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Book Report: Death, travel, voodoo will interest readers

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Here's a book that should make it from the region all around the country.

It's "A New Billy Collins: Keeping an Eye on Death," by Joy Lee Davis (Trade Press, Inc., 4312 Pond View, White Bear Lake, 55110, $20.)

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I remember the first time we went to a party at the home of John and Joy Davis. Joy, a literary scholar and the author of several books of memoir and literary criticism, had just discovered poet-laureate-to-be Billy Collins and was busy proselytizing her guests. My wife and I became converts and always looked forward to reading something new by Collins.

But that was not enough for Joy Davis to which the above-mentioned title testifies. Davis is a very thoughtful reader and never satisfied with skimming the surface. (Her book about Jane Austen, for instance, plumbs the depths of the economics of early 19th century England in a way Austen is seldom treated.)

The same is true for Billy Collins. I've always thought of him as a very humorous poet full of wisdom unpacked with ease and common sense. In her new book, Davis has gone further and found scads of Collins' poems that deal with death, like one simply titled "Death:"

In the old days news of it traveled by foot.

An aproned woman would wave to her husband

as he receded down the lane, hauling

the stone of the message.

Or someone would bring it out by horse,

a boy galloping, an old man trotting along.

A girl would part a curtain wondering

what anyone would be doing here at this hour,

as he dismounted, hitched the beast to a post,

then lifted the brass knocker, cold as night.

But today we have the telephone.

You can hear one from where you are right now,

its hammer almost touching the little bell,

ready to summon you, ready to fall from your hand.

The subject of Davis' book is especially poignant because it came out just after the death of her husband, John, emeritus president of Macalester College, and the book's dedicatee.

In other regional news we have "Green Travel Guide to Northern Wisconsin," by Pat Dillon and Lynne Diebel (University of Wisconsin Press, $19.95).

Dillon and Diebel send you to places that specialize in eco-friendly attitudes and serve locally grown food. I guess that's fine, but it saddens me to read about my home neighborhood along the Mississippi in Trempealeau and Buffalo counties. Apparently it's not eco-friendly enough to get as much as a mention, despite the beautiful scenery, topnotch golf courses and great restaurants.

Case in point: When Dillon and Diebel get to the Mississippi, they recommend the Trempealeau Hotel that specializes in walnut burgers and walnut balls. But they fail to mention the historic Hillside Fish House in Bluff Siding that has been serving walleye for more than 150 years, and in the spring serve bullheads that come right out of the Mississippi.

I never thought of walnuts as being very local to Trempealeau.

They also failed to get over the hill to Arcadia's famous veteran's memorial that attracts tourists from all over the country. They prefer instead to give a plug to the Monarch Bar in Fountain City, which they describe as an authentic Irish pub.

I preferred that saloon when it was called Abt's and was a truly authentic Swiss-American beer joint. Sometimes I wonder if these experts from down by Madison ever actually visit northern Wisconsin.

On a brighter regional note there's "Poison Makers," by Jimmy Olsen (Hoffman House Press, $19.95).

Olsen wrote to tell me that his new book received a starred review from no less a publication than The Library Journal, but said the metropolitan dailies wouldn't touch it. He also said he asked for directions to the Jon Hassler section of a Barnes & Noble store and the clerk said he'd had never heard of him.

What's happening to this world?

So I'm here to tell you that "Poison Makers" is an exciting thriller set in benighted Haiti, where Olsen used to live and about which he writes with vigor and good sense, even though his book is populated with an occasional zombie.

It all begins when the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic is murdered, after which all voodoo breaks out.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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