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Dave Wood's Book Report, Oct. 8, 2008

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Every once in awhile, you read a book that makes you hopping mad. When I was in college, my grandfather gave me an old book by Upton Sinclair, entitled "The Jungle."

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"The Jungle" was a diatribe on the evils of capitalism set in the packing houses of Chicago, circa 1900. It told the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkin, who worked at a packing plant that seemed very much like Armour.'' Jurgis has all kinds of adventures. His colleagues fall into meat grinders and come out as breakfast sausages, employers cheat him out of his salary, saloons take what's left. Finally, Jurgis sees the light and becomes a socialist.

And so did I, for about three weeks. Finding no socialists in Eau Claire willing to admit they were (this was the McCarthy Era), I dropped out of the party.

Upton Sinclair's book had little success as a political diatribe. But President Theodore Roosevelt read it after eating a big breakfast of Armour sausage, called his Senate cronies and got the Pure Food and Drug law passed. Sinclair, with no little irony, said, "I aimed for America's heart, but hit it in the stomach."

OK. Here's a new book that will also set your teeth on edge: "The Scotia Widows," by Gerald M. Stern (Random House, $20)

Stern is a Washington lawyer who was approached back in the 1970s by the widows of Kentucky coal miners, who had died because the Blue Diamond Coal Co., had literally sent the young men to their deaths by not training them, not providing them with proper safety devices. The Scotia mine in which they worked was known to have unacceptable levels of methane gas three miles into the bowels of the Earth, yet they sent the men down to their deaths.

The Scotia explosion in 1976 led to new laws about mining safety, but that didn't help the young widows. Blue Diamond offered them $25,000 each for their loss, but the widows hung tough, convinced Stern to come and help them. The case went on for years, Stern's firm ran up huge debts, the widows persevered. Finally, Blue Diamond offered them more money. Not enough, said the widows. We're not in this just for the money, we're in it to put the screws to you. They took a very big chance and they succeeded, the group getting millions for the losses they suffered.

But not before we find that the widows' neighbors who hadn't lost their husbands persecuted them because "King Coal" provided their livelihoods. Not before we find that the original judge in the case proved a rceful adversary (he had money invested in coal mines).

It's a great story with bittersweet but fairly happy ending, as Stern points out the dead miners' kids had money to go to college and keep out of the hellholes the coal companies sent their parents to.

Were you prudent this year and covered your tomatoes before the first frost? I hope so because I just received a very informative book about drying food from the grocery store when there's a good sale or from the garden when your freezer is full. It's "Food Drying with an Attitude," by Mary T. Bell (Skyhorse Publishing, $14.95).

As someone who has only dried herbs and tomatoes in my kitchen oven, this book was a real eye opener.

Bell, who manages an ecology center outside Lanesboro, Minn., tells about how she began drying foods when she was financially strapped as a single mother and college student. Now she dries everything that's in danger of going bad. Like yogurt! This is a fine book for the expert and the neophyte.

Centuries ago I had a college roommate who was worried about his Freshman English course, but thought he knew a shortcut to success. He's write the assigned essay in his own words, then he'd grab his brand new Roget's Thesaurus and find synonyms for ALL substantive verbs and nouns, adverbs and adjectives in his essay..

Duane never made it past mid-semester.

"Stroll and Walk, Babble and Talk," by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Brian Gable (Millbrook Press, $15.95) is yet another language lesson for kids from Lerner Publications of Minneapolis. This one is about synonyms, and features two cats who give the lesson. It's lots more fun than Roget's Thesaurus and less likely to get you into trouble.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554

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