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Book Review: Box with Joe Louis, play the numbers game, belch in a bog this week

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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.

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The blacks we saw were Stepinfetchit playing a Waldorf Astoria bellhop in "Tarzan's New York Adventure," in which Johnny Weissmuller inspects his skull and says, "You of Ubangi tribe."

Oh, sure we saw Hattie McDaniel in "Gone With the Wind," but black characters in the movies we saw were usually minor characters.

But on the TCM series I now see folks like Lena Horne and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in important roles. And also Cab Calloway, who for a time, was featured on TV commercials not long ago. He was a very cool dude and if you want to know his life story, you could do worse than to read "Hi-De-Ho, the Story of Cab Calloway" by Alyn Shipton (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

When I was a kid, almost every year we hung by the old Coronado radio to hear Fibber McGee and Molly's closet cave in on them, to hear the alligators snapping as Jack Benny went across the moat in his basement to count his money, to hear the folks at Fred Allen's Alley bemoan the troubles of the week.

But at least once a year, there was no listening to that fun stuff. We all crowded around to listen to Clem McCarthy announce that year's heavyweight championship fight. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, was champ back then and there's never been anything like him.

Louis defended his title an astonishing 25 times and makes current champions seem pretty much like bums. Louis was no bum. That's pretty clear if you read "Joe Louis: Hard Times Man," by Ray Roberts (Yale University Press, $27.50).

His later years, after he lost the championship, were plagued with debt and illness. Folks said he lost it. He was just another dumb plug ugly.

Not so, says biographer Roberts, distinguished professor of history at Purdue University, who tells stories of Louis' spirit and vitality, even though he was reduced to being a greeter at a casino in Las Vegas.

Louis quotes author Gay Talese, who interviewed the old champ during those reduced times. Talese complained to Louis that flying first class was getting to be too expensive. Louis' reply?

"It's the only way to fly. The seats are wide enough and you get there earlier."

Doesn't get any sharper than that.

*****

Sometimes you have to go around the world to discover authors willing to dig deep into a subject that someone from home should have done years ago.

Four Australian history professors have dug deep and come up with "Playing the Numbers," by Shane White, et al. (Harvard University Press, $26.95).

This is not a book about mathematics. It's about Harlem in the Roaring '20s. And it's not about the Harlem Renaissance or Harlem, the entertainment spot. It's about that phenomenon, the numbers game, which had its beginnings in Harlem and flourished for years.

White and his colleagues tell the story of how millions of five and dime bets were placed every year by everyone in Harlem -- and downtown back in the days when lots of folks had little more than a nickel or dime to bet. They tell of how black entrepreneurs made and spent fortunes and how Dutch Schultz and mafia bigwigs finally took over this lucrative enterprise.

*****

University presses aren't known for publishing children's books, but apparently it was a special occasion that prompted the University of Minnesota Press to undertake such a project. It's called "Big Belching Bog," by Phyllis Root, illustrations by Betsy Bowen ($15.95), a book you could glue legs to and serve tea on.

Root and Bowen are children's book icons in Minnesota and this is a beautiful example of their work. It's not only beautiful, but it's also educational as its bog belches away and Root tells you why.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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