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Book Report: About those book covers...

I was told years ago by my English teacher Sara Keeler that one should never judge a book by its cover, but I couldn't resist the wrapping of Minnesota author Carla Hagen's new book from North Star Press of St. Cloud, "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane."

On the cover is a beautiful collage of photos taken by Ben Shahn when he worked for Franklin Roosevelt's FSA office.

So I jumped in.

Hagen is a first-time novelist. Can she tell a story? You betcha.

The setting is northern Minnesota, mired in the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the narrators is Emil Rousseau who comes to Baudette from New York City.

His assignment is to photograph the natives with a view to publicizing Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to relocate them to more fertile ground so they might not starve to death.

Emil checks in to a down-at-the-heels hotel in Baudette. The owner is Sadie, a half-breed who formerly ran the hotel as a House of Ill Fame during the Roaring Twenties.

Times are tough now, so she supplements her income by partnering with a fellow from Minneapolis named Magnus, who has a still up in the woods and is the area's leading bootlegger.

Prohibition is over but that doesn't mean much up in the north country.

Emil drops in at Ruby's grocery store in Williams, where he runs into Rose who can't pay her grocery bill. So he pays it for her.

This does not go over well with Rose. Why? Because Emil grew up in the neighborhood and was Rose's high school sweetheart.

But now there's a problem, Rose is married to Magnus, the bootlegger, who is somewhat crazy.

There's trouble ahead. All the characters mentioned have their say in the story, which is full of history and scenes from the Thirties, as when Rose follows Magnus to Minneapolis for an assignation, after she gets off the train at the Milwaukee Road station and trudges up Washington Avenue past the drunks in gutters and the prostitutes on every street corner.

I was charmed by this book, so thank god for the cover.

"Ghosts by Daylight," Janine di Giovanni (Knopf, $26.95), is a gripping memoir by a foreign correspondent who has a glamorous life recording events from Sarajevo to East Timor, from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

She's an Italian-American who writes for the British, American and French press, as well as being a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.

And, it turns out, the life of a foreign correspondent isn't as glamorous as the movies make it out to be. In fact, it's painful, heart-rending, if you're as sensitive as this author seems to be.

Di Giovanni meets the love of her life in Bruno, a French TV photographer, at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, marries him, and has a child by him, when Bruno's supposedly glamorous life suddenly falls apart.

Agonized by the sights he's seen and photographed, he turns to alcohol and wild behavior whenever he returns from a mission.

Di Giovanni weaves this story deftly into her own adventures, which were equally agonizing.

Recently, she returned to Sarajevo years after the bloodshed she visited to find it calm, peaceful, boulevards dotted with pizza joints and new homes that have replaced the bombed ruins she left more than a decade before.

She revisits the restored Holiday Inn, where she lived and remembers that:

"I had grown accustomed to not washing and I wore the same clothes several days in a row, I did not care. Oddly enough, even though no one washed in those days, no one seemed to smell. Once a week, I bribed the men who guarded the hotel kitchen for a pot of hot water, and with that I would set aside an hour to laboriously wash my hair and my body. My view out the plastic window was of a wasted gutted city of burned-out buildings and empty canisters that were used to deter the snipers. It was so cold that my skin peeled off in dry patches when I took off my layers of clothes...I was mentally fried."

To keep her mind off the tragedy around her, like watching artillery men shelling a children's playground, of dogs trotting along carrying unattached limbs, she develops certain rituals. Like visiting her Muslim friend Aliya, who runs the city's morgue.

Upon her return years later, she meets with Aliya and a gruff man who managed the orphanage, which housed not only orphans, but insane children and female victims of rape.

Aliya helps her reacquaint with the young people she knew and hoped were still alive and well. They weren't.