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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Leafing through fall books: The season brings vivid new tales by and about Wisconsinites


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Trees aren't the only ones dropping colorful, locally sourced creations this autumn. So are book publishers, who've released a host of new reads by Madison-area authors, and about people and inventions that have shaped southern Wisconsin. Here are four to dive into like a pile of freshly raked fronds.

Happyland

The woman starts a doll company. The dolls are little girls. Each one's design is based on a historical period -- the U.S. Civil War, pioneer days. Each comes with a book telling her story.

Sound familiar, Madison? You probably think I mean the metropolitan area's most famous toy tycoon-slash-philanthropist. And in a way, I do. But the woman I refer to is named Happy Masters, not Pleasant Rowland, and her company is Happy Girl, not American Girl.

Happy is the title character of Happyland (Open Road Media/Dzanc Books), an enjoyable comic novel by J. Robert Lennon. The story of how the book was (eventually) published isn't altogether happy. It almost saw print in 2005, but the publisher, "fearing imaginary, unthreatened lawsuits, pulled the book in the 11th hour," Lennon writes in the introduction. He adds that according to a media report, Rowland, whom he refers to only as "the mogul," never intended to sue. Happyland was serialized in Harper's, and now, years later, it is available as an e-book.

Happyland is inspired by what happened in the college town of Aurora, N.Y., where Rowland riled locals by buying up properties in what you might call a one-woman beautification effort. Lennon suggests that as a writer of fiction, he tried not to learn many details about Rowland or her activities in Aurora, but I wouldn't be surprised if he'd seen a 2001 New York Times report that almost reads as a précis of the novel. The women's college is in both the book and the article, and so are the wary townspeople; the village tavern; the part-time mayor; and the beloved old inn, now shuttered.

Rowland attended Aurora's Wells College, but in Lennon's telling, Happy comes across the fictional town of Equinox at random. She reshapes it with the passion she brings to toy-making. "Out of wood and metal and glass, she was constructing a new and perfect reality," Lennon writes. "Books and dolls were small potatoes in comparison."

But Happy isn't just passionate. She's shameless, duplicitous, possibly murderous. She's a cartoon character, in short, right down to the horrific childhood that will remind you of Cinderella. This makes for lively satire, but it also makes Happy a little too easy to hate. Other characters are likewise one-dimensional, including a bar owner whose transformation is like something out of Stephen King.

Lennon takes on a lot besides Rowland -- college life, queer identity, Martha Stewart's incarceration, endodontics. Maybe he takes on too much. The book is best when he focuses on Happy's plan, which is like a scaled-down version of Walt Disney's utopian vision for South Florida. "What is a town?" a character asks at one point. The answer isn't obvious.

-- Kenneth Burns

My Life as a Silent Movie

Madison readers know Jesse Lee Kercheval as the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, a position she held from 1994 to 2010, and as the founding director of the UW's MFA program. Since she's one of the area's leading experts in creative writing, the bar is set high for her new novel, My Life as a Silent Movie (Indiana University Press).

The story opens with a tragedy: A car accident kills a father and child instantly, leaving Emma, the wife and mother, to grieve alone. Emma has no siblings, and her own parents are recently deceased, her mother by suicide. When her only relative, an elderly aunt, reveals the long-held family secret that Emma was adopted, it becomes too much for her to bear. Emma's shock and sorrow lead her to a breakdown of sorts, and she sets off on an ill-conceived quest to find her roots. It takes her to Paris, where, using the scant evidence in her possession, she hopes to find her birth mother and perhaps deal with some of her pain and isolation.

In real life people search for years to find their birth families, but Emma locates her brother within a day. And he recognizes her, even though he hasn't seen her since he was 3 years old. From there, coincidences pile up, each less believable than the one preceding it. I kept thinking that Kercheval needed to include more backstory and a broader time frame for me to buy what was happening.

But then I realized that the title says it all. Remember what it's like to watch a silent move? The exaggerated acting, the quick transitions, the over-the-top plot machinations? Kercheval has translated the features of a silent film to print, incorporating not only the cinematic melodrama and the surprise revelations but the pacing as well. It works perfectly, if you know what you are looking at. My advice is to picture Emma in black-and-white and listen for the theater organ. Even the oh-so-sweet ending looks better from a seat in an old movie palace.

-- Becky Holmes

Wheel Fever

Wisconsin's first bicycle, then called a velocipede, hit the road in January of 1869. Though the inaugural ride must have been exhilarating, the contraption itself wasn't welcomed with excitement. Social inhibitions and safety risks convinced many that bicycles had no future in the United States. Fortunately, times changed, and Wisconsin -- especially Madison -- is now a hotspot for cycling. In Wheel Fever (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), Jesse Gant and Nicholas Hoffman explain how this happened by examining the bicycle's influence on American history and Wisconsin's influence on the bicycle.

The book is a comprehensive account of Wisconsin's journey from the early days of the shaky velocipede, through the bicycle's involvement in the labor movement and women's liberation, and into today's thriving bike culture. There are entertaining excerpts from 19th-century newspaper articles, such as a Milwaukee Sentinel guide from 1869 that warns, "Never allow your bicycle to get on top of you; it learns its bad tricks, besides being bad for the projecting angles of your anatomy." There are also fascinating photos of variations such as the high-wheel and the adult tricycle. Tricycles were popular for women, who could ride them in skirts. The story of the bicycle in Wisconsin also comes to life through more than a century of commentary from cartoonists, who help show how the invention was a vehicle for both recreation and social change.

The early concerns associated with cycling have, in many ways, coasted into the present day. Fears of elitism, conflict with noncyclists, and comparisons between European and American bicycle culture were also part of 19th-century conversations. Meanwhile, the bicycle has proven its power to disrupt social norms, offering independence for women and racial minorities. Cyclist readers will be proud to call themselves a part of this movement, and those still tied to their cars might find that this book inspires them to join in the fun.

-- Julia Burke

Spoke

Reading the fascinating and layered memoir Spoke (Little Creek Press), I was reminded of what was best about the '60s. Today that era tends to be trivialized or reviled in media depictions. We see longhaired hippie stoners and the riots that tore the country apart. It is good to be reminded of the passion with which young people -- well, mostly young people -- questioned authority during those times, and the sense of the obligation they felt to try to make things right.

That's what comes through as Coleman, born Joe Gilchrist in 1948, intertwines his own story with that of his mother. Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist is an astonishing character in her own right. In the 1950s, in the all-white world of suburban Oklahoma City, she suffered a difficult marriage; attempted suicide by self-immolation; and after a long, painful recovery, re-created herself through friendships with several African American families. She participated in the NAACP Youth Council lunch-counter sit-ins and attended the 1963 March on Washington. Soon after, she was committed to the state mental hospital illegally, after attempting to sell her house to a black doctor.

Rosalyn Gilchrist's story is harrowing and provides essential context for Coleman's ordeal as a Cornell student who decides to resist the Vietnam War draft. I was spellbound by his reasoning process in deciding whether to resist, pretend to be a conscientious objector or declare himself a homosexual. He is influenced by university chaplains (among them Daniel Berrigan); the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau and Albert Camus; and letters he receives from his mother.

Spoke is as much a document of the antiwar movement as it is a personal memoir. In addition to drawing from his own recollections, Coleman quotes from numerous letters between himself and many of the players in the antiwar movement. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, he acquired the transcripts of his trials, FBI files and the records of his mother's hospitalization. He uses quotations from these sources judiciously, so they add to the narrative rather than bogging it down.

A cofounder of Peddler Creek, an arts school in Mineral Point, Coleman primarily identifies himself as a playwright. But there is nothing flashy or elegant about the writing in this memoir. All the power is in the story itself.

-- Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva

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