Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Careful Use of Compliments -- Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is perhaps best known for his internationally bestselling series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but the former University of Edinburgh law professor and self-proclaimed philosophy buff is truly at home with his collection of novels about Isabel Dalhousie and her Sunday Philosophy Club, of which The Careful Use of Compliments is the latest installment. Just as with his other series, McCall Smith's "detectives" are not in hot pursuit of dangerous killers, but rather of perpetrators of crimes against common social decencies.

Starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club and moving through Friends, Lovers, Chocolate and The Right Attitude to Rain, McCall Smith has created an endearing protagonist: with a dash of Miss Marple's curiosity and sparkling wit paired with the pride, generosity, and high spirits of a Jane Austen heroine, Isabel is the perfect character to curl up with on a rainy Scottish afternoon, even if the closest you've ever been to Scotland is your plaid prep school kilt. Flawed though she might be -- having an affair with her niece's ex-boyfriend ten years her junior being a prime example -- her insistence on pursuing the "good" and the "true" in her philosophical journal, her beloved Edinburgh, and in her own life always leads her towards the right solution.

That is, until now. In The Careful Use of Compliments, McCall Smith ventures farther afield than usual with his plot and characterization. The book starts out as long-time readers of the series will expect: Isabel has a new baby in tow, the result of her ongoing relationship with the handsome young bassoonist, Jamie; consequently, she must navigate the world of parenthood while under the watchful gaze of Grace, her overzealous housekeeper, and Cat, her niece who cannot quite stomach the thought of her aunt being "in the family way" and united with an ex-lover of her own. Isabel is also, as usual, quickly ensconced in a mystery: this time, she finds herself investigating potential art fraud after she loses a chance to purchase a painting by her favorite Scottish artist at a local auction house. However, as we find out early in the novel, Isabel faces a startling piece of news that will be a shock to loyal fans: she is being ousted as the editor of her beloved Review of Applied Ethics. With an inheritance of millions, Isabel isn't concerned about losing the income: "in her case she did not even depend on the tiny salary she drew as an editor, an honorarium, really. What, she wondered, would it be like to lose the job that brought food to the family table, as happened to people all the time? That was a sobering thought" (39, Pantheon Books 2007 edition). But it is the principle of the thing -- it simply isn't right, the callous way she's being treated!

And it is here that the differences begin. Isabel would usually engage in lengthy philosophical monologues on the subject of the moral injustice she's noticed, invoking the likes of Kant and Hume and even Bertrand Russell as she puzzles through to that "right solution." But she doesn't. Leaving her beloved great thinkers to the side, Isabel gets mad -- and the novel rapidly turns into a book version of a soap opera. Hell hath no fury, as they say, like a woman scorned, and Isabel not only demonstrates this but induces it in those around her. The mystery, usually at the center of the novel's action, takes a back seat to the storyline about Isabel's lost post and the drama surrounding her baby and her niece. At the end, Isabel has gotten so far away from her typical pattern of behavior that there is simply no choice but for McCall Smith to create another book to resolve the drama and disruption in what looks like a cheap ploy to hook in his readers for another $21.95 (at least, for the hardcover version).

Consequently, The Careful Use of Compliments is a disappointment when read in conjunction with the rest of the series. Though British philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously asserted that, as long as the amounts of pleasure are the same, "the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry" (The Rationale of Reward 206), there is a degree of pleasure lost when the intellectual aspects of these books are absent. What makes McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series so delightful is how it allows for readers to be swept up in the plot and characters and to be challenged to engage on a higher plane of thought; without the latter, the books are no different than scores of other dime-a-dozen romance novels. McCall Smith would be well-advised to make more careful use of his particular specialties in the future.

Final Verdict: **

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle -- Liza Campbell

What one search term in Google will get you more than 61 million hits while also earning the title of most popular book subject of all time? If you guessed Jesus, you're wrong -- it's Bill Shakespeare (though I'm still coming up short on a source for that second claim; anyone else heard that piece of trivia that can tell me who discovered it?). From wondering about his sexuality to determining if he actually wrote the plays for which he has become known and adored, we seem to be inevitably drawn to him as an enigma to puzzle over and enjoy. In her new memoir, Liza Campbell capitalizes on all this Shakespearean popularity; by coupling one rubber-necker subject with another -- family dysfunction -- she ensured that her book would be a gripping late-night read for the widest possible readership.

And a gripping read it is, indeed. Liza Campbell is also Lady Elizabeth Campbell, and A Charmed Life chronicles the erosion of her family due to the lunatic machinations of her father, Hugh Campbell, 25th Thane of Cawdor, and heir to the Macbeth legacy. On that note, however, Campbell hurriedly sets the record straight, reminding us in chapter one that "the house we lived in wasn't built until three hundred years after King Duncan's death...and furthermore, Duncan had not been killed in his sleep at all. [...] Even more surprisingly, given the lasting slur of the play, Macbeth was a popular king...[and] I felt proud to come from such an ancient, myth-wreathed place" (8-9, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). Despite the historical inaccuracies of Shakespeare's "Scottish play," as it has come to be known in theater circles, the effects of his characterization (Macbeth as hubris-ridden tyrant who succumbs to his own "vaulting ambition," in the words of the play itself) had significant impact upon the Cawdor thaneship. For centuries, the titled lords who reigned at this stony, isolated castle in the northern Scottish highlands were plagued by pride, greed, paranoia, and superstition -- the same ailments Shakespeare's Macbeth faced. Throughout her narrative, Campbell expertly weaves in shocking, sordid tales from the history of her fated family line, drawing parallels between bloody battles in the distant past to the turmoil within Cawdor she faced as a young child.

And bloody it was: Hugh Campbell's reign at Cawdor was filled with the stuff dreams are made of, except these dreams are a child's worst, most terrifying nightmares. From wrecking half a dozen sports cars by wrapping them around trees after driving drunk, to threatening to attack anyone who disagreed with him with his aikido skills, to smashing up every window at the family's hunting lodge along with hitting his wife so hard he "cracked the roots of her front teeth," leaving a "thin trail of blood along the carpet" for his young children to follow through the house (241-243, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition), Hugh lived up to every expectation of his anachronistically-portrayed ancestor. Liza's brutally honest depiction of their lives rushes us through the rollercoaster of fame, fortune, and folly as she comes to terms with her father's addictions, both to substances and to "supernatural solicitings" of entitlement (Shakespeare I.iii).

However, the book doesn't truly accomplish what Campbell set out to do. She tells us in her preface that a "writer friend" challenged her to "be sure of [the] underlying sentence" of her work: "'Everything should emanate from that. If the reader senses a firm foundation, they will trust digressions, but if they sence confusion, they will lose confidence in why they are reading'" (4, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). Campbell goes on to tell us that her book's "underlying sentence" is "'Papa was odd, but I got even'" (4, St. Martin's Press 2006 edition). The first part of this is certainly true, but her "firm foundation" suffers from a lack of the second. At the end of her memoir, Campbell leaves us with a profound tragedy for which there is no remedy: a family that was literally torn apart by a tyrannical patriarch. There is really no sense of comeuppance, no retributive justice, no last laugh at his expense; instead, Campbell and her titled siblings are left with the shattered pieces of Cawdor's past glory. Beginning A Charmed Life with this claim leaves us without the cathartic sense of Shakespeare's play: that justice, however brutal, will inevitably be served.

But this might just be the genius of Campbell's work, after all. The original British version of her memoir was called Title Deeds. Changing the title for her American audience by invoking one of Macbeth's last lines in the play creates a feeling of destiny; the quote from which it is taken reads "Let fall thy blades on vulnerable crests;/ I bear a charmed life which must not yield" (Shakespeare V.viii). Perhaps Campbell intends for us to carry this connection out to its logical conclusion: that she, like Macbeth, will not yield to the tragedy which seems to have befallen her family at every turn, and will fight to the death rather than admit defeat. In that sense, unlike her ruined father, Campbell certainly has gotten even.

Final verdict: ***