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Dave Wood's Book Report, July 26, 2006

There's no lack of histories on specific subjects this summer. And they're not just coming out of the university presses.

Little, Brown, for instance is just out with "The General and the Jaguar," by Eileen Welsome ($25.95). This book, which takes place in 1916 is as relevant today as it was 90 years ago. The general is Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing. The jaguar is Pancho Villa. The U.S. considers Villa a dangerous renegade, so sends Pershing and troops to Mexico to hunt him down. This action alienates the local residents who respond with terrorism. Back home in the U.S. jingoistic citizens take it out on Mexicans living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Does this sound familiar?

My wife got lucky years ago. As valedictorian of a high school in Cook County, Ill., she received a very generous college scholarship from something called The Pullman Foundation. Each year, the foundation would ask her how much money she needed to get through the year, she'd tell them and they'd send her a check, no questions asked. After she graduated, the foundation never queried her about how she'd done, what she planned on as a career or anything.

Turns out the Pullman Foundation money was provided by the late George M. Pullman, the fellow who built train cars, "Pullmans." He was one of the great robber barons of the last quarter of the 19th century and he, along with others is interestingly dealt with in "Death in the Haymarket," by James Green (Pantheon, $26.95).

Pullman, I was somewhat surprised to discover, was something of a visionary, going so far as to build a model village, where his workers could live, far from the slums occupied by employees of other Robber Barons. Visionary though he was, when the general strike of ... threatened to shut down his plant, he, like others, took action.

One of the most despicable of the strike breakers was Joseph Pulitzer, the Chicago newspaper publisher who fanned the flames of racial, nationalistic and political hatred, blaming the strikers for all of the killings that occurred. And he gets a prize named after him!

"A World Undone: The Story of the Great War," by G.J. Meyer (Delacorte, $28) is one of many single volume histories of World War I, but one of the finest I have perused. Meyer, a journalist/historian has created a very readable volume that begins with Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination, then wades into the morass that was trench warfare. He's especially good at little asides that some historians wouldn't touch, like the Austrian aristocracy's snubbing of Franz Ferdinand's wife, who was "almost" a commoner. Also treated is the tragedy of Russia, the bloody battles in France, where it took thousands of lives to gain a foot or two of ground.

World War I has inspired many artists (consider moviemaker Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory) or Erich Maria Remarque's novel, "All Quiet the Western Front." G.J. Meyer's non-fiction is also inspired art.

And speaking of World War I, Lerner Publlications of Minneapolis has a new book out for kids that gives a fine introduction to where it all started. "Boznia-Herzogovina in Pictures," by Mary Englar (TFCB/Lerner, No Price). It's a story of the little country where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, in simple words and pictures. It's part of Lerner's Visual Geography Series, a fine starting place for the little historians to begin.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of The National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of fhe Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at