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Dave Wood's Book Report, Jan. 14, 2009

Years ago, I saw a wonderful Twilight Zone episode in which a small time newspaper editor sold his soul to the devil in order to save his newspaper. The devil was played by Burgess Meredith, who arrives at the newspaper and tells the hero he is a linotype operator and would like to go to work.

A deal is struck and the devil begins typing. He types of a fatal traffic accident on the edge of town, and other catastrophes unknown to the town as a whole and the hero's competition. The hero prints the devil's stories; they appear in his paper the next morning. He has scooped the competition!

"Going to See the Elephant," by Rodes Fishburne (Delacorte Press, $22) takes its cue from this fascinating idea. His hero is Slater Brown, who goes to San Francisco to make his fortune and fails miserably. To keep body and soul together he signs on with a down-at-the-heels give-away weekly, the Morning Trumpet.

Nothing much happens until he meets a Mexican mystic who confers powers on Slater not unlike those possessed by the Burgess Meredith devil. But of course there's a price to pay, but you'll have to buy the book to find out what it is.

Coincidentally, author Fishburne does a marvelous job describing the sights and sounds of that vaunted city by the bay.

If, like many people, you think of the early 19th century as a revolutionary time for British society, with crazy Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats distributing atheistic tracts and indulging in pagan ritual on the shores of the Aegean and you think of 18th century British society as a society dominated by minuets, whist parties and stuffy piano recitals and poetry readings, think again and read "The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies," by Evelyn Lord (Yale University Press, no price). As a student of 18th century literature, I heard inklings of secret societies and the big shots like the Earl of Rochester belonging to them.

But it took Lord to fill in the blanks with meticulous research and even wonderful photos and drawings of the hijinks that went on in British high society, the violence, sexual indulgence and religious blasphemy that became the unspoken calling cards of people from John Wilkes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Prince of Wales. (Some say that Ben Franklin smuggled this movement into the colonies.)

Lord has a puckish sense of humor. Of John Wilkes she writes:

"He was a radical, a libertine, whose treatment of his wife was reprehensible, but he was a loving and supportive father to his children, legitimate and illegitimate.

My wife and I are a family of two and despite our comfortable lower middle class status, I'm scared of lots of things. I can only speak for myself but I admit that I fear the nation's financial collapse, I fear war with God knows who next. I fear Alzheimer's. And I fear cancer. Both of us have been stricken, both of us survived and now we hope it won't come back.

With that as a background, I was pleased to receive a copy of "Facing Fear: Cancer and Politics, Courage and Hope," by Judith Strasser (Borderland Books, $19.95).

Strasser lives in Madison and before she became a full-time writer she was the producer of a national radio program, "To the Best of Our Knowledge."

In her new book she deftly mixes the news that she has stomach cancer, a fearful prospect, with all the fearful political upheavals that wrack our world, specifically zeroing in on murders in mayhem close to home and as far away as Columbia.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.