Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
New words (to me):
• perjink – precise, neat (when you google this word, Merriam Webster asks where you found it – it isn’t used much!)
• Status Guilt – Being born into the structures of oppression because of an inherent characteristic (being male or white, for example). Nothing to do with choice or how you think or feel.
• mahlstick (or maulstick) – a stick used by painters as a rest for the hand while working
I love these books. When most people hear Alexander McCall Smith, they think No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. That’s a fun series (and I’ve read them all) but my favorite McCall Smith series is this one (the 44 Scotland Street series). These are annual novels compiled from his serialized (daily) stories in The Scotsman (an Edinburgh newspaper). They are charming, funny, and full of characters with both typical and atypical problems and opinions — a social commentary full of history, culture, and personality pulled from the lives of the varied inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street. This is the 12th in the series — if you haven’t read any I would start with the first just for the sheer pleasure of it, but you could easily start anywhere and not miss a thing as the author excels at providing context without extensive rehash. A sample of characters include the Pollacks — Stuart the mild mannered statistician, his ultra feminist, Melanie Klein devotee wife Irene, and their erudite and lovable son, Bertie; the artist Angus Lordie and his gold-toothed, lager slurping, dog Cyril; Domenica MacDonald, anthropologist; and Matthew Duncan, unassuming gallery owner and new father of triplets.
McCall Smith is a beautifully fluid writer. He is able to depict an entire way of thinking or the crux of a troubling situation with a single phrase. In some cases he turns this ability towards humor, as when one person tells another that one has a “civic duty not to stink.” In other cases he turns this talent to describe the core element involved in some larger issue — in this book, extreme versions of political correctness. This includes discussions (from multiple perspectives) of the need for Safe Spaces, the freedom to both have and express a different and perhaps unpopular opinion, and the skills or attributes that should be most highly valued when assessing multiple candidates for a position.
This last was explored in more detail as Stuart Pollack, the epitome of a mild mannered, amiable, and highly competent statistician working for the government, goes up against two less qualified women for a well-deserved promotion. His wife Irene — the caricature of an uber-feminist who does not think highly of her husband or of men in general, nevertheless wants to help him attain this promotion as they need the money. She explains that his being highly qualified for the position is of no help because “You have used your inherent advantages to claim contested territory.” She further explains that “The least well-qualified person in terms of diplomas and degrees and whatever might be the best-qualified in terms of social goals — in terms of how an appointment may progress the objective of a fairer society.” In her view, the age of meritocracy is dead and not soon enough! I was so impressed with the way McCall Smith could capture the essence of a (to me) troubling viewpoint! I am completely in favor of a meritocracy with ongoing efforts aimed at establishing a fair distribution of opportunities for people to develop that merit!
Let me hasten to add that most of McCall Smith’s female characters are wonderful. He is one of the few male authors whose female characters don’t make me cringe. I admire his courage in taking on some of the more ridiculous fringes of political correctness in this book. His characteristic kindness and desire for Civility (with a capital C) comes through the pages as he tries to show multiple perspectives about the evolution of societal norms.