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Book Report: Detecting in Botswana, viewing Blue Earth's basin on this week's list

My wife and I have several friends who are enamored of Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith, author of several series of books, including the "The Isabel Dalhousie," the "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" series, the "Corduroy Mansion" series and the "44 Scotland Street" series. Most especially they like his "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series.

Last year, HBO made the latter into a television series. After we watched the first episode, we never missed one.

And so when Smith's "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" (Pantheon, $24.95) came across my desk, I jumped right in.

Now I'm enamored. It's Smith's 12th book in the series and again features his African detective, Precious Ramotswe, a kindly detective who operates the first ladies' detective agency in Botswana.

Precious is a big woman, or, as she puts it, "traditionally built" -- so traditionally built that her new husband, the very likeable Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the best mechanic in Botswana, has tired of replacing the shocks in her old pickup and has bought her a new vehicle, which she uses to get around the countryside as she pursues the cases that come her way.

Cases in this installment: Two cows belonging to Mr. Botsalo Moeti have been killed. Also, it appears that Charlie, her husband's mechanic apprentice may have gotten a girl pregnant and has run away.

One of the charming characters is the prim secretary in the office of Precious, Grace Matusi, who is very proud of her grade point average at the local vo-tech school. She's about to marry the well-off but shy Phuti Radiphuti. When she unexpectedly kisses him he jumps back. In typical fussbudget fashion Grace wonders if he may be gay, although no one in Botswana would ever bring up such a subject.

All good problems for Precious, whose heft is only matched by her kindness and sensitivity. She has had problems of her own, including a former husband who was a cad, nothing like the estimable Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Speedy Motors, the best repair shop in Botswana.

Entertainment Weekly explains McCall's charms: "The pleasure of these sweet books lies in the clarity and gravity with which the characters reason through everyday dilemmas."

That's nowhere more obvious in a passage in his new book when she considers her husband's question about why women like to shop and men don't:

"She smiled. There was much that men simply did not understand, but she had never been much concerned about this lack of understanding. Indeed in her view it was one of the things that made men so appealing. There were men's things and then there were women's things. The list of which was not written in stone, and it was quite possible for a woman to enter the world of men -- and the other way round -- but she saw no point in denying that women liked to do certain things and men liked to do other things. Nor did she doubt that these preferences were one of the reasons why women liked men and men liked women. So it was perfectly possible that there were men who liked shopping, and who understood exactly what it was all about, but ... Ramotswe had yet to meet such a man. Maybe they existed elsewhere -- in France, perhaps -- but they did not seem to be much in evidence in Botswana."


On the regional scene, we have a beautiful and thought-provoking book, "The Perennial Land," by Lansing Shepard and Paula Westmoreland (Perennial Land Press, $34.95 paper). The book is studded with wonderful, romantic pictures of woodlands and wildlife.

And where are the pictures taken? In Minnesota's Blue Earth Basin, not exactly my idea of woodlands and wildlife.

My wife's family is from the area and our trips there usually cause depression. Fields of soybeans and corn, corn and soybeans. No fences. No animals.

One of my wife's cousins has to retire his land every few years to plant Sudan grass, then plow it under in an attempt to add tilth to the soil, hardened by years and years of row cropping.

Shephard and Westmoreland are environmentalists who insist that parts of this breadbasket can be returned to an earlier type of farming, thus halting the spill of junk in to the Blue Earth River, which roils in to the Minnesota River and eventually ends up in the "dead zone" of the Gulf of Mexico.

A very inspiring part of the book comes at the end when the authors profile many area farmers who have come to see the advantages of slowing down.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.