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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 28, 2008

There's a passel of interesting biographies out this month. Over the years I'd read passing references to one Marcus Garvey, the black philosopher and activist who began the back-to-Africa movement.

There's a new biography of Garvey just out that is fascinating in its depiction of Garvey's rise to power and his almost instant demise. It's "Negro with a Hat," by Colin Grant (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Although Garvey attracted a huge following in the 1920s, he also had his share of detractors, including his fellow black philosopher, W.E.B. DuBois who always referred to Garvey as "just a Negro with a hat," referring to the commodore's hat Garvey always wore to parades.

A more successful and durable political figure in the African-American community is former San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown, who has just penned his autobiography, "Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times" (Simon & Schuster, $26). It's a breezy, informal, chatty sort of memoir into which Brown inserts his pragmatic political philosophy, of getting along with everyone.

On the regional front, there are two new books depicting the life and times of two prominent figures with Wisconsin ties. The first is yet another politician, Melvin Laird of Marshfield, former U.S. congressman and secretary of defense.

"With Honor: Melvin Laird In War, Peace and Politics," by Dale Van Atta (University of Wisconsin Press, $35) is about an accomplished politician, honored in both political camps for his nimble work as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War.

Here's what CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer has to say about Laird: "Watching Laird operate, I sometimes wondered if Nixon realized what he has gotten when he picked Laird, who was the most accomplished politician I have ever known, with the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson."

Author Van Atta is a Washington insider who tracks Laird's career as a high school entrepreneur, Carleton College student up through the portals of power. A fascinating book, with a generous introduction by President Gerald Ford.

When I first received "I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History," by Walter Mirisch, I was surprised to see it published by the University of Wisconsin Press ($29.95).

How did Wisconsin get into the act, doing a book by the CEO of the Mirisch Corp., which gave us wonderful movies like "Irma La Douce," the Pink Panther series. "Some Like It Hot" and "The Great Escape"? (Not to mention some earlier lulus like the Bomba the Jungle Boy series, starring Johnnie Sheffield.

Turns out that Mirisch, an East Coaster by birth is a University of Wisconsin grad and several years ago UW president Donna Shalala conferred on him an honorary doctorate. In a charming introduction Mirisch recalls his days at Madison before getting into his career as a genius film maker and then tells about Shalala.

She called and asked him if he'd accept an honorary doctorate. "What do I have to do," asked Mirisch. "Nothing," answered Shalala. So Mirisch was off to Madison for the ceremony.

In the middle of it all, it became apparent he was supposed to make a speech. He whispered to Shalala "You said I didn't have to do ANYTHING." "I always say that," replied Shalala. So Mirisch stumbled up, without a speech. He looked out on all the parents at the fieldhouse and said "My mother would have loved this."

And he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I've lived more than half my life in Wisconsin, but I learn something new about the Badger State every time I read a new book about it.

For instance, I never heard of a state footpath that is 250 miles longer than all of Wisconsin's interstate highways combined. It passes through 350 units of government and within 20 miles of half of the state's residents.

It's a footpath that is already 600 miles long and will be 1,000 miles when it is completed. It's called "The Ice Age Trail" and its story is told in text and photos in a new big paperback, "Along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail," photos by Bart Smith (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 paper), text by various historians and naturalists, with an introduction by Congressman David Obey.

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