Review of Miami Morning by Steve Lindahl

Miami Morning by Mary Clark is the story of an ordinary person, a teacher, Leila Payson, who finds a purpose that defines her life. The novel is exceptional in a number of areas, one of which is the beautiful way Clark describes Miami from the context of the issues on the narrator’s mind. Here’s an excerpt that is a good example of what I mean:

She trotted beside lacy borders of waves washing ashore, intoxicated by the sharp scent of iodine and mineral aroma of fresh-churned sand. The rolling waves made her think of the invisible waves that traveled between human beings and while the ocean waves were strong and substantial, and still carried an insistent power as they neared the shore, they were nothing compared to the magnificent intricacies and complexity of human interaction and communication. And we are only just beginning to learn how that works, Leila reminded herself.

When Leila started her career, she had her struggles. But she took advice that she needed and she grew from experience. By the time the story starts, she is considered one of the best teachers in her school by the critics who matter most, her students.

Read more on Steve Lindahl’s blog

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Have You Applied Your Ethics Today?

Alexander McCall Smith’s Famous Female Characters

We can think and act ethically in various ways. In his two series featuring female characters, Alexander McCall Smith illustrates this. One approach, in the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries series, is to “stop and think” before acting. This creates an interruption in the flow of events. The other, in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, involves a continuous evaluation and adjustment which can become almost seamless.

There are problems with the “stop and think” ethics, as McCall Smith notes. Isabel Dalhousie often makes the right decision for the wrong reasons. This happens because she doesn’t, and can’t know all the information about another person and the particular situation they’re in. In the last book of the series, she doesn’t have an important piece of information, but the person, Jane, she’s helping does. Jane learns that her supposed father is infertile. The other part that Isabel has not taken into account is Jane’s psychological processes. All Isabel knows is what Jane told her: she wants to find her father. Isabel doesn’t put herself into the other’s shoes, that is, an act of consciousness, and so she doesn’t imagine other possibilities. Now, this is not always true; sometimes she imagines other scenarios, but these are based on a reworking of the facts and perhaps a few psychological clues. These imaginings are usually far-fetched, almost artificially-induced, one might say, rather than organic (nurtured without artificial methods). So she is caught unaware of Jane’s acceptance of the “false” father and her re-focus on her mother. In time, this may not be enough for Jane, as McCall Smith hints. David Hume said that philosophical statements, ideas, theories would be best linked to psychological processes. This is what Isabel is missing, what she struggles with. In fact, she struggles with empathy.

Isabel’s quick, unexamined assessment of others has led her to be uncharitable. When she learns to “stop and think” it keeps her from jumping to conclusions, based on assumptions. She learns to question her assumptions. She grants, cerebrally, that others have a point of view and that their reasoning may be plausible. This helps her begin to develop a sense of what might be going on with other people. It’s a poor substitute for empathy, or compassion, but in her case leads toward developing these capacities.

There’s another way to become more just and charitable toward oneself and others. McCall Smith comes closer to this with Mma Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mma Ramotswe is alert to, aware of, what is going on within herself and with the people around her. She is continuously evaluating and re-evaluating her thoughts, feelings, actions and their consequences, and information gained from her relationships. She is naturally empathetic, but has learned to use her reasoning ability to temper her emotions and perceptions. She monitors her subliminal stream of consciousness, as well as her conscious thoughts. With her the process of stop and think is not one of interruption. Her reflection and evaluation, and then adjustment, is ongoing, and integrated into the flow. It appears to be natural, or intuitive.

What causes this difference in the two characters? David Turnbull (No Dangerous Thoughts) points out that Isabel is alienated from other people. Isabel is “part of the privileged wealthy class who don’t have to work to make a living. Part of her problem is that it doesn’t come naturally to her to live ethically and her musings about that are part of her effort to overcome her basic alienation.”Mma Ramotswe, however, is “very attuned to the people around her.” Her thoughts are not only ethical, but often spiritual.

Mma Ramotswe grew up in a village, and goes out in the world to deal with people every day. She has suffered through an abusive relationship and the death of a child, both events that could have left her alienated, but her father’s compassion enables her to re-establish her self-respect and purpose again. Mma Ramotswe is integrated in her own life, while Isabel is not — or not yet, because she is striving for the integration of love, community, work, and purpose that  make life worth living.

A Time To Mow & Other Stories

There is austerity and mystery in A Time To Mow, by Zdravka Evtimova, where the pen is the scythe in the reaper’s hand. These modern gothic tales rage over a harsh land like storm winds with passion and desire.

Her warts-and-all characters, vivid imagery and use of metaphors, evoke a world reminiscent of Chaucer’s old England, mixed terribly with Brave New World. In a constrained society where options are few, women are the ones who assess the value of those around them, bring change and create relationships. Evtimova’s women have strong sex drives and rebellious spirits, but most live in rural, poor areas of Bulgaria where young men are either married or trapped by physical or social limitations. The old decaying villages and agricultural life are described in both grim and starkly beautiful detail. Contrasted with this arid land is the wild abandon of youth. This is exemplified by the title story, “A Time To Mow,” and later in several other stories where the author takes the motif to its extreme.

These young women have no role model to guide them in their womanhood, other than the older women whose relationships have often failed. The married women are either abandoned for another woman or widowed. Some of the women are in abusive relationships. How they respond to this leads to several twists in the stories. One of the most effective of these is told from the male point of view.

Although many of the women are fixated on finding a man, they do so with fierce integrity. They continuously evaluate their motivations and behavior with an honesty that is refreshing and allows them to move through life with youthful innocence.

Read more of my review at: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/632806349