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“The Deal of a Lifetime”

By Fredrik Backman

c.2017, Atria

$18.00 / higher in Canada; 65 pages

A banana for a cupcake was always a good trade.

When you were in grade school, Mom was great about packing lunch with foods you liked, but every now and then, it was good to eat something different. So you swapped, just as you did with toys and games and love, as you grew older. But, as in “The Deal of a Lifetime” by Fredrik Backman, what would you trade for a life?

The letter started off innocent enough: “Hi,” it said. “It’s your dad.”

But, of course, the young man would’ve suspected that. He’d always had a father.

Just not one that he knew.

Years before, when the young man was a boy, his father was gone a lot, chasing fame, money and recognition, and never being the dad he might’ve been. There was a time when he knew the boy loved him, but after he’d come home from a trip and it took two days to notice that his wife had left him and taken the boy, the father knew things would never be like before.

And now he was dying.

He’d been told it was cancer, and that his time in the hospital would be his last. Smoking on the balcony (oh, how the nurses hated that!), he noticed a small girl, and she waved at him; never one for children, he waved back anyway, and told her that he’d watch over her one night. Just five years old, she included him in her prayers. She said that she, too, saw the lady in the grey sweater.

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He feared the lady in the grey sweater; everyone did. He knew who she was because he’d seen her before: at birth, at age five, at age fifteen, at perilous times of his life. Now she walked the cancer ward with a clipboard, silently and efficiently, and when he stole that clipboard and ran from the hospital in anger and fear, raced off in his sports car, and promptly had an accident, it was she who pulled him from the wreckage.

It was she who made him an offer…

Like many people, you’re already dipping your toes into the holiday season, making lists and pulling decorations from the attic. What kind of gifts will you give this year – or will you, like “The Deal of a Lifetime” – give of yourself?

It’s an age-old question, and author Fredrik Backman asks in a brief, but most exquisite manner. Indeed, at just sixty-five pages with illustrations, this book is short but every word counts and that’ll hit you square in the heart. Backman’s lady in grey is worthy of sympathy; his father-character is regretful and cynical, wearing his loss like a badge he never wanted, but he’s not as savvy as he thinks he is. When that becomes apparent to both reader and character, beware.

You may shed tears over this book. You may need to savor it a second time, to feel its words again. However you read it, “The Deal of a Lifetime” is an experience you’ll never trade.

“It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree”

By A.J. Jacobs

c.2017, Simon & Schuster

$27.00 / $36.00 Canada, 338 pages

The woman in the cubicle next to yours is a real piece of work.

No tidbit is too small for gossiping. Unsolicited advice is her expertise, and she seems to think complaints are in her job description. Ugh, she’s so hard to work with, but be aware; as you’ll see in the new book “It’s All Relative” by A.J. Jacobs, she’s probably related to you.

And so is everyone else, says Jacobs, if you go back far enough. Somewhere several thousand years ago, a man and a woman, who probably didn’t even know one another, both happened to have DNA with exceptional staying power. Their genes have been passed down to every single person since then. Even you.

That’s, of course, a simple explanation to a complex thing, but it got Jacobs thinking. In his own family tree, he says, “I’d be happy to trim a few branches,” but the idea of having several million cousins was an intriguing one. He decided to throw a party for his new family. Everyone was invited. Even you.

These days, genealogy is big business: over the course of a year, “Americans spend a mind-boggling $3 billion…” and untold hours building their family trees, learning their DNAs and locating official government records, photos and documents. You can go online and easily see who you’re related to, even distantly, but the shocker is that “we are a startlingly close-knit species." So close, in fact, that you could be “at most seventieth cousins with all other humans.” Genetically, we’re awfully close to some animals, too: forebears, as it turns out, might be exactly right.

But you can’t think about who you’re related to without peeking backward. In his zeal for connection collection, Jacobs amassed family stories and FBI dossiers, contacted celebrities (new cousins!) found “black sheep” and unearthed name changes. He looked at our caveman lineage (yes, even you) and he discovered that, evolutionarily speaking, learning our connections “nudges us to treat strangers with more kindness.”

Soon, you’ll be sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal. The whole family’s invited, and in “It’s All Relative,” you’ll see that you’re gonna need more chairs.

In his mega-reunion planning, author A.J. Jacobs learned that early, but that’s only half the fun of this dual look at genealogy. The main part – the appeal of the whole book – is that Jacobs is a truly funny writer, putting himself squarely in the middle of his story, holding up his own family as examples, and using himself as foil to his plans and discoveries.

That, however, is no indication of a lack of seriousness to this book.

Jacobs educates as he entertains, and readers will learn about basic genetics, genealogy and searching for ancestors far and not-so-far. Indeed, reading this book may spur you to see who you’re related to. (Hint: everybody).

So be nice to that cousin in the next cube. Be sure to tell everyone that you’re actually related to a famous author named Jacobs. And read “It’s All Relative.” You’ll love it because you're kin.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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