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Book Report: Spear autobiography, how to shake hands in three easy lessons offered this week

When I first moved to Minneapolis, 40 years ago, there was a young firebrand professor at the University of Minnesota, who was in the newspaper a good deal of the time.

He was a leader in the anti-war movement and a young turk in the DFL party. His name was Allan Spear.

Allan Spear was also gay, one of the first prominent Minnesotans to come out of the closet, no mean achievement for a man who was a Minnesota state senator.

Before he died in 2008, Spear began writing his memoir. He was almost finished before his death. John Milton has finished it off for him and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank has contributed an introduction.

"Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H. Spear" (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95) is a fascinating look at Minnesota politics during the last third of the 20th century and the trials and tribulations of a homosexual's coming out before that rite became fairly commonplace.

Spear writes with eloquence and a good deal of wit, pointing out that most folks thought he was a Jew from New York, when actually he came from Michigan, where his salesman father was disappointed that he liked to cook better than he liked to hunt.

But his contribution to Minnesota life is his greatest achievement and why the Minnesota State Historical Society named him one of 150 Minnesotans who shaped the state, for his fight to amend the state's Human Rights Act, his support of Eugene McCarthy for president, his service as president to the Minnesota State Senate from 1993 to 2000.

My father taught me multiplication tables by giving me a dime for everyone I learned, breaking all educational rules in the process. He taught me how to tie a Windsor knot when I got my first suit. He taught me how to drink a raw egg in a glass of beer ("don't bite down") and he taught me how to plant cucumber seeds (put in ground edgewise or the birds will see them).

But he never taught me how to drive a nail straight because he didn't know how himself.

I don't feel much let down about that because now I have a new book, "How to Build a Fire," by Erin Dried (Ballantine Books, $15 paper). It's subtitled "And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew."

But Dried, who earlier wrote "How to Sew a Button And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew," is talking about mentors my father's age, who grew up in the '20s, survived the Depression and World War II.

So I'm just going to pretend that Dried is talking about my dad. (My own grandpa's expertise didn't extend much beyond buggy whips and carving his own Muskellenge lures.)

Dried's book is a treasure trove of good advice, including how to tie a Windsor knot, even on how to shake hands, a skill many people should brush up on:

"Step 1: Greet the person. Approach him head-on, smile, and say hi before extending your hand. Otherwise, he may not see or hear you and you could be left hanging. Embarrassing!

"Step 2: Extend your right hand, palm open, thumb pointing up. In this most symbolic of gestures, you're offering your friendship by meeting in the middle.

"Step 3: Get a grip. Once you grasp hands, palm to palm, thumb to thumb, wrap your fingers around his hand firmly, look him in the eye and shake once or twice."

Dried also ads extra tips, like "If you want to convey extreme warmth or empathy, add your left hand to the shake by placing it on top of your friend's hand or on his arm."

And whatever you do, "don't try to break the bones in your pal's hand. Shake hands as you live, gentle, firm, and true."

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.