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    Short Takes

    ‘Smoke Signals’; ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’; ‘What in God’s Name’

    Where’d You Go, Bernadette

    Maria Semple

    Little, Brown

    336 pp. $25.99

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    Living in a leaky, crumbling brick heap atop a hill full of Seattle’s ubiquitous Craftsman houses, former architecture wunderkind Bernadette Fox is slowly falling apart. Borderline agoraphobic, she has outsourced her daily errands to a disembodied personal assistant in India (whom she pays 75 cents an hour). She never volunteers at her daughter Bee’s private school — an outrageous act in conscientious Seattle, which she vaguely hates for its slow drivers, earnestness, and Dale Chihuly chandeliers. Her inventor husband, Elgin, is preoccupied with his work at Microsoft, where he’s a superstar (“his is the fourth-most-watched TEDTalk of all time”). It’s not until a family trip to Antarctica goes awry that Elgin and Bee really notice what’s going on with Bernadette; by the time they do, she’s vanished.

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    Quilted together by the self-aware (but never precious) Bee from letters, e-mails, and articles, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a pure pleasure. Semple turns a satiric eye on Seattle’s do-gooder PTA types and idealistic world-changers alike, but at the book’s heart is the sympathetic, conflicted character of Bernadette, an imperfect wife, mother, and artist. She’s antisocial, even rude, to the neighbors but she’s a softy; as Bee notes, “the most random things get her way too full of love.” If the epistolary structure occasionally strains belief (who writes such dialogue-dense letters?), Semple’s light touch and glittering prose keep things aloft.

    SMOKE SIGNALS: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific

    Martin A. Lee

    Scribner

    528 pp. $35

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    In addition to its long history as a cure for a range of complaints including “dysentery, malaria, diarrhea, typhus and rheumatism,” mentions of cannabis waft through ancient texts for its non-medical purposes, too: a passage by the second century Greek healer Galen notes that “the herb was mixed with wine and served at banquets for pleasure.” On American shores, the plant was among the young nation’s first imports (an Old World native, it arrived in the Western hemisphere courtesy of Portuguese slavers and African slaves), and the government encouraged its cultivation as hemp, a valuable export. Even George Washington cultivated cannabis, though author Martin A. Lee debunks the intoxicating rumor that our first president smoked it. Legal nationwide until 1906, marijuana figured in the patent medicine boom during a time, Lee points out, when “[c]ocaine was still in Coca-Cola; heroin and hypodermic kits were available through Sears.” In this exuberant, richly researched history, Lee traces efforts to prohibit marijuana use, beginning with early laws clearly aimed at controlling Mexicans and African Americans, among its first users (much as anti-opium legislation in California coincided with anti-Chinese attitudes). Ironically, propaganda produced by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics only served to introduce marijuana to an ever-wider audience, where its popularity spread until it became, as Lee writes, “by far the most popular illicit substance in the United States.”

    Lee, whose earlier book “Acid Dreams” chronicled the strange story of LSD, including its use by the CIA, is hyper-alert to governmental hypocrisy and he argues convincingly that the so-called “War on Drugs” morphed into a war on truth; politicians demonized weed while defending tobacco and alcohol (and ignoring medical research on the medical uses of cannabis), breeding cynicism among a population increasingly comfortable with pot smoking. Amid these dark dealings, the activists who used marijuana to heal those stricken with cancer and AIDS provide the book’s brightest moments.

    What in God’s Name

    Simon Rich

    Reagan Arthur

    240 pp., $23.99

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    Simon Rich’s Heaven, Inc., will be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked for a big corporation, what with “the endless PowerPoint presentations, the idiotic trust falls, the ’80s-themed mixer. ” The cubicles on the 17th floor, the Miracle Department, are filled with Angels whose job it is to help humans out with manufactured coincidences, from well-timed gusts of wind to glorious, kid-thrilling snow days. They all report to God, a genial if incompetent CEO who spends most of his day drinking beer and watching the world go by. He intervenes in things he cares about — Yankees victories (sorry, Sox fans!) and his dreamed-for Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion — but not much else.

    Bored with the earth, God decides to destroy it (by fire or ice; he’s not sure) and open an Asian fusion restaurant, but an idealistic Angel named Craig makes a deal. If he and his colleague Eliza can bring together two bumbling humans, Sam and Laura, who secretly yearn for each other, God will cancel the apocalypse (but not the Asian fusion restaurant). What follows is sweetly funny and even moving; love, in this case, is what makes the world keep spinning.

    Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.