*** Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest installment in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Precious and Grace stars a lost dog, a revengeful Canadian who was born in Botswana and is looking for her roots, and sober reflections on Mma Makutsi’s pushy maneuverings. As always, Mma Ramotswe will untangle everything through a mix of careful observations and random luck. A perfect reflection on the fallibility of memories.

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** I’ll Sell You A Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos

 

I’ll Sell You A Dog is the absurdist story of a writer and retired taco seller, now living in a retirement home and busy fighting cockroaches, his nosy neighbor, and the coterie of the book club that meets in the lobby. The story unfolds in crafty flashbacks with inventive, incongruous details, but the wild originality did not quite go the distance for me.

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* The Wangs Vs. The World

The Wangs Vs. The World attempts to be a madcap road trip of a freshly bankrupted family from its no-longer home in Los Angeles to upstate New York, where the older daughter lives in a house that may be the only asset that escaped repossession. The five members of the family are appropriately different to generate all kinds of adventures, but I found it very difficult to find  the tediously spoiled younger daughter, the romantically confused, hipster older daughter, the financially ambitious stepmother, the stereotypical entrepreneur-father, or even the sweet, sentimental son.

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*** The Rise And Fall Of American Growth by Robert Gordon

I somewhat hesitate to give three stars to The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War because it is a mammoth tome, with almost 700 pages of text, it ponderously tells you what it’s going to tell you, tells you, then summarizes what it told you, and it is replete with eye-blurring tables filled with numbers. In brief: it’s written by an economist, and it’s geeky.

But it’s surprisingly readable, and entirely fascinating, as it traces the changes in the way Americans live since 1870. While the author’s conclusion (hammered again and again through the book!) that most progress took place before 1940 and will never occur again is not entirely convincing, it is at least based on facts, or rather numbers. The beauty of the book is in the systematic exploration of the events behind the numbers, especially those aspects that are hard to capture.To take an easy example, our cars are much safer than the cars of the 50s, but car ownership or even car costs do not necessarily reflect that. The author seems to have delved into every aspect of our lives, informing us that horses were not only slow at 6 miles per hour, but also had a very limited range (25 miles) — and of course generated very visible and smellable byproducts, or that telephone operators were asked for the time of day or football scores throughout the day, serving as a primitive internet.

I highly recommend you give this book a try to measure the vast differences between life in the late 19th century and today’s. Having to carry, literally, tons of water (before indoor plumbing), being too cold or too hot (before effective heating and air-conditioning), being isolated from people more than a couple miles away (before cars, planes, phones, the internet) seems like a totally different world.

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** Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

Mister Monkey reads as a series of short stories, each focusing on a different character loosely associated with a mediocre production of a children’s play of the same name.  The style is engaging but the structure feels a bit forced. And don’t expect too much depth although it is peppered with perceptive observations about the plight of the new teacher forced into political correctness, or the young actor who does not quite know what to do with his feeling for adult actresses.

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*** Monument Men by Robert Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History could easily be a sugary, romanced story of American heroism during WWII — but it is not, although it occasionally paints (;)) a Manichean picture of Nazi actions and characters.

It tells the story of a small group of men (all men, alas, although some of the crucial supporting characters are women)  who were tasked with locating, identifying, and returning art work stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. With a tiny team and scarce resources, they visited hidden caches in private cellars as well as vast salt mines transformed into enormous warehouses, exploiting the well-kept records of the Nazis while needing to gain the trust of the victims who had learned to resist and conceal and were often, understandably, leery of sharing their secrets. The author chose to draw vivid portraits of the men and included personal correspondence between them and their families, which gives glimpses of everyday life during the war, both for soldiers and the families back home. Well done.

(If you are worried that FT Books has succumbed to rating inflation in the new year, fear not. I just read a wonderful series of wonderful books. I remain unafraid to assign one-star ratings when deemed necessary!)

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*** If Our Bodies Could Talk by James Hamblin

If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body seems to be innocently structured as a series of questions and answers about our bodies (e.g. “How much sleep do I need?”) and indeed some question-answer pairs are perfectly short and sweet. But other questions are just setups for occasionally lengthy and usually passionate rants against fad diets,  supplements, energy drinks, and irrational fears of vaccines and cell phones. If you suspect that the food industry and the medical field may not have your best interests at heart, read this book, which is written by a physician turned journalist.

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