Saturday, 2 October 2004

Plane reading

Listening to:

Bach, partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828, played by Wolf Harden.

Just read:

Two books that I read on planes while travelling recently:

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

This is the book that made McCall Smith’s name. It’s an enjoyable novel about a middle-aged woman, Precious Ramotswe, and her adventures once she sets up the detective agency of the title. The setting of the novel in Botswana lends it a great deal of interest and charm. There’s simple novelty value here, but McCall Smith also writes appealingly about a country and culture that I knew next to nothing about.

The two books by McCall Smith that I read earlier (Heavenly date and other flirtations and Portuguese irregular verbs) were both effectively collections of short stories. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is similar because it’s naturally structured around the series of cases that Precious investigates and solves. Nonetheless, it does a little better than the other books because Precious has a richer character (in fact we get quite a bit of interesting background on her childhood and father before the agency cases begin), and because there is a little novel-length plotting too. The latter has two dimensions, Precious’s romance with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and a longer running case that is rather more sinister than the others.

This is a charming and enjoyable novel. I read it in a single sitting. I’m sure I will read at least one of its many sequels.

Thomas Pynchon, The crying of Lot 49.

I read this short novel on the return journey from Utah. It is a little bundle of ’60s weirdness from someone I believe to be one of America’s prominent novelists. This is the first book of Pynchon’s that I’ve read, but I’ve often seen other novels of his in the “serious” sections of various bookshops. (These novels include Gravity’s rainbow and Mason & Dixon.)

Superficially, The crying of Lot 49 is the story of a woman, Oedipa Maas, who is summoned to be the executor of an ex-lover’s will. As she bums around with the lawyer also attached to the case, she discovers what seems to be an ancient conspiracy to do with postal systems. She investigates and finds all sorts of interesting evidence pointing in this direction, including the possibly doctored text of an Elizabethan play.

It’s impossible to take any of this too seriously. For example, the big company in the town where the lover (Pierce Inverarity) died is called Yoyodyne, and has a “company song” featuring the verses:

High above the L.A. freeways,
And the traffic’s whine,
Stands the well-known Galactronics
Branch of Yoyodyne.
Convair boosts the satellite
Into orbits round;
Boeing builds the Minuteman,
We stay on the ground.
Yoyodyne, Yoyodyne,
Contracts flee thee yet.
DOD has shafted thee,
Out of spite, I’ll bet.

The Elizabethan play also has a plot that is clearly an OTT piss-take of the genre. Even as people around Oedipa go bonkers and/or disappear, she never really figures it out. Then it all finishes on a cliff-hanger with the central question quite unresolved.

Weird, and short enough (130pp) to be entertaining.

Still reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.