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What with one thing and another, 2011 has been a time to ponder what Wisconsin stands for as a state. Where do we come from and where are we going? What is being a Wisconsinite all about? In one way or another, this crop of 2011 Wisconsin-centric books illuminates these questions.
My American Unhappiness
by Dean Bakopoulos (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)
Among novels that are set in Madison, My American Unhappiness gets the details of its setting right, not just in a physical sense but frequently an emotional one. That's not surprising, since author Dean Bakopoulos lived in the city for some years working as the director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. A fictionalized version of that agency serves as the setting for My American Unhappiness, the mood of which is rooted in a generational malaise that grew out of the Bush years, 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis.
The idealistic mission of the novel's "Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative" ("to foster a greater sense of community, increase public literacy, and strengthen levels of civic engagement in the American heartland") mirrors some of the best of the vaunted Wisconsin Idea, yet it's significant that main character Zeke Pappas' primary project is interviewing hundreds of people as to why they are so unhappy. While the overall plot sometimes feels too loose, My American Unhappiness does manage to capture - okay, imperfectly - a most imperfect time.
by Larry Watson (Milkweed, $24)
Surely Milwaukee novelist Larry Watson is one of our state's most undervalued resources. American Boy is set in 1962, a golden time that's obliquely referred to in My American Unhappiness...only it turns out it's not so golden. Watson paints the cramped day-to-day life of small-town Midwestern life in the second half of the 20th century unsentimentally, where the itch is to get out, not to get back to the land.
Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life
by Margot Peters (University of Wisconsin Press, $35)
That we had a poet like Fort Atkinson's Lorine Niedecker - a sort of Emily Dickinson of the 20th century - writing in our backyard is phenomenal. That she is still largely unknown is a shame. Margot Peters' bio is worth reading even for non-poetry lovers, because Niedecker's life is fascinating on its own, but it's also an excellent portal to the poetry. Peters creates the most solid portrait so far of the southern Wisconsin poet, her creative, financial and personal battles. It is a book about the compromises Niedecker made, the delusions she harbored, and her endearing perseverance.
Cluck: From Jungle Fowl to City Chicks
by Susan Troller, illustrated by S.V. Medaris (Itchy Cat Press, $25)
The trend of raising chickens in urban backyards has brought many of us closer to fowl, and Cluck cleverly celebrates the humble hen. While not pets, chickens do have personalities; the barnyard and the coop are their society. Susan Troller and guest essay writers Jane Hamilton, Michael Perry and Ben Logan tell small stories of the various chicks in their flocks. S.V. Medaris provides the compelling but unsentimental art of barns, coops, dogs, cats, hens, roosters and friends.
We Are Wisconsin
edited by Erica Sagrans (Tasora, $18, or free PDF download at wearewisconsinbook.com)
This first book chronicling the uprising that ensued after Gov. Scott Walker announced his "budget repair bill" last February gets the sense of immediacy right. Editor Erica Sagrans drew on "the words of the activists, writers and everyday Wisconsinites who made it happen," taking readers into (or back into) a deafening state Capitol Rotunda and crowded Capitol Square.
We Are Wisconsin reprints the transcript of Ian Murphy's prank phone call as "David Koch" with Gov. Walker, Michael Moore's stirring March 5 speech "America Is Not Broke," and farmer Tony Schulz's memorable March 12 address at the "welcome home" rally. It includes interviews with videographer Matt Wisniewski and pieces by state senators and newly born activists; it also "retweets" key tweets. While other books are undoubtedly on the way that will do more to analyze and place the whole movement into a larger context, We Are Wisconsin is a worthwhile snapshot of it all as it was taking place.
Timber! The Story of the Lumberjack World Championships
by Lew Freedman (University of Wisconsin Press, $25)
It seems every year a quirky niche history comes along, like last year's Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin' Safari. This year, this readable history of the lumberjack championships in Hayward was a surprise favorite in my Wisconsin books stack.
If you've ever vacationed in the area, you've probably gone to see the show, created both to draw tourists and celebrate lumberjack culture. Yes, lumberjacks are athletes, with the strength and stamina to chop and saw wood and shimmy up poles, the agility to stay upright while log rolling and boom running. Timber! should be applauded for its look at an important state subculture.
Westmorland: A Great Place to Live
Westmorland Neighborhood Association
This micro-history of the Westmorland neighborhood will be most interesting to those who live there, but also to Madisonians who are passionate or curious about the history of the city. This book is well illustrated with vintage photos, showing the transformation of the area from farms to subdivision.
The cover shot of the rustic stone Westmorland gates, guarding a treeless, mostly empty field, is startling. Other interesting local tidbits abound. Primary developer Otto Toepfer gave his name not only to Toepfer Avenue but to Otto's restaurant, further west on Mineral Point Road. Did you know that a 20-acre vegetable farm and stand took up the land closest to Midvale Boulevard through the early 1950s? Westmorland is a thorough and interesting look at one of Madison's most popular neighborhoods and a model of the kind of histories that could be produced about other parts of the city.
Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager
by Brett Laidlaw (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $28)
Laidlaw is a Minnesotan with a cabin in Wisconsin, and he does much of his foraging in the Badger State. If foraging always sounds too much like mystery mushrooms and stinging nettle soup to you, Trout Caviar may win you over; most of the recipes can be made with ingredients found at a decent farmers' market or grown in a backyard garden. This is direct-from-the-source cooking with lively, conversational text from a home cook who clearly loves nature, Wisconsin and good food.
Vintage Wisconsin Gardens:A History of Home Gardening
by Lee Somerville (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $25)
Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin's Early Settlers
by Marcia C. Carmichael (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $25)
These are really companion books, covering the two sides of gardening, flowers and vegetables. Vintage Wisconsin Gardens covers primarily the floral and the history of home landscapes. Putting Down Roots focuses more on immigrant gardens and food production and includes recipes from the kitchen garden. Both are beautifully produced.
Beyond the Trees: Stories of Wisconsin Forests
by Candice Gaukel Andrews (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $27)
State and national forests are often overshadowed by their higher-profile cousins, state parks. Yet hikers and campers know the pleasures of these rustic preserves: campgrounds that may not boast showers or flush toilets, but a lake, pine trees and few neighboring campers. Andrews profiles 14 state and national forests within Wisconsin, from urban Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee (a reclaimed Army base) to the out-of-the-way Coulee Experimental State Forest near La Crosse.
Beyond the Trees is not really an encompassing "story of Wisconsin forests"; rather, it's more of a travelogue, though an atypical one, an overview of individual forests' history, natural features, trail systems and site significance. Although probably not detailed enough to function as a trail or camping guide, Beyond the Trees is enticing to anyone who finds a path leading into a woods irresistible.
People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaick, 1879-1942
by Tom Jones et al. (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $30)
These beautifully detailed sepia portraits from Black River Falls photographer Charles Van Schaick are an encompassing documentation of the lives of Ho-Chunk people in the state. It's also interesting to learn about the career of Van Schaick - yes, there were photographers in Wisconsin besides H.H. Bennett. As the introductory essay by UW-Madison photography professor Tom Jones notes, Van Schaick's photographs are "not exploitative or intrusive." Jones' essay is most helpful in putting the photos into a historical context, as are essays by Matthew Daniel Mason and Amy Lonetree.
by Carl Corey (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $30)
Corey captures the homey, quirky, sad and celebratory spaces of bars with his camera. Certainly taverns are not unique to this state, but "the Tavern League project portrays a unique and important segment of the Wisconsin community," writes Corey. "Throughout history the local tavern or pub has served as a communal gathering place, offering conversation and interaction among neighbors and friends."
But the advent of chain sports bars in sizable cities and decreasing populations in rural areas are threatening these "simple taverns" that "offer the individual the valuable opportunity for face-to-face conversation." Corey creates his space portraits in mostly empty bars, commemorating back-bar paintings, classic neon, Packers memorabilia, deer heads and jukeboxes. Pool tables are lit like altars. Bartenders sometimes take center stage, ranging from proud to philosophical to downtrodden. There is beautiful play of light and dark in day-lit shots. Tavern League is a love song to the state's traditional taps.
Cows: A Closer Look
by Paul W. Thoresen (Borderland Books, $40)
Like many Wisconsinites, I have a soft spot for the lumbering Holsteins that are our official state domestic animal. And I have long admired Paul Thoresen's photographs of cows (full disclosure: I know Thoresen from involvement with the Center for Photography at Madison). So I was thrilled to see his work in this book-length photo essay.
There's nothing cutesy about these bovines. Thoresen has taken cows seriously, and his work invites the viewer to consider them seriously, too. Cows become individuals; individuals become abstracts; abstracts take motion. The photographs are mostly in ennobling black-and-white (as befits the Holstein), but there are some experimental digital color shots made with a flash and a slow shutter speed, accompanied with thoughtful text.