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Book Report: Author captures essence of life in Minnesota

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Journalist Peg Meier hails from Wisconsin, but for years she has been a gift to Minnesota.

Meier who toiled for years as one of the most talented writers at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, got into the book biz with the publication of her best-selling doorstopper, "Bring Warm Clothes," a pictorial history Minnesota, with brilliant text by Meier.

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Several books followed, including "Too Hot, Went to Lake."

She has retired from the newspaper now, but she's still in the book biz, with a great new look at both old and new Minnesota, gleaned from historical society records and photographs, memoirs (the coffee-table size book sports a substantial 10-page bibliography). Her new book is "Wishing for a Snow Day: Growing Up in Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95).

In her new book, Meier concentrates on kids growing up in the Star of the North. Meier is something of a kid herself (I used to work with her) and so she's perfectly attuned to making just the right selections of photos and text. So her "Wishing for a Snow Day" is a delight from cover to cover.

This is not just an album of rich kids whose parents had the wherewithal to bankroll photographers and publishers. Meier covers all the bases, with charming photos of African-American kids playing ball at the Phyllis Wheatley settlement house to published teenage diaries of "Coco" Irvine, before she became a Summit Avenue grande dame.

The native American population gets into the act with beautifully formal photos of Indian families sitting somberly in their traditional garb -- and sometimes gabardine. Ruffians and hooligans get their day, as do little ladies and gentlemen in knickers and smocks.

Adults aren't forgotten, especially when they choose to comment on the mores and folkways of their younger brethren as Carleton College president Lawrence Gould did just after World War II, reported by the Minneapolis Times:

"Advertising, which commands the best and most expensive American talent and utilizes press, radio and movies, is not inherently bad, but has been generally reduced to ignoble purposes.....

"Our youngsters are the victims of an age without standards, and the atomic bomb or universal military training are not the real problems today. What we need is to instill into youth the realization of basic philosophical and spiritual beliefs."

So hats off to Meier, who makes history not only informative, but also a heap of fun.

*****

Fans of James Ellroy -- and there are many -- will lap up his latest book, "The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women" (Knopf, $24.95).

Unlike his bestselling novels ("L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia," et al.), his new book is an autobiography, told with brutal honesty, about his childhood, the murder of his mother and his subsequent quest for women, his delinquent teens, his life as a writer, his love affairs, marriages and nervous breakdowns.

And, of course, how this whole mess turned him into a writer of stature.

*****

The late Maria Anglada was much respected as a Catalan writer.

After reading her 1994 novel, "The Violin of Auschwitz" (Bantam, $20), recently translated by Martha Tennant, I can see why.

Anglada tells the story of Daniel, a violin maker and a prisoner at the notorious Holocaust camp, who is challenged to build a violin in a set amount of days or face the consequences of medical experimentation. A fascinating and chilling idea and bolstered with actual SS documents about the rules for treatment of prisoners interspersed into the story line.

Here's a sample:

Calculation of SS earnings based on the employment of camp prisoners

Average salary: 6 Reichsmarks

Deduction for food: 0,60 Reichsmarks

Deduction for Amortization of clothes: 0,10 Reichsmarks

Average life of prisoner: 9 months = 270 days

270 x Reichsmarks = 1.431 Reichsmarks

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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