Brief reviews of recent releases: "Famous Writers I Have Known," by James Magnuson, and "Old Man River," by Paul Schneider.
FAMOUS WRITERS I HAVE KNOWN
By James Magnuson. (W.W. Norton, 313 pages, $25.95.)
James Magnuson’s “Famous Writers I Have Known” is a double spoof — it’s a madcap crime novel about a two-bit huckster on the lam, and it’s a satire of college literary programs.
The author links the two rather brilliantly: the two-bit huckster happens to be a dead ringer for a famous reclusive writer (think J.D. Salinger) who has been invited to Texas to teach a writing course. The Salinger character panics at the last minute and goes back to his home in the woods, and our narrator steps into his shoes pretty seamlessly.
Some of the barbs at college programs (Magnuson directs the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas) are piercingly funny — the overly earnest students, the frustrated program director, the petty literary rivalries. It’s a fast, fun read, and if you happen to be a graduate of an MFA program, you might laugh a little harder than everyone else.
Laurie Hertzel, Senior editor/books
OLD MAN RIVER: THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER IN NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY
By Paul Schneider. (Henry Holt, 394 pages, $35.)
Histories of the Mississippi River fill library shelves, but Paul Schneider’s book stands out for at least a couple of reasons. For one thing, it takes in not just the river but the entire Mississippi watershed — the broad area, from Pennsylvania to Montana, drained by the Father of Waters and its tributaries. For another, it’s less a straightforward survey than an engaging pastiche of geology, anthropology, native culture, history and modern-day travelogue.
So you learn not just about Cahokia, the large pre-Columbian native city across from what is now St. Louis, but also about the Hopewell culture on the Ohio River. Figures marching across the pages include Hernando de Soto, one of the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi region, and a young Virginia major named George Washington, who helped open the watershed to the English. The book also discusses the river’s rich culture of steamboats and song, its strategic importance during the Civil War, and modern environmental issues in the wake of the BP oil spill of 2009 off the river delta.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the Mississippi’s origin in our neck of the woods, there’s little about the Minnesota connection to the river. But Schneider describes five bird effigy mounds — the Five Hawks — that were noted near Prior Lake in the 1880s but have since been lost to farming and modern development. “Remarkably, every single animal-shaped effigy mound in Minnesota has disappeared back into the earth over the course of the last century,” he writes; effigies in Wisconsin and Iowa apparently have fared better. It’s another reminder of how we took the river’s heritage for granted for far too long, and why it’s worth scrambling today to reclaim and maintain as much of it as we can.
Kevin Duchschere, metro reporter