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A wag of my acquaintance once said that word processors are ruining the art of biography. He explained that it's so easy to type on them (no carriage return, no worries of hyphenation, etc.), that "if Moses had one, there'd be 17 commandments rather than 10." In some ways it's true. Back in the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote wonderfully perceptive and readable biographies of writers like Richard Savage in about 50 modern-day pages. But even before the advent of the word processor the modern taste for detail led to biographers piling more and more detail into their work.
Any who has ever dug into a fish dinner at Afton, Minnesota's Catfish Saloon, or licked an ice cream cone from the town's storied ice cream parlor will most certainly want to pick up a copy of "Death Row" ($17.99), by Hal Barnes, available in bookstores and through Lulu.com. And if you've never sampled the culinary delights of the beautiful little town pick one up anyway because it's a crackling good mystery, chockfull of international intrigue and contemporary concerns. Barnes, a Twin Cities business writer, lives in Afton and his infectious enthusiasm for the neighborhood shows.
Powerful military nation decides its time to teach a lesson to small Moslem nation, certain that its people will welcome the enlightened country's victory over outmoded religious country whose time had come and gone centuries before. Strangely, the little Moslem nation didn't take kindly to the incursion from Big Brother and threw the big guy for loss after loss. Does this sound familiar? Of course. Only problem is that the countries about which historian Paul Strathern writes in his new book are 19th century countries, France and Egypt.
Here comes yet another book about Adolph Hitler. Hundreds have been written about the madman, scholars keep digging away to find even more about him. This one's called "Killing Hitler," by Roger Moorhouse (Bantam, $25). I've read tons of Hitleriana, but I must say Moorhouse has convinced me that I've still missed a great deal. Everyone's heard about the famous plot to kill Hitler during his trip to the Eastern Front, led by Claus von Stauffenberg.
Authors who take apart a region or a community have always been dear to my heart. It all began when I was in high school and my English teacher said I should not read novels by Sinclair Lewis, who was an agnostic and a drunk. So I went right out and checked out his novel "Main Street." The town he wrote about was his own, Sauk Centre, Minn., but he called it Gopher Prairie. He nailed that town dead to rights. It was just like my hometown, full of well-meaning people with a rather narrow view of the world. Later on, I read "Winesburg, Ohio," by Sherwood Anderson.
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The Wadena-Deer Creek High School One-Act play "In Memoriam: Voices of the Innocent" featured famous American tragedies such as Columbine and 9/11.
Historian A.K. Sandoval-Strausz has written a fascinating study of hostelries in "Hotel: An American History" (Yale University Press, no price). It's his theory that Americans, not Europeans, set the standards for hotels in the 19th century due to several outside forces, including political. In the course of this scholarly book, general readers will be fascinated with individual hotels they may have stayed in or wanted to stay in or were refused entry to. You don't hear about Statler Hotel these days, but 50 years ago magazines were full of ads for the Statler chain.
Sure, I know. Noel Coward is a superficial fop. But he's a superb superficial fop. So when "The Letters of Noel Coward," Barry Day, ed. (Knopf, $37.50) arrived in the mail, I dove right into the correspondence to and from the guy who wrote about mad dogs and Englishman going out in the noonday sun. The collection is voluminous, with letters to and from George Bernard Shaw, T.E.
It's not just because I live near Maiden Rock, Wis., and have escaped from the Twin Cities, that I like the police stories of Mary Logue, the Twin Cities' poet and memoirist.