This Week's Reads

Alexander McCall Smith, Joshua Furst, and Hollis Hampton-Jones.


By Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, $19.95) For most of us in the West, Africa signifies vast calamity beyond comprehension, let alone hope. But for Alexander McCall Smith, an Edinburgh professor of medical law who grew up in Zimbabwe and lived in Botswana, it is the heart of lightness and the cozy home of more dear hearts and gentle people than Lake Wobegon, Minn. Smith's books starring his kindly, rotund heroine, Precious Ramotswe, founder of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, are only nominally detective novels: Their pace is rural, their mysteries transparent, their suspense negligible. But it's hard not to fall in love with the characters and yearn to share their way of life. Kalahari, the fourth in Smith's series, ambles among its subplots with bovine nonchalance, unworried that none of them really constitutes a plot in the conventional, goal-oriented sense. Will Precious, well shed of her garbage-dick jazzman ex-husband, ever get proposed to by Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the decent but slow-going owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors? Can her detective agency survive the challenge of a new, rival firm run by a cocky half-Zulu man? (Precious is Motswana, and though she wouldn't say so out loud, she considers Zulus, "well, pushy or, if one were a bit more charitable, self- confident.") Will her colleague Makutsi, the assistant manager of both Speedy Motors and the detective agency, manage to land a man, despite being plain? Can Precious sleuth out one client's cheating spouse and another's long-lost love? And what happens when Makutsi starts the titular typing school and discovers one student is hot for teacher? Unflappably, Precious solves all in her own sweet time, pausing to skewer human foibles with barbs as gentle as a dewy grass blade or the Christian fiction of Jan Karon. When Precious consults a sensible local gossip about her foster son's patch of bad behavior, the gossip says, "Boys do go through times like that. It can last for 50 years." And so, one suspects, can Botswana's No. 1 detective. TIM APPELO Alexander McCall Smith will read at Seattle Mystery Bookshop (117 Cherry St., 206-587-5737), noon Mon., July 28; and University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400; tickets required), 7 p.m. Mon., July 28. SHORT PEOPLE

By Joshua Furst (Knopf, $23) For debut short-story writer Joshua Furst, as for other young talents like him, dysfunctionalism has become a tar baby that adheres too tightly. It sticks to every original phrase or observation; it goos up the narrative; it resolutely clings to all our cultural expression, saying "more, more, more" because it's always got more to give. There's no end to it; there are always lower depths to which families can sink. Dysfunctionalism has become the Marianas Trench of American literature. The 10 stories in Short Peoplewhich, yes, takes its title from the Randy Newman songcover a gamut of dysfunctionalism. Having worked in N.Y.C.'s public schools, Furst is a compassionate writer when it comes to the messed-up lives of kids (and the parents who got them that way). In "The Good Parents," perhaps the best among this collection, the son of over-permissive hippies tastes the forbidden fruit: "TV was helping us . . . if we logged enough surreptitious hours, the massive assimilating force behind them would shove all our weirdness and eccentricities into a cellar where no one could see them." Gradually unfettering himself from Evangelicalism, an adolescent in "This Little Light" learns to masturbate: "[He's] 89 pounds of sensation. Proudly, triumphantly, he makes the stain. It looks and tastes like snot." Furst remembers the teasing, the taste of Starbursts, the allure of Garbage Pail kids and early Madonna; he doesn't ever condescend to his subject. But there's a certain overearnest social-worker vibe at work here. If possible, Furst cares too much about his characters. He's so intent on respecting their inherent trammeled dignity that the full fun of misbehavior never quite registers. He does a great job describing the social politics of a kegger in "Mercy Fuck" but fails to let the scene relax and sprawlas Richard Linklater did so brilliantly in his '70s movie Dazed and Confused. Furst ends most of these pieces with a seemingly unrelated case-study file entry, a proleptic snapshot in pathos and pathology that seems annoyingly random. It's an irritating device only explained in the penultimate story, by which time you're wishing the author, only 32, would settle down and tackle one thing, one set of characters, one time and place at length. He's probably got an '80s coming-of-age novel in himif he could just realize that in a world of dysfunctionalism, the most interesting characters are dysfunctioning just fine. BRIAN MILLER Joshua Furst will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., July 28. VICIOUS SPRING

By Hollis Hampton-Jones (Riverhead, $21.95) Christy's what my mom would call a "nowhere kid," meaning she's headed nowhere in life. The 18-year-old has made it through high school, but she spends the summer smoking pot with her dad in the bathroom, having sex and getting high with older men she barely knows, and generally loathing herself. She moves out of her messed-up family's Nashville home and in with a boyfriend who respects her even less than she respects herself. Soon she's doing lap dances at the strip club where he works as a security guard. Her lot in life seems a clichéweak father figure, Bible-thumping mother, deadbeat boyfriend, coke habit. A scary thought is that maybe it's not cliché at all, but a light shone on a Middle American reality that we'd prefer to ignore. If Christy's life sounds dismal, it is. Yet, amazingly, debut novelist Hollis Hampton-Jones delivers Christy's story without an ounce of pity. Instead, we have a thoughtful portrait of a girl finding her womanhood and learning to respect herself in the unlikeliest of places: Nashville's seedy nudie bars. Hampton-Jones' prose is immediate and clear. Christy's voice seems authentica mixture of self-deprecating humor, resigned fatalism, and untouchable purity. Christy's maturation stems in part from finding real lovewhich is, perhaps ironically, backstage among her fellow dancers. Unsurprisingly, this discovery comes only after she learns to detest the men for whom she shakes her ass. KATIE MILLBAUER

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