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Book Report: Make a choice from this bevy of books

More than 20 years ago, John Casey won the National Book Award for "Spartina," an epic about the people who live along an estuary in Rhode Island.

Critics said it was one of the best novels to come along in years.

Now Casey, an English professor at the University of Virginia, picks up where he left off with "Compass Rose" (Knopf, $27.95), a continuation of the adventures of small town folk who live and die along the estuary.

Rose is the daughter of a local, Elsie, whose little Rose was born out of wedlock, the result of an affair Elsie had with her married neighbor, a local fisherman.

Of course everyone in the little community knows about it. Elsie doesn't seem to care and miraculously Rose becomes an "adoptee" of everyone in town. She becomes the glue that attaches Elsie to the rest of the town and counsels her mother: "Face it Mom, we live in a tiny ecosystem.

Casey's strength is his ability to plumb the depths of the ecosystem and come up with a reality that deepens our perception of life.


There's a bevy of books for widely diverse tastes as we head into the depths of winter.

Dog lovers will certainly resonate to Rita Mae Brown's new book, "A Nose for Justice" (Ballantine, $25).

Brown has made her name with a cat character named "Sneaky Pie Brown." Now she switches to canines, with a story about Mags Rogers and her wirehaired dachshund, the urbane Baxter, who make their way to Mags' aunt Jeep's ranch in Nevada, where they run into all manner of trouble, including Jeep's own dog, a German shepherd mix named King.


Alan Dean Foster's "The Human Blend" (Ballantine/Del Ray, $26) will thrill science fiction buffs that remember stories like Kurt Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House."

Foster creates a futuristic society where criminals are punished by altering their bodies. In his new book, one antagonist is Whispr, who has been made extraordinarily thin. His pal is Jiminy Cricket, who has been altered with nanocarbonic legs that give him the ability to jump like -- well -- a cricket. They're partners in crime and, one night in Savannah, they kill a tourist in order to amputate his hand and sell it on the black market.

The plot thickens when Whispr is injured and taken to a doctor, Ingrid Seastrom, Harvard-educated and totally normal. They form a partnership to elude some assassins who are tracking them.


If short stories are to your liking, you can't do better than Charles Baxter's latest collection out this month, "Gryphon: New and Selected Stories" (Pantheon, $27.95).

Baxter has a remarkable ability to make the commonplace seem eerie, the eerie seem commonplace.

As you read his stories you can't help thinking about the goals Wordsworth and Coleridge set for themselves before the publication of "Lyrical Ballads," which heralded the beginning of the Romantic Movement. Coleridge was supposed to make outlandish events commonplace and Wordsworth was to do the opposite.

Baxter, in one story, tells of a substitute teacher -- how commonplace can that be? -- who arrives in the classroom and begins to tell students their fortunes with a deck of Tarot cards.

In another story, "Harmony in the World," we find Harrelson, a drunken nerd, trying to finish his doctoral dissertation on dating the poems of Fulke Greville. His life is very outlandish, but if you've ever gone to graduate school, you'll know that it's fairly commonplace, right down to the Campbell's celery soup he's cooking -- his very favorite.

Of Baxter's work, William Maxwell has written, "Nobody can touch Baxter in the field that he has carved out for himself."

I concur.

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