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Years ago, my wife and I traveled to Assisi, Italy, for a few days in the town St. Francis made famous. When we wore out St. Francis, we made our way to St. Clare's church to see the reliquary in its catacomb. As we waited in a long line, an aged nun swept by me, elbowed me in the groin and took my spot before St. Clare's skull. As I groaned in agony, my wife heard a local tourist tell his wife in Italian "No wonder Americans think we're crazy." He was wrong. We don't think Italians are crazy, but I'll have to admit we sometimes wonder. So does author Eric Dregni.
"Charles Dickens," by Michael Slater (Yale University Press, $35) is due out on Nov. 30. It's a long-awaited full-sized literary biography of the amazing writer who gave us "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," and many more memorable Victorian novels. My first brush with Dickens was purely accidental. Back when I was a kid a company in Racine, Banta, published thick little volumes called "Big Little Books." I traded three of my Batman comic books for one old and worn "Big Little Book," a condensation of "David Copperfield" studded with pictures from David O.
What is "Alternate History"? It's not reinterpretation of historical facts as we have come to understand them. That's been around for a long time. Critics who say that the world would have been better off without Churchill, that Franklin D. Roosevelt goofed in his support of Chiang Kai-Shek. There's plenty of that stuff around and has been for years. Alternate History, however, is something relatively new. I well recall the first alternate history I ever read. It was a novel. Fiction. And it opened with the appearance of U.S. President Kennedy.
If you happened to catch the recent PBS series about World War II, or even better if you missed it, you'll probably want to run out and purchase "World War II Behind Closed Doors," Laurence Rees (Pantheon, $35). Reese, winner of the British Book Award for History Book of the Year, was the producer of the PBS offering and now he's out with a companion book full of detail that didn't make it to the screen.
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.
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.
I guess I'm showing my age. I got all excited when I received for review "Goodbye, Wisconsin," by Glenway Wescott (Borderland Books, $28). Borderland is an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, which for years has published a series of books by gay writers, most of whom were not from Wisconsin, like Christopher Isherwood. But Wescott -- he was a Wisconsin guy, who grew up in Kewaskum. So I told several friends, mostly literature teachers, mostly younger than I am.
The late Carol Bly knew her way around small Minnesota towns, having spent much of her life in places like Madison, Minn., as her first book, "Letters from the Country" made abundantly clear. Nowhere is that more apparent than in her posthumously published novel, "Shelter Half, (Holy Cow! Press, $15.95). Bly opens her mystery cum social anthropology fiction with the discovery of a dead body along Hwy. 53 near St.
In "The Senator's Wife," (Knopf, $24.95) novelist Sue Miller is in top form as she plumbs the depths of two women who have become neighbors in a small New England college town. First comes Meri, a 30-something newlywed, married to a college professor, who is taking his first tenure track job. Meri comes from a poor family, has worked as a journalist, isn't sure she wants to buy a house, isn't sure just how she feels about her husband or him her, except when they're in bed. They've rented half of a charming two family home.
You'd think a book reviewer would be loath to drag more books along when he takes a vacation. But no, I always bring books along on trips with my wife. You can't spend entire weeks looking at ancient cathedrals and landscapes, no matter how magnificent, get pretty boring after five minutes or so, to quote William F. Buckley Jr.: "So on our travels we always take books along and we try to bring titles that have something to do with where we'll be located." Years ago, we rented a property in the West Country from Britain's Landmark Trust.