Thursday, July 7, 2011

Morality for Beautiful Girls

This is my fourth review entered into the POC Reading Challenge in the few short days that have made up July so far. While this may seem extensive, the reasoning behind my multiple posts comes from the fact that I only recently found out about the challenge but had read a few (4) books that fit the category prior to entering the contest officially this month. I feel since I did read the books in 2011, that they are worthy of being counted towards the challenge. Perhaps, I won't be eligible to win a prize this month, but that's quite alright; I still have 5 months after this before the challenge ends for the year.

"Morality for Beautiful Girls" is the third novel in Alexander McCall Smith's series, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. This is the first of the series that I read from start to finish while living in Gaborone, Botswana - the same place where the novel is set. It was thrilling to recognise the places described and the cultural quips discussed.

As I have said before in my reviews of the first two novels, the writing within these books is nothing to be in awe of. Both the language and sentence structure is overly simplistic and somewhat dull. The main character, however, Mma Ramotswe is very well developed in such a way that readers can do nothing less than fall in love with her. "Morality for Beautiful Girls" focuses more on the personal life of Mma Ramotswe bringing in such plot components as her fiance as he struggles with a case of depression and two orphan children that become a part of her family. Of course, there is still the detective component of the novel which this time around finds the main character investigating a case of potential poisoning in the home of government official.

Interestingly enough, the other major case involved in this novel requires Mma Makutsi to take on her first real case. She is hired to investigate the four finalists of the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest to see which beautiful girl possesses the best morality and therefore deserves to win. I have described it as interesting because the winner of the contest in the novel moves on to contend in the Miss Botswana Pageant. The 2011 Miss Botswana Pageant occurred here in Gaborone on July 1st. While I did not attend, everyone residing in this city was a buzz with the excitement of the pageant. Interesting connection, no?!

Tears of the Giraffe

I began reading the second installment of The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, "Tears of the Giraffe" by Alexander McCall Smith just prior to leaving Canada for Botswana. After reading the first book, Mma Ramotswe had me hooked and I just couldn't stop reading about her marvelous character and the adventures she went on in the country that I was soon to be making my home for nearly four months. In addition to the stories, Smith does a very good job of lightly incorporating aspects of the Batswana way of life. I believe it was in this novel that I learned of the way in which to respectfully greet someone by holding my right elbow with my left hand during a handshake. This was an invaluable piece of knowledge that has stayed with me throughout my time in this country.

As with the first novel, "Tears of the Giraffe" involves a few simple cases in which Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi must put their private detective skills to use. In addition to a case of suspected infidelity and an instance of an unprincipled maid, there is a larger case, that of a missing and presumed dead, American man. It is this case that adds the most suspense to the novel as Mma Ramotswe must deal with a group of people who are unwilling to divulge information on the young man's mysterious disappearance many years ago.

Although the actual writing is quite poor in its overly simplistic nature, the development of the characters and the use of traditional African knowledge is what makes "Tears of the Giraffe" worth the read. One noteworthy example comes from the title of the novel itself. While explaining the markings on a traditionally woven basket, a craft that Botswana is known for, Mma Ramotswe explains that giraffes give the crafters their tears to be woven into the baskets. Upon being asked why, she responds: "I suppose that it means that we can all give something...A giraffe has nothing else to give - only tears" (226-7). The novels that comprise The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series are full of heartwarming quips such as this one making it incredibly difficult not to fall in love with Mma Ramotswe and her life's stories.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Indaba, My Children

Following my in-country orientation in Gaborone, Botswana, I developed a fascination with African legends and tribal history. I made it my goal to find and purchase a book on that exact subject the next time I visited the bookstore. Upon my next visit to Exclusive Books in Riverwalk Mall, I purchased “Indaba, My Children: African Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs” written by Credo Mutwa, a Zulu Witchdoctor and Custodian of Sacred Tribal Relics.

Throughout the 694 pages, Mutwa explains that many of the stories he tells within the pages of the book are forbidden to be told to the public, forbidden in the sense that Mutwa could lose his life for revealing much of what he has written within the pages of “Indaba, My Children”. At the same time, the author stresses his reasoning for taking this great risk; he feels the knowledge must be shared so that the white man may understand the ways of the black man.

This book was first published in South Africa in 1964, during what was arguably, the height of the apartheid. This fact, without a doubt, heavily influences the tone of the writing. While the cultural story-telling seems to simply provide a direct recantation of ancient tales, the voiceover-style narration provided by Mutwa himself carries a very irritated tone. There is much anger and frustration in Mutwa’s words directed at the white mans’ persistence in changing the traditional tribal ways. He speaks of the white mans’ ignorance and unwillingness to learn anything about the ancient history that drives these ways and asks how one peoples’ lifestyle can be superior to anothers’. While at times I found the tone to be too aggressive, I can also understand it by taking into consideration the time and place in which he was writing.

“Indaba, My Children” acts very much like a combination between a biblical text and history book. Stories of worldly and human creation are combined with tales recounting great wars and the succession of tribal leaders. One of the aspects I found most interesting was the introduction of and interaction with members of other races such as the ‘Strange Ones’ (Europeans) and the ‘Feared Ones’ (Arabic). Although it was well known to me that these cultures brought great upheaval to the tribes of Africa, I did not truly realise to what detail it occurred.

This book served both Mutwa’s purpose to educate and my curiosity to learn. After reading this book, I find myself understanding much more about African traditions and the reasoning behind many of the customs I have come across that I have found strange. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in African culture and/or folklore.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

#1 Ladies Detective Agency

I've decided to take part in the POC Reading Challenge. I only recently (in July) came across the challenge that started back in January of this year. I'm taking part anyway (at Level 3: 7-9 books), because I know I'll be reading a lot of literature by or showcasing people of color in 2011. I am going to begin by backtracking just a little to April when I read "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency". So here goes POC Reading Challenge Review #1...

When my volunteer supervisor at Ten Thousand Villages found out that I was applying for a three-month placement in Gaborone, Botswana she told me that I had to read the Alexander McCall Smith series that was set there. Of course I was excited, but didn't set my expectations too high that the stories told in the novels would be anything like actual life in Botswana. I read "The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency" before I left for Gaborone and instantly fell in love with Mma (Precious) Ramotswe. I only hoped that the country with which her character was in love would be half as delightful as she described it to be. Upon arriving in Botswana, I shortly came to realise that the daily life, customs, and traditions explained in the novel were identical to those that I was experiencing with each new day I spent in the country. Much like Mma Ramotswe, I have come to love this country; its peacefulness; its kindness. To think that when I started reading the novel, I didn't even know how to pronounce 'Mma' properly and now I find myself speaking the word at least ten times a day.

"The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency", while adding an element of mystery to the plot, remains true to the typical lifestyle of the Batswana (people who live in Botswana). Mma Ramotswe's cases include a wife who suspects her husband is being unfaithful, a father concerned that his daughter is engaging in secret meetings with boys, a doctor who seems to have a split personality, and most captivating of all, a missing boy who is suspected to have succumbed to the hands of traditional witchdoctors. Mma Ramotswe's sleuthing skills are limited, but her willingness to learn and intuitive nature always work together to enable her to solve the case.

As a final thought I will add that I didn't find this novel very well written in relation to many other pieces of literature I have come across, but that doesn't particularly seem to matter. The characters, most specifically Mma Ramotswe herself, and Smith's knowledge of the culture embedded in Botswana are what make this novel a light and wonderful read.

If you ever plan to travel to Botswana, would like to learn a little about this gem of Africa, or just want a nice heartwarming story to pick up, "The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" is the book for you!