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Dave Wood's Book Report, Feb. 20, 2008

Here's a potpourri of books to get you through the shortest month of the year.

"The Expeditions," by Karl Iagnemma (Dial, $4) is an intensely crafted historical novel that begins in the Detroit of the 1840s and moves on to the Upper Peninsula as our hero Elisha Stone goes on an expedition of discovery. Before he leaves Detroit, he writes to his mother back in Massachusetts. Unbeknownst to Elisha his mother has died, so his estranged father, a preacher, reads the letter and sets out to find his son.

When it comes to downright evil in the 20th Century, it's difficult to top Adolph Hitler and his rival Joe Stalin.We probably have too many books about Der Fuehrer, but not so many about the divinity student/poet who beat Hitler and bamboozled both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote a fine book about Stalin called "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" a few years back. Now he's out with a "prequel," entitled "Young Stalin" (Knopf, $30)

Montefiore takes us behind the scenes in pre-communist Russia when Stalin worked as a bank robber, arsonist, pirate, extortionist and shows how his early life in the Caucasus proved a fine breeding ground for his talent for terrorism.

I'll probably get in trouble with the American Medical Association for this one, but I've got to tell you it's a fascinating book. "Body Signs," by Joan Liebmann-Smith and Jacqueline Nardi Egan (Bantam, $25) is billed as a book that explains warning signs and false alarms ... "How to be your own diagnostic detective." It's full of fun stuff, with chapters like "Your Nose Knows" which tells you about sun sneezing, runny noses, smelling problems. One I especially liked was Chapter 8, "Private Parts, Farts and Body Wastes" and how to analyze them.

I'm not saying you should fire your doctor, but it doesn't hurt to know what's going on in your temple before making that trip to the clinic, told by medical journalists Liebmann-Smith and Egan.

On the regional front there's "Behind the Cameras," by Ralph Canton (Nodin Press, $17.95 paper). It's Volume 2 of Canton's Minnesotans in the Movies. His first dealt with movie stars. This one deals with producers like Ted Mann, Sarah Pillsbury, Bill Pohland and Mike Todd. Also directors like George Roy Hill, Gordon Parks, Hy Averback; screenwriters like Joel and Ethan Coen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Franken, Judith Guest, and Max Shulman. Also impressive is a description of Minnesota authors whose books have been made into movies: Charles Baxter, Jon Hassler, Thomas Heggen, Tim O'Brien, Anne Tyler, Will Weaver, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Kathleen Winsor.

Minnesota publisher Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner publications is out with a new book in the popular "Mallory" series, by Laurie Friedman. This one is "Campfire Mallory," Jennifer Kalis, illustrator ($15.95). It's all about summer camp and Mallory's troubles once she gets there. It might make a fine gift for someone on your list who is hesitant about spending her first year at camp.

Lerner's Millbrook imprint is out with "The Laugh Stand," by Brian P.Cleary ($16.95), a book certain to tie kids' brains in a knot which with work and mental exercise they can loosen. Cleveland author Cleary is a wordsmith and makes use of his talents with concocting riddles out of the richness of our language. One chapter is entitled "The Obfuscation Station." The riddle: "The member of a ship's crew requires a human being whose occupation involves the alteration of outer garments." The answer: "The sailor needed a tailor." In the anagram chapter, Cleary really shows off: "ELVIS sells VEILS and LEVIS and preaches against EVILS to anyone who LIVES close by."

Fun, eh? And better for a kid than most video games.

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