by Sukey HowardJanuary 2009
The comforts of Alexander McCall Smith
Having weathered the election and the holidays, I think we're entitled to the kind of comfort that comes from listening to a favorite author spin a signature tale. Isabel Dalhousie makes another most welcome appearance in The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, the fifth in Alexander McCall Smith's leisurely paced series of mild-mannered, thought-inducing mysteries (no grit, no gore, no guns) set in Edinburgh. Now the owner and editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel is her own best disciple, applying ethics as she takes on dicey issues or, as she puts it herself, gives in to her penchant for nosiness. The problem that's landed in her lap this time is the ruined reputation of a good doctor and suspicion of wrongful doings by a powerful pharma. Isabel, so wonderfully evinced in Davina Porter's burr-burnished narration, is a total charmer, a smart, independent 40-something with a handsome, much younger, bassoon-playing beau who's the father of her sweet toddler, Charlie. Isabel's curiosity about everyone she meets and her strikingly civil insights, liberally sprinkled with quotes from W.H. Auden, make her the next best thing to Precious Ramotswe.
They've got your number
Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, Big Brother is crunching you. And in our digitally propelled universe, you really can't hide—your preferences and predilections, how you vote, shop, read, travel, make a date, pick a mate, choose a movie or a rental car are quantifiable from the data trail you leave on your computer, cell phone, credit card and more. Just who is analyzing what is all laid out in Stephen Baker's own very accessible analysis, The Numerati, narrated with smooth, understated understanding by Paul Michael Garcia. There's an almost bottomless sea of data out there—in one month, Yahoo, for example, accumulates 110 billion pieces of information about its customers—useless unless people with the right smarts can summon meaning from it. The numerati (mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists) have those smarts, and by collaborating with all sorts of experts in other fields, are beginning to make the first predictive models of humanity. How it impacts us now and how it will increasingly impact and direct our future is a revelation; fascinating and a bit scary, but intelligence from the edge of the cutting edge we all need.
Mystery maven alert
Don't miss Joe Mantegna's reading of Robert B. Parker's latest Spenser caper, Rough Weather.
One can only hope that Balram Halwai, the hero/anti-hero of Aravind Adiga's debut, Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, is not totally typical of those who have made it in India's new IT-powered boom. He's a go-getter par excellence, a man of low caste from the heart of India's "darkness," who's pulled himself out of miserable servitude and into the light of successful entrepreneurship in Bangalore; he's also a self-confessed and unrepentant murderer. Balram refers quite matter-of-factly to the bloody event early in his tale of moving from scrubbing filthy tearoom floors in his village to becoming a driver for a wealthy young businessman in Delhi. But the details come later after we've seen what his excoriating eyes have seen—a culture that thrives on corruption, a wildly inequitable society where caste structure, fear and hopelessness keeps millions caged in grinding poverty. John Lee's pitch-perfect, Indian-accented narration gives Balram a voice that makes his incisive, black-humored take on contemporary Indian society compelling, real and riveting. I read the book before I listened to the audio and, this time, the audio wins hands down.