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Old Songs in a New Cafe

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Whether or not you’ve read The Bridges of Madison County and Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, these earlier essays from The Des Moines Register won’t disappoint you. James Waller’s strengths in Old Songs in a New Cafe are evident right from the first one: the beautifully wrenching ”Excavating Ra-chael’s Room.” If you’ve ever had a child, read it as soon as you can get your hands on it. Many of the others are just as good, dealing with topics like basketball, dangerous piloting, turning 50, and how Waller lost at billiards to his dad right after beating the town champ. Waller is best when he tells what happened and lets us respond with our own feelings, but sometimes this ex-professor rams his sentimentality down our throats-like his dreadful talking bird whose flock is being hunted. It’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull with a grudge. But such stuff aside, this collection is constantly amusing, engrossing, and meaningful.