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It's always fun to get a novel written primarily for adolescents and find that it works just fine for old fogies, as well. The adolescent novels of the late Jon Hassler ("Four Miles to Pine Cone" and "Jemmy") are a case in point. Another such Minnesota author is William Durbin, a former school teacher who lives on Lake Vermilion and writes for teens -- and me, too. I learned a great deal in reading the reprint of his earlier novel, "The Darkest Evening," just reissued by the University of Minnesota Press, ($11.95 paper).
Years ago, James T. Farrell made news with his "Studs Lonigan Trilogy," which was the darling of us teenage readers, because even though the book was many years old, it was dirty. Well, dirty back then; not too dirty now. Farrell portrayed the underbelly of lower middle class Chicago in all its Irishness. It has been years since I read "The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan," but I'll never forget the memorable scene in which he's inducted into the Knights of Columbus or the dime-a-dance scenes.
I would love to know Catherine Holm. Have you ever felt that way about a writer you have never read before? I've just read Holm's first short story collection, "My Heart is a Mountain" (Holy Cow! Press, $15). It's a series of beautifully rendered and heartfelt stories about living on the land, which Catherine Holm does with her husband Chris up in Cook, Minn. There's a wonderfully mystical story of an old married couple, Clara and Edward, and Clara's mystification of Edward's frequent disappearances, going off to see the guys, going off to the deer shack, just going off.
Two memoirs today: One from down south; the other from close by. "House of Prayer No. 2," by Mark Richard (Doubleday, $23.95), is a honey of a book. Richard tells the story of a "special" kid. "Special" is what they called people with disabilities in the deep south. Writer Richard is such a person. He was born with bad hips and was told early on that he would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. In spite of his alcoholic father and his religious fanatic mother -- or probably because of them -- Richard had different ideas.
My grandmother used to amuse me telling stories about her father who left the farm in Sweden to become a merchant seaman, and eventually learned seven languages. Life was not easy for a farm boy at sea, my grandmother said.
Forty years ago, my wife and I and toured the concentration camp at Dachau, just outside Augsburg, Germany. It was a very antiseptic experience. There was an exhibition hall, a museum that traced the history of anti-Semitism. We also saw the spic and span ovens that the brochure said had never been used. The grounds were manicured. And there was a newish building; a replica of the hundreds of barracks that once graced the camp. It smelled of new pine. Years later, we toured Auschwitz, the notorious camp outside Krakow, Poland. What a different experience.
President Ronald Reagan and Generalissimo Francisco Franco are a very unlikely pair. Reagan was tall and handsome, a hale fellow well-met, and very difficult to dislike, whatever your political persuasion.
Don Gilbertson retired as director of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota several years ago, but that doesn't mean he's been sitting on his hands. A few years back, he wrote a wonderful book about his hometown, Osseo. Now he's out with a personal memoir, "West of the South Forty" (Hawkweed Press, 1717 Rust St., Eau Claire, WI. 54701, $12). It's a story lots of upper Midwestern folks can relate to. Gilbertson grew up on a small, hardscrabble rented farm, years before the advent of the factory farm, dairy herds of 5,000 cows, and cornfields that yield 200 bushels to the acre.
My father wasn't much for poetry. He was more of a Zane Grey man. But he truly enjoyed Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," when I typed out a copy for him, when he wrote and wondered how I was wasting my time in graduate school. And I know he'd like a new book just out, "Low Down and Coming On" (Red Dragonfly Press, $20 cloth), edited by Minneapolis poet and journalist James Lenfestey.
St. Paul Poet Laureate Carol Connolly came to our house in Wisconsin for dinner last month and dropped off a book that's going to come in handy for yours truly. My wife and I spent 30 years in Minneapolis and so when we moved here about a decade ago we had a bit of difficulty adapting to the western Wisconsin way of life. That way of life is you go to St. Paul and not Minneapolis if you can avoid it. St. Paul was new to us and we're finally getting acclimated. Now, to help us along the way, the book Carol Connolly gave us will be a godsend. It's the 2011 edition of the "St.