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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.
More than 20 years ago, John Casey won the National Book Award for "Spartina," an epic about the people who live along an estuary in Rhode Island. Critics said it was one of the best novels to come along in years. Now Casey, an English professor at the University of Virginia, picks up where he left off with "Compass Rose" (Knopf, $27.95), a continuation of the adventures of small town folk who live and die along the estuary. Rose is the daughter of a local, Elsie, whose little Rose was born out of wedlock, the result of an affair Elsie had with her married neighbor, a local fisherman.
Lerner Publications of Minneapolis continues to expand into different areas. Its newer imprint, christened Lab, is devoted to adolescent literature like "What Can(t) Wait," by Ashley Hope Perez ($17.95 cloth). It's all about Marisa, a Mexican migrant, living with her parents in Houston. Those parents expect her to follow in their footsteps, work hard every day, get married, have kids. But Marisa's high school math teacher tells her she has the aptitude to be an engineer and should study hard and get a scholarship to the University of Texas.
TV personality Al Roker has made himself an American presence over the years. From my point of view he's lost too much weight because as a fat guy, I always liked him as a fat guy. Now he looks like a refugee from Buchenwald. But that's beside the point. The point is, he has become a prominent author. But is he writing about the weather or 105-year-old-women from Crown Point, Ind.? No. He and his collaborator, the prominent mystery writer Dick Lochhte, have created a character named Blessing, who bears a close resemblance to Roker.
When I first moved to Minneapolis, 40 years ago, there was a young firebrand professor at the University of Minnesota, who was in the newspaper a good deal of the time. He was a leader in the anti-war movement and a young turk in the DFL party. His name was Allan Spear. Allan Spear was also gay, one of the first prominent Minnesotans to come out of the closet, no mean achievement for a man who was a Minnesota state senator. Before he died in 2008, Spear began writing his memoir. He was almost finished before his death.
You've still got time to rush out and buy a book for someone on your gift list. If that someone likes history, especially American history, this is the right season because publishers have done an especially good job coming up with popular histories on several American topics. Leading the list is a mammoth paperback based on the TV series of a few years back. "The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945" by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, $30) originally came out in hardcover, but somehow the publisher forgot to send me a copy. Not to worry, for the paperback version is just fine.
Today we'll make some suggestions about new books dealing with art and culture you might want to put on your holiday giving list. I've never been a reader of comic strips and I'm the lesser for it. My morning coffee mate keeps talking about Gary Trudeau and his Doonesbury strip and I sit there dumbfounded. Recently, I had a chance to catch up and I recommend a book for holiday giving to folks who love Doonesbury or want to learn about it. It's called "Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau," by Brian Walker (Yale University Press, $49.95).
There's a bevy of new books by Minnesotans and about Minnesota for the gift giver who's willing to look for them. Wisconsin, too. My favorite this year is "The Last Hunter," by Will Weaver (Borealis Books, $24.95). Weaver has had a very successful career mining the rich resources of his native state. And, unlike many accomplished Minnesota authors his work has attracted the attention of Hollywood.
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.
An impressive trio of books that explore the African-American experience have recently found their way across my desk. All too seldom, Turner Classic Movies shows a series of movies starring black actors exclusively. These are movies that longtime movie buffs, such as I, never got to see when we were kids growing up in rural America.