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Book Review: Author aims at straight-laced Minnesotans

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It's always eye-opening to read a foreigner's take on life in these United States.

From Alex de Tocqueville and Frances Trollope to Alistair Cooke, foreigners have given their readers new and fresh insights into the American experience.

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Such a writer is still among us. He's Jonathan Raban, whose new book of essays, "Driving Home" (Pantheon, $29.95) is a delight that might not please all readers. Raban is a Brit who has settled in Seattle, Wash. He now writes about things American.

One of Raban's big books came years ago when he maneuvered his boat down the Mississippi, stopping in places like Prairie du Chien and other ports of call.

In his new book, he takes a swipe at Minnesotans, which is guaranteed to get their dander up.

"The great flat farms of Minnesota are laid out in a ruled grid, as empty of surprises as a sheet of graph paper. Every graveled path, every ditch, has been projected along the latitude and longitude lines of the township-and-range survey system.

"The farms are square, the fields are square, the houses are square; if you could pluck their roofs off from over people's heads, you'd see the families sitting at square tables in the dead center of square rooms. Nature has been stripped, shaven, drilled, punished, and repressed in this right-angled, right-thinking Lutheran country.

"It makes you ache for the sight of a rebellious curve or the irregular, dappled color of a field where a careless farmer has allowed his corn and soybeans to cohabit.

"But there are no careless farmers on this flight path. The landscape is open to your inspection -- and to God's -- as an enormous advertisement for the awful rectitude of the people. There are no funny goings-on down here, it says; we are a plain, upright folk, fit candidates for heaven."

As a former Minnesotan, I plead guilty as charged.

This screed is followed by gentler examples of the writer's craft, like a beautiful essay he wrote for the Manchester Guardian about why people love to travel. There's another fascinating piece in which Raban begins his journey near Red Wing, Minn., and drives along the Mississippi in 2010 revisiting his boat route to witness the ravages of the great flood of 2010.

One hilarious essay finds him getting a membership in the Tea Party ("I have a libertarian bent," he says), so he can attend a convention at the Grand Old Opry Hotel in Nashville where Sarah Palin was the keynoter.

He meets all manner of folks there, rich folks, poor folks, folks who believe President Obama is a Nigerian and others who disagree violently with the birth issue, but still want to be rid of him.

One woman continually refers to Obama as "the idiot."

Finally Palin takes the podium and delivers an inappropriately slangy speech that no one listens to.

Democrats don't escape Raban's ire in an analysis of inaugural speeches from FDR to the Obama's ghost writer, Jon Favreau.

The New York Times recently asked Ted Sorenson if he or if John Kennedy wrote the speech in which JFK said "Ask not what your country can do for you...."

Sorenson's reply: "Ask not."

On the regional scene, "Blue Guitar Highway," by Paul Metsa (University of Minnesota Press. $24.95) will certainly please music buffs who remember Metsa's days in the joints on Minneapolis's West Bank.

Metsa grew up in Virginia, Minn., and arrived in Minneapolis, bright-eyed, in 1978. Since then he's played 5,000 gigs in dives and huge auditoriums with local musicians, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.

There's a brilliant introduction by New York Times media critic David Carr, an old pal of Metsa's from the days when Carr wrote for the Twin Cities Reader and snorted coke with the bright young things along Hennepin Avenue.

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