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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 19, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Catalog Living, Wife of the Gods

Some things are so common we don't notice how absurd they are. For instance, catalogs display pictures that are meant to be "homey." But whose home is it, anyway?

Who actually lives this way?

Nobody, of course. But what if they did? What would their lives and relationships be like? Actor/writer/comedian Molly Erdman provides us with her answer at a website called Catalog Living (http://catalogliving.net/page/1).

The pictures are all gorgeous -- the way catalog pictures tend to be. Serious money was spent on making these photos lush and deep and full-colored. But what are they shooting?

The entry for 21 September shows two throw pillows shaped and painted like curled-up kittycats. Erdman's caption? "Well, Elaine, if they're just pillows then why do we have a litter box? And, more importantly, who is using it?"

With most of them, however, you have to be looking at the picture as you read the caption. Otherwise it makes no sense. So all I can suggest is that you go to the site and see for yourself! It will change forever the way you look at catalogs forever.

(Thanks, Robin, for pointing out this site to me!)

*

Not every book that looks good enough to buy turns out to be worth reading. For instance, there's a book called Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I won't bother telling you the names of the authors.

The book I bought was supposed to be a semi-scientific examination of the way people rationalize their mistakes -- often clinging to their errors so tenaciously that you'd think admitting a mistake would kill them.

But it opened by naming George W. Bush as the most obvious (and, by implication, worst) example of a politician who made terrible mistakes and then denied them. They then proceeded to offer a list of those mistakes that either:

1. Were genuinely not made by George W. Bush (i.e., he had nothing to do with the "mission accomplished" sign on the carrier after the initial campaign of the Iraq War),

2. Were made because he followed the best available information from the government agencies responsible for informing the President,

3. Or were not mistakes at all, but legitimate policy choices that the authors simply disagree with.

Not one of their list of Bush's "mistakes" remotely resembles the kind of thing the book purported to be about.

Now, it may be that the rest of the book was actually a sober treatment how people, ordinary or famous, cling to mistakes -- for instance, the way Winston Churchill nearly wrecked his own political career by championing the cause of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

But even then, Churchill was acting out of honor. He genuinely believed that regardless of public response, there should be no problem with the king marrying the woman he loved.

So was he rationalizing a mistake, or being true to himself? I suspect that this dilemma would have faced the authors again and again. How do you decide which lines of thought are "rationalizations" and which are "explanations"?

If they had any kind of useful method for distinguishing the difference, they certainly didn't apply even a shred of it to their analysis of George W. Bush. If they were that careless in the opening paragraphs of their book -- if they were willing to turn their "analysis" into nothing but another political screed directed against the bugbear of the Extreme Left -- then science plays no role in their book, and it is therefore worthless. If I want stupid Leftist propaganda, I can read Al Franken.

When I was younger, I would have read many more pages before erasing the audiobook from my hard drive. But I'm older now, and am keenly aware of how little time I have left in my life. Why should I spend another minute of it on someone else's poo?

The only thing I feel bad about is that by including the title of the book in this commentary (it can hardly be called a review, since I didn't read it), I might inadvertently be helping sell it. You might be in the bookstore, see the title on the shelves, and think, "I read something about that. Uncle Orson mentioned it."

And then you might pick it up and get suckered by the cover copy, as I did, and actually buy it.

So if you remember the title, then please attach the word poo to the end of it in your memory, so that when you pick it up, you'll remember that I warned you of its utter worthlessness, in my considered judgment as an experienced reader of books that turn out to be pure poo.

*

It might be easy to suppose that Kwei Quartey's detective novel The Wife of the Gods, is merely an attempt to capitalize on the success of Alexander McCall Smith's series of mysteries that began with The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

But Quartey is no mere opportunist -- he's a writer and storyteller of the first order, and his credentials for writing mysteries set in Africa are actually better than Smith's.

Smith's series is set in Botswana; Quartey's novel is set in Ghana. Both deal with African culture. Both involve the juxtaposition of western values and native African traditions. Both authors are medical men: Smith is an expert on medical law and bioethics, Quartey a practicing physician in a wound care clinic and an urgent care center.

But there are many differences. Quartey, for instance, was actually born in Accra, the capital of Ghana, to a Ghanaian father and African-American mother. (Smith is Scottish.)

Not that Quartey is your typical Ghanaian. Both his parents were professors, and by American law at the time he was considered a U.S. citizen from birth, though he was born in Ghana. And Smith was born in Zimbabwe and lived many years in Botswana, so both writers know the landscapes of Africa, though they lived in social classes far removed from their protagonists'.

When you come to the books, much of Smith's appeal comes from the charming naivete and grim determination of Precious Ramotswe. Much of the humor derives from a slightly condescending attitude -- a sort of wink-and-a-nod between Smith and his European-cultured readers.

Quartey's detective, Darko Dawson, is a trained and educated police detective, and there is no hint of either condescension or amusement in Quartey's treatment of him. Dawson's life has been colored by the disappearance of his mother during his childhood.

In addition, he has a streak of violence he has not learned to control. His devotion to the use of marijuana, despite his wife's detestation of the habit, makes it a bit harder to like him as a character.

While Darko's family life is a vital part of the story, it never feels like the soap opera that, however charmingly it is done, is a major part of the appeal of Precious Ramotswe.

The story of Wife of the Gods is every bit as good and involving a mystery as those of, say, the Los Angeles mysteries of Michael Connelly or the Boston stories of Robert B. Parker.

The problem in reviewing the book is that if I recount or summarize the plot, I'll give you a false impression. The events are centered around the life of a village, and involve many deeply unsophisticated beliefs and practices. It will sound as if the book were some kind of medicinal injection of multiculturalism.

But that is almost the opposite of what Quartey is doing. He simply takes the setting for granted, and while readers certainly learn plenty about village life in Ghana (and city life, too), the book is not about that.

Instead, it's about the moral dilemmas that Darko must deal with, the maneuvering he must engage in to get to the bottom of the mystery, the political games he has to play. He has strong opinions -- he has no patience with beliefs that he thinks of as dangerous or cruel superstitions.

Indeed, by the standards of American university multiculturalism, Darko is far from being "tolerant" enough. He does not think that village folk beliefs are just as legitimate as the learning of western-style universities. He does not consider their medicine to be as "valid" as western medicine. He is not contemptuous of the people who have traditional beliefs, but he makes it clear that Darko cares only about what actually works and what is actually true.

Darko protects no favorites. He sets a standard of ruthless even-handedness that makes him unusual in his culture -- and, for that matter, in ours.

I listened to this book as read by Simon Prebble, one of the best readers working today; I downloaded it from Audible.com. Prebble's performance is nothing short of brilliant.

But you don't need Prebble's voice to make this an excellent book. I could hardly wait to get back to listening to it. Every page was enjoyable; there was nothing I wanted to skim.

On the one hand, I think the work of a good doctor has more social value than the work of any writer. On the other hand, I want more books from Kwei Quartey. How can I weigh my desire for powerful, well-wrought mysteries in the same scale with the need of southern Californians for good emergency medical care?

I'm not a good person. I want his next book, Children of the Street, and the next book after that. So sue me.

(See Quartey's website at http://www.kweiquartey.com.)


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