Book Report: Thoughtful, deep book about living, dying

I’m a big cemetery guy.  Whenever my wife and I travel to Europe we look in a cemeteries, like Pere La Chaise in Paris, where we spent hours trying to find Edith Piaf’s grave or when we went to the incredibly moving cemetery at Ste-Maire Eglise where the D-Day troops are buried.

But I’m also big on cemeteries here at home, even those in small towns. Like Lincoln Cemetery in Whitehall, where I grew up.

Many years ago, the town’s mayor was having a beer with my father and said “How’s Dave? Is he OK?”

“Not much worse than usual,” said my pater. “Why do you ask?

“Well, my wife and I live next to the cemetery and he’s been up there every day last week peering at the old gravestones and we were wondering….”

My father explained that what I was doing was finding birth and death dates of people in a history I was writing about the town’s early settlers.

“Oh,” said the mayor and that was it.

Given my fascination with cemeteries I glombed right on to a new book by a Minnesota author, Rachael Hanel, who has just written “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” (University of Minnesota Press, $17.96 paper).

Judging from the title, I thought it might be a hoot, a prime example of gallows humor.

In part, I was right, but that’s not the end of the story.

Her father a cemetery caretaker from Waseca humorously called himself“Digger O’Dell,” after the famous undertaker in the old radio series “The Life of Riley.”

And his daughter has lots of cute asides about roaming around southern Minnesota cemeteries making up stories about the dead folks buried underneath.

But there’s a deep undercurrent in this well-written book that I can’t keep out of my head and when I remember the pitiful tombstone that marks my late mother’s grave in the Whitehall’s Lincoln Cemetery, the feeling becomes intense.

Because  Hanel’s father, “Digger,”” in the prime of his life, dies at age 46, the world caves in for his family.

To this day, Hanel has decided not to have children in the event that she should die young and leave them bereft.

This is a thoughtful and very deep book about living and dying.

University presses continue to crank out books like the above that might very well have been ignored by New York’s mainline publishers.

The University of Minnesota Press gets into the act again with a fascinating look at Christopher Isherwood, author of “Goodbye to Berlin,” the inspiration for “I Am A Camera” and “Cabaret.”

The new book is  “Middlebrow Queer” (n.p.) and is a chronicle of how Isherwood and his partner W.H. Auden moved to the U.S. when World War II broke out and how Isherwood “reinvented himself” and wrote homosexual books even during the Cold War and the McCarthy Era.

It’s by Jaime Harker, a professor at the University of Mississippi.

The University of Iowa also gets into the act with an anthology of essays about the almost forgotten Wisconsin author Hamlin Garland in “Garland in His Own Time” (n.p.), edited by Keith Newlin.

It’s part of Iowa’s series called Writers in their Own Time, in which various sources are used to bring to the reader recollections, interviews and memoirs by family, friends and associates.

It’s my kind of book because it not only includes essays by famous and sometimes abstruse scholars, but also memories of Garland’s West Salem Wisconsin neighbors, who recall that when he was on a writing project, all else was forgotten, including balancing his check book.

Other books in the series include Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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