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A few years with a famous author, jazz in the Twin Cities, life in the Dakotas in 1936 for this week

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Ernest Hemingway is by no means a beloved American author in the minds of many people.

He had his moments as a novelist when he turned out books like "The Sun Also Rises," but he had his bad moments as well, not only as an author, but also as a human being.

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He was boorish, cruel to friends like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and full of himself.

Woody Allen's recent movie, "Midnight in Paris," shows both sides, as Hemingway helps a young writer meet Gertrude Stein, but also bores that writer to death with his "Hemingway-esque" platitudes.

"Hemingway's Boat," by Paul Hendrickson (Knopf, $30) does pretty much the same thing.

Hendrickson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Sons of Mississippi," ties the Hemingway story together with the author's famous boat, "Pilar," which he purchased in 1934 and sailed on until his death in 1961.

Hendrickson's subtitle pretty much tells it all: "Everthing He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961."

*****

Finally, and not too soon, authors are telling the wonderful story of jazz in the Twin Cities.

First it was "Joined at the Hip," a comprehensive history of the musicians who made the Twin Cities a great place to hear jazz.

Now there's a book that zeroes in on one great musician titled "The Percy Hughes Story," by Jim Swanson (Nodin Press, $19.95 paper). Swanson was himself a musician but opted for a career in teaching instead. But his love of music and of Percy Hughes and his collaborators (Red Wolfe among them) drew him into a municipal concert band with a seat near Hughes.

After many hours of interviews, we get a fine picture of Hughes, whom I remember listening to at private parties held each New Year's Day at financial consultant Steve Leuthold's flat.

Also included is a disc of Hughes playing old standards with the Red Wolfe Quartet.

*****

My father could never get the year 1936 out of his head. That's the year I was born, but not the reason he talked about the year until the day he died.

Back then he was just 26 years old, a beginning farmer. Not only was The Great Depression miring America deeper and deeper and deeper, veal calves sold for $1. Grasshoppers stripped whole fields. And the weather was miserable -- all year long.

He recalled that he got up before milking to cut oats because the horses couldn't stand the heat once the sun was up. And in winter it was so cold, you didn't dare ride in a horse drawn sleigh to the woodlot because you'd freeze to death. So you ran alongside the sleigh just to keep warm.

He never said so, but he probably thought that 1936 was the year that God forgot us.

That's the title of a very touching new novel by Dennis Nau (North Star Press, $14.95). Here's how it opens:

"Nineteen thirty-six was the year we were all cursed. The Depression had hit like a prairie storm when it finally arrived in full force in '31. Sure, we heard about the stock-market panic in '29, but we didn't much give a damn. Nobody around my town owned any stock, so who cared if all these stock-brokers were jumping out of windows...and jumping in front of trains? Bankers were even shooting themselves in the head. 'They got the country into this mess,' people said. It only seemed like just desserts....The winter of '36 almost killed us, it was so bad. Well, it did kill some of us...."

These are the words of Johnny, who runs a restaurant in a tiny North Dakota town. He's a likeable fellow and he tells us the story of what happened that terrible year. He introduces the customers in his restaurant who can barely afford a cup of coffee and a mysterious stranger who arrives in a black Hudson sedan every week and fills its gas tank with water, pours in a dusty compound then drives off to his next stop.

Pastor Holmquist tells them that the crop failure is a "sign" from God.

"We are a lost race unless we give up our hootchie kootchie music, cussing and dancing."

Johnny's response?

"The worse things got, the more people danced and listened to that music."

And so it goes until World War II and its aftermath.

I loved reading Dennis Nau's narrative style. It was just like talking to my late father.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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