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I well remember the late 1950s when I was finally in the market to buy a car. Suddenly, all manner of teeny little cars were appearing on the market. They weren't hilarious little cars, like the Crosley, made by the refrigerator manufacturer in Cincinnati or the Henry J, which you could order from the catalog. The cars I'm talking about were from Europe. There was Renault Dauphine, the Panhard Dyna and the Simca from France, the Skoda from Czechoslovakia, the Fiat 500 from Italy, Morris Minor from Britain.
Here's a book I wish I could have read five years ago, just before I took my first and probably last trip to China. As a newcomer to oriental travel I was incredibly impressed with the mammoth construction projects, the swirl of people and traffic (one day in Beijing a taxi hit our tour bus and our driver just chuckled and kept on driving) and the general orderliness of the cities and its millions.
I was told years ago by my English teacher Sara Keeler that one should never judge a book by its cover, but I couldn't resist the wrapping of Minnesota author Carla Hagen's new book from North Star Press of St. Cloud, "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane." On the cover is a beautiful collage of photos taken by Ben Shahn when he worked for Franklin Roosevelt's FSA office. So I jumped in. Hagen is a first-time novelist. Can she tell a story? You betcha. The setting is northern Minnesota, mired in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
I've been a big fan of female humorists for years, starting from the days when I first read about Dorothy Parker and her antics at the Algonquin Hotel. That's where she parried with the male wits like Alexander Woolcott and Robert Benchley to great acclaim. Then I was on to several others of her ilk and most recently Nora Ephron, whom I can't get enough of. I haven't heard from Ephron lately, so thank heaven for Merrill Markoe, who is out with a new book "Cool, Calm & Contentious" (Villard Books, $24).
How's this for a plot? Mild-mannered accountant Walter Cousins puts his wife Lydia in a sanatorium when she becomes temporarily unbalanced, then takes on a 15-year-old British girl, Diane, as an au pair to take care of his kids. Then he sleeps with Diane. Then Diane gets pregnant. Then Diane refuses an abortion. Then Diane has a baby. Then Diane turns out to be a blackmailer and gouges $250 a month from Walter for "child support." Walter's wife Lydia comes home from the sanatorium. Diane, the little hussy, has no intention of keeping her baby.
It's always eye-opening to read a foreigner's take on life in these United States. From Alex de Tocqueville and Frances Trollope to Alistair Cooke, foreigners have given their readers new and fresh insights into the American experience. Such a writer is still among us. He's Jonathan Raban, whose new book of essays, "Driving Home" (Pantheon, $29.95) is a delight that might not please all readers. Raban is a Brit who has settled in Seattle, Wash. He now writes about things American.
Just when you think you know all you need to know about a subject, a new book pops up and you're able to learn much more. Years ago, I wrote my master's thesis on Minnesota-born novelist Sinclair Lewis. Before I dug in, I always thought of Lewis as "the scourge of Sauk Centre," because he used his home town as a model for Main Street. Upon further examination of his life, however, I learned that he loved his home town and only wished it would love him back.
Readers can't seem to get enough of dystopian stories. Witness the success of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," in which father and son roam a world devoid of most people, scrounging for cans of Spam. It's a depressing mess, but it has already been made into a movie. One of the first post-apopolyptic stories I ever read was an eerie little story by William Rose Benet, called "By the Waters of Babylon," in which the narrator walks down a "god road" and comes to ruins, onto which are etched letters, helter-skelter. What was going on?
Last week I mentioned several notable books of 2011 readers might like to consider when they're out shopping for gifts. This time I'm trying something different. Normally, I'd suggest new books to give friends and family. But this year, I'll suggest some old ones, some still in print, others you can easily pick up in used bookstores for bargain prices. Our household owns about 150 cookbooks, but we regularly use only about a dozen unless an occasion arises that calls for something special.
Gift giving time has once again rolled around and today we'll talk about some notable books I've read and reviewed over the past year. We'll start with some books from the region, then move on to books published in New York City, (some of them from authors in our region): REGIONAL FAVORITES Biography and History "Crossing the Barriers: The Autobiography of Allan H.