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Books Review Best Works Of Spokesman-Review Columnists Collected Into Four Hard-Bound Volumes

No more lining bird cages. Four columnists at The Spokesman-Review will celebrate the holidays clutching hard-bound collections of their best work.

This month New Media Ventures will publish “The Human Comedy, Plus Other Species at No Extra Charge” by humor columnist Jim Kershner, “Welcome to Helmet Night” by sports writer John Blanchette, “A Good Life in the Inland Northwest” by editor Chris Peck, and “Loose Clark Journals” by columnist Doug Clark.

“It occurred to us The Spokesman-Review had some of the most honored newspaper columnists in the country,” says Shaun O’L. Higgins, president and chief operating officer of New Media Ventures, a subsidiary of Cowles Publishing Co., which publishes The Spokesman-Review.

“When you put the four books together, it’s really a remarkable portrait of life in the Inland Northwest in this time and this place,” says Higgins.

“I am very glad the newspaper is doing this in the way that we are,” says Peck. “I think all three of the other columnists have a voice and a perspective on Spokane that is really unique.

“Jim Kershner is one of the warmest and funniest guys I’ve ever read in the newspaper business. Doug Clark’s columns have been some of the most memorable reporting this newspaper has done… . John Blanchette is much more of a literary writer than you will find on most sports pages. He brings an element of care and thought that really elevates it far beyond a game story.”

Here’s a quick look at each of the new titles:

Kershner’s “The Human Comedy, Plus Other Species at No Extra Charge” begins with his all-time favorite column, “The Playground Dimension and Other Kid Zones.” This piece, based on a conversation with his then first-grade daughter, explores the mysteries of Flip Up Friday, Monday Marriage Day and other oddities of playground life.

It won an award in a National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest which was judged by Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Dave Barry. Kershner remains delighted by Barry’s comments. “I have tremendous respect for anybody who can get his first grader to write his column for him,” Barry wrote.

Kershner’s family often appears in the book, which includes three serious pieces about his wife Carol’s successful recovery from breast cancer. Carol Kershner has grown accustomed to finding her name in his columns.

“It’s like being the minister’s wife,” Jim Kershner says. “You’ve got to expect to be in the homily every so often.”

Other highlights include a column on the politically correct voyage of Christopher Columbus and a parody called “The Bridgework of Madison County.”

Higgins calls those two pieces “masterpieces in any writer’s collection of works.”

Kershner, who has won seven awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, will give a reading at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Blanchette’s “Welcome to Helmet Night” begins and ends with wildly funny pieces on a sandlot baseball gang titled “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” and “The Park Revisited.”

In between, Blanchette’s humor is woven through a comprehensive history of sports in the Inland Northwest, from the big stories, such as John Stockton’s NBA record-setting assist and Dan O’Brien’s Olympic decathlon gold medal to the small-town pride and hope of B-basketball.

“It’s got wonderful tributes to famous coaches and athletes, everybody from Carl Maxey up to the 1997 Cougar football team,” says Higgins.

These tributes, such as the one to former boxer businessman Joey August, were among the pieces Blanchette found the toughest to write. They’re also among his best.

The book also includes a Blanchette favorite, “Doin’ Time with the Drugville 9,” a parody of “Casey at the Bat” on drugs in baseball. Colleague Doug Clark calls it “truly inspired.”

Blanchette has been named sportswriter of the year twice in the state of Washington and five times in Montana.

Peck’s “A Good Life in the Inland Northwest” features his thoughtful commentary on the serious events and difficult news decisions of his tenure at The Spokesman-Review. Yet, its warmest and most memorable pieces may be those on his family, including a series written annually on the birthday of his daughter, Sarah.

Those are the pieces that have earned the most mail from readers, 10-to-1. And Peck knows why: “You speak more from the heart. You speak in a more personal way.”

As a collection, Peck’s columns celebrate life in Spokane, and help readers define and examine this region’s most important issues, says Higgins.

“Peck’s book functions as a kind of conscience of the community,” Higgins says.

Blanchette calls his work with Peck “my first brush with a guy who took time to craft his columns, to capture the mood with each piece.”

Peck is editor of The Spokesman-Review, which has won the general excellence award as the best metro daily in the Inland Pacific Northwest for 10 years in a row. He also won the 1992 Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism award.

Clark’s “Loose Clark Journals” are filled with this columnist’s trademark blend of the bizarre, the quirky and the truly weird.

“I’ve been accused in the past of having a loon magnet,” Clark says. “It seems I’ve always had a knack for finding the offbeat stories, whether it’s finding tattooed flies on law enforcement’s rear ends or Billy Tipton (the male jazz musician who was really a woman).”

“I describe my column as psychic whiplash,” Clark says. “I don’t want the reader to expect what I’ll write about from one moment to the next. I figure that’s the way I’ll keep my job.”

Clark’s work sometimes outrages readers, and he carefully saves the nastiest letters. “One of my best letters was from a guy who said, ‘I stayed up late last night flipping a coin with my father trying to figure out which one of us is going to come down and punch you in the nose.’ People don’t know this about me, but I get just as much kick out of the angry letters as I do the nice ones.”

Clark relishes his reporting adventures, from joining two gleeful rattlesnake hunters near Wilbur, Wash., to spending the day on the job with a topless house-cleaning service.

His favorite judge’s comment came with an award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The judge wrote, “Finally, a columnist who will get up off his butt and do some real reporting!”

Higgins expects faithful readers of the columns to enjoy the new collections.

“These are four of our most popular writers,” Higgins says. “Some people love ‘em. Some people hate ‘em. But most people read them.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Bridget Sawicki

MEMO: The books, priced at $22.95 for Blanchette’s book and $23.95 for the others, will be sold in local bookstores and at all offices of The SpokesmanReview. Kershner’s book, the first one due out, will be available later this week. To order these books, contact New Media Ventures, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210 or (509) 459-3926.

The books, priced at $22.95 for Blanchette’s book and $23.95 for the others, will be sold in local bookstores and at all offices of The SpokesmanReview. Kershner’s book, the first one due out, will be available later this week. To order these books, contact New Media Ventures, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210 or (509) 459-3926.