If the atmosphere in Madison has been a little overheated of late in the wake of three unsolved murders, then Rae Meadows' new novel, No One Tells Everything (June, MacAdam Cage), should fit in well with the zeitgeist. The novel, Meadows' second, is not so much a typical murder mystery as it is a mystery of people - who they are, how they function, how they communicate - with a murder at its center.
"It's about the difficulty of knowing someone else," says Meadows. It's also about how it's often easier to reveal the most essential parts of our personalities to strangers rather than people who are close to us.
That's the case with the novel's main characters - Grace, a thirty-something magazine copy editor in New York City, and Charles, a college student, in jail after confessing to murdering a fellow student. Grace finds herself compelled to investigate the murder herself, giving in to a gut feeling that Charles, a complete stranger to her, is not really the guilty party.
"Grace and Charles are oddballs who find commonality as they reveal more and more of themselves to each other," says Meadows. "The novel's about their evolving friendship."
Meadows looks animated and well rested despite having been up several times the night before, she confesses, with her seven-month-old daughter. Nonetheless, she is sipping a rather large latte as she discusses her latest work.
The inspiration behind No One Tells Everything was a real murder case involving two male college students; Meadows originally planned to write a nonfiction account. She went so far as to correspond with the boy convicted of the murder: "At first, like Grace, I thought I'd discover that the story the media and the authorities were believing was not true." After exchanging a couple of letters with the boy, though, "I realized that he was really mentally ill, and telling that story wasn't interesting to me anymore."
The novel concentrates on Grace's life, a stultifying shuffle between her dead-end job and her evenings getting drunk at a neighborhood bar as she copes with a tragedy from her own past. Occasionally, Meadows shifts to a second-person interior monologue from Charles' point of view.
Grace often imagines herself in Charles' mind:
"He has signed a confession and he is being held without bail. She wonders what it feels like to confess, if he wishes now that he could suck the words back in. She pictures his fleshy hands holding a blue ballpoint pen, his signature precise, almost delicate. What if he wanted to give up his life? Perhaps now he can curl up in his cell and sleep. Grace wishes she could do the same, but her brain ricochets despite the hour and the alcohol and the Tylenol PMs."
Ultimately, No One Tells Everything is propelled forward by its plot, but never sacrifices insights about family relationships and honesty not always being the best policy.
Meadows moved to Madison in 2005, shortly before her first novel, Calling Out, was published. "We moved here in October, about the time when everyone here goes inside for the winter," Meadows laughs, "so it was a little hard to meet people at first. But everyone in the writing community turned out to be so lovely."
Meadows and her husband, a screenwriter, moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., in part to raise a family and to take advantage of a lower cost of living so they could both concentrate on writing full time. The writing scene in New York is "really a scene, huge, a million writers, competitive." Here "people are nice, they come out to events, the Wisconsin Book Festival is great, and there's a genuine love of books." As a writer, "you feel supported." People here are "not willing to put playing the game ahead of the community where they live."
It didn't hurt that Meadows had a terrific first novel in hand - Calling Out, about a Salt Lake City escort service, was named a Book Sense Notable book, an Entertainment Weekly Must-Read, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for fall 2006.
Meadows, a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA program at the University of Utah, had to learn how to be more talkative about her fiction, not something that came to her naturally. "But then it becomes fun," she says, finding it "hugely gratifying" to visit book clubs and answer questions after readings: "It's one of the benefits of being published, to see directly how something comes across to your audience."
She's pleased with publisher MacAdam Cage, too, a smaller, more personal house that deals only with literary fiction: "They're willing to take a chance on a new writer, they love literature and are devoted to keeping literature alive."
Meadows will read from No One Tells Everything July 6 at A Room of One's Own and July 9 at Borders West, in what must be a Madison first - a joint appearance with her brother-in-law, Darin Strauss, whose third novel, More Than It Hurts You (Dutton), will be released later this month.
In the David Maraniss book tally, it's currently Politics 5, Sports 3 with the forthcoming release of Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World (Simon and Schuster, July). Rome 1960 resembles his They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace in Vietnam and America in that it has a very large cast of characters. Of course it also joins his sports bios, Clemente and When Pride Still Mattered.
But for Maraniss, the Rome games uniquely join politics and sports in a way that is "much subtler and deeper" than some of the more famous recent Olympics such as 1936 (the Nazis), 1968 (the Black Power salute) and, of course, 1972 (the terrorist attack in Munich). "I'm not trying to say that those three are not incredibly interesting or important," says Maraniss. "But Rome offers a much broader place to write about the emergence of the modern world, because so much was happening there."
He mentions various "firsts": the first doping scandal (a Danish cyclist died), the first use of anabolic steroids, the first instance of an athlete accepting money for wearing a certain brand of shoes. On the more positive side, Maraniss notes, it was "an important moment in the rise of women in sports, because of [track star] Wilma Rudolph. These were the first televised games, and she was the TV star."
The games also joined the "pressures of the cold war on the U.S. to shape up, in terms of its blatant Jim Crow segregation." A key symbol of the games was African American Olympian Rafer Johnson carrying the U.S. flag in the opening procession.
Still, it's easier to perceive the games' importance now than it was at the time: "Whereas the Black Power salute of '68 was an immediate powerful symbol and Munich obviously even more so," says Maraniss, "in 1960, nobody quite realized the history that was happening there. It's only in retrospect that you can look back and see how amazing it was. The world was stirring at that moment, and the Olympics captured it."
Television was in its infancy, and broadcaster Jim McKay (who died last Saturday) told Maraniss how the videotape taken at the games was sent via commercial airliners to CBS in New York, sometimes still frozen from the unheated baggage compartments. Editing was literally cut-and-paste - with razor blades.
Maraniss is a firm believer in visiting the places he writes about. In Rome, he retraced the marathon route, visited all the venues (most still exist), as well as obtaining documents and conducting interviews. While the original CBS video of the games is not extant, he obtained a film that Italy made about the games that is "really quite something," and the IOC archive also had "a lot of raw footage, so I saw on film almost every event that I wrote about."
The research took up 180 three-ring binders. He then put together a 350-page chronology, then a rough outline. The writing itself took about a year.
The Rome visit was a little different from the winter he spent in Green Bay for his Vince Lombardi bio, When Pride Still Mattered: "Rome was in some ways a payback to my wife for going to Green Bay in the winter. But that's something you have to do if you want to write about the Ice Bowl. You have to live there to understand what a religion the Packers are there. After a week, my wife said she felt out of uniform if she wasn't wearing a Packers sweatshirt."
Maraniss, who lives on the near west side part of the time, will be in Madison in June, on the road all of July in support of the book "and then back in Madison in August." And in light of current world events, he's finally given in and bought a television set. "My wife and I were trying to be like campers here in Madison, but between politics and the upcoming Olympics, I had to get a TV - the Charter guy's coming this morning to set it up."
David Maraniss will read from Rome 1960 at Barnes & Noble-West on July 1 to kick off his book tour, and at Borders-West on Aug. 14.
Former Wisconsin Trails editor and local poet Harriet Brown will be leaving Madison to take a position as an assistant professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University. She's also been signed by Harper Collins to write a memoir about her daughter's eating disorder, tentatively entitled Brave Girl Eating. It's slated for publication in 2010. Brown is the author of The Good-Bye Window: A Year in the Life of a Day-Care Center (UW Press), which chronicles Madison's own Red Caboose; and Madison Walks (Jones Books), a guidebook to the place that Brown, by her own admission, "hated passionately for at least the first six or seven" years she lived here, according to a posting on her blog. Sheesh, you finally get to liking a place and then have to move on to greener pastures.
Summer is the high-water mark for writer's workshops. From Provincetown to Mendocino, writers are hauling their Adirondack chairs into the sunshine and trading manuscripts. Recent Guggenheim fellow recipient and novelist Dean Bakopoulos, who directs the writing arts program at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, reports that in addition to a slate of poetry and journal writing workshops there, Madison's Jesse Lee Kercheval will conduct a special weekend workshop that is a blitzkrieg through three genres - poetry, fiction and memoir - Aug. 9 and 10. And this fall, writer Danielle Trussoni will become Shake Rag's first visiting writer-in-residence from September through May. Trussoni, author of the memoir Falling Through the Earth (a New York Times top-ten pick for 2006), is originally from La Crosse and graduated from the UW-Madison and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Trussoni will teach an eight-week nonfiction workshop in the fall and two shorter workshops in spring.
For the March installment of the book news column, I read Ted McLelland's travel narrative The Third Coast, stories about his travels around the Great Lakes. For this installment, I flipped through Trails Books' latest, Lake Michigan Travel Guide by Nina Gadomski, which covers some of the same territory, the area "where silos give way to sails and small towns transform into harbor towns." From terrain as familiar as Milwaukee's lakefront to the gorgeous west coast of Michigan (Leelanau State Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and even the Chicago lakefront, Gadomski covers the highlights as well as some under-the-radar, quirky spots - of which there are many. If you're looking for in-depth info about any given place, though, you may need to look elsewhere.
Another travel guide I wrote about previously, Margaret Beattie Bogue's Around the Shores of Lake Superior (UW Press) has received a Midwest Independent Publishers Association's Midwest Book Award as the year's best Midwest Regional Interest title.
UW professor emeritus Yi-Fu Tuan has published Human Goodness (UW Press). While Tuan is best known as a humanist geographer and genre-defying scholar, he no longer writes about geography. His latest work veers to philosophy and history. Human Goodness mixes his musings with brief bios of "good people," Confucius, Socrates, Mozart, Keats, Albert Schweitzer and Simone Weil, as well as anecdotes concerning many other figures, such as Abraham Lincoln's concern for the well-being of animals.
Tuan probes many varieties of goodness in terms that have fallen out of favor in today's often heedless society - such concepts as "manners," "unworldliness," "gratitude" and "humility." Publishers Weekly opined that "readers will feel better and more intelligent for having read about these lives well-lived." More than that, Human Goodness cannot help but make readers rethink the importance of their own behavior in society.
Wisconsin Korean War Stories: Veterans Tell Their Stories From the Forgotten War (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) by Sarah Larsen and Jennifer Miller is a companion piece to the Wisconsin Public Television documentary of the same name. The authors interviewed veterans, 35 of whose recollections of the war appear in the book. Many narratives are rueful, as is Oneida tribe member Valder John's: "The war is always with you; I don't think it ever goes away. I think the Korean War was our first no-win situation."
Many vets joined up because of the patriotism they felt as younger children during World War II. Monona's Ray Hendrikse remembers that Iwo Jima "sold me on the Marine Corps. I'm happy for it. Marines don't leave anybody."
"I was in high school during all of World War II, and I used to read the magazines and follow the army nurses and what they did," says Madison's Alice Dorn. "It sort of moved me into nursing." But Korea was a different story. "It was a terrible war," says Dorn, who served in Korea and Japan. "I was ready for peace."
Eat Smart in Sicily (Ginkgo Press) by Joan Peterson is the latest in the Madison-based culinary adventurer's "Eat Smart" series. As with the other titles, Peterson highlights the history of the cuisine, gives menu-reading tips, recipes and ways to shop for special ingredients here at home. Peterson will discuss the book, with a food tasting featuring recipes from the book, on June 17 at Borders-West and on June 28 at Bunky's Cafe.
F.J. Bergmann, a.k.a. Jeannie Bergmann, who runs madpoetry.org, Madison's compendium of all things poetic, has published a science-fiction-themed chapbook, "Constellation of the Dragonfly" (Plan B Press). See www.planbpress.com/bergmannconstellation.html.