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Dave Wood's Book Report, June 11, 2008

I've read quite a few books in my day, but it always amazes me when I read yet another and I realize I've most certainly not read enough. Once again this became apparent when I recently read "Magnifico," by Miles J. Unger (Simon & Schuster, $32).

Maybe I should back up. For years my wife and I have spent several summers in Tuscany, where we rent a cottage on an estate and drive around to the hill towns like San Gigmigano and Volterra to see the magnificent sites. So we've been to Florence many times, beginning in the 1970s. When you go there it's tempting just to stare at its magnificence.

But what I've never done much about was to read about Florence. That's where "Magnifico" comes in.

It's a comprehensive biography of Lorenzo di Medici whose family held sway in Florence for centuries and are credited with being the driving force that began the Renaissance. And also the stuff of which legends are made.

Years ago, the Minneapolis author Brenda Ueland served us a delicious brunch the centerpiece of which was Medici Casserole, an unctuous mixture of eggs, cheese and cream.

When asked why it was called "Medici" the feisty 90-year-old Ueland replied.

"Because when the Medicis served it to their Florentine rivals, the rivals thought it so delicious they ate it even though they figured it might be laced with poison."

Good story, but I'm afraid it didn't show up in Unger's book.

Unger, who lived in Florence for years tells Lorenzo's story with great elan, shedding light on this ruthless family and the other ruthless Florentine families with whom they did battle -- and won.

So reading about this charming philanthropist, poet, politico and banker brings all of Florence to life in ways I had not realized.

My wife and I have been on the Ponte Vecchio ("the old bridge) that spans the Arno River many times.

But until I read "Magnifico" I had no idea that the overhead passageway -- now a string of jewelry stores -- was built by the Medici family so they didn't have to mix with the lowly masses when they wanted to cross the river. It's that sort of information that reading can give you that simply touring can't.

Lorenzo de Medici died young, after years of illness. His friend Poliziano penned a moving epitaph:

'Who from perennial streams shall bring

Of gushing floods a ceaseless spring?

That through the day, in hopeless woe

And through the night my tears may flow ...

As the sad nightingale complains,

I pour my anguish and my strains.

Ah, wretched, wretched, past relief;

Oh, grief beyond all other grief!'

On the regional front, "Step Fourth, Mallory," by Laurie Friedman, Illustrations by Jennifer Kalis (Carol Rhoda, $15.95) brought back many unpleasant and pleasant memories from my own grade school years.

Fans of author Friedman, who has written several Mallory McDonald books for kids will like this one.

I know I did, even though I'm far away from my fourth grade experience. Sixty years ago I was new in town and all seemed to be going well until I got to school. Fourth grade. And a teacher who stuck long-polished nails into my scalp because I had not yet learned to write longhand. Well, you can imagine.

In Laurie Friedman's latest outing, Mallory enters fourth grade with great expectations only to find that she has a crush on her best friend's boyfriend and her new teacher doesn't like her. How she manages to get straight will please lots of kids wondering about what fourth grade will be like next fall.

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