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Up in Stearns County they still talk about a moonshine operation called, I believe, "Minnesota 101," which made hooch so good that it continued in operation years after Prohibition was repealed. It was also big -- so big that the operation took over defunct creameries and converted them to stills. One of the stills is on display at a motel in Sauk Centre, Minn. There's a fascinating first novel about an intrepid Minnesota moonshiner by St. Paul author Mary DesJarlais. "Dorie LaValle" (North Star Press, $14.95 paper) is the moonshiner's name and she's not a Stearns County resident.
Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis has figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone. Milkweed is primarily known for adult fiction of high literary quality. Of course that doesn't always guarantee huge financial returns. But Milkweed is flexible and in this age of niche marketing, they've struck on cramming two niches into one book. "The Crepe Maker's Bond" ($16.95 cloth), is by Julie Crabtree, who earlier won Milkweed's Prize for children's literature with a novel, "Discovering Pig Magic." Her new book is aimed at middle schoolers, adolescents.
Thank goodness for university presses. While the big New York publishers languish, academic presses previously concerned with arcane subject matter have again and again taken up the slack and published books for the general reader. The University of Minnesota Press is one such establishment. St. Paul author Larry Millett formerly published his fascinating Minnesota mysteries involving Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and St. Paul barkeep and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty with Viking Penguin in New York City.
"Driving on the Rim," by Thomas McGuane (Knopf, $26.95), is definitely not a novel about the tire shortage during World War II, when some people actually did drive on their rims. No, the wildly talented McGuane has created a character who metaphorically has driven his whole life "on the rim." His character is I. B. "Berl" Pickett, M.D. His Christian name is Irving Berlin Pickett and was named by his mother, a very Christian -- nay crazy -- woman, a Pentecostal to the core.
Peg Meier has hit the jackpot. Peg is a former colleague of mine and has written a passel of bestselling books of popular history, including "Bring Warm Clothes," gleaned from newspaper reports and the rich data stored at the Minnesota Historical Society. Last year, she wrote another hummer, called "Wishing for a Snow Day," which required research about how kids have lived in Minnesota for the past 150 years. In her research at the society, she ran across an old diary written by Clotilde "Coco" Irvine, of the famous and fabulously wealthy Irvine family.
Author Belva Plain died last year, just after completing her 22nd novel, all of them bestsellers. The latest is "Heartwood," (Delacorte Press, $24.95). I had never read a novel by this ubiquitous writer who was almost continuously on the bestseller lists ever since I began reviewing. So, in honor of her memory, I read this latest. Turns out that Belva Plain was no prose stylist. Her sentences are short, choppy and often full of clichés.
Eric Dregni, a professor at Concordia University-St. Paul has a deft touch when it comes to titles. One that attracted me a while back was "In Cod We Trust," a light-hearted account of visiting relatives in Norway and explaining customs he and his wife discovered there. Now he's out with a somewhat scary title, "Vikings in the Attic" (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95), in which he characterizes Midwestern Scandinavianism and some of the peculiar marks they have made on our culture and some memorable markers as well. Peculiar?
My wife and I have several friends who are enamored of Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith, author of several series of books, including the "The Isabel Dalhousie," the "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" series, the "Corduroy Mansion" series and the "44 Scotland Street" series. Most especially they like his "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. Last year, HBO made the latter into a television series. After we watched the first episode, we never missed one. And so when Smith's "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" (Pantheon, $24.95) came across my desk, I jumped right in. Now I'm enamored.
A reprint of 2007's "Going to Extremes" by Harvard professor Cass Sunstein (Oxford University Press, $15.95 paper) couldn't have appeared at a better time than right now. Here as I write this review, we've been at a stand-off since Governor Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining. Walker should read "Going to Extremes" and so should the Democrats in exile over in Illinois. Debate the issue, Sunstein advises, rather than curling up with your like-minded compatriots.
I'm the last person to claim I've ever been on the cutting edge of anything -- until now. Thirty years ago, I wrote a little book. I created a publishing company. My wife drew its logo on a wet cocktail napkin. I hired a printer and my first book came out. It was called "Wisconsin Life Trip," supposedly an answer to Michael Lesey's weird bestseller, "Wisconsin Death Trip." In short, I self-published at a time when it wasn't too common. In fact, my friends thought I was nuts. And my enemies wrote graffiti on my posters at the college where I taught.