Jeff Hagen has plenty of time to talk about his new book, Brewed Awakenings: An Illustrated Journey to Coffeehouses in Wisconsin (and Beyond) from Blue Mounds'Itchy Cat Press. He's recuperating from a recent surgery. Unfortunately, it's a recovery period during which he's allowed only one cup of coffee per day. "Down from two or three," Hagen says. "It's my black gold."
Hagen memorialized Wisconsin's number one culinary and cultural coup, the Friday fish fry, in two previous books, Fry Me to the Moon and Codfather II. The charmingly illustrated guides are not just about finding the best fries, but the great, good places that serve them - spots that are more than just taverns or restaurants. He took a similar approach to the state's coffeehouses.
Wisconsin 's coffee culture largely migrated here from the coasts, rather than being homegrown, as with fish fries. But you find "people making tremendous coffee and creating quality atmosphere similar to coffee shops in big cities" throughout the state. Hagen cites tiny spots like Rochester (in the southeast corner of the state) and Cornucopia (way up north): "In the smallest of places, you can find the best coffee." And it's in those remote spots that the coffeehouse is most needed as a gathering place.
Hagen asked patrons of the java joints to laud their favorites, which he mixed with his own observations and his pastel sketches. "I can draw the outsides," he says, but it's the regulars who speak to what he calls "the magic, a chemistry...no matter what draws them, they end up staying."
It's hard to flip through Brewed Awakenings and not lust for a road trip to places like Jules' Coffee in La Crosse or Evansville's Real Coffee. Hagen makes them all look alluring and, yes, magical. Five of his picks are right here in Madison.
"I'm not a food critic; I'm an average Joe," says Hagen, who also orders average joe (coffee, black) or the house specialty. "I like fish fries and burgers and coffee. I'm like the majority of people - I don't want to go to a snobby place. I want to go to the place where the people who live there go."
I started last September's installment of "Local Book News" with a Madisonian's memoir of a counterculture childhood (Sandra Eugster's Notes From Nethers). Here's another, quite different, 1960s memoir, from UW professor of anthropology Kirin Narayan.
Narayan, daughter of an Indian father and an American mother (who adopted Indian customs and dress), has written My Family and Other Saints (University of Chicago Press), about her offbeat upbringing in Bombay in the 1960s and early '70s. There, in what seems an idyllic beach house in the suburb of Juhu, the family hosts many visitors, American and Indian. These hippies and seekers (called "urugs" in family slang, "guru" spelled backwards) questing their way through the country seek enlightenment - and a place to crash.
"I was a writer before I was an anthropologist," says Narayan. Like many girls, she read Little Women at a young age and was taken with Jo, the writing sister, the lifeblood of the March family. "Jo was a great role model," says Narayan. "I was always writing as a child."
That turned out to be quite fortunate in the formation of My Family..., as Narayan's mother actually kept some of those writings.
There's a nice fit between Narayan's academic work in cultural anthropology and folklore and her more personal writing; there's a chance for "cross-fertilization," she says. "The only hard thing is finding time to do both." The tension of the memoir stems from the adventures of her elders and young Kirin's curiosity about a more conventional childhood.
Narayan is also the author of the novel Love, Stars and All That (Simon and Schuster, 1994), the story of a young Indian woman experiencing culture shock while attending U.-Cal Berkeley. The new memoir, though, is the book Narayan always planned to write. "Coming into my 40s, I began feeling the effects of mortality." Her father had died, as had her brother; she came to realize "life is finite. To honor it, I shouldn't wait."
The chaotic world she depicts in My Family... is exotic and alluring, and has mostly vanished. Writing brought it back to life, though: "That's the magic part of writing. People and places become alive in your imagination, and you re-encounter people who are gone." She sifted through her memories, consulted those childhood writings her mother saved, talked to family members "and some of those young seekers who came through our home. Because we have kept in touch - they became honorary family members."
Former Isthmus columnist Rachel Pastan's second novel, The Lady of the Snakes (Harcourt), is set for a Jan. 15 release. Pastan, who now lives in suburban Philadelphia, wrote early drafts of the book while she lived in Madison, the setting for the novel. It's the story of a young Russian literature professor who's having a hard time balancing her own life with her preoccupation with the lives of the 19th-century literati she studies.
It's also a literary mystery à la A.S. Byatt's Possession, with (fictional) 19th-century letters and journal entries included - enough to provide the right flavor, says Pastan - within the compelling, 21st-century frame. "Fast-paced, well written and entertaining," opined Publisher's Weekly, "Pastan's latest has a winning feminist twist and should turn up in more than a few faculty lounges."
Setting the novel in Madison was a delight, says Pastan: "I got to live in Madison in my imagination. Setting it in Madison felt central to me in some way. It's so much about a woman with a small child balancing that with the rest of her life - and for me, that experience is tied up with being in Madison. I couldn't imagine it taking place anywhere else." That said, Pastan notes that the UW Slavic department in the book isn't meant to be, and probably isn't, very much like the real one.
Shawn Peters' third book follows the subject of his first two: the intersection of law and religion. Having written on Jehovah's Witnesses' right not to serve in the military in Judging Jehovah's Witnesses (University Press of Kansas, 2000) and the Amish and their right to withdraw their children from public schools in The Yoder Case (Kansas, 2003), he's turned his attention to faith healing. When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law (Oxford) looks at situations when deeply religious parents who do not believe in utilizing modern medicine have children who fall seriously ill and yet do not seek medical help for them.
Peters was intrigued. "These are very hard cases, with legal, ethical and moral questions. What rights do parents have with regard to control over their children, and when should the state intervene? What are the limits of faith - how far are you willing to go to follow it? These are a tangled set of questions and don't lend themselves to easy answers."
The stories in When Prayer Fails are absorbing and heartbreaking, involving small children who suffer terribly before they die, sometimes from maladies that could be cleared up with accepted treatments like a course of antibiotics, or insulin for diabetics. One little boy who's a hemophiliac dies from cutting his foot.
The final case Peters covers is the 2003 Cottrell case from Milwaukee, in which a 2-year-old autistic boy died from being essentially crushed during a faith healing/exorcism ritual. Madison's Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation became involved in pressing Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann to file more serious charges than felony child abuse. Yet in these cases, child abuse laws conflict with laws protecting the practice of religion; there are even exceptions within child abuse laws for spiritual healing.
When Prayer Fails looks at the tradition of faith healing throughout Christianity but concentrates on U.S. cases in the late 19th century to the present. The current state of the debate, Peters figures, is "not quite a stalemate." There's awareness that this is a complex problem, but "the laws themselves are screwed up." After a high-profile case like Cottrell, the Legislature will "lurch into action," says Peters, but not necessarily change the law.
Even if the laws did change, Peters isn't sure that would prompt "deeply religious parents" to change their beliefs or deter them from practicing their religion through fear of prosecution. "So many of these churches are in the middle of nowhere and don't let 'authority' in anyway. Laws may act to deter, but I'm not convinced. Given that the alternative is doing nothing, though, [law-making bodies] should go for it."
There was no one case that completely shocked Peters; they all did: "I was surprised, shocked and disturbed throughout." Peters did talk to some faith healers, but "I didn't find it revealing. They were suspicious of me, and there was proselytizing on their part." He relied primarily on case testimony, finding it more compelling.
Peters just received his Ph.D. in history from the UW (the book doubled as his dissertation), and teaches writing in the school's TRIO program that gives a boost to low-income and first-generation college students.
Jesse Lee Kercheval speaks at a rapid clip, and my notes on our conversation indicate how far I lagged behind: "Even before that...eventually....set period...scarce...bring close." Okay, let's unpack that.
Kercheval, who's lived in Madison and taught creative writing at the UW for close to two decades, draws on some of those life experiences for her latest book of fiction, The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, where it received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize). The linked stories were written over a period of 15 years and center on events that "happen in the middle part of our lives," Kercheval says - births, deaths, miscarriages. Some of her friends have remarked that they were surprised the book wasn't a memoir, "because some of these things did happen in my own life" - but Kercheval rejected that approach.
She's written in the form before (her 1998 memoir Space from Algonquin Books won the Alex Award from the American Library Association), but for this, she decided sticking to her own life was "just not representative enough." For instance, although Kercheval and her husband are both Wisconsin transplants and both from Florida, in The Alice Stories, protagonist Alice is from Florida but husband Anders is a Wisconsin native. Kercheval wanted Anders to represent the many people she's met who have deep roots in the state.
Although Kercheval sees The Alice Stories as "a novel in stories," it was not conceived as such. But as she accumulated stories centered on Alice, the approach made sense. However, she notes her agent "pressed heavily" for a novel over the novel-in-stories format. But a story's arc is different from a novel's, and a novel would have had to center on only one of these stories from Alice's life.
"I'm fond of the characters," Kercheval says, "and I feel a kind of responsibility to them not to leave them marooned in the computer." Although Alice encounters much that's bittersweet, it's also a funny book - Alice's reactions and insights are complex yet familiar, demonstrating "the good grace with which people cope with the bad things, when friends and family get ill."
Kercheval, also the author of a popular writing handbook, Building Fiction (1997, available from University of Wisconsin Press), does take her own advice to heart. "It's become part of my mental template. When something's not working, I step back. I look at the structure. Maybe it's the wrong pace. It's like when you tell a joke and no one laughs, you know something's wrong."
Kercheval will read from The Alice Stories at Borders West on Feb. 5.
Dean Bakopoulos, whose resignation as the director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council takes effect in January, is embarking on an adventuresome new career as director and writer-in-residence for the Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts in Mineral Point.
Mineral Point, already noted for its historic buildings and hospitality to visual artists, will now be home to a creative writing program as well. Bakopoulos, author of the novel Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, plans to hold a reading series, "short and extended residencies for working writers and artists, writing workshops for adults and youth, and various literacy adventures, including a tutoring/mentoring program for young writers." The next Shake Rag fiction workshop begins Feb. 26, modeled on a traditional MFA workshop, with "lots of personal critiques," says Bakopoulos. For more, see shakeragalley.com.
Putting his Humanities Council hat back on, Bakopoulos notes that the Wisconsin Book Festival is bringing Charles Baxter and Richard Price to Madison on March 13 for a reading as "part of the effort to enhance Madison's literary scene all year 'round."
After letting your daughters and sons indulge in dangerous and daring activities as espoused by the popular guides The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls, you'll want to make sure your dog has the right kind of information for a traditional ruff 'n' ready canine puppyhood; it's found in The Dangerous Book for Dogs by Rex and Sparky. It's actually penned by some of The Onion writers and illustrated in wavering retro-style line drawings by Isthmus contributing cartoonist Emily Flake. It covers areas that, frankly, most dogs already have mastered, like how to pick a pill out of peanut butter, but will also inspire them with life-of-the-mind activities like enjoying dog lit and identifying the constellations. The parody has proven quite popular, but it's still no match for the originals: "Dogs" is currently at #292 on the Amazon bestseller list, while "Girls" ranks #6 and "Boys" ranks #3.
Just in time to combat cabin fever comes Badger Brain Twisters by Kelly Whitt (Trails Books). Wisconsin-themed crosswords, word jumbles, cryptoquotes and Vince Lombardi trivia will help you while away the hours in between bouts of shoveling the driveway (again).