Friday, February 27, 2015

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith ****

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith is the 15th book in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. By now Mma Makutsi has risen from secretary to junior partner. Mma Ramotswe continues as the ever positive and optimistic observer of life in Botswana.
Botswana was a good place-it always had been-and Mma Ramotswe knew that she would fight to keep it that way.
In this latest installment, we have cases of amnesia, spousal abuse, a car accident, a layoff, and the title event where Mma Makutsi opens a restaurant.
This is another cozy mystery that will not disappoint nor surprise the many readers of this series.
Novels all have settings, characters, and plots, but these carry various weights.

For example much science-fiction emphasizes setting, aka world-building, where the first thought of readers is the planet and society … Dune, DiscWorld, Lord of the Rings, jump to mind here.

Mysteries with their McGuffins, Red Herrings, Plot Twists, and Reveals tend to showcase plotting.

Cozies and other series, such as the current book, tend to rest on characters, often static characters, who become familiar and comfortable for the appreciative readers.
This book falls into this third category.

Great novels are the one that achieve a balance among the three.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin ****

About 210 years ago, there was a slave revolt aboard the Tryal off the coast of Chile. The novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is based on this incident. Now over 150 years after Melville published, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin is an historical accounting of the circumstances around that slave revolt.

The irony of this retelling is that even though Grandin makes a strong case for the literacy of the slaves, nothing is left in the historical record in their voice, so in spite of the author's effort to include both sides of this story, the voices of the slaves are still lost.

West Africa saw more Muslim missionaries than Catholic one. This was the primary reason for the high rate of literacy in the region.
Yet unlike the Latin Catholic Mass, the Word in West Africa wasn't just received. It was discussed in language the faithful could understand. Literacy and faith were intertwined.
Beyond the surprise of literacy of the West African slaves, was the high involvement in and financial dependence on the slave trade within abolitionist New England.
Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves' lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses [also dependent on the slave trade].
Not only were New Englanders tied to slavery, but the liberal intellectuals refused to acknowledge the impact of slavery. Until corrected by black writers in the 1950s and 1960s, Melville's novella was viewed as an allegory, rather than a telling of the abuse of slaves. They dehumanized the slaves with critiques like this:
Blackness and darkness are Melville's predominant symbols of evil, and Babo [slave revolt leader] is blackness, not simply a Negro.
Anyone interested in a modern historical account of slavery in the early 19th century will benefit from this book.

This history draws on both the historical record and Melville's novella. Throughout the book, reference is made to Melville. I found the book reminiscent of Moby-Dick in structure. Rather than a straight narrative, the author includes digressions on life at sea.

In this history, seal hunting takes the place of whaling in Moby Dick. Various digressions expound on the life and technology of seal hunters. Like Melville, Grandin demonstrates broad interests in all aspects of the world surrounding the core story.

This is an excellent book for those interested in what the world was like beyond the often told story of slavery, but not ignoring slavery either.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor ***

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor by Dr Joel M Hoffman is two books in one. The first half is the history of the creation of Bible in the centuries around the birth of Christ. It traces the history of translation, copying, and editing from the original Aramaic to Greek, Latin, and finally the English most Americans are familiar with.

The second half recounts holy scriptures that might have been included, but were left on the cutting room floor (in the metaphor of the book): Adam and Eve after the fall, Abraham's childhood, and Enoch.

In between the history and religion, the author intersperses observations on the human condition.

And as fundamental to humanity as clothing is, it is equally unknown in the animal world. ... Clothing thus joins language as the two most obvious differences between humans and animals.
Only in retrospect do we (perhaps) marvel that the [polytheist] Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Syrians, and Babylonians are all gone. While Abraham's descendants, the monotheists, remain strong.

Unfortunately, I doubt many readers will appreciate both the cold, scientific approach of the first half and the reverential, religious approach to the second half.

This book represented a challenge for the author as explained in his own words...
The ancient writings that make up the Bible's cutting room floor are ... well known within the halls of the academy, so there are plenty of scholarly essays ... Equally ... there's no shortage of popular books that overcome the ... academic prose but at the expense of accuracy.
This book is neither academic history nor historical fiction. Fiction or non-fiction is a decision faced by many history writers. I sense that academic writers particularly are torn between the readability and clarity of fiction versus the truth and accuracy of non-fiction. The former risks the academic's reputation and the latter risks the popular success of the writing.

In this case, I wonder if the author tried too hard to hit both marks, and instead hit none.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Emus by Donna Andrews *****

For all you cozy mystery readers, you will enjoy by The Good, the Bad, and the Emus by Donna Andrews. Set in rural Virginia, Meg Langslow and her eccentric family are once again on the trail of a murderer. This time the victim is her long-lost grandmother, who unfortunately died just when her father hired a private investigator to track his mother down.

Since cozy mysteries tend to eschew violence and maintain a low body count, they often have a strong secondary plot to fill the space between the opening murder and the closing reveal. In this case, this central plot is the rescue of feral emus. What could be more fun then rounding up emus in the hills of western Virginia. You won't be disappointed.

As all the loose ends are tried up in the final chapter, I'm reminded how fiction is so different from real life. There seems to be a demand that writers minimize the number of characters, thus few are introduced, or given many words, unless they are part of the story.

As a young reader, I first noticed this with Dickens, but this practice can be traced back to Sophocles and Oedipus, certainly the gold standard for single characters filling multiple roles. If this type of neat conclusion is your cup of tea, this book has a most satisfying ending.