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Book Report: Historical tinkering makes for lively reading

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I've written before about alternative history and writers like Harry Turtledove. He writes what I like to call "what if" novels.

Like what if the Germans won World War II? What would happen? (Answer: Kennedy would be president. Not Jack Kennedy, but his father, the fascist sympathizer, Joseph.)

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Just now I've been faced with a similar, but somewhat different challenge in The Columbus Affair," by Steve Barry (Ballantine Books, $27.

Barry writes historical thrillers. This time he's out with an investigative reporter who has fallen out of favor because of a snafued assignment. Now Tom makes his living ghost-writing novels.

He feels bad about his fate and is about to commit suicide when a stranger intrudes on his plans and tells him he had better do what he (the stranger) wants because the stranger's group has kidnapped Tom's estranged daughter.

Tom's assignment takes him on a wild goose chase and finds him in hotspots all over the world, tracking down a buried treasure purportedly hidden in Jamaica by Christopher Columbus who turns out to be a Jew, like Tom.

You learn lots about Columbus in this intricate thriller and lots of stuff that just isn't true. At book's end, Barry includes a coda in which he informs the reader about what in the book is true and what he made up.

***

Ten years ago, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, its creator, Gaylord Nelson published "Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise," by Nelson with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95).

This excellent reminder of our responsibilities has been reissued on Earth Day's 40th anniversary and includes special tributes from President Bill Clinton, who reminds us that the late Wisconsin senator and governor "as the father of Earth Day, (he) is the grandfather of all that grew out of that event -- the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water act, the Safe Drinking Water Act.

"He also set a standard for people in public service to care about the environment and to try to do something about it."

In a new foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the fallen presidential candidate's son, reminds us that the whole movement had a rocky beginning, with right-wing opponents calling it "a communist plot" because its date coincided with Vladimir Lenin's birthday and President Kennedy showing little interest in the movement.

Nelson's daughter Tia, in a preface, also recalls that rocky beginning and how the senator from tiny Clear Lake revved it up by modeling the day after student demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Tia Nelson tells how her father was inspired to enter politics when he was ten, sitting atop his physician father's shoulders and listening to a whistle-stop speech by Robert LaFollette in tiny Amery.

The book is peppered with Wisconsin photographs, illustrations, grafts and charts depicting the assault on our environment.

For instance, there's a panel of cartoons I've never seen before by Green Bay Press-Gazetter artist Joe Heller which included the following text:

"Oh beautiful for polluted skies,

For lakes of acid rain...

For garbage mountains

Piled up high... Above

The toxic plains!

America!

America!

We shed our wastes

On thee...

And ignore the signs

That Ma Nature cries...

From sea to oily sea."

***

"Timber!" by Lew Freedman (Terrace Books, $24.95 paper) is the story of how Hayward entrepreneur Tony Wise began the Lumberjack World Championships in his hometown.

Freedman, a longtime sportswriter, has gathered together photographs and written accounts of the log rollers, sawers and climbers who have over the past 50 years won medal after medal at the popular Wisconsin event.

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