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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 17, 2007

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Farmington, 55024
Farmington Minnesota P.O. Box 192 / 312 Oak St. 55024

My friend Owen Oxley is a stubborn cuss. The Minneapolis advertising executive has had his ups and downs. When young British kids were being sent to the U.S. in 1940 to avoid the blitz, little Owen Oxley's parents sent him to live with his English grandparents on the Dover coast!

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Years later, he founded a glossy magazine, "Edina," but when the economy went south, so did "Edina." Later, he wrote a wonderful book based on the experience of living with his mortician English grandfather on the Dover coast. I knew that would work because it was just as good as the veterinarian's saga, "All Creatures Great and Small." Sure enough, Oxley found a British publisher. But when the economy went south again so did the publisher.

But did the eighty-year-old Oxley give up? Nope. As a young man, Oxley worked in Saudi Arabia for Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) as a photographer. He recorded the daily life of the company in this strange and very foreign land. When he left for the states, he took the photos along. And he came up with an idea to use them.

There are thousands of Aramco employees who live in the U.S., retired. They meet for parties and conventions. Oxley attends these parties and last year he sold "subscriptions" to retirees interested in a picture book about the life they led in Saudi Arabia.

This is a time-honored English way to publication, dating from folks like Alexander Pope. When Oxley had enough subscriptions he published his beautiful new book, "Saudi Arabia: The Great Adventure," Stacy International of London, $49.95. To order: www.saudiarabia-the greatadventure.com.)

Subtitled "The Americans Who Helped A Remote Desert Kingdom Become One Of The Richest Nations In The World," Oxley's book is oversized, the kind of coffee table book Cosmo Kramer of "Seinfeld" had in mind. It contains 20 essays and 300 striking black and white photos, some of which have never been seen. The introduction is by his daughter Cassandra, who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1955.

There's fun stuff in some of the essays, especially about learning how to cope in such a foreign environment. Oxley even tells how he learned to make bootleg alcohol after King Sa'ud Ibn Abd al Aziz banned liquor in the American compounds. His equipment included a tennis ball container, a tube, a five-gallon jug, a pressure cooker, orange juice concentrate, sugar and brewer's yeast.

"It was delicious," recalls Oxley.

Another coffee table book that got its start in the Twin Cities is "Twin Cities by Trolley," by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95). It's a monster book about the life of the Twin Cities streetcar from 1880 to the 1950s when the Twin Cities snarl began.

The book is crammed with wonderful photographs of streetcars in their respective neighborhoods, interiors of streetcars, routes of streetcars. My favorite section is the flyleaf which shows mugshots of transit employees at just the Lake Street Station in 1921, which gives one some idea of the massive organizational structure that held sway before we all decided it would be nice to own a car and get stranded on 35W.

"More than 50 nations declared formal belligerency, and few neutrals escaped the effects of the war's violent upheavals. The struggle went on for nearly six years in Europe and by one manner of reckoning even longer longer in Asia.

It consumed over $1 trillion of the planet's wealth. More than 100 million men took up arms. The war claimed some 60 million lives. And for perhaps the first time in the sorry annals of warfare, a majority of the dead were civilians ... at the war's conclusion, Winston Churchill declared that the United States then stood 'at the summit of the world -- an undisputable truth.'"

Thus begins David Kennedy's monumental "The Library of Congress World War II Companion" (Simon & Schuster, $45). It's a huge book, packed with statistics, illustrations, photos of everything from war crimes to life on the home front to letters from the war front.

All this has been compiled from the resources of The Library of Congress and ancillary projects like the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, which recorded first person accounts by people who actually did the fighting.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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