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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 6, 2009

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If you grew up in the 1950s, you're going to love this book. If you didn't grow up in the 1950s, you better get hold of this book and learn that the 1950s wasn't the dull, Betty Crocker, suburbanite world that it is often portrayed as.

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Minneapolis lawyer and former city council member Paul Zerby -- like me -- reached adulthood in the 1950s and his first novel delineates that very strange time with warmth, gusto and an assured hand with the details of life back then.

"Grass," (North Star Press of St. Cloud, $14.95), is a ripping good yarn about a kid in Fargo, who attended the University of Minnesota, then went on to the Korean "Conflict." You know from the beginning that this is no rah-rah stars and stripes forever tribute to the glories of war.

Instead, Zerby, who attended the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law, opens his book with a quote from Carl Sandburg's 1918 poem "Grass":

'Pile them high at Austerlitz and Waterloo

Shovel them under and let me work --

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, 10 years, and passsengers ask the conductor,

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.'

Zerby introduces the naivete of our generation from the get-go with his opening sentence spoken by the novel's hero, Tom Kelly: "When the North Koreans invaded South Korea, there weren't 13 people in Fargo, including me, who knew where Korea was."

So Tom wants to get out of town and go to Minneapolis if he can win a scholarship. His father drives him there in the family's 1935 Chevy and Tom gets the scholarship, but not before he describes downtown Minneapolis to a tee: "The downtown buildings rose out of it gray and ugly. One skyscraper that towered over 30 stories, and dominated the whole skyline, Dad said was supposed to be like the Washington Monument, but it looked more like a giant gray dink."

Tom attends the U, witnesses the fallout from the anti-communist scare and the firing of an African-American professor, and, of course, ends up in Korea, as did many of my friends who came back with stories similar to Tom Kelly's.

"Grass" is an historical novel, with just the right amount of regional bite.

It's time to get ready for the beach, the cabin up north or tending the barbecue in your back yard. Here are three promising novels to help you while away the time.

Bestselling author Luanne Rice is out with her 26th novel, "The Geometry of Sisters," (Bantam, $25). After graduating from an elite East Coast academy, heroine Maura Shaw, marries, raises a family.

When an accident decimates half the family, she returns to Newport Academy to teach English and bring up the remaining brother and sister, who have a difficult time adjusting. It's domestic drama with a dash of academe thrown in.

Edgar Award nominee Paul Levine just published a new Jimmy Payne thriller, "Illegal" (Bantam, $22). Payne is the cynical lawyer who is always in trouble with the law.

In this outing, he meets an illegal alien kid from Mexico who asks Payne to help him find his mother, lost in their escape across the border. Payne wants nothing to do with it until his ex-wife wife, an LAPD. detective tells him to help out or she'll send him to jail.

If you're a fan of conspiracy plots, you'll probably enjoy "A Knife Edge," by Australian author David Rollins (Bantam, $25) whose special investigator Vin Cooper uncovers a dangerous cabal within the U.S. government.

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

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