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Dave Wood's Book Report, Dec. 31, 2008

Two talented upper Midwestern writers with ethnic interests headline today's book report.

The first is by University of Wiscosnin-Superior poet and fiction writer Anthony Bukoski. It's a collection of short stories, Bukoski's fifth book, entitled "North of the Port" (Southern Methodist University Press, $22.50).

Bukoski, who grew up in Superior, sets most of his stories on the port city's east end, a Polish ghetto in the throes of change.

There's a fine tension created in all of the stories, as in the one set on Assumption Day, 1950, when "thousands of threadlike strands began falling from a sky as blue as the Virgin's robes.

Old women leaving Mass in the East Ed of Superior ... cried, 'Look up there! Here are Jesus' white hairs. He is unhappy with the world!"

Not so, explained a biologist from the local state college. Just orb-web spiders hatching their young ....

You get the picture.

"In Cod We Trust," by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95) tells the story of Dregni, a professor at Concordia University, St. Paul, whose great-grandfather left Norway for the U.S. more than a century ago, when Norway was Europe's poorest country. Today, it's one of the richest thanks to North Sea oil.

Great-grandson Eric returns to Norway with a pregnant wife in tow and recounts is sometimes hilarious, sometime poignant experiences in the motherland.

Nostalgia alert! Genny Zak Kiely, author of three books about Northeast Minneapolis, has expanded her horizons with "Green Stamps to Hot Pants: Growing Up in the 50s and 60s" (Nodin Press, $19.95 paper).

Photos and text about prom night, about shopping at Donaldson's, about hula hoops, and about eating at the Forum Cafeteria.

This is a delicious olio of memories about the days when Minnesota was innocence personified. It makes you want to go back, doo-wop, doo-wop.

Theatre buffs would love to receive "In Spite of Myself: A Memoir," (Knopf, $29.95), a tell all autobiography of Christopher Plummer, who has now spent six decades onstage with some of the greatest actors and directors in the history of theatre.

Plummer grew up in the lap of Canadian luxury. One ancestor was a governor general, another owned railroads, but Plummer lowered himself to be an actor and a very good one at that, as well as a notorious playboy and imbiber.

His stories about the drinking life with Jason Robards Jr., are priceless as are his stories about the famous personages he shared the stage with.

Katherine Cornell, who rode in a private train, Orson Welles, Michael Caine, fellow Canadian Raymond Massey and Laurence Olivier ("A great actor and a lousy director").

He tells of working under Michael Langham at the Guthrie where he did Cyrano and the conflicts that surrounded the production when choreographer Michael Kidd locked horns with Langham.

Plummer isn't shy about giving his opinion. About Elia Kazan: "If you weren't careful, this chameleon of chameleons might change into you, wear your skin, steal your soul." Of Judith Anderson, he said "A little Tasmanian devil ... who with one look could turn an audience to stone." Of Jason Robards: "His blood was mixed with firewater."

What distinguishes this 650-page book from other film autobiographies is Plummer's long tenure as an actor.

His book bridges the gap between the first actors and directors with whom he worked -- Guthrie McClintic, Katherine Cornell, Peggy Ashcroft and the ones he works with today, like Judy Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, and his own daughter Amanda Plummer

Happy New Year!

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554.