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Dave Wood's Book Report, March 25, 2009

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Our region, nay, our nation lost a treasure last month with the death of Bill Holm, writer, conversationalist, pianist extraordinaire.

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Bill died too young at age 65. The newspapers called him a giant in more ways than one. At 6'6" the big Icelander from Minneota, Minn., had big appetites all around, for reading, for writing, for big roast beef dinners, for good bourbon.

I just talked to a mutual friend about how sad it was that Bill should die so young. "Oh, well," said my friend, he lived "two lives for our one." That's so.

I first heard of Bill Holm back in the early 1980s when his publisher Emilie Buchwald talked me into reading his first book, "Boxelder Bug Variations."

Who is this guy, a writer who teaches English at Southwest State? "That's right," said Emilie. "I think you'll like him." Emilie thought right. And so I've reviewed every book Bill wrote in his too short, but very productive career.

A few months later, I played in a band at the Fitzgerald Theatre to celebrate the first winners of the Minnesota Book Award. Backstage, I ran into this huge guy with a big beard and bright red face, which dominated the goings-on behind the curtain. He had a deep voice and a seemingly endless catalog of anecdote and opinion.

J.F. Powers second novel, "Wheat That Springeth Green" was just being published by Alfred Knopf and Bill had an opinion about that: "I told Jim he should stick with Minnesota publishers because they won't desert him. My money is on Milkweed Editions and Emilie Buchwald."

Bill stood by his word, within a few years he was a nationally acclaimed poet and non-fictionist and he still published with Milkweed until the day he died.

And Powers? The Minnesotan who won the National Book Award in 1960 for "Morte d'Arthur." He stuck with Alfred Knopf, or should I say he got stuck with Alfred Knopf, whose editors decided to only do a press run of 10,000 copies because they figured everyone had forgotten Powers.

The book came out to glorious reviews, the first printing was sold out in two or three days. Knopf dragged its feet on a second printing and by the time it appeared readers had forgotten about it.

That day at the Fitzgerald, our band played, Bill tickled the ivories of the big concert grand, folks made presentations, winners talked and talked and talked and wouldn't leave the dais. It was getting embarrassing to say the least. After the last award was presented, Bill got up from the piano, strode to the microphone and said:

"This first historic meeting of the Minnesota Book Awards is way too short, so I'm going to fix it. I'm going to read you a book by Herman Melville."

An audible groan arose from the audience. Bill reached into his jacket and pulled out this teeny-weeny book, about 1-inch-by-1-inch, printed by one of Bill's Southwest State colleagues. It contained one sonnet by Herman Melville. Bill read it and sat down and a host of heavy hearts was happy again.

Several years ago, we enticed Bill to come to River Falls to speak to the English students at the Breezeway Series at Davee Library. Bill came for nothing, gratis, free. And he came early, so retired English professor Charlies Lonie suggested we revive an old tradition that had died on the vine.

Years ago, UW-River Falls attracted wonderful writers from all over the world to speak at the University. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Allen Ginsburg, X.J. Kennedy, and James Dickey.

The standard operating procedure was to pick up the guest who had just spoken at Stout or Eau Claire, then introduce the writer to the audience. But the authors usually arrived early, so a designated greeter would take the author to --guess where? -- Emma's Bar, "Since 1934."

So Lonie said, if we can take Allen Ginsburg to Emma's, why not Bill Holm?"

We did it and were happy we did. Lonie regaled stories of misadventures with the authors who visited.

Bill loved the story of Vonnegut. Seems that Lonie had written about Vonnegut in his doctoral dissertation, claiming that the Vonnegut's early books were fine, but the later ones petered out.

A student was assigned to pick up Vonnegut at the airport. He told Vonnegut what Lonie had written.

Lonie introduced Vonnegut to a huge audience. Vonnegut began his speech by saying, "I hear around town that someone on the English faculty thinks I haven't died soon enough.

The last time I saw Bill, he remembered that story. And the story of James Dickey, who liked Emma's just a bit too much and his greeters had a heck of a time getting him onstage in time, after he performed beautifully. When Bill was at Emma's, I think he might have preferred staying for another knooper, but no, he said we'd better get to the library.

Bill loved life and he loved literature and people, maybe not "the consarned human race," but individual people, like Dickey, Vonnegut and Ginsburg and it was obvious he was happy to be included in the Emma's Pantheon of Great Writers. Bill was honest about himself. He knew he was great and later, at the Library, we did, too.

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

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