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Dave Wood's Book Report, Feb. 11, 2009

I'm proud and happy to work for newspaper organizations who still believe it's important to publish news about books and the folks who write them.

In the past few years I've gotten the impression that other newspapers consider books as little more than competition for their own readers' attention.

Twenty years ago when I edited the Minneapolis Star Tribune book review section, most metropolitan dailies had respectable books pages that usually appeared on Sunday and were staffed with local editors who coordinated reviews by freelance writers from around the world. In those days the Star Tribune boasted 400 reviewers in its rolodex.

The assumption was that newspapers were aimed at the general reading public and that book sections would encourage more to read beyond that level and then some.

That sounds like a reasonable assumption, doesn't it?

But then, one after another, newspapers began cutting back (newsprint was expensive), book publishers didn't advertise, profits were declining. First the Detroit Free Press dropped its section, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's excellent section was scaled back, as was the Pioneer Press in St. Paul.

Fortunately, some newspapers hung on. My employer kept its full section and still does, despite the fact it has fallen into bankruptcy. How long this section, which employed topnotch reviewers like William Nolen, M.D., Jon Hassler and Susan Allen Toth, will hold on? The prospects are not good.

If the section disappears, forget about ever reading reviews of books by little known but good regional authors. The New York Times will run the whole show.

Two weeks ago it was announced that the Washington Post's Book World will go out of print as a separate section.

And now Book World is gone. And we're the worse for it.

At first I was floored -- and very, very sad. Book World has been around a long time and employed many of my close friends. It was an entire magazine, devoted to reviews of new books that was folded into the Sunday newspaper, sort of like an old-fashioned rotogravure section.

It was staffed by some of the nation's best editors and reviewers including Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Yardley and Michael Dirda, as well as first class reviewers like novelist Carolyn See. I always considered it better than its rival, the New York Times Book Review, which struck me as East Coast-oriented and cumbersome.

The Post will continue to review books, but not in an entire magazine devoted to good writing.


"Anne Frank Remembered," by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gould (Simon & Schuster, paper, $14).

Originally published in 1982, this book is a fine one for anyone who was mesmerized by "The Diary of Anne Frank." Gies tells the story of how she and her family risked their own lives by hiding the Frank family in World War II Amsterdam. The paperback reissue is chockfull of black and white photos of the heroic family and the family it sequestered.

"A Way of Living," by Bill Hakala (Obirus, P.O. Box 250, Afton, Minn., 55001, $24 paper).

Years ago I wrote a feature story about the eminent Minneapolis portraitist Richard Lack, known for his classical realism and his school, Atelier Lack. I was wowed, but my readers were definitely not. Some even wrote nasty anonymous letters.

So it is with great enthusiasm I recommend "A Way of Living," Bill Hakala's thoughtful critical biography of Don Koestner, one of Lack's colleagues and a very accomplished nature painter, who, at 85,is still painting great scenes from his beloved northern Minnesota. Hakala's book is laced with personal photographs and beautiful reproductions of the artist's paintings.

"Hands of My Father," by Myron Uhlberg (Bantam, $23).

I've long been fascinated by the life of Lon Chaney, the silent film star whose parents were deaf. What was it like? How did it affect him? Chaney didn't live long enough to tell us, but Uhlberg sheds light on the subject in his memoir of growing up with two deaf parents, immigrants who spent their adult lives in Brooklyn's Coney Island neighborhood.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. He can be reached at (715) 426-9554.