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Book Report: My advice: Try these as presents

It's gift-giving time. I like to give books. Why? A book's conformation is easier to wrap than a snowmobile. And, properly selected, it's good for the recipient, better by far than a Whitman Sampler (No, not Walt! I mean the candy.)

This season we have a wonderful collection of biographies and autobiographies, ranging from stories of politicians, to artists to athletes. Here's just a small sampling:

Let's begin with a story that's already familiar to readers of a certain age. They know about the famous architect Stanford White, who designed the original Madison Square Garden and who was subsequently murdered there by Harry Thaw.

White was a womanizer and had an affair with Thaw's bride-to-be, Evelyn Nesbitt.

Years back a movie was made of the story called "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing." In a new biography, we get a more comprehensive story entitled, "Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America's Gilded Age," by Mosette Broderick (Knopf, $40).

Broderick tells the story of White and his two partners McKim and Mead and how aristocratic professionals lived back in the 1890s. White died broke, but the firm took care of his bereaved wife.

How bereaved could she have been?

This is fine biography spiked with a look at what New York City was like more than a century ago.

And speaking of movies that eventually turn into books, there's "Native Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe," by Kate Buford (Knopf, $35).

When I was a kid I went to see Burt Lancaster as the famous Native American athlete in "Jim Thorpe, American." It was a very sad movie, but not as sad as Buford's new book.

It's a big one, full of fascinating information about the Carlisle school, where Thorpe got his start and about the way professional football got started in the Pittsburgh area and Thorpe's role in it.

Some interesting sidelights: Who was Thorpe's favorite teacher back at Carlisle? None other than Marianne Moore, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry.

A not so pleasant female in the Thorpe story was his third and last wife, who drove the poor fellow to drink and distraction.

"Begin Again," by Kenneth Silverman (Knopf, $40), tells the story of composer/philosopher, Renaissance man John Cage, who died in 1992, but not before he shook up the fine arts world.

On the regional front there's lots of variety from which to choose.

"The Man Who Invented the Computer," by Jane Smiley (Doubleday, $29): Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley ("One Thousand Acres") turns from fiction to biography in her story about John Atanasoff, a Bulgarian immigrant's son who became a physicist at Iowa State.

One night, sitting in a bar outside Ames he concluded that a combination of the binary number system with a series of electric switches on a moving drum could yield a computing machine.

Iowa State College did not have money for such a project so Atanasoff built one himself. It worked. And the rest is history.

Except it isn't. Atanasoff never patented his idea and so his followers and imitators get most of the publicity.

"H.H. Bennett, Photographer," by Sara Rath (Terrace Books, $24.95 paper): Have you ever heard of Bennett? I haven't, so I was fascinated to read about the fellow who put Wisconsin Dells on the map.

Bennett ran a photography studio in the little town of Kilbourn City. There was lots of beautiful scenery in the neighborhood and Bennett photographed it and sold prints to the tourists who wandered through.

More and more tourists came and before you knew it the town's name was changed in the 1930s to Wisconsin Dells.

Rath, who writes beautifully about Wisconsin icons ranging from milch cows to H.H. Bennett, does a fine job explaining Bennett's entrepreneurial skills as well as his advances working the camera.

She also points out that Bennett was worried that all the publicity might cause the Dells to be overrun with tourists.

Never happen?

You know the answer.

Fans of women's basketball will want to receive "The Lindsay Whalen Story," by Wisconsin author R. S. Oatman (Nodin Press, $19.95 paper), who tells the story of the Hutchinson, Minn., girl who went on to play for the Gophers, in Europe, and finally for the Lynx.

"Extraordinary, Ordinary People," by Condoleezza Rice (Crown, $27), is the only autobiography on my list. It's by George Bush II's secretary of state and how her parents, humble folk, brought her up to become president of Stanford University and later a recent cabinet member.

Rice's book ends before she goes to work for the president.

Let's hope there'll be a sequel.

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.