Tag Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

A Measure of Light: The Audacity of Belief


Ask yourself if there is a cause or belief you would die to serve. Or what your death might accomplish for this cause. Hardly speculative questions in our contemporary moment. Where Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light departs from the present of this reader is, well, the setting and plot: 17th century Puritan New England and the emergence of the Quaker movement. Less obviously, it departs in the sense that those who die for their beliefs do so not as suicides where bodies are the available weapons, but rather those who die for their beliefs are killed by the state for holding beliefs that are deemed so threatening, so challenging as to be violently and publicly killed. It’s a grammar slip there, you’ll notice, between the belief being killed and the person. And one worth noticing.

Our protagonist, historical figure Mary Dyer, is killed by the Boston officials that see her views of God (as accessible to all with equal access and without the intercedence of the Church) as heretical and threatening to the socio-political (and importantly economic) well-being of the region. So while she and several of her Friends are publicly hanged, their deaths do not accomplish the aims of the state in that the belief cannot be killed by killing the person. Or at least not easily. Rather, as Powning’s narrative suggests, Mary Dyer the martyr does more to raise the profile of the belief in their death than she does in her actively proselytizing life.

A Measure of Light is a fascinating read for its unravelling of the development of the Quaker movement and its portrait of New England life. It’s a rich (and beautifully written) exploration of what it means to hold beliefs with such conviction and the consequences both for the individual life, but for the family and community of that individual. It’s perhaps even more interesting – at least for me – in its representation of women and women’s bodies in this period. Mary’s journey through faith is irrevocably marked by the death of her three-day old child and the subsequent still-birth of her premature child as she and her community view these tragedies as evidence of her damned soul. I admit, as an atheist and 2015 reader, that I struggled to empathize with her conviction that it was God that spoke through her (markedly female) body, but what I could understand and relate to – only to well – was the feeling of my body, and its interpretation, as outside my control and dominion. The sense that others read what women’s bodies do – and don’t do – in questions about when (not if) these bodies will have children, in how (not whether) these bodies will be held up against impossible standards of beauty and in the sexualization and objectification of these bodies at every turn. So while the patriarchal source might be different – God – the experience of a distorted and disturbed relationship between the self and the body is all too recognizable.

All this to say, that between the resonant and provocative questions about the power of religious conviction to drive (violent) action and the representation of women’s bodies as sites for public debate, A Measure of Light is an exemplary piece of historical fiction, doing what historical fiction does best in representing the past in a way that allows us to better understand our present experience. Given the preponderance of historical fiction in Canadian literature (and no, I’m not just saying that because it’s my thing) and the attention this genre tends to get in awards season, I’d flag A Measure of Light as one likely to come up in discussions of best’s of this year.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction

The Sunday Philosophy Club: Meh.


So my office has a shelf of donated books that we exchange with one another, and last week I found myself – unusually and unexpectedly – without a book in my bag, so I picked up Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, having heard good things about The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and being keen to work on my “spies and detectives” category. Let this be a lesson in choosing books: do not choose out of expediency and do not choose out of the vague remembrance that someone once said the author was “okay.” Let it also be a lesson to always have an emergency-back-up-just-in-case-the-bus-breaks-down-or-your-meeting-is-cancelled book.

The Sunday Philosophy Club suffers from boring characters and so an unengaging – and it’s a mystery! – plot. I struggled to care whether Isobel was murdered in the night, was profoundly indifferent to whether the murder was solved because I didn’t get to know the victim and didn’t believe Isobel was all that interested in being a detective in the first place, and was annoyed by Isobel’s niece, Cat, in no small part because she’s named Cat, but more precisely because she “pops round for tea”: I distrust characters who show up without invitation.

It’s true I didn’t care about the mystery because Isobel is boring and her investigatory skills are suspect, but it’s also true that I didn’t care because Isobel doesn’t seem to care. Every chapter she vacillates between absolute commitment (a moral imperative, she thinks) to investigate the crime and a willingness to drop it altogether because it makes people uncomfortable. What made me uncomfortable was her apparent willingness to do all this investigating as if she had license to do so. Rogue detective!

Other point of annoyance:the so-called “philosophical” basis of the novel are Isobel’s occasional musings on the ethics of particular situations. She considers the ethical principles of lying and seems surprised when she receives articles for her journal about lying: is this a coincidence she wonders? Well of course it isn’t. McCall Smith must think we’re thematic dopes for this, and other, heavy handed displays of the moral and thematic questions. Hint for the the thematically uninitiated: the book is about deception!

Finally, I don’t like that the red herring woman is named Minty. I don’t know why. I just don’t.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, Mystery

Portuguese Irregular Verbs: Funny.


Portuguese Irregular Verbs is weird. It’s short (and so on the ‘short’ list), and is also a collection of short stories (sort of). A collection of short stories featuring the same character – a professor von Inglesomething. I liked the collection because it followed one character, and I found the character charming.

Professor von Ingelwhatever studies Portuguese irregular verbs. Not surpising the book offers something of a critique of the overly specialized work of academics and the way that academic life sustains itself with irrelevant, introspective conferences and books wherein everyone reads on another (or probably don’t) in order to be seen reading one another and asking questions about one another when really everyone is only concerned (at all) with their own prestige and self-importance. Inhale. So funny, yes, but perhaps a little close to home, too.

Total fluff, too.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Funny