by Alexander McCall Smith
Random House, Anchor Books
A taste for literature and a turn for business, united in the same person, never fails to make a great man.
—John Adams to his son John Quincy Adams
For quite a while, I’ve wanted to review books for Funny about Money. Thing is, I personally don’t much enjoy the how-to and self-help books other PF bloggers favor. Their authors rarely say anything new, what they do say is often shallow or downright wrong, and the books too often seem to exist primarily to promote the authors’ own wealth-building agenda.
One of Funny’s themes, however, is stress relief and control. No question about it: a good book makes a fine tool for relieving stress. And so that leads us out of the wilderness of self-improvement and into the sylvan glades of…yes! literature. That’s right: things that are actually fun to read.
Over the past few months and years, revisiting fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure and, exactly contrary to watching television, has deflected anxiety. What passes for entertainment on TV by and large is a murky flood of violence, lurid voyeurism, and angst. Even the news programs, infotainment that I refuse to honor with the name of news but instead call Play-Nooz (back-formation from Play-Doh), consist almost 100 percent of violence, voyeurism, and angst. So I’ve taken to leaving the television off in the evenings and reading a good book instead. Personal finance hook: no cable bill means big savings for your budget.
My own taste in fiction, and so the kind of thing that will appear in these reviews, runs to the intelligible. While I respect and honor ground-breaking creativity, some of the postmodernists are about as readable as a (mind-numbing!) self-help book. Now that I’m a certified escapee from graduate school, I no longer feel compelled to read things that leave my head spinning. Carlos Fuentes I enjoy; Salman Rushdie gives me vertigo. So, you’re not likely to hear about The Enchantress of Florence here, not anytime soon. Lately my taste has grown so debased I’ve developed a fondness for certain pulp novels: hence my delight at being paid (can you imagine?) to read page proofs for a publisher of mystery stories.
This brings me to my favorite author of mysteries, Alexander McCall Smith, who has produced three series of novels. What I most love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, among which Blue Shoes and Happiness numbers, is that almost nothing happens in these stories. No murders, no tortures, no kidnappings and cold-sweat searches for missing victims buried in living graves, no rapes, no mutilations. The few deaths that occur take place off-screen. Set in Botswana, the novels trace the lives and doings of Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the highly unlikely but strangely believable Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency; Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, one of Africa’s finest mechanics and owner of the garage on whose premises the detective agency resides; Motholeli and Puso, the two orphans they adopt; Grace Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s doughty (not to say “dowdy”) assistant; and their various clients, friends, relatives, and hangers-on. The action unrolls like the plot of a genteel soap opera: slow, elegant, and endlessly entertaining.
The exotic locale allows Smith, who was born in Rhodesia, to tell us about rural lifeways in Africa and the issues currently facing emerging nations on that continent, at the same time addressing what it means to be human. Rra Matekoni (Mma evidently means something like “Ms.” and Rra, “Mr.”) suffers from clinical depression, Mma Ramotswe has survived an abusive marriage, the intelligent Mma Makutsi struggles with her own sweet nerdiness. As these people wend their way along the routes of their lives, we see all the facets of human nature-kindness and cruelty, evil and good, generosity and greed, energy and sloth, moral strength and dissoluteness-revealing themselves in the passing panorama.
The stately pace gives Smith opportunities to display his considerable writing style, especially when the action pauses while the characters take time to contemplate their lives and circumstances. These extraordinary passages will be lost, I expect, in the TV series, soon to spin off the books onto BBC in the United Kingdom and HBO in the United States. Consider, for example:
Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni went home for lunch at Zebra Drive, something they enjoyed doing when work at the garage permitted. Mma Ramotswe liked to lie down for twenty minutes or so after the midday meal. On occasion she would drop off to sleep for a short while, but usually she just read the newspaper or a magazine. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would not lie down, but liked to walk out in the garden under the shade netting, looking at his vegetables. Although he was a mechanic, like most people in Botswana he was, at heart, a farmer, and he took great pleasure in this small patch of vegetables he coaxed out of the dry soil. One day, when he retired, they would move out to a village, perhaps to Mochudi, and find land to plough and cattle to tend. Then at last there would be time to sit outside on the stoep with Mma Ramotswe and watch the life of the village unfold before them. That would be a good way of spending such days as remained to one; in peace, happy, among the people and cattle of home. It would be good to die among one’s cattle, he thought, with their sweet breath on one’s face and their dark, gentle eyes watching right up to the end of one’s journey, right up to the edge of the river.
We want stress relief? We want a true definition of wealth? Well, there they are.
This lovely, quiet imagery is directly followed by a scene full of tension as a new client appears at the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency.
In Blue Shoes and Happiness, the people proceed through the small dramas of their lives, revealing their qualities of character along the way. Mma Makutsi finds a lover, though whether she will attain the happiness she has worked so hard to earn seems in question; Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni rescue a foundering soul and end up with an assistant mechanic who wants to be an assistant detective; clients bring tales of rascalry to be cleared up. As in all the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency stories, little happens and much happens.
It’s in fiction that reality and wisdom reside. We humans explore the truths of our lives in the stories we tell. I’ll take Alexander McCall Smith over Dave Ramsey, any day!