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Today, two books about two very different men who were born not very far from my own natal place. The first is Arvid B. Erickson, the Green Bay & Western depot agent in my hometown for more than a quarter of a century. The other is Nicholas Ray, "enfante terrible" movie director of such classics as "Rebel Without A Cause," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Knock on Any Door," "Johnny Guitar," "55 Days at Peking" and dozens of other movies, many of them avant garde.
I've never thought much about our 20th American president, James Garfield. I knew he was from Ohio, so I simply consigned him to the dust heap of really bad to mediocre presidents from the Buckeye State: Harding, Taft, McKinley, Grant, Hayes, Harrison and Garfield. There's a classical legend about the sack of Rome. The Huns came to an elegant villa, knocked on the door and were greeted by the lady of the house. The Huns said "Give us your jewels." The woman obliged, bringing her seven children and telling the Huns, "These are my jewels." The Huns left her alone.
Long, long ago, Sinclair Lewis wrote an essay entitled "The Long Arm of the Small Town," in which he admitted that he had left his natal place, Sauk Centre, Minn., but that it was always with him as he went on to become the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I'm tempted to write an essay called "The Long Arm of the Small University," so here goes. Last year, as I read New York Times media critic David Carr's autobiography, I was sitting almost across the street from UW-River Falls' Kleinpell Fine Arts Building.
White Bear Lake, Minn., author Julie Kramer is on a roll. After award winning outings with "Silencing Sam," "Missing Mark," and "Stalking Susan," she's out with another alliterative title, "Killing Kate" (Atria Books, $23.99). Kramer, former director of WCCO's I Team and now a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS, has created a likeable heroine in Riley Spartz, an investigative reporter for Minneapolis station, Channel 3.
Lots of people don't like poetry because they figure the subject matter is full of highfalutin' stuff they have no interest in, like knights of the round table or beautiful sunsets or romantic rendezvous. Those folks should give poetry another try and read a book like the just published "Nails," by Larry Schug (North Star Press of St. Cloud, $12.95 paper). Schug, a recycling coordinator at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., has been a Minnesota Book Award finalist and a Midwest Book Award Finalist.
"Heaven's Shadow," by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt (Penguin, $25.95) is a science fiction novel that I'll bet is heading for moviedom. It concerns a near-Earth object named "Keanu." As it hurtles toward Earth, two manned space vehicles travel half a million kilometers through space to land on it and claim it as their own.
Years back, I had a student named Gaylon Kennedy, who hailed from southern Ohio. He regaled me with stories about folks he called "briars," laborers who came up from Kentucky and West Virginia to work at the steel mills of his hometown, Middletown, Ohio. Gaylon's stories were hilarious and sad at the same time.
In 2003, I had the privilege to speak at a very fine writers' conference in Eau Claire. Writers from all over spoke, or listened, to other writers in some of the charming old mansions along Barstow Street. I was most impressed with a guy named David Benjamin, who grew up in Tomah, but had transplanted himself to New York City to be where the action was. He read from his new book, which the critics were raving about. I ended up raving too.
Tired of crime novels set in Frisco, The Big Apple, LA? Tired of crime novels whose heroes are named Sam, Nick, and Nero, written by authors named Earle, Dashiell and Ellery? Then try one of the hot new scribes from Scandinavia. No, not the late Stieg Larssen, who has dominated our bestseller lists for a year. I'm thinking of Arne Dahl, whose name sounds more like my brother's hired man than any whodunit writer. Nevertheless, he's one of the premiere purveyors of Europe's detective novel genre.
Here's a book to take to the lake. When clouds hover and it begins to rain pitter patter on your cottage roof, you can while away the time trying to figure out what's going to happen and you can learn a bit of history if you bring along a copy of "The Jefferson Key," by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books, $26). Berry, whose several historical novels like "The Charlemagne Pursuit" and "The Romanov Prophecy," have been translated into 40 languages, lives in Florida and has founded a non-profit organization called History Matters, dedicated to preserving our heritage.