Friday, September 30, 2011

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I must admit that I am probably the last person on the planet to read Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The premise of a mystery set in Botswana was not anything that really appealed to me. However, it is the October selection for the Mars Public Library's Friday Book Club, and so I picked it up and accepted that I would have to plow through it. After all, isn't that what book clubs are for - to force you out of your reading comfort zone. Well, it wasn't a chore and I freely admit that I truly enjoyed the book.

After the death of her father and as a result of selling his cattle, Mma. Precious Ramotswe takes her inheritance and sets up the first detective agency run by a woman in Botswana. McCall Smith sets the scene through flashbacks and a very detailed narrative by Ramotswe 's father. By these words the reader has all the description necessary to picture the setting of the novels, the physical attributes of the characters, and the culture of the country. After the scene is set we are ready to accompany Ramotswe as she solves mysteries in her home town of Gaborone. She is hired to help find a missing husband, discover what a teen-age girl does after school, uncover insurance fraud, and rescue a young boy from kidnappers. She has a circle of friends on whom she can rely and in whom she can confide, but it's not an easy go for a woman in this field. One of the most memorable scenes finds MMaRamotswe driving down an isolated road when she encounters a cobra. Her tiny white van hits it and it becomes entangled with the motor. She contemplates the best way to rid herself of the snake and hopes that she will live to see her being able to continue on her journey.

Ramotswe is a bit reminiscent of Miss Marple, tho much more rotund. McCall Smith, originally from Zimbabwe and now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, is well steeped in the English mystery. However, what shines through in this novel is his sense of dry English humour. The reader does chuckle at his use of words and the situations in which Ramotswe finds herself. The novel is really a series of vignettes rather than a book in which a central plot is developed. This is the charm of this first book in the series and I would assume the hallmark of the next 12 in the series. The books ends with a twist and an incentive to read the next installment.

I definitely intend to read more of this series, but it is not at the top of the "To Be Read" list. Too many books and so little time.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

A former internist, Tess Gerritsen, left the practice of medicine to be able to devote more time to writing and her family. She is most widely known for her medical thrillers, much along the same vein as Robin Cook. The Surgeon is billed as the first in the series of Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles books. She has just released the ninth in the series and has even spawned a television show on TNT featuring her two protagonists.

The Surgeon introduces us to Jane Rizzoli, a Boston policewoman, who is struggling to become accepted by the men in her division. This is a predicament that leaves her bitter and desperate to do anything to gain credibility. Maura Isles, a forensic examiner, never does appear in this book. However, having watched the second season of the TNT show, I gather she will be in future books, the antithesis of Rizzoli with whom she forms a bond and friendship.

Gerritsen has written a good solid story that could be a real page turner. I read this book at night over the course of a month on my Kindle app on my iPhone so, although it could be a quick read, it was more prolonged for me. A serial killer is on the loose in Boston. His prey are women who are vulnerable and who have suffered rape or an abusive act. He stealthily enters their homes at night, tortures them and surgically removes that which makes them a woman. For a reason that cannot be divulged in a review/recap of the novel, he is honing in on Dr. Catherine Cordell, a transplanted Atlanta doctor. Gerritsen does an excellent job of building suspense and tension as she relates how the killer stalks Cordell. It is up to Rizzoli, who puts her job on the line, and her immediate superior, Detective Thomas More, dubbed Saint Thomas, to intercede before the surgeon accomplishes his goal.

Gerritsen employs an interesting and effective writing technique as she prefaces chapters with the musings of The Surgeon. The reader is able to get into his mind, although for a long time we didn't know who he was. His thoughts are often related to classical myths and give very subtle clues as to his behaviour. This was a good read that instills enough interest in the characters to pick up additional books in the series. I will be anxious to read the next and, hopefully and finally, meet Maura Isles.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Madam Secretary: a Memoir by Madeleine Albright

The first woman to hold the office of Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has written, with Bob Woodward, a comprehensive and detailed personal account of her life and public service in Madam Secretary. The memoir is accessible, very readable, and thought provoking. I knew very little about Madeleine Albright before reading this book except for the facts that she was a Czech, graduate of Wellesley College, and Secretary of State. The Flower Library Book Club chose this as their first book of the year and my new book club at The Gables requested that the members read a biography of choice. And so it was that I picked up Madam Secretary.

Born in Prague in 1937, Albright was the daughter of Josef and Anna Korbel. Her father was a diplomat and supporter of democratic Czechs who with his family was forced to leave his native land during World War II and live in England. After the war and the liberation, the family returned to Czechoslovakia and Madeleine was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. In 1949 the family was granted political asylum and moved to Long Island. Eventually Josef Korbel
moved to Denver and began teaching at the University of Colorado. He was well-known for his treatises on Communism in Eastern Europe and actually had another Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a student. Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 and immediately married Joe Albright, a well- connected journalist from Chicago. After a series of moves the couple settled in Washington where Joe became Newsday's Washington Bureau Chief and Madeleine continued to balance raising her family (3 daughters) and continuing her education - PH.D degree from Columbia University. She was married to Joe Albright for twenty-three years before he decided that it wasn't working for him.

Suffice it to say that no moss grew under Albright's feet. She is incredibly intelligent, driven, and committed to making the world a better place. Madam Secretary
relates Albright's journey from a legislative assistant to Ed Muskie to the end of President Clinton's second term. She not only details the behind the scenes machinations of international diplomacy, but she also brings a personal side to the strategies involved. During her tenure as Ambassador to the U.N. and then as Secretary of State, global conflicts erupted with a vengeance. At times I felt that Albright was playing the arcade game of "Whack a Mole" as she tried to handle situations from Somalia to Bosnia to Iran, to Korea. Although the book at sometimes got bogged down in names and policy making, it served to illuminate all that is involved in trying to get nations to talk to one another instead of acting like kindergartners fighting over a cookie. Her description of an Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David was indicative of all that she was willing to do to affect a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Perhaps her greatest efforts were in the area of Kosovo, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Her dealings with Milošević were tough and unrelenting. This was an area of the world that meant so much to her and she was determined to make it safe for all people regardless of their ethnic or religious background. She likens her diplomacy to Bobby Fischer playing chess as a child prodigy when he would go from table to table and make his moves against opponents. Albright remarks,
"I was no child prodigy and the faces I saw as I proceeded from one table to the next were those of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quadhafi, Fidel Castro, and Ayatollah Khamenei. The games were complicated because a change in the momentum of one altered the dynamic of every other; our moves were decided by committee and leaked in advance by those who disagreed; new and contradictory strategies were being shouted out by a chorus from Capitol Hill, and the chessboard for the Middle East keep tipping over, requiring the contest to begin again. The game room was already crowded to overflowing early in 1998 when yet another familiar adversary—Slobodan Milosević—came crashing through the door." (p. 481.)
I was particularly interested in the personal side to all the strategies and inner workings of her office. She exuded confidence, but still had doubts as to how well suited she was for her job. She knew that she was a "skirt among 14 suits" but at the same time knew that her education had prepared her to be on an equal plane. She stressed over throwing the first ball out at a Nationals game, but did just fine. She was not afraid to accompany bodies back from Somalia, sleeping on a cot in the cargo bay. I am so impressed of all that she has accomplished and the means by which she influenced decisions and got HER point across. At the same time I empathize with her about her self-doubts, illustrated by the possibility of her marriage being salvaged if she had not pursued her career or if Joe had won the Pulitzer Prize. What kind of an ultimatum is that?

With a complete chronology of the major events in her life, an exhaustive list of her travels as Secretary of State and acknowledgments and index, Madam Secretary is an informative and inspiring read. I am looking forward to hearing her speak when she lectures in Pittsburgh in December.