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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 20, 2006

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Here's a bagful of books to get you started on an eclectic autumn reading program.

Start with "Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945," by David Fairbank White (Simon & Schuster, $26). For those of us who grew up with 1940s movies like "Action in the North Atlantic" (Bogart, Massey, Greenstreet, et al.) White's new book isn't exactly news. We remember the German U-Boats, and our Liberty Ships that brought precious cargo to Britain as it held out alone against the Axis.

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But for younger readers, "Bitter Ocean" is a fascinating study of the ravages of war. And some of it is even news to old geezers like me.

72,000. That's a big number, right? That's how many Allied lives were lost to the depths of the Atlantic -- sailors, airmen, merchant seamen -- in the period between the beginning of World War II and its end.

And the guys who sunk the Allied ships fared even worse. The U-Boat wolf packs from the submarine pens in Kiel, Germany, lost 80 percent of their crew members.

It's a fascinating book that tells the story from both sides and explains how radar and other new technologies turned the tide and sent the Germans to the bottom of the ocean.

Years back, art critic Robert Hughes made a big splash with his personal history of Australia, entitled "The Fatal Shore." Later, he made another splash when he suffered a horrendous car accident in his native Australia. His new book "Things I Didn't Know" (Knopf, $27.95) is just out and it's a tell-all memoir from a very outspoken fellow. Those who have read his earlier books and his art criticism in Time magazine will want to pick up this substantial tome--and promise themselves to never fall asleep behind the wheel.

Oxford University Press's "Lives and Legacies" series is just out with "T.S. Eliot," by Craig Raine ($18.95, paper), an attempt to nail down the essentials of a very complicated poet's art and thought. In large part it's a success and a welcome introduction to the twentieth century's arguably best poet. I found a mistake, however. Raine, a tutor at Oxford, talks about Eliot's growing popularity in the mid-fifties and recounts that 14,000 upper midwestern people congregated in Minneapolis in 1956 to hear Eliot read some literary criticism. Raine says it happened "in a baseball stadium." Sorry, professor, it was in the Field House at the University of Minnesota. I know because I was there and didn't understand a word he said. So we can forgive Raine his Xenophobia because his book brought me quite a way on the road to understanding.

Chuck Dowdie left his hometown of Crookston,Minn., during World War II. He graduated from St. John's University on his return and subsequently became a high school English teacher in Santa Rosa, Calif. Now he's written a book about growing up. It's called "Remembering Crookston: A Memoir" (ISBN 0-8059-8258, $22) and deals with small town life during a simpler time when he attended his first dance, got a job at the local butcher shop, ice skated on Red Lake River, where he also saw one of his childhood buddies drown. It's a trip down memory lane.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at ruthann.p.wood@uwrf.edu.

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