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Book Report: What readers crave: Clear, lively wordplay

Today we'll examine two new books that have to do with good writing by writers who are indeed very good.

One such writer is Verlyn Klinkenborg, who burst onto the literary scene 30 years ago.

Nowadays he writes editorial pieces for the New York Times. But 30 years ago he was teaching at Carleton College, and so I reviewed his first book simply because it had Minnesota connections.

I was bowled over.

The book was called "Making Hay."

That year I was elected to the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I was sort of their token rube.

Timothy Foote of Smithsonian magazine asked our group if anyone had read this fellow Klinkenborg. I was the only member to respond in the affirmative.

"What is it about, this 'Making Hay,' I assume it's a metaphor for something," said Poet Elizabeth Harwick.

I replied that it wasn't a metaphor, but a book about making hay.

Cutting it, raking it, picking it up and putting it in the barn.

"My gawd," replied Hardwick, "What's this world coming to?"

"Making Hay" became a minor classic and Klinkenborg went on to fame with other books, including the wonderful, "The Last Fine Time," a book about the rise and fall of his father-in-law's saloon in Hamtramck, Mich., which is a metaphor for what's wrong with Detroit.

And now he's out with "Several Short Sentences about Writing" (Knopf, $22) in which he gives fledgling writers short and sweet rules a writer should live by.

For example, if someone once told you that you shouldn't begin a sentence with "and," ignore it.

Another: "You've been taught to believe that short sentences are childish" so you write long ones that become "a desert of jargon and weak constructions, a land of linguistic barbarism, a place where it's nearly impossible to write with clarity or directness...."

True, you can sound quite grown-up, in the manner of college professors and journalists and experts in every field -- you may be a college professor, a journalist, or an expert in some field.

How well do they write? How much do you enjoy reading them?

Enough said.

Our next writer of note is as unknown as Klinkenborg was 30 years ago.

"Unless You Count Birds: Poems" (North Star Press, $12.95 paper) is Kathleen Weihe's first book and it's about time.

For years she's picked up prizes and placed individual poems in various publications, but "Unless You Count Birds" is the first time the range of her interests gets a chance to shine at its brightest.

She's good with children, as in "A Daughter and the Moon:"

"You cocked your head back, laughing,

and looked for the moon from the roving

car, saying, If I'm happy, you're happy-right?

Oh, how could I tell you when you

broke from the warm egg, that it was

not your job to make me laugh?"

And she captures old folks with warmth and precision, as in "Portrait of my Mother at 86:"

"She sits in the eggshell glow of 4 p.m.,

cricket clatter pearling against repose,

and she's finally polished down to here and now

to her can't-be-taken-away vast and

undying love of the remaining world

a nod to nature's nature and her own

like a beautiful small egg

she sits quiet on an unknown chair

and looks at a window wondering

whether she is outside or inside

or whether she is all of it or some of or none of it at all"

If you wonder what Marianne Moore meant when she said that "...poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them," just read Weihe's lovely book and you'll figure it out.