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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 2, 2009

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School days are upon us and what better way to welcome in the first semester than to read "That Old Cape Magic," by Richard Russo (Knopf, $25.95)?

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Russo's new novel is about three generations of a family intersecting at a wedding in old Cape Cod.

Now Cape Cod is not my favorite place. After spending a week there a few years back and putting up with the endless traffic and the crowded streets, I vowed never to go there again.

So why Russo's book? Because this is a book not about Cape Cod but about the family, three of them academics.

When Russo writes about academics, as anyone who ever read his novel "Straight Man" knows, he writes very, very well. In a recent interview Russo explained that "I thought I'd got all the academic satire out of my system with 'Straight Man, but apparently not."

Apparently. Russo's take on his hero Griffin, a screen writer turned Ivy League professor, is spot on, especially when he intersects with his Ivy League raised mother, who, with his father was forced to teach not in the Ivy league but a Midwestern State University which they both hated with a passion.

They were incurable snobs, who thought they found relief by getting out of Indiana every summer and renting a cottage in Cape Cod.

Now they're coming back for a wedding. Griffin and his wife, whose verbal ability is shall we say, a bit lacking, his mother the snob, and his father in Griffin's car trunk his ashes stored in an urn.

Griffin muses on his academic mother and her checkered past:

"Despite deep misgivings, Griffin had accepted the university's invitation to his mother's retirement dinner .... There happened to be a bumper crop of retirees that year, and each was given the opportunity to reflect on his or her many years of service to the institution.

He found it particularly disconcerting that his mother was the last speaker on the program. He supposed it was possible the planners were saving the best, most distinguished retirees for the last, though more likely they shared his misgivings about what might transpire, and putting her last represented damage control.

When it was finally her turn, his mother rose to a smattering of polite applause and went to the podium.

That she was wearing an expensive well-tailored suit only deepened apprehension.

'Unlike my colleagues,' she said directly into the microphone, the only speaker of the evening to recognize that fundamental necessity, 'I'll be brief and honest.

I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the mast majority of our students, as are we.' Then she returned to her seat and patted Griffin's hand ...."

On the regional front, "Bad News for Outlaws," by Vaunda Michaux Nelson, Illustrations by R. Gregory Christie (CarolRhoda Books, $17.95) brings us a fascinating true story for readers 8 to 12 years.

It's the story of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshal. There are lots of deputy U.S. marshals out and about, but Reeves was somewhat different.

Born into slavery in 1838, he escaped into freedom to become one of the most feared lawmen west of the Mississippi.

He was no grandstander either. During his career, he made more than 3,000 arrests and in so doing killed only 14 men in the line of duty. He died in 1910.

It's a beautiful book, well-written by Nelson, who received the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in 2004.

Minneapolis's Lerner publications is also out with a fantasy about dinosaurs playing soccer, for readers ages 5 to 9.

"Dino-Soccer," by Lisa Wheeler, illustrations by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda, $16.95) pits the Grazers (vegetarians) against the Biters (meat eaters) in a lavishly illustrated fight to the soccer game's dramatic finish.

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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