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Book Report: Post-election wrap-up

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Now that the election is over I thought I might stir the pot a bit with mention of a new book that's been receiving attention. It's "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court," by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, $28.95). A writer for the New Yorker magazine, Toobin has written a red hot book about the conflicts between two young movers and shakers, Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts.

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The book begins with Roberts botching his part while administering the oath of office to Obama in 2009 and ends when Roberts surprises everyone when he votes to uphold Obama's health care plan. In between are memorable scenes, as when Obama breaks precedent and criticizes the Supreme Court for its Citizens United case, which removed decades-old restrictions on political spending by corporations.

Critics agree that Toobin is even-handed and has given rank and file readers an insider look at how the Supreme Court operates. To be specific, Toobin tells us why the oath of office was botched on Jan. 20, 2009. There's a behind the scenes drama that produced the epic health-care decision. Toobin also reveals justice Sandra Day O'Connor's uncensored view of the modern Republican party. Another biggie: He recounts the internal rebellion among the justices that led to the Citizens United decision.

Here's another tale with a political angle. The story goes that University of Minnesota history prof Hy Berman was perusing some nineteenth century documents relating the political battles between Minnesota's second governor, Alexander Ramsey and his political rival, Ignatius Donnelly. Berman found in Donnelly's diary that his old political associate Ramsey "had sex with his coachman after the death of his wife."

Berman asked his friend Alan Spear, the gay state senator if he'd like to do something with the story. Spear replied that "he didn't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Now historian Stewart Van Cleve has decided to touch it without a ten-foot pole in his new book "Land of Ten Thousand Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota" (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95). Van Cleve, a former assistant curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota, does not say that Donnelly was telling the truth about Ramsey's sexual predilections, merely that Donnelly had written it. He also points out that Bishop John Ireland was a great admirer of the aesthete Oscar Wilde and introduced him to an audience when the gay poet and wit dropped by St. Paul on the lecture circuit.

And then it's on to a cataloguing of most of the gay bars of the Twin Cities, like The Holland on Cedar Avenue that eventually became Caesar's, or The Viking Room of the old Radisson Hotel, which was a well-known hangout for gay downtown store clerks. There's a chapter on public toilet sex at the great old department stores like "The Emporium" in St. Paul and brings the gay sex scene up to the present.

Several such books have appeared in recent years including one I reviewed a few years back, called "Queer Twin Cities," whose author suggested that the lumber camps of northern Minnesota were a hotbed of gay activity among the lumberjacks. Van Cleve's book does not make such extravagant claims, but includes several eyestoppers.

And speaking of Oscar Wilde, Harvard University Press is out with "The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray," by Oscar Wilde and edited by Nicholas Frankel. "Dorian Gray" was the guy whose portrait was aging in the attic while its subject was misbehaving in Victorian London. The book came out before scandal did in Wilde, but his publisher edited out lots of stuff deemed unsuitable. Now we've the opportunity to read the book as written.

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

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