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Dave Wood's Book Report, April 23, 2008

As a big Helen Mirren fan, I dove into her new memoir like a bobbysoxer and her new copy of Photoplay. Mirren's "Helen Mirren: In the Frame" (Atria Books, $35) is a joy in both its narrative and graphics. In fact, it reminds me more of a personal photo album than a standard autobiography, which usually separates text from the ubiquitous glossy pages full of tiny photos.

Mirren's book, on the other hand, begins with photos from her family's past in Russia, where her aristocratic grandfather was an emissary for Czar Nicholas II. When the czar and is family were murdered in Ekaterinburg, Grandpa Miranov was stranded in London with a trunk full of photos. The family stayed in England, saved the photos and many of them have found their way into Mirren's new book.

From there on we have photos of Mirren growing up, Mirren making news in a newspaper headline announcing that she was "Stratford's Very Own Sex Queen." It's all very delicious to those of us who never got to England to see her the pulchritudinous young woman on stage and only remember her as detective Jane Tennessen on TV, both Queen Elizabeths, I and II, and of course the touchingly funny "Calendar Girls," a movie based on a factual event in which middle-aged British women posed nude for a calendar to raise money for a cancer ward.

Years before, of course, Mirren got her start on the London stage in 1965, picked up all sorts of awards and controversies along the way, including Academy Award nominations for "The Madness of King George" and "Gosford Park."

She finally hit pay dirt with an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in 2006. The book concludes with pictures and text about her marriage to American film director Taylor Hackford.

Accompanying the photos, many of them in color, is text, some of it handwritten, as in a photo album, some of it in very readable typography.

On the regional front and just in time for election year is "Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History," by Robert Fowler (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 paper).

Fowler, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, has written the first such book about Wisconsin voting, and its fascinating look at how ethnicity and religion intertwine with politics as Badger voters go to the polls.

Especially interesting are sections on Wisconsin's distinctive third parties, especially the Progressives, the Socialists and even the Prohibitionists. (My grandfather ran for the state senate on the Prohibition ticket at the turn of the century. He garnered very few votes.)

As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of taking a history course from a fine teacher, Howard Lutz. He was a gaunt, soft-spoken man, a Quaker. And he loved to tell about his experiences during World War II, when as a conscientious objector, he participated in the starvation experiments at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Lutz said not eating was so bad, except on Saturday afternoons when the Golden Gophers played football just above their experimental offices in the bowels of old Memorial stadium. "Then, he recalled, it was very difficult. Where we were we couldn't smell the hot dogs and onions and mustard, but we knew they were up there above us and thousands of people were eating them.

Howard Lutz is one of the folks mentioned in a new book, "The Great American Starvation Experiment," by Todd Tucker (University of Minnesota Press, $17.95 paper).

Tucker explains it all began when the University's Dr. Ancel Keys, who had already developed the K-ration and would later warn of the dangers of cholesterol, decided it would be a good idea to put 36 volunteers on a starvation diet to determine how best to deal with starving refugees once World War II was over.

The book is full of tales of sacrifice and pictures of volunteers before and after their bouts with starvations.

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