Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reading With My Kids: The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of Book: Audiobook borrowed from the library

I have written about Alexander McCall Smith previously in regard to his other major series, The Sunday Philosophy Club. This book is number four in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

My wife is a big fan of both series, and encouraged me to read the first one. We listened to this book, however, because my kids - simply put - adore Alexander McCall Smith.

I have no idea exactly why. I believe they heard an excerpt when my wife was finishing up an audiobook she had started on a trip on her own. The books are hardly typical kids’ fare. They are slow and introspective, with characterization taking precedence over plot. I find them delightful, but I probably would not have prior to at least junior high. Yet my six and eight year old boys rather like them. Go figure.

So anyway, as on all our camping trips, the kids get to pick the audiobooks. I like them because they make it easier for me to stay awake and focused during the longer drives. (My wife doesn’t camp, so I drive solo for the entire trip.) I also find them a good alternative to movies. Although I have a DVD player in my truck, I can’t (legally or safely) watch while driving, so all I get is the audio. For something like a Pink Panther cartoon collection, this is the way the madness lies…

About this particular book, I took just a bit of time to figure out who everyone was. It is peculiar to jump in right in the middle of a long series - something I try not to do if I can avoid it. Once I got my bearings, things started to make sense. Fortunately, McCall Smith (that’s his complete last name) gives a bit of a refresher at the beginning.

The books are set in Botswana (McCall Smith grew up in Rhodesia and later helped found the University of Botswana), and revolve around Mma. “Precious” Ramotswe, the proprietor of the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” not only the first, but the only private detective agency in the country. Also recurring characters are her fiance, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, a local garage; and Grace Makutsi, Mma. Ramotswe’s assistant.

The plot doesn’t revolve so much around the little mysteries that the ladies solve - by intuition and careful consideration of human character as much as by investigation and deduction - but around the lives of the main characters. Mma. Makutsi has two things she lacks and desires: first, for a little money of her own beyond the small amount Matekoni and Ramotswe can pay her, and for a love life. Her attempts at solving the first problem are amusing, but she eventually hits on a winning plan, which gives the book its title. Her romantic prospects? Not so rosy, despite her best attempts. (Although I am informed by my sources that she eventually finds a man. Spoilers!)

McCall Smith, as I explained in more detail in my first review, is concerned with ethics and philosophy. This book was full of both, although the philosophy was more of the folk and intuitive sort than in the other series, where the protagonist is prone to quote Kant and Schopenhauer. In particular, this book centered around the nature of redemption and restitution. When one has harmed others in the past, how does one make amends? What if things cannot really be fixed?

If this wasn’t heavy enough, an abortion drives one mystery, and an attempted affair during an unhappy marriage the other. Again, not exactly typical kids fare, by any means. It was definitely food for thought and discussion.

(I intend to write about my philosophy of sex education for children some time. And express my gratefulness to my parents, who did a great job of it.)

Another theme, which I understand is a recurring one in this series, is the clash of traditional views and roles of women with the modern understanding. Mma. Ramotswe is an affront to tradition, and a counterexample to sexism. By opening a business in a field traditionally dominated by men, she is already challenging the status quo in Botswana - and if we are honest, plenty of Western countries as well. In this book, she gains a clear antagonist in the form of a competing detective, Mr. Buthelezi. He is unbearably condescending to women in general, and to Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi in particular. His ads even say, “Trust your enquiry to a MAN!”

Also on that theme is the business endeavor of Mma. Makutsi. She astutely realizes that women are called “secretaries,” but men do much of the same work while called by a different name: “clerk.” As typing becomes more important to these jobs, it will become necessary that men learn to type as well. But they would never enroll in the Botswana Secretarial College (Mma. Makutsi’s alma mater) because it is for women. Never would they be caught doing “women’s work.” So, Mma. Makutsi sees a market. Men need the skills, but need a way to learn them without being emasculated. And thus she is able to find her niche.

McCall Smith handles all of this with good humor. The characters are all - even Mr. Buthelezi - sympathetic and human. Comeuppances are gentle, and Mma. Ramotswe strives to resolve conflicts by appealing to each character’s good side and best intentions, letting them make amends for their foibles, rather than humiliating them.

A few things also stuck in my mind. First of all, McCall Smith insists on using extremely formal titles throughout. (I assume that this is Botswanan protocol?) It is possible that Mr. Matekoni has a first name somewhere, but I have no idea what it is. He is “Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni” to everyone - even his fiancee. Likewise, it is always “Mma. Makutsi,” rather than “Grace.” (I looked it up: “Mma.” is short for “Madam,” and is - at least by the reader of this audiobook, who is from Southern Africa, pronounced “Ma.”)

The other incident in the book that I loved was the description of a religious meeting. The younger of the two apprentices at the garage finds religion, and invites the rest of the staff in a way that cannot be refuse without dishonor. This “religion” is fanatical, and cultlike. At the meeting, strangers, rather than being greeted, are expected to confess - in excruciating detail - all their sins, past and present. Mma. Ramotswe manages to escape using a brilliant tactic, which I won’t spoil by describing here. Quite brilliant - and true to form.

Having heard this book, I fully intend to read the rest of the series. Good characters, nuanced situations, and plenty of good humor and bush tea.

1 comment:

  1. I love No. 1 Ladies, too! Y kids have enjoyed McCall Smith's Akimbo stories, but it sounds like yours have gone straight to the best. :)