narration, ironically funny sound track, montage of damning interviews, and frequently interspersed factoids will keep your adrenaline flowing for all 108 minutes of it.

Inside Job is politically charged but not partisan. In the slice of history it covers, there are no heroic presidents or pure parties. The administrations of Reagan, Bush the father, Clinton, Bush the son, and Obama all contributed to the train wreck - by a combination of philosophy, inaction, lack of oversight, unwise appointments, and bad policy decisions.

Widespread corruption has infected Democrats and Republicans, hedge fund managers and academics, CEOs and regulators, lawmakers and lobbyists. The result - massive job loss worldwide; an enormous widening of the gap between rich and poor, especially in the United States; a housing slump that seems to have no end; decimated pension funds - and eye-popping bonuses and government jobs for the financial geniuses whose insatiable greed brought us the catastrophe in the first place.

Here's a sobering thought for those of us who tend to think that Republican policies lead to financial doom: perhaps they do, but some of the major villains in this film are currently in high positions in the Obama administration. We now have a government not of men, not of laws, not even of political parties, but of Wall Street.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

WINTER HEART by Margaret Frazer

I love Dame Frevisse, the 15th-century sleuthing nun, and I'm getting antsy. It's been two years since publication of The Apostate's Tale, and I'm not sure how much longer I can go on without a visit to St. Frideswide's Priory.

So I was thrilled several weeks ago when Gail Frazer, author or coauthor of the Dame Frevisse mysteries under the name Margaret Frazer, emailed to ask if I'd like to participate in a blog tour for her most recent novella, Winter Heart - an e-book that begins, irony of ironies, with Domina Frevisse seated at her writing desk, studying a parchment roll.

Alas, several electronic mishaps caused me to miss the blog tour. Nothing, however, would cause me to miss a new book in this series, even if it's available only electronically, and even if it's not a novel but a long short story.

Frevisse is now prioress of St. Frideswide's. She now moves serenely about her duties, though her sharp, questioning mind is always active. Perhaps this is why Tom Kelmstowe asks her to plead his case - he knows she will see what others have missed. Tom, accused of rape, left the village precipitously, and his property was given to another. But now Tom has returned, and soon a man who may have wronged him is murdered. Tom is the obvious suspect, but Tom says all the stories about him are wrong.

Frazer's novels are often long on history, short on mystery. This novella, by contrast, is a classic whodunit, though medieval monastery and village life are present as a backdrop. As in several of her other books, Frazer's love of Benedictine solitude and liturgy is evident. The Divine Office, or fixed-hour prayer, provides the framework for all of Frevisse's days:
The Offices, with their garland of prayers and psalms woven out of the worship of generations past and meant to weave forward through generations to come, were the reason for the nunnery’s existence. They were also Frevisse’s great joy more days than not, giving her a time to leave aside her duties and lose herself in the prayers reaching toward Heaven.
But Frevisse's assignment - finding a murderer - is practical, not mystical, and she handles it with skills honed by years of detection in what must have been an unusually murder-prone village.

Having read all 17 Dame Frevisse novels, I can't say how this story would appeal to someone who's new to the series. No prior knowledge of St. Frideswide's is required or assumed, but I suspect that part of my enjoyment was increased by long-term involvement with Frevisse, Master Naylor the steward, Dame Claire, and other characters. Still, at $2.99 Winter Heart is a steal, and it will take you only a pleasant evening or two to get acquainted with the indomitable domina.

And diehard Margaret Frazer fans should note that 11 of her short stories (click here and scroll down) are now available through Amazon for $2.99 or less, as long as you're willing to trade in your parchment for Kindle editions.
If you have yet to meet Dame Frevisse, you can take a quick look at my blogpost introduction to her here (or, if you're a subscriber, my Books and Culture review here). Better yet, run to your library or bookstore and begin with the first of the 17 books (so far) in the series, The Novice's Tale.