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It's gift-giving time. I like to give books. Why? A book's conformation is easier to wrap than a snowmobile. And, properly selected, it's good for the recipient, better by far than a Whitman Sampler (No, not Walt! I mean the candy.) This season we have a wonderful collection of biographies and autobiographies, ranging from stories of politicians, to artists to athletes. Here's just a small sampling: Let's begin with a story that's already familiar to readers of a certain age.
An impressive trio of books that explore the African-American experience have recently found their way across my desk. All too seldom, Turner Classic Movies shows a series of movies starring black actors exclusively. These are movies that longtime movie buffs, such as I, never got to see when we were kids growing up in rural America.
Time flies. It has been 30 years since Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark wrote "Eden Express," an account of his descent into insanity.
Historian Michael Takiff asks the following questions about President Bill Clinton in the opening of his new book, "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him " (Yale University Press, $32.50): A remarkable talent. A gifted leader. A genius. An overgrown teenager. A liar.
Ken Burns documentaries are always fine, but none was finer than his nine-part series on baseball, which aired on PBS back in 1994. The show blew me away because of all the archival footage used -- motion pictures of baseball games that were filmed before World War I made some of Burns earlier work, like "The Civil War" pale beside the excitement of those ancient newsreels about great games in the American sport. In short, the still photos of Matthew Brady couldn't compete with 20th century technology. Back then Knopf issued a companion book to go along with the series.
What if Harvard went broke? What would happen? Would the government bail it out? Would its assets be sold to pay back investors? Would China buy it? Think that's impossible? Most folks thought that General Motors was bankruptcy proof. That's what Mark C. Taylor points out in his fascinating new book, "Crisis on Campus," (Knopf, $24).
Last month, I nearly went berserk reading the endless paeans to the Minnesota State Fair in both Twin Cities' newspapers. Day after day, as the world was collapsing around us, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press both trotted out stories about such goodies as batter-fried lutefisk on a stick and how seed artists were there to immortalize young couples who got married behind the swine barn. Enough, I say. So it was with great pleasure I received a book on the day after the fair closed: "A Porch Sofa Almanac" (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95 paper) by Peter Smith.
Thousands of years ago, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote "The Twelve Caesars" in which he gave brief but penetrating essays on the first 12 caesars of Rome at the height of its power: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian; some good guys, some really bad, who ruled from 49 B.C. to A.D. 96.
Journalist Peg Meier hails from Wisconsin, but for years she has been a gift to Minnesota. Meier who toiled for years as one of the most talented writers at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, got into the book biz with the publication of her best-selling doorstopper, "Bring Warm Clothes," a pictorial history Minnesota, with brilliant text by Meier. Several books followed, including "Too Hot, Went to Lake." She has retired from the newspaper now, but she's still in the book biz, with a great new look at both old and new Minnesota, gleaned from historical society records and photographs, memoirs
Two books by Wisconsin authors this week. "The Last Empty Places," by Peter Stark (Ballantine Books, $26), is a fascinating look at "the blank spots on the American map." Stark, who grew up in the wilds of Wisconsin, was inspired to research other wildernesses that still exist on this continent. He journeys to the emptiest expanses he can find, defined as a place so bare of civilization, it would take two weeks' worth of supplies to get through it. And then he writes about it: Northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, southeast Oregon.