Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Book Review: The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander Mc Call Smith

Alexander Mc Call Smith’s books, whether set in Mma. Ramotswe's Africa or Isabel Dalhousie's Edinburgh, hover sweetly and delicately around their environments like butterflies above a flower. The locations are lovingly rendered and melded seamlessly into the plots. Mma. Ramotswe, the lead character in his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, is unaware that she is a philosopher. Isabel Dalhousie, the central heroine in The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday is literally a philosopher. She is a funny, self-deprecating, attractive, and financially independent woman, who when not editing her journal called "The Review of Applied Ethics", spends her time nosing about Edinburgh's numerous cafes, galleries, concert halls, and lecture venues. In each waking moment she conducts slyly humorous internal debates on the moral significance of the interactions she is experiencing. These deliberations range from musings on the language development of her infant son and doubts about the friends of the father of her child to the murky levels of truth surrounding the life of a depressed medical doctor whose career has been ruined by accusations of manipulating results in a drug company research project.

Mc Call Smith gives Ms. Dalhousie a reputation for both inserting and being asked to insert herself into other folks' ethical dilemmas, but he also differentiates her from the legions of "gotcha" journalists who seem to be prying only to score media points. He has her say, "It had always struck her as wrong that we should judge ourselves--or, more usually, others--by single acts, as if a single snapshot said anything about what a person had been like over the whole course of his life." How refreshing to acknowledge that most lives are a combination of rights and wrongs. Even more refreshing is the view that you should not be saddled for eternity by a single mistake. Amends are possible and acceptable. Would that today's politicians, who would often have you judge their opponents solely by past associations rather than present programs, might read this book.

As Dalhousie’s interactions with her lover, her infant son, her sister, and the embattled doctor evolve, she becomes painfully aware that she was wrong on just about every judgment she made. The lesson is clear and sobering. Beware of presumption when speculating on feelings and/or motivations in others. "The moral account book (of others), wherever it is-- in some distant metaphysical databank or just in the heart--should never be contemplated, or dwelt upon."

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday ends, as most of the McCall Smith books do, in quiet contemplation of nature. You are left to speculate on the natural world, the simple sowing and planting of seeds, and the wonders of human love. You will not be disappointed in the answers.

(For additional book reviews by Jim De Young check out the web site of the Warren County Public Library in Monmouth, IL)

Do you want an advance look at a new McCall Smith novel? Check it out here.

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