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Dave Wood's Book Report, Dec. 13, 2006

Many years ago, I was elected to the board of the National Book critics Circle, which met six times a year to decide which new books should be given awards. At my first meeting at the Algonquin Hotel, I was shocked when the eminent critic Morris Dickstein nominated what I thought was a comic book.

Little did I know that Morris's nominee was Art Spiegelman and his "comic book" was "Maus," a cartoon version of the Holocaust in Poland and its after effects. I had no choice but to read the oversized book and when I was finished I was exhausted at the power the blocks of "comic" strips had worked on me. In Spiegelman's view, the Jews in Poland were portrayed as mice, the non-Jewish Poles as piggies and the German occupiers of the country as cats.

So, to make a long story short, "Maus" became a classic in the genre of graphic fiction and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Parts of it occupy several pages in what would make a wonderful holiday present for someone on your list. It's "An Anthology of Graphic Fiction," edited by Ivan Brunetti (Yale, $28), a scholar of graphic fiction. He points out that it began years ago, with the political satires of artists like George Grosz and goes on to include the work of several graphic artists, most notably Harvey Kurtz man of Mad magazine and Robert Crumb, creator of Zap comic books.

Speaking of comic characters, there's one who isn't so funny. That would be Kim Jong II, the boss of North Korea. He's been getting a good deal of ink about nuclear testing and all. In "Rogue Regime," (Oxford University Press, $15.95 paper), Jason Becker goes behind the scenes to give readers an idea of how miserable is the rank-and-file North Korean. Becker says that its leader is the only fat person in the whole country and includes photos of starving North Korean children. This done, Becker says, because of the leader's taste for pizza (he has his own pizza chefs), wine (he ordered $400,000 worth of Italian wine to go with the pizza.) and other niceties denied his subjects. He's truly a wacko and a dangerous one at that. Also smarter than we think!

As one who has lost at least 4,000 pounds (or thereabouts) on diets over the past 50 years I was prepared to dislike "Mindless Eating," by Brian Wansink (Bantam, $25). Wansink is a food scholar at Cornell University and concentrates on the psychology of over eating. He and his colleagues have a "restaurant" on site, where people eat free if they agree to participate in experiments. Wansinks findings make up his new book. One finding: expectations dictate how much you eat. He invited 50 people to a gourmet dinner. All were served the same wine, the famous "Two Buck Chuck." But Wansinks steamed all the labels on, pasted on fakes he designed. Half the bottles said "made in California." The other half said "made in North Dakota."

The folks who got the "North Dakota" wine didn't finish their meals, while the "California" recipients cleaned their plates.

This is a very interesting book, written with real flair.

"Ambitious Brew," by Maureen Ogle (Harcourt, $25) is a workmanlike history of beer and its manufactured in the U.S. There's a big chunk of the book devoted to Leinenkugel Beer in Chippewa Falls.

"The Great Escape," by Kati Marten (Simon & Schuster, $27) isn't exactly an adventure story on the order of the movie of the same name. This is a story about Budapest, how it became a great city before World War I and then slid into the fascist disaster that later became a Communist stronghold during the Cold War. Marten, a Hungarian native tells how nine Jews escaped the Holocaust and came to the U.S. Folks like atomic physicists like Leo Sailed and Edward Teller, photographers like Robert Cape and filmmakers like Michael Cortez. It makes you proud to be an American.

"Things Kept, Things Left Behind,' by Jim Tomlinson (University of Iowa Press, no price) is a wonderful collection of short stories by a Kentuckian whose dialogue is dead-on. His stories about love lost and found give new hope to the fast-disappearing short story, an American invention that needs the revitalizing vigor of a writer like Tomlinson.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.