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The best Wisconsin books of 2010
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Although I'm seeing more people reading on Nooks and Kindles, 2010 was a great year for Wisconsin-related books that you might physically want to hold in your hands. Two of my favorites, Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes and H.H. Bennett, feature remarkable photographs that might look okay on a portable reading device but benefited from careful printing on high-quality paper stock. Carpe diem on that score.

Here's a romp through my other picks from the year.


Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes
(Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
By M. Caren Connolly and Louis Wasserman, with photographs by Zane Williams

Without a doubt, the coffee-table book of the year. This is an invigorating look at the state's history through its notable architecture, from the palaces of fur barons to Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes for the average Joe. And it would please just about any HGTV fan.

Wisconsin boasts Prairie-style masterpieces to rival Oak Park, Ill., and mansions that would fit right in with the Gilded Age prototypes at Newport, R.I. Nothing is skimped on in this beautiful volume - there are plenty of lush color photographs along with a substantial text.

Some of the homes are familiar, like Ten Chimneys or Prairie du Chien's Villa Louis; others less so, like the Moderne home of designer Brooks Stevens, in Fox Point, and the fantasy-come-true island paradise of the Adirondack-style Stout's Island Lodge, near Birchwood. All of them are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. And not one of them needs "an updated kitchen"!

H.H. Bennett, Photographer: His American Landscape
(University of Wisconsin Press)
By Sara Rath

Rath's biography is absorbing throughout. The many photos from the pioneering Dells landscape photographer make a great case for Bennett's inclusion with the best of his era, like Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins.

There are really three subjects at the heart of the book - Bennett, the physical formations of the Dells by the Wisconsin River and photography itself. Additionally, Bennett's photos of the native Ho-Chunk are a unique historical resource.

Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science
(Oxford University Press)
By Steve Paulson

If you've ever stared up at the night sky and wondered where we stand in all this, Atoms and Eden will be right up your alley. This collection of 20 interviews with noted scientists, philosophers and religious historians is wide-ranging. Elaine Pagels speaks about a "transcendent reality": "I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not." Ken Wilber discusses "trans-rational awareness." Sam Harris ponders the possibility that human consciousness survives past our dying. The myriad ways these thinkers approach the biggest questions are fascinating - without (I guess it goes without saying) providing definitive answers.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By Deborah Blum

Blum centers the narrative on the figures who founded forensic science and toxicology (Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler foremost among them) but organizes the book in chapters around various popular poisons. Blum is a smart science journalist and a great storyteller, and here the true-crime-style subject is already inherently interesting - an easier sell than Blum's last book, on William James and spiritualism.

There's also plenty of social history here, especially around accidental poisonings, poison used unwittingly in attempts to do good, and bad alcohol as poison agent during Prohibition. The Poisoner's Handbook is more absorbing than most television crime dramas.

Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s
(University of Wisconsin Press)
By Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson

Fellows, who resides in Milwaukee, has taken Branson's original 1957 memoir of running a gay-friendly bar in Hollywood and interspersed new chapters that place the material in context. There's value in this from a historical standpoint, but just as crucially, Gay Bar is fun to read. The era's closet has been touched on in episodes of Mad Men; this contemporaneous account gives a broader picture of a not dissimilar scene. "John Bailey's problem is one that many, many gay fellows have. He lives a lie," Branson writes, in her flat, matter-of-fact style.

Branson herself didn't like the "obvious homosexual," believing they would ruin her business - straight-acting and -appearing was the order of the day. But she did feel that gay men who weren't overtly flamboyant were deserving of considerate treatment. Yes, the book is a poignant time capsule.

Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin' Safari
(Clerisy Press)
By William Povletich

This surprising tale of Great Lakes surfing has its ups and downs, but is laudable for its exploration of a little-known state subculture, "small and fiercely dedicated." Turns out that Sheboygan may be the best place on all the Great Lakes to catch a wave, the "Malibu of the Midwest," "Mecca to a different breed of surfer." While the Sheboygan shore features 22 breaks in five miles, surfers also have to brave "the quagmire of ice-filled Lake Michigan waves...finally succumb[ing] to the early indications of hypothermia." The story centers on brothers Lee and Larry Williams, who became obsessed with surfing in the late 1960s and eventually founded the successful Dairyland Surf Classic.

A Short History of Wisconsin
(Wisconsin Historical Society Press)

Madison: History of a Model City
(The History Press)
By Erika Janik

While longer, more detailed histories of Madison have been penned by David Mollenhoff and Stuart Levitan, Janik's new Madison is a quick trip through the city's past in 166 pages. It's a breezy primer for newcomers, but even natives will likely learn something new about their birthplace. A Short History of Wisconsin treats the topic as a series of readable, discrete tales rather than a complete chronology.

Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story
(Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
By Dennis McCann

Cemeteries are full of wonderful stories, but after the obituaries are thrown away, the tales often fade. Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dennis McCann has traipsed all over, researching the spookiest tales from graveyards across the state. Chapters cover Confederate Rest, the northernmost Confederate graveyard, located in Madison at Forest Hill cemetery; why Frank Lloyd Wright is not where his headstone says he is (in the tiny churchyard plot near Taliesin); and the wonderful Freethinker's cemetery in Sauk County.

Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories: Our Veterans Remember
(Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
By Sarah A. Larsen and Jennifer M. Miller

This oral history project, featuring interviews with more than 125 Wisconsin vets of the divisive Vietnam War, brings real personalities to a conflict that for a long time just wasn't discussed. The plainspoken memories of young soldiers from places like Fennimore (like Ed Hardy - "There were a certain number of people who got stuck burning feces every day") provide a side of history you're not going to find out about in classics like Fire in the Lake or Vietnam: A History.

No matter how you feel about the war, the interviews (arranged both thematically and according to the major battles - Khe Sanh, Tet, "Secret War," etc.) shed new light on its darkness. "It brings out the best in people and the worst in people, sometimes in the same person on the same day," says Army communications vet Linda McClenahan. "People want to fight war in a nice, neat, moral box. You can't do it."

Green Travel Guide to Southern Wisconsin: Environmentally and Socially Responsible Travel
(University of Wisconsin Press)
By Pat Dillon and Lynne Diebel

There are a great many guidebooks to southern Wisconsin, and some of them, well, might not be the best way to encourage out-of-state travelers to choose this as their destination. Not so this smart look at environmentally conscious attractions in our area, which is well written and researched and full of places even longtime residents should be excited to explore more fully.

Fiction and Poetry

By Susanna Daniel

The novel is not set in Wisconsin, but rather an almost magical area of homes built on stilts over the waters of the Atlantic, off the coast of Miami. Daniel is a recent transplant to Madison, raised in the area described in the book. Her knowledge and love of the place are evident. The landscape or seascape is probably the most important character in the book, although Stiltsville is a story grounded in personalities - realistic personalities who speak natural dialogue, not the exaggerated or concocted types found in so much recent fiction. Even with hurricanes and serial killers in the periphery, it's still a quiet novel, a love story, in the end.

The Flight Cage
(Tupelo Press)
By Rebecca Dunham

All the poems in this collection are spoken by women, actual historical figures, in potent imaginings. Mary Wollstonecraft speaks while giving birth and during an attempt at suicide, in two poems; Sarah Good (one of the women executed in the Salem Witch Trials) rants about motherhood; Dorothy Wordsworth reflects on her surroundings during a walk. The spare verse mimics the metaphor of the flight cage; lines come to abrupt halts, turn and fly the other way. From "Mary Wollstonecraft in Flight": "His forked/voice licked my mortal ears/clean. Men are strange machines./He kisses like an ancient/God, his spit in my mouth a curse."

Dunham, who teaches at UW-Milwaukee, has produced a series of vibrant, angry, penetrating poems that should stun, in the best way, feminists and poetry lovers alike. The Flight Cage deserves a wide readership.

We Don't Know We Don't Know
(Graywolf Press)

The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbor's House
(University of Wisconsin Press)
By Nick Lantz

Poet Lantz, a former Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, recently left Madison for a teaching position in Pennsylvania. But the Wisco connection continues with his selection as the winner of the 2010 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and the publication by UW Press of The Lightning That Strikes. Lantz's style is sly and witty, philosophical yet plainspoken. There's nothing fey about this poetry; it's trenchant and sad and celebratory, all at once.

We Don't Know We Don't Know draws on the koans of Donald Rumsfeld, right alongside other epigrams from Pliny the Elder. Rumsfeld's free-verse style of speech has already famously been noted, but Lantz gives real depth to Rummy's original linguistic high jinks. The Lightning That Strikes has an exquisite sense of balance, too, this time stepping away from anything that might be perceived as gimmicky.

From our pages

In Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabble-rousing (Jones Books), Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders has collected the best of his opinion columns, investigative pieces and more personal writing. Most of the work originally appeared in Isthmus, though there are also articles from Milwaukee Magazine, The Progressive, The Shepherd Express, the Christian Science Monitor and Wisconsin Trails. The book offers an original take on Madison and a window into the reporter that you only think you know.

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