Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Hidden Wisconsin - a book round-up

Last week I spoke to Audrey Nowakowski on WUWM's Lake Effect for a summer book segment we could have called Hidden Wisconsin. The list consisted of books that I read and enjoyed this summer that had Wisconsin connections that weren’t quite clear from the publisher marketing. Some had no local content, but were written by Wisconsinites Larry Watson (Kenosha), Steven Wright (Madison), and Christina Schwarz (per the publisher, rural Wisconsin, but we narrowed it down to Delafield, Pewaukee, or Hartford, depending on whether you are talking about mailing address, voting location, or school district). We have signed copies of Larry Watson's The Lives of Edie Pritchard and signed bookplates for Bonnie. One day I'll drive to Madison and we'll have signed copies of The Coyotes of Carthage too, but for now, we just have a delightful book to sell you, sans sig.

Miles Harvey’s The King of Confidence is a narrative nonfiction book about the exploits of James Strang, who decided he was the second coming of Joseph Smith and started a religious colony, first in Burlington, Wisconsin and then on Beaver Island, which is officially in Michigan – Strang was actually elected to the Michigan legislature, but he likely stuffed the ballot box. Burlington is clearly in Wisconsin – it’s southwest of Milwaukee, on the way to Lake Geneva. I’m a big fan of this book and we’ll be talking on Thursday, July 30 (registration link here). Harvey has some great images for us to share at the Zoom event – I’ve only done this once before so have patience!

Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (also an event on August 18 – register here) has Wisconsin roots too. I don’t believe Cher Ami the pigeon ever set foot here, but Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wisconsin (coincidentally, also on the Michigan border, near Iron Mountain) and lived here until he was ten, when the family moved to Massachusetts. And I love to say that the headlines in Christina Clancy’s The Second Home screams Cape Cod (the house the three kids are fighting over), but the story is as much about Milwaukee (the house nobody wants, for the most part). Christi (yes, that’s her non-professional name) said it’s a love letter to the city, and I have to agree. We have signed copies of Clancy's novel. 

One author with more Milwaukee roots than you’d know at first glance is Mia Mercado. Weird but Normal is kind of book we’d normally do an event for, but it came onto my radar a bit late. Once I read it, I learned that Mercado grew up in Glendale and Grafton, and when I did more research, I learned that the third school of higher ed she attended (third time’s the charm) was UWM. It’s possible she’s even been in the bookstore, which I probably wouldn’t have thought if I only knew the Grafton angle. Her essays are sometimes silly, sometimes serious – think Samantha Irby (there’s a cover quote!), Jenny Lawson (discusses mental health and talks a lot about her husband), and Jen Lancaster (the audience was as interested in her husband Fletch as they were in our featured author, and I could see a similar reaction by fans to Riley after a few more books). Anyway, someone tell Mercado that if she hasn’t done a Milwaukee-area focused event, it’s not too late!

I don’t recall Brandon Taylor ever mentioning Madison in his first novel, Real Life, but I swear, you can close your eyes and walk the streets of that novel and not accidentally fall in Lake Monona. It’s the story of Wallace, a biology grad student who, having arrived from Alabama, is plunged into a white world without much support. Over the course of one weekend (there’s a lot of backstory, but it becomes clear that the timeline is quite compressed), Wallace starts an affair with a fellow male grad student (Closeted? Bisexual? Curious? We don’t know because we don’t see the story from his perspective), who, like so many other characters in the story, is bound to disappoint Wallace. Taylor must have passed through the creative writing program at Madison, based on the setting and with the thank you to Danielle Evans, who was at UW before moving to Johns Hopkins. But I also noticed he did his MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Was he a Fellow? No, here's the list. A big shout out to Lucy Tan, Kate Wisel, and Stuart Nadler, who all did events at Boswell in connection with the Fellowship. Plus Rebecca Dunham, who now teaches at UWM.

Aha (later)! It says in The Guardian that Taylor dropped out of the Madison PhD program.

We just heard word that Real Life was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, along with two other favorites of mine, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, plus a lot of other books I haven’t discovered yet. I was chatting with a friend at Riverhead who said my pick (Taylor’s book was five months old at the time I highlighted it) was prescient, but I didn’t know why. Here’s the official announcement about the Booker Longlist

At first I thought it was because of Taylor’s mention in a profile of Edmund White in The New York Times. From Joshua Barone: “In that sense, A Boy’s Own Story has become more significant for its historical importance than its urgency. Brandon Taylor, the 31-year-old author of Real Life, remembered being a teenager searching for gay novels to read and repeatedly coming across it as an essential book. Today, though, White ‘isn’t a touchstone for people I consider my peers,’ Taylor said. That doesn’t mean he isn’t influential, though. ‘When you see a book about a queer Midwestern coming-of-age,’ Taylor added, “it’s hard not to see his hands all over that.”

I thought back to my reading tastes at the time, when I would look for books published by Dutton (the original publisher of A Boy’s Own Story – at the time not part of Penguin Random House) and St. Martin’s Press, who would often do paperbacks in their Stonewall Inn Editions, which according to the internet, is still the only imprint from a major publisher devoted to LGBTQ issues, though to be clear, it was really a G imprint. Along with A Boy’s Own Story, it seemed like everyone was reading Dancer from the Dance. I was also a fan of Robert Ferro (mentioned in the story) and The Family of Max Desir. But I read them like candy – Larry Duplechan’s Blackbird, Jaime Manrique’s Latin Moon in Manhattan, David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, John Fox’s The Boys on the Rock. Both publishing programs died out because the sales just weren’t there. Even Alyson Books is gone.

When publishers did publish gay fiction, there was a tendency to de-queer the stories in the marketing, much like the way publishers de-Wisconsin their stories. See how the two strands of this blog come together? But it’s nice to see more books being published that don’t hide behind innuendo. We’re also seeing a lot more lesbian fiction and memoirs whereas we once had to rely on specialty publishers like Naiad. We’re seeing a lot more work from trans and gender nonconforming authors, and my guess is that more titles are in the pipeline.

I checked my bookshelf to see if I still had A Boy’s Own Story, and I did, a hardcover edition no less. And when I opened it up, it was signed and personalized. I thought maybe I went to a reading at A Different Light. It was not a first edition and it was discounted 10%, but with a hand-written sticker placed on the inner flap. What? No computer sticker! Oh yes, that was 1982. The memories are blurry, alas.

No comments: