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A new biography of Chris Farley shines the spotlight on comedy, addiction, celebrity

Credit:Peat Wollaeger

All the excitement about Johnny Depp's filming of Public Enemies in Wisconsin and the Madison casting calls for extras and vintage cars has me thinking about our continuing ability to be star-struck here in the Midwest, even in a supposedly urbane outpost like Madison.

It's also on my mind because it's a theme that runs through The Chris Farley Show, the new biography of the actor and comedian, due in bookstores in May. Madison's parochialism is a key player in the story, on display in the early chapters.

Farley, of course, was a Madisonian born and bred. He attended Edgewood High School and started onstage with the Ark improvisational theater before heading to Chicago, then New York for Saturday Night Live, then on to feature films. He died in Chicago on Dec. 18, 1997.

This new oral biography, by Farley's brother Tom and writer Tanner Colby, is a collection of reminiscences by everyone from Farley's family and high school friends to David Spade, John Goodman, Al Franken and Lorne Michaels.

There is plenty of the old hometown in the book - right down to the detail of the Farley boys going over to Vic Pierce's on Sherman Avenue to buy their beer. There don't seem to be any key players missing from the many interviews, and the memories are enlightening even as they are saddening and sometimes shocking.

Oddly enough, the first thing Tom Farley says to me as we talk on the phone about the forthcoming book is also about the film Public Enemies: "I got Depped," he confesses, referring to his hard-to-reach status over the last few days. Tom, director of marketing at the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been aiding in finding locations for shoots and "everything under the sun."

But with the launch of the book in May, the spotlight will be on him - he's scheduled on Good Morning America and other national media.

The book presents an honest look at some hard Farley family secrets - alcoholism, compulsive overeating, denial. The suggestion that Chris suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder is clear in remarks from David Spade and others, and the specter of the need for the approval of his father is also clear, painfully so, throughout the book. I ask Tom if he finds some of that hard to read.

"I've been working with the Chris Farley Foundation for so long and going out to speak to kids and teens about this - I pretty well have immersed myself in it for eight years," says Farley. "This is a different feeling altogether. This was our opportunity to go out to Chris' friends and colleagues and have them tell their versions of the story. It's all these people from all moments in Chris' life - they all knew Chris like I knew Chris. It was so nice that people got him. They understood the good, the bad and the ugly. They all tried to help him, were upset with him, were sad, just like we were."

Farley has nothing but praise for co-author Tanner Colby. "He has 'trust' written all over him. It was very easy to sit down with him," for the interviews.

While much of the story is sad, Chris Farley's humor leavens the tale. It's humor in keeping with the title of the book, which refers to one of Farley's trademark sketches featuring the flustered, awed interviewer (who, memorably, once asked Paul McCartney if the statement "the love you take is equal to the love you make" was "really true"). This is a moment frequently cited in the book as a favorite. "It was Chris at his most pure, genuine," says Farley.

"What Chris was doing was exporting a vision of his hometown, Madison - this 'Here I am, take me or leave me, I'm not going pretend to be anything other than what I am' attitude, which is such a Madison trait. It's like, 'You wanna call us Cheeseheads? Fine, yeah, that's great. We like cheese. We'll wear 'em on our heads and so be it.'"

Publication is slated for May 6, with a Madison book-release event scheduled for May 14 at Barnes & Noble-West.

It has been a looooong winter, and we're still feeling a little cabin fever. What a great time to do some armchair traveling and the planning of upcoming summer vacations. You will doubtless be hearing a lot about "gas prices keeping people close to home" this year. Gas aside, what an underappreciated place the Great Lakes region is to explore. Ted McClelland's new travel narrative, The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters, and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes (Chicago Review Press), follows his three-and-a-half-month circle tour of the Great Lakes.

That's a lot of distance to cover, but the whole tour never bogs down in detail. McClelland starts in Chicago and immediately heads north to familiar territory - Wisconsin, "the land where ATMs turn into Tyme machines" - and turns up some cultural finds that even us proud Cheeseheads may have overlooked. Did you know that Elkhart Lake is home to the world's largest barber pole? I didn't.

Although McClelland sees the absurd in the many characters he meets along the way, his tone is gentle. "It was fun talking to people, running across people like the 'Haven Hi' guy," a fixture near Sheboygan. His favorite place was Pukaskwa National Park in Ontario: "It's such a wilderness, there's no cell phones, no email, not even radio. If you wanted the baseball scores, you had to go onto the First Nation Reserve and get the newspaper."

There, he met up with Moses Beaver, an Ojibway Indian who claims to be artist-in-residence at the park. He kept McClelland there for three days.

Next, onward to Manitoulin Island, Ontario's answer to Door County; then Owen Sound and the discovery of an African American community of escaped slaves, even a descendant of the model for one of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin - "the most unexpected thing I discovered," says McClelland.

He recommends the trip, with one caveat: "I wouldn't do the whole thing at once. I actually had a facial tic by the time it was over, I was so tired."

Most recently, the Chicago-based McClelland has been covering the 2008 primary races for in a series of stylish articles.

"Wisconsin is a different place," he reflects. "Of all the places that I went, Wisconsin has the quirkiest and most distinctive folkways and foodways and culture."

While you're planning summer trips, take a look at Along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail (University of Wisconsin Press), a thoughtful book of photos and essays on our state's longest hiking trail. The foreword by Congressman David Obey acknowledges that trail supporters are racing against time to buy portions of the trail and preserve geologically significant landscapes before development destroys them. Six hundred miles of trail are currently completed. The beautiful photographs are by Bart Smith, who hiked all portions of the established trail (there are a few additional frames by Madison-area photographer Bill Maund). The scenes are familiar, yet Smith has managed to distill perfectly the elements of the Wisconsin landscape.

David Mickelson writes about the area's ice age geology, Paul Hayes addresses the landscape of the Kettle Moraine, Randy Hoffman discusses the variety of biological communities found in trail segments, Sarah Mittlefehldt records the origins of the project; Robert Freckmann gives pointers on trail vegetation, Mike Dombeck talks about the importance of water, and poems celebrating the trail are by former Wisconsin poet laureate Ellen Kort. More on-the-trail reports from hikers would have been enjoyable, but the book is more of a naturalist's guide than a nuts-and-bolts compendium (there is no information on locations of trailheads, distances, camping areas or the like).

A timely read forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press is Wisconsin Votes: An Electoral History (May). While you may think you know a few things about the state's political predilections from watching tight races in the last two presidential showdowns, the state's voting history is complex and makes for an absorbing read.

Author Robert Booth Fowler, professor emeritus of political science at UW-Madison, takes the reader all the way back to statehood in 1848 to unearth the whys and wherefores behind the state's allegiances, how it has swung from Democratic to Republican many times, and the rise of other parties like the Greenbacks, Prohibitionists, Progressives, Populists and, especially in Milwaukee, Socialists. In the beginning, whether a town's roots were German-Catholic, Norwegian-Protestant or New England-Yankee meant the most in predicting how its vote would swing; now, urban-rural has largely displaced these original signifiers. And you can see a breakdown of just how liberal Madison and Dane County have become in present politics. Good for delving into or just snacking; in either case this book will have you sounding like John Nichols in no time.

UW-Madison professor Anne Enke has published an interesting study, Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (Duke University Press). The book argues that the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s was effective in large part because of the grassroots activism of ordinary people who changed the way women were allowed to inhabit public spaces.

Take, for example, that often women were not allowed in bars without a male escort, that there were dress codes for women, that girls' and women's sports teams could not play in public parks and, moreover, there was little in the way of women-centric public meeting space (bookstores, coffeehouses and the like). This aspect of the movement "is too often overlooked," says Enke. These mostly ad hoc actions allowed for greater breadth than the efforts of more traditional named groups, she says.

Between 1960 and 1980, women created a multitude of new spaces welcoming to women - bars, bookstores, cafes, parks, health clinics, and shelters.

It was heartening for Enke to discover the ordinary people behind the changes. The energy was infectious and "all it took was a small spark, because the world around the spark was so receptive to it." She also found there was more diversity among those participating in these actions than is generally perceived today.

Although Enke's book focuses on four Midwestern cities, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago and Detroit, she hasn't done any direct research on Madison's women's movement during the same time. "I have heard about Madison anecdotally. I like to keep track of interesting stories," and adds that she's found Madison often mentioned by activists in the '60s and '70s. Enke moved here in 2001.

The world described in Enke's book, where cross-fertilization even among four Midwestern cities was painstaking, has been transformed by the Internet, certainly. "Activism has changed completely. is a good example of a national movement that started on the Net and takes place on the Net. It's a pretty different kind of activism now."

Did you know that March is Small Press Month? So what better time to note that Kamikaze Commotion by Appleton's Cathryn Cofell is 2008's first chapbook from Madison's Parallel Press. Cofell was the founding chair of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and is known statewide as an arts activist.

Madison's Kevin Henkes, 2005 Caldecott Medal winner for Kitten's First Full Moon, is publishing another children's novel, Bird Lake Moon (April, Greenwillow Press). This is a book that should appeal to adults as well, so smartly told is this tender, atmospheric story of two broken families spending the summer at a Wisconsin lake house. Important topics like divorce and death are balanced by the nostalgic surroundings for the readers and the characters.

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