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Book Reviews: A Minnesota favorite captured in recorded dialog

Here's a book that the fans of the late Jon Hassler have been waiting for.

It's "Conversations With Jon Hassler," by Joseph Plut (Nodin Press, $19.95 paper). And you don't even have to be a fan to appreciate what Plut has done.

We all know about author interviews, like the ones that appear periodically in The Paris Review. But those interviews are always done about one recent book by a prominent author interviewed by a different interviewer every time.

In the Plut-Hassler conversations, it's two old friends, former teaching colleagues, going at it, novel after novel, beginning with "Staggerford" and ending with "The Dean's List."

These fellows are obviously having a great time, not just talking about the symbolism in this or that book, but also making small talk about their shared enthusiasms, about how Hassler was inspired to write this book or that.

You'll find lots of confessions in these pages: Hassler calls "Staggerford," " high school teaching book."

"My most wholly imagined book, 'Simon's Night' (was) about a 76-year-old English professor....I, at 45, included quite a few scenes from my own life -- my physical examination, my voting for Franklin Pierce in the election of 1976, etc.

"The case of multiple sclerosis that plays such a prominent role in 'The Love Hunter' was actually that of a friend of mine named Bob Nielson. We were young teachers together in the late '50s in Fosston, when he contracted the disease.

"In 'A Green Journey' Agatha a composite of my mother, myself, and an unmarried schoolteacher aunt of mine who used to come and live with us in the summers...."

And so it goes. You'll have a wonderful time romping through the past quarter century with Hassler and his pal Plut.


If you had a fondness for John Updike's "Roger's Version," you'll probably go for "Solar," by Ian McEwan (Nan Talese/Doubleday, $26.95).

Britisher McEwan has stylistics and wit to match Updike and his new book has a plot similar to "Roger's Version," in which the brilliant Harvard theology professor is cuckolded by one of his annoying graduate students, who is also trying to use his computer to prove the existence of God. It's all very sexy and funny.

That's true of "Solar," in which a physicist named Beard, the hero, is continually annoyed by Tom Aldous, a hippy lab assistant who is also busily cuckolding Beard, with Beard's sixth wife, Patrice.

But that's not the half of it. Beard is a Nobel laureate and he's actively engaged fighting climate change. So there's lots of satire along the way about British bureaucracy, manners, customs, which also call to mind Evelyn Waugh's works from the 1930s and '40s.

Beard is fat, lazy, dishonest and also bears similarities to the hero of Kingsley Amis' "One Fat Englishman."

McEwan is so good it's tempting to quote the whole book. Here's a sample of his view on modern art in the British Isles:

"She had constructed for the Tate Modern (Gallery), a scaled up Monopoly set on a playing field in Catford, each side of the painted board a hundred meters long, a space one could stroll about in with life-size-houses on Park Lane and the Old Kent Road.

One could enter to observe unequal distribution of wealth. In the empty homes of the Mayfair Rich, tapestries, wood cuts by Durer, and discarded champagne bottles, while down the Old Kent Road, among the East End poor, junk food wrappers, discarded syringes, a TV playing soaps....."

That's alarmingly close to the truth, isn't it?

Poor David's Almanac: This day was a big one in literature. In 735, The Venerable Bede, author of "A Religious History of England," died in a monastery.

In 1703, the politician-diarist died in England.

In 1770, Oliver Goldsmith published "The Deserted Village" and, wonder of wonders, in 1917 W. Somerset Maugham got married -- to a woman.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9664.