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Dave Wood's Book Report, April 8, 2009

After graduating from Harvard, Sara Houghteling studied for her master's degree in fine arts at the University of Michigan, where she received a Fulbright Scholarship to Paris and one of Michigan's highest honors, the Avery Hopwood Award for novels.

This bodes well for the young woman. Older readers may recall that Arthur Miller received a Hopwood Award when he attended Michigan several eons ago.

Houghteling's novel, "Pictures at an Exposition" (Knopf, $24.95) takes as its subject the Nazi looting of art from Paris during World War II.

In many ways it's a familiar story, immortalized by a great movie, "The Train," when Burt Lancaster, the French railroad man and Paul Scofield, the German colonel face off to see if Herman Goering is going to get another train load of art from the Jeux de Paumes in Paris.

But Houghteling's novel tells a similar story in much more depth. It's told in first person by the grandson of a Jewish artist's supply store cum art collector who amassed an amazing personal collection. ("Artists paid in paintings when they could not pay their bills. And as Renoir, Pissarro and Courbet were far better with paint than with money, the family built up a collection.")

It was later sold by the narrator's father. World War II comes, the Nazis take the collection and the narrator spends most of the rest of his life tracking down the paintings (including Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair"). He's a thoughtful melancholy narrator, who tells of neighbors like Pablo Picasso.

So if you like twentieth century history -- especially art history --this is a book you should consider, not just for the history, but for the graceful style of a promising first novelist.

On the regional front is "Baghdad Barcarolle," by Holly Windle (Nodin Press, $14.95) is a delightful account of the life of pianist Beatrice Ohanessian.

Never heard of her? Ohanessian has been called Iraq's foremost classical pianist.

So what's she doing on our regional front? Beatrice Ohanessian lived with her brother in the Twin Cities for many years before her death in 1998.

Ohanessian, whose father was an important figure in Baghdad's Armenian community and the book, by Holly Windle, communications director of St. Paul's Schubert Club and the author of its 125th year history, has salted the splendid little book with photos of the pianist's childhood in Baghdad, surrounded by loving parents and siblings.

Beatrice Ohanessian was born in 1927, studied music in London and New York and became pianist for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

She served as musical ambassador for Iraq and thus hung around with Arab princes and musical celebrities (Contralto Marian Anderson wrote "Bravo, Bravo!" on the program which introduced Ohanessian to a Carnegie Hall audience.

In 1981, she received a Steinway piano from Saddam Hussein. As difficulties worsened in Iraq, she and her sister moved to the Twin Cities in 1994 and developed close attachments to the Schubert Club until her death in 2008, after which the Iraq Embassy in Washington held a service in her honor.

"The Selma of the North." Where's that? It's Milwaukee, Wis.

University of Nebraska professor Patrick D. Jones has written about the racial tensions that flared in Milwaukee in the late 1960s and entitled his book "The Selma of the North" (Harvard University Press, No Price).

Jones tells the dramatic story of the NAACP "commandos" led by a white priest, Father James Groppi, demonstrated for 200 consecutive nights for fair housing and employment practices.

And he says the white response gives the lie to how liberal we are up here in the North. It's a book that provides lots of opportunity for thought on the subject.

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.