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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 23, 2009

It has been almost 40 years since my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Rome.

The sights of the Eternal City, from the Colosseum to St. Peter's, from St. Paul's Outside the Walls to the Pantheon are etched in our minds, well, I guess, eternally.

And so we have returned to that fabled city many, many times and cannot seem to get enough of it -- or even to scratch the surface.

Friends say, "Rome again? Isn't it about time you get it right? You folks should try someplace else."

Of course we have tried other places, but the shabby old Hotel Margutta just off the Piazza del Popolo keeps drawing us back.

Friends who ask that question might be well advised to read and wonder at "Sacred Places: Rediscovering the Churches of Rome," (Blanchett Press ...) anew by Gregory J. Pulles of Minneapolis.

Pulles is not a professional scholar of church architecture, religious history or Rome. He is a vice president of Twin City Federal, one of Minnesota's largest banks.

Pulles made his first trip to Rome in 1999 and was fascinated with what he saw, how others might like to see it too. And so he made several more trips, bound with camera, word processor and a nose for history.

"Sacred Places,' his first book, is a heart-stopper. It's 792 pages long, 13" x 101/2" and weighs 15 pounds.

So it's not only a heart-stopper, but a door-stopper as well. Printed on high quality high gloss paper and beautifully bound, it contains full color photos of the Roman basilicas and the priceless art held within them.

Accompanying the several photos for each of the churches is a history of each church, as well as maps and time lines and several suggested itineraries..

"Sacred Places" is not a book you'd want to carry along on a tour of Rome. It's just too big, too informative and, according to Continental/Northwest Airlines, too heavy.

It's a book that belongs in every library of anyone interested in religion, art, architecture and history.

It's a labor of love and Pulles has already achieved his goal: "to introduce Americans in the treasures found in Rome's churches." So read it before you leave for Italy. And take notes!

What a sad place is Warsaw, Poland!

Several years ago, we took a tour of Central Europe and rode a bus from Berlin to Warsaw. The terrain was flat as a pancake and suddenly we realized armies have marched over it for centuries.

One of the worst armies was Hitler's Wermacht. We spent a several days in Poland and walked the streets of Warsaw.

On the last day, our guide took us to Old Town where we saw a movie of Germany's last days of occupation, after which the guide told us that most of the buildings we had seen over the course of three days were new reconstructions.

That's because before they left, the Germans used their precious petrol supplies to burn the town down.

And so now we have a huge new book, "The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City," by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak (Yale University Press, no price).

Much has been written on the Warsaw Ghetto, but Polish professors Engelking and Leociak have done exhaustive research about the minutiae of every day life in the Ghetto after the Germans took over.

Like how much food the citizens were allowed (not much); who got soap (doctors and nurses); what it cost to buy horse bouillon on the black market.

Cultural affairs gets a goodly amount of attention, especially the literary life of the beleaguered community.

Here's a sample by an unknown poet writing during World War II:

"One moment there is a sky -- then there is no sky.

There where the sky was

In obedient formation the Jews are going to their death.

The tablets are broken -- the law is trampled on.

All around is darkness and grayness.

... in heaven god no longer rules,

The angels have turned into devils,

Devils into angels.

The holy tablets have crumbled to dust."

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.