Books about good people

…none of us is immune to shipwreck. Come, beckons the fatal shore: come and die on my white sands, it said. And we do. – Alexander McCall Smith, The Right Attitude to Rain.

The path to Mirkwood has been neglected over the last two weeks; I have scarcely visited any blogs, and responded very late to comments on my previous post. I’ve had to pay attention to my thesis and job search, and as graduation approaches, there is a lot of documentation to be submitted to the university and the USCIS. To top that, I got requests to review two technical journal submissions and could not turn any of them down. I felt a little bit like Isabel Dalhousie, that conscientious editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, who agonizes over the submissions she receives. I like reviewing and learn much from the activity, in terms of technical content and writing style, the relevance of ideas, and the scope for augmenting them. However, reviews have a way of coming to you when you least expect them, and would be more profitably occupied somewhere else. I worry about not doing a responsible job, which is exacerbated by the callous three sentence reviews that I sometimes receive on my own submissions. Besides, there the real dread of reading the paper up and down, twice, and not “getting the idea” at all.

Thus, there has been little mental energy left to blog about what I read. This is probably how most blogs fade out after their initial spurt of enthusiasm, overcome by more pressing demands. I think that such will not be this blog’s fate because I am incapable of going without a book for any reasonable length of time. I tried to escape the drudgery of photocopying and filling forms by reading from The Right Attitude to Rain, the third installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith, who is better known for his warm and poignant stories of the Botswanan detective, Mma Ramotswe. I recall reading, in a review of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, that it is difficult to write a book about good people, and McCall Smith seems to excel at that. This evaluation would be appropriate for the Isabel Dalhousie books as well. I started the series with The Sunday Philosophy Club and was somewhat underwhelmed because of the structural and thematic similarities with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I skipped Friends, Lovers and Chocolate due, in no small part, to the obvious corniness of the title. With my expectations thus lowered, I did not expect to like The Right Attitude to Rain as much as I did.

“This Sinclair was on his way to battle,” he said, “and was warned by a mermaid not to go. By a mermaid, mind you.”

“One should always listen to mermaids,” said Isabel. “They address one so infrequently that anything they have to say must be important.”

I enjoyed reading about Isabel’s beloved Edinburgh, and the descriptions of the architecture, history, geography and customs of Scotland which are integral to the Isabel Dalhousie books just as the harsh life and simple customs of the Kalahari desert countries are integral to the Mma Ramotswe books. Isabel is a philosopher, and years of training and application have shaped the way in which she approaches all problems, not just the ones she ponders about while editing the Journal of Applied Ethics. While dealing with her problems and those of her friends (and, it must be said, the problems of people who she has no business helping) Isabel usually wrestles back and forth between framing the situation as a problem of ethics, and regarding it as an interplay of human frailties – where instinct often trumps cold, hard logic. Having lived in a university for the better part of the last eight years, this disconnect is par for the course in my own life, so I enjoyed reading about Isabel’s muddles. She often assumes too much about people and then regrets it afterward – now, everybody does that, but Isabel has an endearing way of dwelling on things. She cannot help being interested in other peoples’ lives and would be disadvantaged and sloppy without her housekeeper, but these flaws are easy to overlook. She is almost a nerd, in a manner of speaking, but her personality has also been shaped by her experiences, some of which have been rather sad. For the most part, the idea of a quiet forty-two-year-old crossword-loving philosopher living by herself and facing life with curiosity and common sense, is too captivating to let go.

3 thoughts on “Books about good people”

  1. many people didn’t enjoy the isabel dalhousie series, but i like the sunday philosophy club. however, the appeal to me was more the moral philosophy she ponders about than the ongoing mystery itself.

    ps. i like what you did with your css.

  2. Sulz: Yes, I agree. The appeal of both TSPC is in the discussions of moral philosophy that go on in Isabel’s head. I also like the descriptions of Scotland, where I have never been, except for an unplanned airplane refueling in Glasgow on 9/11.

    Thanks for the CSS praise. It isn’t much, really. I am just trying to snip away until I have the bare minimum necessary.

    Stefanie: Thanks. I really am looking forward to finishing once and for all. However, having been in graduate school for as long as I have, there is a very real inertia about leaving the relative innocence of university life and going on to do something in the real world 🙂 .

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