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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
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Let your mind bask in these books over spring break
Head trips
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If you're lucky enough to get a spring break this year, you may be tempted to do the unthinkable: sleep past noon, drink a neon-blue cocktail, or - sacre bleu! - read an entire book. Even if you're stranded in an airport or recovering from a morning of snow shoveling, vacation is the time to transport your mind to somewhere different from where you spend most of your time. Here are three new books and one classic to consider, whether you're seeking a light read for the beach or a deep question to ponder on the long trip home.

It Happened to Audrey: A Terrifying Journey from Loving Mom to Accused Baby Killer
by Audrey Edmunds and Jill Wellington

Here's one author's formula for successful fiction: "I got my character into trouble and kept her there." That aptly describes the real-life ordeal of Audrey Edmunds, the Waunakee woman who was convicted of the 1995 death of an infant in her care and who served 11 years in prison before the Wisconsin Innocence Project got that conviction overturned.

It Happened to Audrey, a new book by Edmunds and journalist friend Jill Wellington, recounts the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune that befell this young mother of three: a charge based on medical conclusions that were later discredited; a verdict aided by questionable evidentiary exclusions; a series of crushing rejections by a justice system that seems utterly unmindful of its capacity to be an instrument of injustice.

Edmunds was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide for what was pegged as a classic case of "shaken baby syndrome," allegedly inflicted on seven-month-old Natalie Beard during a moment of blind rage. The state put on a parade of witnesses who supported this scenario, one of whom later recanted his testimony.

But even at Edmunds' trial, there was testimony that Natalie's injuries likely occurred before she was dropped off on the day she died. There was also evidence of earlier traumatic injury.

The book documents Edmunds' succession of prison jobs and cellmates, her hope and despair, and, most poignantly, her efforts to stay connected to her three young daughters, one of whom had not yet been born when Natalie died.

"Hi, Mommy!" Edmunds' eldest daughter exclaims to her over the phone, three weeks into her prison stay. "When are you coming home?"

What Edmunds calls "the cruelty of my needless imprisonment" destroyed her marriage. It confounded and enraged her; she's enraged by it still. But it never broke her spirit, and this straight-from-the-heart book is a testament to her perseverance and resolve.

Edmunds, toward the end of the book, even expresses hope that the Dane County prosecutors who convicted her and fought to keep her behind bars "will see that they were wrong to have created a false case against me."

Hope, it seems, springs eternal, from even the darkest places.

- Bill Lueders

Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen

Probably not since the 1990s heyday of Dilbert has a newspaper cartoon become a mass-culture phenomenon. And it may not happen again. All the more reason, then, to reflect on Li'l Abner, the phenomenally popular strip about rural Southerners. Starting in 1934, Li'l Abner ran for 43 years. At its peak it was read by 90 million people.

Li'l Abner's creator is the subject of the new biography Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. Capp emerges as a passionate artist in this elegantly written book by Wisconsin author Michael Schumacher and legendary underground cartoonist Denis Kitchen, a Milwaukee native who was based in Wisconsin for many years.

Capp eschewed setup-punchline gags in his densely drawn strips, instead focusing on character and narrative in storylines that he took his time developing. "I think of myself as a novelist, and of Abner as a novel," said the cartoonist, who, as a boy, devoured Dickens and Thackeray.

Boston-based Capp was a pointed, at times vicious satirist. His Gone With the Wind lampoon prompted Margaret Mitchell to threaten legal action. He also tackled The Grapes of Wrath, and he regularly tweaked the work of his fellow newspaper cartoonists. Late in his career he became a notorious crank who ruthlessly spoofed the 1960s counterculture, and who baited college students at campus appearances.

Born to parents whose marriage was arranged in a Lithuanian shtetl, Capp didn't finish high school, though he lied his way into several art colleges. Before settling into a cartooning career, he was a restless youth whose hitchhiking trip through the South later inspired the Abner material. His marriage to Catherine Wingate Cameron lasted 47 years, but he was a philanderer whose forceful advances on college women sparked a national scandal.

Like Charles Schulz after him, Capp was a highly successful marketer of his strip. Li'l Abner spawned film, television and stage versions, as well as toys, a theme park and a soft drink called Kickapoo Joy Juice. He tried, unsuccessfully, to re-create the massive popularity of his Schmoo character, a sort of phallic blob that became a media sensation.

Al Capp is short, just 320 pages. That makes for a quick, engaging read, but a longer book might have let Schumacher and Kitchen look more closely at Capp's signature creation, his comic strip. That massive body of work is only covered in highlights, and not very many of them. But for a general readership, maybe that's enough.

- Kenneth Burns

The Twelve
by Justin Cronin

Almost everyone is familiar with the troubles of the middle child, the one who goes unnoticed between the overachieving older sister and the adorable baby brother. But how about the troubles of the middle book, the second volume of a three-volume trilogy? Is there middle-book syndrome? If so, The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, suffers from it. Not as showy as the first volume (2010's The Passage) and lacking the guaranteed payoff of a final volume (slated for release in 2014), The Twelve nevertheless offers many good things to those who pay attention.

The series is about a secret U.S. military experiment gone horribly wrong. Instead of creating a race of super-soldiers with a genetically engineered virus, the military accidentally unleashes a pandemic that reduces America to ruins and leaves its few healthy citizens holed up in remote settlements, menaced by murderous virals (the bloodthirsty, vampire-like creatures the virus spawned). The Passage spent several weeks on the bestseller list and received glowing reviews. It's a gripping story with just the right mix of suspense and pathos, and makes a great vacation read.

So what about the sequel, The Twelve, the middle child? Reviews have been decidedly mixed. The dreaded term "filler" has been tossed around. Yet the same thing that made The Passage unique is also key to The Twelve's success, perhaps even more so. That key is the quality of Cronin's writing.

Where The Passage combined character studies with intense action sequences, Cronin steps back a bit from the action in The Twelve and spends more time with the survivors, fleshing out familiar characters and introducing new ones. His extended portrait of Bernard Kittridge, the sniper known as "Last Stand in Denver," and his vignettes about the survivors' lives in the walled cities (including a particularly Dickensian segment about street urchins) are great pieces of writing.

Without the novelty of the vampire apocalypse to surprise us, Cronin's characters and writing must stand on their own, and there's no question that they do. Like the middle child, The Twelve could be overlooked, but it really shouldn't be.

- Becky Holmes

Love in a Cold Climate
by Nancy Mitford

Spring break is the perfect time to indulge your Downton Abbey-inspired cravings for drama among the British peerage. Published in 1949, Love in a Cold Climate is ostensibly a comedy of manners, delivered in a light tone but so rich in its observations that its amusing, artfully dropped zingers and finely tuned character details create a devastating portrait of prewar British aristocracy.

Fanny Wincham, middle-class cousin to a family of Oxfordshire gentry, narrates the story of the beautiful, inscrutable Polly, who for reasons mysterious to all - especially her parents, Lord and Lady Montdore - refuses to take an interest in falling in love and finding a husband.

In Fanny's name and voice, we hear echoes of Jane Austen's Fanny Price, the true north of Mansfield Park. While Fanny Wincham is often infected by the glamour, the vagaries of ruined European royalty, the jewels and other displays of aristocratic excess, her clear-eyed observations, decent middle-class values, and ability to love and be loved give the story its resonance. And much as in an Austen novel, where seemingly trivial matters such as love and marriage take on real urgency, we begin to see how freedom and genuine happiness are very much at stake for characters we wouldn't normally care about.

Nancy Mitford herself lived fully during the interwar era the Crawleys of Downton Abbey are straining to adjust to in Season 3 of the PBS series. Born into an aristocratic family, she was the eldest of the six Mitford sisters, famous for their exploits in 20th-century politics, philanthropy and the arts, and for challenging social mores. As a member of a group of British aristocrats and intellectuals known as Bright Young Things, she formed a close relationship with Evelyn Waugh, who was a reader and informal editor of her early novels.

Many of the characters in the book are based on people from Mitford's own circle. This fact gives extra resonance to a story that is by turns comic and tragic but always compelling and witty.

- Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva

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