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Dave Wood's Book Report, June 3, 2009

With its 100 Euro dinners and 300 Euro hotel rooms, travel to Rome this summer is out of the question for this reviewer on a fixed income.

So I'll have to settle for "Dante's Numbers" (Delacorte Press, $24), by David Hewson, a Londoner who knows The Eternal City like the back of his hand. He's the accomplished author of several mysteries featuring a Roman detective, Nic Costa.

Hewson has a great gift for plunking the reader down in a Roman site and making you wish you were there, despite the howling of the traffic, the buzz of Vespas and the general disorder of the city.

His new book opens at the premiere of a film version of Dante's "Inferno" being held at the Villa Borghese just up from the Piazza del Popolo.

Suddenly all hell breaks loose, A man is killed, the movie's star disappears and a priceless objet d'arte has disappeared.

Hewson spices things up when a famous American film actress hires Nic Costa to protect her in this perilous situation. And so one-third of the way through the book Costa travels with her home to San Francisco.

Costa's response to the City by the Bay is a mixed bag as one might expect from a Roman created by and Englishman. All in all, it's a satisfying trip to two exotic cities.

Most fiction readers are acquainted with a few novels about baseball, as in Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" and W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe."

But a retired English prof from Georgia has taken the subject very seriously and shed all manner of light on how writers have focussed on the Great American Sport for the past 170 years.

In "The Baseball Novel" (McFarland, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640 $30) Noel Schraufnagel (McFarland, Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640, $30) has uncovered a treasure trove of novels that either directly or obliquely deal with baseball.

I suppose most of us know that James Fennimore Cooper wrote about Natty Bumppo in the "Leatherstocking Tales," but how many folks remember that William Faulkner's Jason Compson reviled Babe Ruth in "The Sound and The Fury" or that Cooper himself was the first American writer to mention baseball, this time in 1838, in "Home as Found."

Schraufnagel, grins exceeding find in this masterpiece of scholarly research and literary criticism.

If the book is bad he says so and he's modest in his claims for the book, which covers 400 novels about baseball.

I was impressed that he mentioned one of my favorite regional novels about baseball, Ken Cowgill's "The Cranberry Trail," the Winona State University prof's book about Baseball that takes as its framework Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales."

All in all it's a tribute to great scholarship by baseball fans and American literary scholars alike. It opens with a history of baseball novels, followed by plot summaries of novels and subgenres like baseball books about race and mystery and science fiction, like one of my favorites, George Plimpton's "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."

A recent story about two spelunkers one of whom lost his life exploring a cave on the Mississippi drove me to the book "Subterranean Twin Cities," by Greg Brick (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95 paper).

Brick has been exploring the caves under Minneapolis and St. Paul and has come up with fascinating stuff, like the huge Shiek's Cave that runs under downtown Minneapolis, replete with water falls and hidden dangers.

Recently the Highland Park Ford plant has been in the news about its imminent closing. I never knew that there is a sand mine under the plant that Henry Ford I opened up so he could make glass for his flivvers back in the 1920s.

It's a fascinating story that begins with a geological chapter on the makeup of Twin Cities substructures of land and goes on to describe explorations of the tunnels that run under both series.

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