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Essays illustrate Woll's gift to gab

I'm a great admirer of Garrison Keillor, but occasionally he can become maddeningly perverse. Years ago I attended a press conference for him in Las Vegas during which a Washington Post reporter asked Keillor how far Lake Wobegon was from Minneapolis. Characteristically, Keillor didn't give her a straight answer and she went home thinking it was "up North somewhere."

Fortunately for his readers, essayist Dan Woll is more forthright than Keillor in his new book, "North of Highway 8" (Romeii LLC, Print copy $9.99; e-book, $5.99). Right off the bat, he admits that he's acquainted with the area north of Highway 8 and owns a cabin up there. But he says that the essays that follow aren't necessarily in that geographical location, that "NOH8" as he calls it, is a state of mind, not a place.

Oh, if only Keillor would have done that years ago!

Woll, the author of the well-received thriller "Death on Cache Lake" last year now collects a series of his essays about his adventures as a mountain climber, bicycle racer, school administrator, husband and family man. Woll has a gift of gab and makes writing look easy when it really isn't.

He sops up fascinating detail like one of those big tan sponges which we used to wash the family sedan. He tells of a fellow bike racer who admitted to him that he had urinated in his pants to cut five minutes off his race time only to break a chain down the road and had to walk his bike to the finish line.

"I smelled," he told Woll, "like a Porta Potty at a Lynard Skynard concert."

Most of his essays are succinct and preceded by an explanation of how he came to write them over the years. An especially moving piece, called "Could've Been Worse" or CBW, tells of an essay he wrote just after coming out of open heart surgery. He's still around, so it could have been worse.

Of course, he admits that sometimes it could not have been worse, as when his biking buddy hits an old lady ("Mrs. Magoo") who ran a stoplight and who later sent him a bill for damaging the hood of her car.

Woll grew up in Concord, Mass., before moving to Wisconsin. There must be something in the water out there because when Woll begins a beautifully written rhapsody about nature at his cottage on North Pine Lake, one can't help remembering that famous Concord native, Henry David Thoreau.

Only Woll is much, much funnier.

But not always funny.

His longest piece and the real capstone of this book takes place way south of Highway 8, in Barneveld, Wis., where Woll served as superintendent of schools during the big tornado of 1984. It appeared in Madison's Capital Times and has been reprinted several times. Little wonder, Woll's reportage would make David Halberstam blush.

'Down the Up'

Remember Barbara Garson? She was the activist who wrote the controversial play, "Mac Bird!" which speculated on who was in on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, interweaving Shakespeare's "MacBeth," as she went.

Garson is still around and has written three books about our economy and life in the American workplace. She's a writer who knows how to grab you and shake you up. Her new book is "Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 percent Live in the Great Recession" (Doubleday. $26.95).

Her modus operandi is to go out as a reporter and talk to people who are suffering through the economic downturn. They include fired white collar professionals who have formed a group called the Pink Slip Club, a former telephone salesman who now sells Grateful Dead T-shirts on a street corner, a warehouse manager squeezed out of a job. One of the most readable chapters deals with a media celebrity who brought the wrong investment fund and finds himself with a bank balance of $203.29. How he survives in the course of a day makes for thrilling -- and depressing -- reading.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Phone him at 715-426-9554.