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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 12, 2009

I'll begin this review with the admission that I am a friend and former colleague of the author and once co-wrote a book with her.

Normally, I wouldn't review a friend's book, but this one's too good to miss, too valuable for all manner of reasons.

My friend is Peg Meier, longtime feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of many best-selling books, including a blockbuster of years back, "Bring Warm Clothes."

Peg specializes in Minnesota history, recalled in photographs, diaries, news items of the past. In other words, real history, not the stuff that quantitative historians in ivory towers like to write (voting patterns in ... county, 1879-1881, the height of drinking fountains in rural Scott County schools, etc. and et al.)

Back in 1993 Meier published a book "Too Hot, Went to Lake: Seasonal photos from Minnesota's Past." Now the Minnesota Historical Society Press has reissued the book ($29.95, paper) in a handsome new format.

So if you didn't buy it when it came out, you've got another shot at it.

Why would you want this book? Because it's chockfull of photos Meier has gleaned from various sources and written charming captions, some long, some short and pithy to explain what's going on in these long ago photos. So any history buff will treasure them.

And if you're more than a history buff, but someone who wants to write about their family photos, Meier gives invaluable tips on identifying old photos and making sense of them.

How often, for instance, have you looked at an old photograph album and wished you knew more about the subject matter depicted? Meier can help you out. In a comprehensive introduction, she gives tips that lots of people never think about. Like something as simple as using a magnifying glass.

So hats off to the Minnesota Historical Society Press for doing something informational and educational and historical, all wrapped up in a beautiful package.

The Faustian legend has fascinated writers for centuries. My favorite Faust story is a play by Christopher Marlowe, "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus," in which Dr. Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to go wherever he wants to, including Greece, where he sees Helen of Troy and says "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and toppled the towers of Illium."

Then came the highly contested epic by John, Milton "Paradise Lost."

Then came Goethe's "Faust." As a kid I read Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," in which the senator takes of Satan.

And of course there's George Abbott's musical "Damn Yankees,' not to mention Jack Nicholson who wowed us in "The Witches of Eastwick."

There's a new soul-selling character loose on the streets. It's "Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer" (Doubleday, $25), by Jonathan L. Howard.

Here's a fascinatingly funny story about Johannes, who sells his soul to the devil and then has a change of heart. He wants to get out of the deal and so makes his way to Hades to renegotiate. That's when the fun begins.

Howard, who has written his first novel, writes as if the encounter happens down the street, slangy, low-rent and nothing Miltonic about it.

One of my favorite scenes comes when Johannes gets to the gates of hell and must negotiate his way in. He has to get through the gatekeeper, Trubshaw.

Sartre said that Hell was other people. It transpires that one of the other people was Trubshaw. He had lived a life of bureaucratic exactitude as a clerk out in a dusty town in the dusty old west. He crossed all the T's and dotted all the I's.

Then he made double entries of his double entries, filed the crossed T's, barred any zeroes for reasons of disambiguation and shaded in the relative frequencies on a pie chart he was maintaining.

Arthur Trubshaw's life of licentious proceduralism was brought to an abrupt end when he was shot to death during a robbery at the bank. He did not die heroically: not unless one considers demanding a receipt from bandits as being in some sense praiseworthy .....

Never one to squander such a remarkably irritating talent, Satan put him I charge of admissions ...."

Get the picture?

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