Friday, January 11, 2008

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

by Alexander McCall Smith

Started: 22 December 2007
Finished: 11 January 2008

Absolutely charming! One of the sweetest stories I’ve read in a long time. Okay, laugh at this booklady. I know, I know. The book was published in 1998—ten years ago and I’m just getting around to reading it for the first time? No excuse. I have seen it and even owned a copy for a several months. What can I say?

Ordinarily I’d have been sad when I finished a book this enjoyable, this readable, this joyous and life-affirming. But wait! There are seven sequels already published and a movie coming out as well! Hurrah! No need to have to lament saying goodbye to the book’s heroine, Precious Ramotswe. Sorry but I have no idea how to pronounce any of these African names; I have to look three or four times at the text to make sure I even spell them correctly! And it’s my only complaint (if that’s even the right word) about the book, that there are a fair number of names spelled very similarly so it takes carefully reading to keep the parade of client characters straight.

Precious (don’t you love it?) or Mma Ramotswe has a detective agency in Botswana, at the foot of Kgale Hill. Mma is the local honorific for females; Rra is for males.

She starts her two bit detective agency with two desks, two chairs, a telephone, an old typewriter and no gun. She is self-described as a “traditionally built” African woman, who drives around the dusty roads of her beloved country in a tiny white van, incapable of high-speed chases and not even safe from roadside snake invasion. Quite an image isn’t it? The numerous references to her generous proportions would lead you to believe that our Lady Detective is . . . um, rather on the large size. But that doesn’t seem to stop her—or even slow her down much.

The author, Alexander McCall Smith, writes with a straight-forward simplicity reminiscent of Hemmingway. His novel is a celebration of life, land and good old-fashioned values. You will keep going back to check the copyright date and the beginning of the story in curious wonder. Does a place like this still exist on this planet? Botswana is lovingly portrayed as Precious’s home, a land of endless skies, devoted people and slow-moving ways that Western society forgot or lost decades ago.

Mma Ramotswe believes in justice, acts on instinct and is as humorous as she is refreshing. She is joined in some of her investigations by her shy suitor, J. L .B. Matekoni. There is a loose over-arching mystery holding the entire book together consisting of a series of smaller conundrums which our hefty heroine solves with wit, wisdom and wiles. And there is even a dab of romance and a dash of melancholic longing thrown in to round out the story.

‘Mma Ramotswe walked back towards her van, not wanting to intrude upon the intimate moments of reunion. She was crying; for her own child, too—remembering the minute hand that had grasped her own, so briefly, while it tried to hold on to a strange world that was slipping away so quickly. There was so much suffering in Africa that is was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.’ (p230)

And it would be a mistake for you to walk away from this story. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may not be great literature, but it is as delightful as a summer rain and just as welcome. Treat yourself to a case or two with Precious. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her as much as I have; I’m off to the library to get the second book in the series, Tears of the Giraffe.


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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Walk in a Relaxed Manner

by Joyce Rupp

Started: 20 December 2005
Finished: 14 December 2007

Yes, you read the dates right. I did start this book over two years ago. I have a bad habit of starting books—especially back when I was homeschooling—and then getting sidetracked before finishing them. Since I ‘retired’ from teaching my own children last year, I’ve been much better about completing what I begin—at least so far as books go. I hope this trend lasts.

However, truth be told, I actually started and restarted and re-restarted this book! Not that it isn’t an excellent book—it is! It’s just not what I call a cover-to-cover book, i.e., a book that you easily sit down and read from cover-to-cover. But then it isn’t meant to be.

Walk in a Relaxed Manner is the type of book you read in small bites. I recommend reading one chapter at a time—which is what I finally did the last time I started it, the time I finally finished it.

It was my dear aunt who first suggested I read something by the author Joyce Rupp. Although I’d never heard of her before then, soon I began seeing Sr. Rupp’s books everywhere, especially on the shelves of my favorite religious bookstore. But out of the many books written by this prolific author, I was looking for a title that spoke to me. In the end, it was the cover which drew me to the book—the picture of a woman backpacker hiking in the mountains among the sheep. And perhaps the subtitle also had something to do with my selection, Life Lessons From the Camino.

As stated in numerous previous blog posts I did a pilgrimage last fall. One of the stops was Santiago de Compostela, the destination of all pilgrims along the Camino. The author, Sr. Joyce Rupp hiked the Camino in 2003 with Fr. Tom Pfeffer, now deceased. This book is a collection of short essays or reflections she wrote on the lessons she learned while hiking the Camino. In fact, each chapter is given over to one succinct lesson, e.g., go prepared, live in the now, return a positive for a negative, travel lightly, look for unannounced angels and keep a strong network of prayer to name but a few from the list of twenty-five. Oh! And, there is a chapter specifically devoted to walking in relaxed manner.

In retrospect, even though I did not hike the Camino, this would have been an invaluable book to have read, savored and prayed before I left on my pilgrimage. I regret deeply not having done so! And yet, I did finish it very soon after my trip. Was I able to relate to the author’s mistakes so easily because I had recently returned from my own trip and I recognized myself and my own errors in the author's self-deprecating stories? I wonder. Would I have derived the same benefit from the book if I'd read it before leaving? I like to think so. There’s no way of knowing of course. However, if you do plan on hiking the Camino—especially if it’s for spiritual reasons—I cannot recommend this book too highly.

And as a beautiful spiritual guide, this book is wonderful, uplifting and insightful.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

by María Ruiz Scaperlanda

Started: 20 July 2007
Finished: 1 January 2008

It is not an accident that I finished this book today, nor that I selected it to be my first book of the year to review. Privately, I’m dedicating this year to St. Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, if you prefer to call her by her Carmelite name. I have personal reasons for preferring her given name—I would say her ‘Christian’ name except that she wasn’t born Christian. She was Jewish by birth and Catholic by conversion. However, I do love the name she selected as well. Teresa of Ávila was her inspiration and is also mine; I consider both to be my dear, dear senior sisters-in-faith. When I read their writings, I not only feel very close to them—I feel as if I have actually met them and conversed with them. Perhaps some would call that the over-active workings of my imagination; I call it Faith.

Although I did start this book back in July, I read most of the book this past November and December. I cannot remember when I bought it, but it was within the past few years. My knowledge of, and interest in, Edith Stein is fivefold. First, she is a female and I always prefer female saints because I can more readily identify with them. Second, she was highly intelligent, a thinker, a philosopher and a writer—my favorite type of person. Third, she is a convert and while my first preference would be for a re-vert, I am still looking for such a saint; therefore, in the meanwhile I shall have to be content with those who find their way to us from other faiths. Fourth, she lived and died during the rise and fall of the Third Reich, a period in history which I find absolutely fascinating. And finally, I have come to have a special love for Edith for three personal reasons: my oldest daughter has chosen her to be her Confirmation patron, my sister took her name when she was recently clothed a Third Order Carmelite and, last but not least, my maternal grandmother and favorite aunt are named Edith.

God works behind the scenes in simple, mysterious ways. A few short years ago, I had never heard of Edith Stein. She came upon me quietly in a little documentary which was examining how the Church selected, determined and investigated its canonical saints. When I told my mother about Meg’s choice of a Confirmation saint at a recent family gathering I sensed rather than saw or heard her surprise. She had never heard of Edith Stein. And I had forgotten—until that moment—what my maternal grandmother’s first name was. I never met her and my mother rarely speaks of her own mother. Edith is not a very common name today, but it must have been once. It was an epiphany moment for both us—my deceased grandmother’s name coming alive again through my daughter’s choice of a Confirmation saint.

And how did Meg come to choose Edith Stein? When she was much younger she had considered Mother Cabrini and then later St. Philomena, but neither saint had particularly ‘stuck’—at least not in the way her sister’s choice had taken hold of her right from the first. (Michelle chose St. Maximilian Kolbe as a very young child and has never wavered in that choice.) When it came time for Meg to write a paper on her saint for her Confirmation class she was still searching. Had I bought this book for that reason? I don’t remember.

I do recall telling Meg, however, that I thought Edith the perfect saint for her—mostly because she’s brainy, like my Meggie.

‘For Edith Stein, whose entire life was a quest for truth and meaning, her hidden world held the key to what was invisible to the eye – long before Truth had a name. Stein herself realized this after becoming a Christian. In a letter to a Benedictine nun friend, she said, “Whoever seeks after the truth is seeking after God, whether consciously or unconsciously.” ‘ (p59)

Knowing my little girl as I have since birth, I would describe her also as ‘a seeker after truth’. It is my prayer that St. Edith will assist her in that quest.

Although I have not said much about this book in particular, it is a charming and easy-to-read introduction to the saint. As she was such an intelligent woman and so much of her life was lived in her mind, no book can do her justice which does not take into account her philosophical and theological development. Scaperlander’s book does this in an accessible manner. This is the perfect introduction to a very complex woman, powerful saint and – I believe – future doctor of the Church. If you read no other book on this saint, read this one. Let me know if you'd like to borrow my copy!