Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No.1 Ladies' Dectective Agency Review

I was disappointed by McCall Smith's Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations earlier in the year when it coquettishly suggested that its style and twists were similar to Dahl and it turned out to be a cock-tease.  But, I found The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency at a library booksale for 50 cents and I'd heard it was better so I decided to give it a try. It was better, but not by much.  The feeling I got the most while reading the book is that McCall Smith was writing what he thought his audience of middle-aged bored housewives would like rather than what he actually felt compelled to write.  It reminded me of Mitch Albom, but with some twisted form of feminism instead of Christianity. I say twisted because to me feminism is about equality and to McCall Smith it seems to be about man-bashing.  Interesting because he is, after all, a man.

To illustrate my point let me give you quick summaries of the first few chapters.   Needless to say it will contain spoilers.


Happy Bapetsi is a happy, hard-working woman.  She enters Mma "snap judgment" Ramotse's agency:
"She also had few worries--this was shown by the fact that there were no lines on her face, other than smile lines of course.  So it was man trouble, thought Mma Ramotse.  Some man has turned up and spoiled everything, destroying her happiness with his bad behavior."
Of course, Mma Ramotse is right and a man has shown up pretending to be her long-lost father to free load.  Mma Ramotse tricks him and chases him off.

From her father's POV.  He's a father-figure not a peer/love intrest so he's allowed to be a good, honest man.

Flashback: Mma Ramotse is a child in Sunday school.  A boy keeps unbuttoning his trousers in front of her.  She tells the Sunday School teacher who responds:
"Boys, men...They're all the same.  They think that this thing is something special and they're all so proud of it.  They do not know how ridiculous it is."
The Sunday school teacher, a woman, hits the boy over the head with a book and he learns his lesson.
Also, Mma Ramotse is very intelligent and good with numbers and wins an art competition and tells the truth even though it's difficult.

Flashback: Mma Ramotse is a teenager.  She falls for a handsome musician who she knows is bad news but she loves him so she marrys him anyway.  He turns out to be bad news.  He beats her for being pregnant and leaves her.

Are you starting to see a theme here?  Then the book picks up on solving cases in the present.  Her first case is a missing husband whom she assumes to be cheating but turns out to be dead.  Mma Ramotse presents the bad news to the wife and says that she must be sorry, her response?: "A bit, but I have lots to do"

The rest of the cases are as follows: cheating husband, over-protective father, husband steals car and good wife feels guilty, cheating husband, lazy man tries to trick boss, rich and powerful man dabbles in voodoo, greedy man endangers lives, and witch doctor kidnaps boy.

There are a few men who are painted in a positive light, but the ONLY woman painted in a negative light is the witch doctor's wife who is only bad through her connection to a man.  I think Desperate House Wives has more feminism in it for crying out loud.  At least they portray well-rounded characters who live in gray areas.  This black and white good and bad is not only boring it's poor character development.  There isn't a single character in there who isn't a stereotype including the supposed protagonist Mma Ramotse the fat, motherly, no-nonsense woman who uses her feminine intuition to get by.  Really?  McCall Smith, really?

This is a book that women are supposed to read to feel good about themselves.  It portrays men as the source of all women's trouble so they can blame their problems on others.  It contains descriptions of Botswana throughout so the reader can feel good about being multicultural.  All the cases are solved easily.  All the characters are clear-cut.  It's like McCall Smith is saying "Don't worry ladies, let me do all that pesky thinking for you."  The one thing I respected him for was that he had the balls to kill a child, but he even wussed out on that one in the end.

The thing I disliked most about this book? The fact that it made me feel compelled to defend men.  I am in no mood to be defending men right now.  How dare you make me point out the fact that not all men are lazy, cheating low life McCall Smith!  I need to be able to hate men right now and you're ruining it for me with heavy-handedness, curses!

Overall it's a fine book if you're not overly-fond of thinking and want something breezy to fuel your man-hating fire at your next girl's night out. It's competently written and I'm probably over-analyzing what is meant to be  a beach read, but that's just who I am.  It falls under a category I like to call "chewing gum for the mind" because it will keep you occupied without providing any nutritional value. I just don't like chewing gum.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Advice on life from MLIS textbooks

I was reading one of my textbooks, Text Information Retrieval Systems, and I was surprised to come across this philosophical reflection on human nature in what is largely a dry text that spends most of its time making my head hurt with math equations and computer programming discussion: 

"In most human endeavors it is desirable to begin with a clear understanding of the objective.  Yet, we often do not.  We marry, buy houses, design software, undertake writing assignments, and certainly begin searches for information without necessarily knowing exactly what we want to accomplish."

So now, in addition to borning me and making my head hurt my textbook is condescending to me.  GREAT!  I also like how they put getting married on equal footing wtih doing homework.  Is it just me or do the authors of this text have some weird priorities?

Meadow, C. T., Boyce, B. R., Kraft, D. H., & Barry, C. (2008). Text Information Retrieval Systems. United Kingdom: Emerald.

Monday, October 19, 2009

If I Only Had a Job

I could while away the hours, working for the powers
helping your average slob.
And computer keys I'd be tappin' while
purchases I'd be trackin'
If I only had a job.

I'd help solve any trouble for any indivud'le
With a heartache or a sob.
With the people you'd be helpin'
you could be another Halprin*
If you only had a job.

Oh I could help you buy books that wouldn't bore.
I could show you things you've never seen before.
And then I'd sit and show you more.

I would not be just a nothin' my resume full of bluffin'
And throat full with a sob.
I would shop and be happy, Life would be so light and snappy
If I only had a job.

*Yeah I made an obscure reference to a modern dancer to fit the rhyme scheme.  I have a degree in theatre. Deal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making assumptions about patrons: thoughts on my readings for library school

“For example, Hauptman queried whether reference librarians would provide information on building a car bomb, and Dowd questioned whether reference librarians would or should provide information on freebasing cocaine. The underlying question was whether reference librarians can be totally neutral in the performance of their duties, or whether social consequences of the information should be considered." (Rubin, 2004 p. 325)

I was surprised to find this passage in Rubin. In my opinion not providing information to the best of your abilities in the above situations would violate the first two principles of the ALA code of ethics:
We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

In addition, maybe it's just my tendency to want to believe the best of people but if someone approached me at the reference desk asking me how to freebase cocaine my first thought would not be that the patron intended to use the information to get high. There are legitimate research reasons as to why someone might want to know this, as well as just basic human curiosity that can be purely intellectual without leading to any action.

For example, in my undergrad I took a folklore class and I wrote a paper about the graffiti found in the study desks of the University library. The paper included observations based on my recording of the graffiti as well as delving into the study of graffiti in general. I have never engaged in the activity myself nor do I have any intention of doing so, and I was not condoning the act in my paper. I worked at the library and I naturally wanted it to look nice and be free of many of the vulgarities written on the desks. However, by studying the graffiti I was able to discover many interesting things about the student body of the university.

Given that there could be reasons other than a proclivity towards criminal activity that may provoke such questions, how is the librarian supposed to determine whether or not the information should be provided? By stereotyping based on the appearance or other characteristics of the patron whether their intentions are good or bad? By requiring a note from a professor supervising the paper? By asking the patron (in which case what kind of idiot would admit to intent to commit an illegal act)?

The first method would clearly not be acting in an ethical and unbiased way. The second and third method would violate the third principle in the ALA code of ethics, dealing with patron privacy. If this last method is employed what is the likelihood of the patron returning to the reference desk for help in the future if they know they can expect invasive personal questions as to why the information is desired and accusatory looks? Given these difficulties regarding determining what a patron intends to do with information and the commitment of librarians to provide equal access to information and fight censorship I personally do not see how I could justify doing anything other than answering the patron’s question to the best of my abilities. I understand that there are conflicts here, but there is the potential of violating the first three principles of the ALA code of ethics, principles which I value highly and have contributed to my desire to join the profession. I don’t see how a vague, possible, harm could justify breaking all three of these principles. Am I prioritizing different values in doing this? I just don’t get it.

Rubin, R. E. (2004). Foundations of library and information science. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

American Library Association (2008, January 22). Code of ethics of the American library association. Retrieved from