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Dave Wood's Book Report, June. 17, 2009

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Two novels merit your attention for your trip Up North, when rain is pounding down on the tin roof of your cottage and the fish haven't been biting for days.

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"Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, $26.95). Recognize the author? He wrote a fine non-fiction book years ago that described his experiences as a medical doctor in Tennessee. "My Own Country" was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle for best non-fiction of 1994.

Now the M.D. who teaches in the med school at Stanford, has made the difficult transition from non-fiction to fiction. "Cutting for Stone" cuts a wide swath, as it begins at a mission hospital in Ethiopia, then India, then Yemen, finally ending in a New York inner city hospital.

Author Mark Salzman says of Verghese's first novel "Absolutely fantastic ... This book should be a huge success. It has everything: nuns, conjoined twins, civil war, and medicine. If Vikram Seth and Oliver Sacks were to collaborate on a four-hour episode of 'Grey's Anatomy' set in Africa, they could only hope to come up with something this moving and entertaining."

"Sag Harbor," by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $24.95) tells the story of Benji Cooper, a Negro preppie, who goes to an elite Eastern prep school and spends his summers at his elite Negro parent's summer place in the Hamptons, an enclave of elite black professional people and their children.

As you might expect, Benji is as confused in his all black summer environment as he is at the mostly white school in Manhattan.

Too often book reviewers are inundated with books they have little reason to burrow into. Books about 9th century Rome or meticulously researched studies of the flora and fauna of central Iowa. But then every once in awhile an obscure book comes up that suits this reviewer to a tee.

Years back just before we were scheduled to spend a month in Tuscany, I received a wonderful book, "Love and War in the Apennines" by a London drama critic, Eric Newby, who told of his adventures as am escaped POW who made his way across the rugged Italian countryside, working as a hired man for various sympathetic Italian farmers. We took the book along and followed his adventures. Wonderful.

This month we're headed to Augusta, Ga., to attend the wedding of our niece, Ashley Pirsig. It's a long way, so we intend to make a trip of it and cruise around some of our favorite southern spots, which we haven't visited for years.

Imagine my delight when I received a review copy of "Narrow Dog to Indian River," by Terry Darlington (Delta, $15).

Darlington is a British adman whose hobby is running canal boats with his wife Monica on the British canals. His last book describes his trip on a French canal to Arcsine.

In the new outing, he ships his 60 foot barge, top speed 4 km per hour, and 6-foot-10-inches wide to Norfolk, Va., where he plans to head down the intracoastal highway to Florida.

The natives tell him he's lost his marbles, for this is no 7-foot-wide canal, but real water.

Undaunted he takes off with Monica, who also thinks he's nuts and Jim, his Whippet pup, then records his adventures as they cruise along and visit towns like Charleston, making comments on southern folkways and mores.

He can't figure out why beer tastes so bad in the U.S. and wonders how anyone could drink gallons of sweetened iced tea.

But he does it in good humor and I plan to use the book on our trip this year as a supplement to our travel guides, which describe everything as wonderful.

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.

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