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Dave Wood's Book Report, March 18, 2009

Sports, restaurants and graphic novels make a variety of good reads.

Baseball is getting underway, so for a behind-the-scenes look could I suggest "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training," by Charles Fountain (Oxford University Press, $24.95)?

Northeastern University journalism professor Fountain has finally told us the story of how spring training got started about 100 years ago. It was definitely a shoestring operation, designed to work the winter fat off overindulgent Sultans of Swat from both leagues.

Today it's a billion-dollar business attracting hundreds of thousands of fans who prefer their games in the relaxed sunshine and can't wait for the season to begin.

OK, OK. For the countless fans who haven't heard or seen enough of Brett Favre, there's a new book that deftly analyzes his playing style and then highlights the high points of his best games.

"Favre: His Twenty Greatest Games" by Doug Moe (Trails Books, $18.95 paper) is a hefty tome by Madison sportswriter Moe, who says, "Joe Montana moved his San Francisco 49ers teams down the field like a chess master. Favre might have been at the roulette table, blowing on a pair of dice."

Trails Books has other titles for Packer fans, including my favorite, "Vagabond Half Back: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally," "Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry," by Gary D'Amato and Cliff Christi and "After They Were Packers," by Jerry Poling, which profiles many Packers in retirement.

And that's not the only book news from the region. I was floored by a new coffee table book that didn't bring back memories as much as introduce topics I thought were lost to me.

As a lad, I delivered the Winona Republican-Herald to 90 customers in Whitehall. Each year this estimable sheet published a big story about a restaurant in nearby Minnesota City. It was the Oaks and it was a restaurant in the boonies that was so good the Minnesota Gourmet Club held its annual meeting their every year I delivered the paper.

The Republican-Herald also printed the club's menu and some recipes. One is etched in my brain, "Bleu Truite." To prepare, you take a brook trout, slice out its innards and when it's still wiggling you toss it in boiling stock, during which time it turns blue and re-conforms itself into a semicircle.

The Oaks was gone (it's a warehouse now) before I got old enough to go, but my father occasionally went there and talked mysteriously of slot machines, etc, etc. In the new book I mention, I finally got to see a picture of the Oaks dining room (very glossy) and other restaurants I have only heard of and many where I bellied up to the table.

"Minnesota Eats Out," by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky, with recipes by Eleanor Ostman (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $34.95), makes one long for the old days when there were a few restaurants, but ones that hung around for years. Nowadays, most restaurants succumb to the latest fad after a few years and are replaced by others that become all the rage.

I speak of Harry's, Charlie's, The Criterion, Gannon's, Chateau de Paris in the Dyckmann Hotel. Those old warhorses are all pictured in this very big book.

And for frosting on the café, St. Paul food writer Eleanor Ostman has dug into her trunk to provide recipes from some of the great restaurants, including Charlie's potato salad and the barbecued shrimp served at Murray's, which, miraculously, still exists.

Lerner Publications of Minneapolis celebrates its 50th anniversary in publishing with a new imprint called Graphic Universe.

"Graphic" you say? Does that mean they're publishing picture books, comic books?

Well, yes in a way, but don't reject them just yet. I did that years ago and lived to regret it.

I was sitting around a table with a bunch of New York reviewers who were raving about a book called "Maus" by a man named Art Spiegelman. I hadn't heard of it or him.

When I asked, a colleague what it was he told me it was a "graphic novel" about the Holocaust.

My golly, I thought, has it come to this? New York intellectuals reading comic books?

But it was nominated for an award, so I read it. I was dumbstruck how good it was. Spiegelman tells the story based on the life of his father, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. In the book, the balloons of which are loaded with saucy dialogue, his father is portrayed as a mouse. His Polish neighbors all look like pigs.

And the German invaders? They're cats.

Spiegel went on to fame and fortune with this book and its sequel and a whole new era of visual literature has sprung up. Just look at TV: "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," et al. -- mature cartoon strips that I try not to miss.

So now Lerner is out with three graphic books for kids 9 to 14, books which originally appeared in France and are now redone in English. They're titled "The Elsewhere Chronicles" Books One, Two and Three, by StoryNykko and Art Bannister (Graphic Universe, $6.95 per volume). As in all Lerner Publications they're beautifully turned out in full color and with a strong binding. Happy birthday, Lerner!

Dave would like to hear from you. Call him at (715) 426-9554.