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Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 11, 2009

One of the most touching films I've seen in years is "Remains of the Day," a story set against the backdrop of pre-World War II, which tells of the unrequited love of the housekeeper (Emma Thompson) of a baronial manor and the butler (Anthony Hopkins).

The movie drips with Britishness, manor houses, Rolls-Royce, Nazi sympathizers.

The novel is based on was written by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro and won the Booker Prize. Somehow, I never got around to reading the novel, so dove into Ishiguro's latest fiction, a collection of short stories called Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall" (Knopf, $25).

Amazing! Somehow I expected Ishiguro to be intricate, baroque in his writing sensibilities. Not so in the new book of stories about five musicians. The first is called "Crooner" and is told from the point of view of a free lance guitarist from Poland who plays in orchestras at the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

One night he sees in the audience on the piazza a famous American crooner, who was famous years ago and was his late mother's idol.

The narrator introduces himself and the crooner seems hospitable, introduces him to his beautiful wife of 27 years, then hires him to accompany his singing to her from a gondola in the Grand Canal.

He does, the crooner sings, and the wife breaks into tears from her palazzo. I'm not going to tell you why, but it recalls "Remains of the Day," but in the lightest most deft touch I've seen in a long time.

"Crooner" is followed by more musical stories, like the jazzman who wants a face lift, a cellist whose tutor promises to "unwrap" his talent, a man who is only appreciated by his friends for his impeccable taste in music. Ishiguro makes it all look easy, but, believe me, it ain't.

John Keegan is probably the greatest living military historian. He's written 20 books, the most notable of which is "The Face of Battle," an analysis of five historical battles, including The Somme during World War I.

Most of his work has concentrated on British and European fights (Keegan was senior lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst). But he's also taught at Princeton and Vassar here in the states and in his new book he turns his attention on an American War. "The American Civil War" (Knopf, $35) is a main selection of both the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club and is being heralded as the definitive one volume account of the war that tore our country apart.

One volume. There's the rub. Most American historians deal with this conflict in multi-volume tomes. Keegan takes it on in one and adds to our understanding of it with a dimension little approached by previous Civil War historians: Geography.

Also interesting is the deep background he brings to the task, enabling him to compare it with the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and other such conflicts.

How's this for an academic title? "Incest & Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (Harvard University Press, no price), by Adam Kuper, a fellow of the British Academy.

It's a fascinating look at how the British upper class and upper middle class retained hegemony and that very class conscious society by marrying their relatives.

These days we hear jokes about hillbillies marrying their relatives but not so long ago, names like Wedgewood, Darwin, Strachey, Stephen all were involved with marrying first cousins. (Speaking of Stephen, Kuper's chapter on the intellectual and physical incestuousness of the Bloomsbury Circle in Edwardian England is particularly fascinating.

But it wasn't only the British who kept marriage in the family. You've heard the old rhyme:

'Boston, home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Cabots speak only to Lodges

And the Lodges speak only to God.'

According to Kuper, the Cabots began marrying relatives in the early 18th century and 40 percent of the Boston mercantile class chose mates from their own families.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him

at (715) 426-9554.