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Wry, Wistful, & Witty ‘Wisconsin’

CBR_Logo2Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin
(And Other Delusions of Grandeur)
by Scott Jacobs

Scott Jacobs has that not-so-uncommon perspective of someone who grew up in the Badger State and now occasionally motors up I-94 as a tourist from Chicago.

Jacobs’s Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin (And Other Delusions of Grandeur) is a comical compilation of thirty short essays that reflect both of those worlds … and then some. Wryly humorous and often historically wistful, the essays were originally published between 1995 and 2012 as columns for Jacobs’s online Chicago magazine, The Week Behind.

famous ski hills coverA Wisconsin native born in 1950 and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee, Jacobs reminisces about summer youth baseball, gently pokes fun at Wisconsin’s audacity to calls its ski resorts “mountains,” and remembers sledding on local hills and golfing on Milwaukee’s public links.

His deadpanned truisms smack dead-on: “An astute observer of the Wisconsin scene would notice that there are no mountains in Wisconsin, but the state is indeed blessed with an abundance of snow. So the task of forming a downhill ski industry in Wisconsin falls into the category of drawing blood from a rock.”

As a modern-day tourist who has lived in Chicago for four decades, Jacbos reflects on the decline in of waysides in Wisconsin, antiquing in the Northwoods, the ultra-fattening holiday goodies still sold by the Wisconsin Cheeseman, and on taking his son to The Wilderness, a mega indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells.

He nails the essence of the love–hate relationship between Illinois and its neighbor to the north. “Every summer,” he writes, “along with about half the population of Illinois, I find an excuse to go up north and sit by a lake in Wisconsin annoying the natives with my presence.”

Often, it’s the little things that illuminate Jacobs’s Wisconsin roots. Along with “hearts, poker, bridge, gin rummy, pinochle,” and spit in the ocean, he actually knows how to play sheepshead. The card game was once, but no longer so much, a ubiquitous Northwoods cabin and farm table pastime.

Then, donning his Chicago hat, Jacobs laments the long-losing record of the Chicago Cubs and shares a holiday story about riding the CTA Santa Train with his preschooler.

Some of the essays speak more generally to the book’s “delusions of grandeur” subtitle, dredging up along the way some interesting bits of history. There are essays, for instance, on the origin of paperclips, sort of the antithesis of grandeur; rock collecting; men’s cologne; the modern-day war between Barbie and Bratz fashion dolls; and tributes to 1950s Life Magazine and to the songwriter who composed “Over the Rainbow,” for The Wizard of Oz.

The book also often speaks to mundane but universal experiences: family reunions, home movies, and fishing.

And some of the essays were simply were born out of questions that clearly dogged Jacobs enough that he finally researched the answer and turned it into a column for his magazine. What, for instance, was a plank road and why were they of vital importance to turn of the twentieth-century Milwaukee breweries? What does it mean that Budweiser beer is beechwood aged and why should we care? And who wrote our college cheers?

Pulling the University of Wisconsin into the college cheer fray, Jacobs muses that in its two beloved songs, “On Wisconsin,” and “Varsity,” “Wisconsin can rightly claim it is so enthusiastic it has two fights songs: one for when they win and the other for when they close the bars.”

Although the essays are generally timeless, one that originally appeared in 1997 on the Cubs’ long losing streak, a piece from 2009 on library internet services, and a 2006 piece about the five days its took to restore the author’s lost internet connection, do feel slightly dated today.

And while Chicago, Wisconsin, and family are the common themes, the reason for including some of the essays in this collection is not readily transparent. While interesting and as well-written as the rest of the book, “Jesus Has a Bad Day,” nevertheless hits a bit out of the blue. In modern language, it retells the Biblical story of Passion Week, culminating in Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. Of the Last Supper, Jacobs writes “Simon the Leper threw a private party for Jesus and his entourage. From all accounts, it was a pretty wild night.”

And although the book’s cover features a Wisconsin-brewed can of Miller Lite, Miller beer is really only mentioned in passing in the discussion of plank-road breweries. One entire essay, meanwhile, focuses on the beechwood-aged brewing process of St. Louis-based Budweiser.

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Author Scott Jacobs

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is not all about Wisconsin. It is not all about Chicago. But wonderfully engaging, wickedly funny writing, and an authentic Midwest lens make that okay.

Mostly, Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a nostalgia trip that reflects on a simpler, bygone era, and weighs how advances like the paper clip and the Internet have—and have not—changed our lives.

Family reunions, home movies, and Northwoods cabins pretty much look the same as they did two generations ago. Kids still outgrow Santa too soon. The Cubs still lose. And University of Wisconsin alumni still belt out “Varsity” at bar time—with the gusto one exhibited by their parent and grandparents.

Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a lighthearted view of where we’ve been and where we’re headed, a perfect cabin read for anyone who’s ever lived in or loved the Great Lakes region.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Dead Tree Press
Essays/Humor
$27.95, hardcover, 173 pages
ISBN: 9781879652040

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

Listen to the author discuss his book with Rick Kogan.
Read more about the book.

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A Prescription for Good Writing

CBR_Logo2Chicago Flashbulbs:
A Quarter-Century of News, Politics, Sports and Show Business (1987–2012)
by Cory Franklin, MD

IN THE LAST GREAT DAYS of the Powerhouse Newspaper Columnist, the late, great Jim Murray, who wrote about sports for more than thirty years at the Los Angeles Times, guaranteed his place in the Metaphor Hall of Fame when he noted that Rickey Henderson’s strike zone was “the size of  Hitler’s heart.” But Murray was no isolated titan; in those days, terrific columnists were thick on the ground: Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Murray Kempton, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, Edna Buchanan. Alas, they have no real peers today, for their natural incubator, the daily newspaper, is the bloodiest and most public victim of the digital revolution.

9780897337182_FCChicago Flashbulbs, a wonderful collection of short-form essays, many of which originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, suggests that there’s still hope for readers who appreciate the general-interest newspaper column. The collection reveals its author as a man of parts, a writer of great skill and eclectic cultural discernment. Cory Franklin, whose work has appeared the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and New York Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books, is also an award-winning physician who served as Director of Intensive Care at Cook County Hospital. In this volume, he has gathered and categorized his prolific newsprint output into as fine a collection of newspaper columns as anything published back in the glory days of the form.

That a general-interest columnist be a person of parts is an important qualification for this kind of writing, for one can never be certain what topics will be grist for the deadline mill. Chicago Flashbulbs is roughly divided into themed sections: “Entertainment,” “People,” “Life,” “Current Events,” “Sports,” “Chicago,” etc. Not surprisingly, given the author’s profession, some of the strongest pieces are in the “Medicine & Science” section, which includes Franklin’s ruminations on the AIDS epidemic (he started writing about the disease in the 1980s), shifting boundaries in medical ethics, Medicare reform, purported links between vaccines and autism, and the national nursing shortage. The “Chicago” section includes pieces devoted to athletes—Ken Holtzmann, Dick Selma, Derrick Rose—as well as Franklin’s excoriation of Chicago’s WBEZ for dropping jazz programming (although the piece is undated, this presumably appeared in 2006.)

“Chicago” also includes my favorite Franklin piece, “Letter to a New York Friend,” which internal evidence suggests was published in 2008. It begins like this:

 “Here in Chicago, where the audacity of hope began, everyone is beginning to believe that it just might happen this fall. A lot of people believed it never could happen. Generations went through their whole lives desperately hoping against hope to see it. They eventually grew old and went to their graves, disappointed and empty. Before those people died, for years the words of pundits and experts cut them to their marrow—they said it was impossible, or, at least if not impossible, it might take another hundred years before the country would actually see it. But now even the experts acknowledge this might finally be the year. Even today, it’s not a sure thing, even money at best, but if it does happen every single person will tell their grandchildren they were alive to see it, even those who don’t like the idea now.

Several hundred words later, it ends like this:

“What’s that you say Barack Obama? An African-American becoming president? Well, that would be remarkable. But that’s not what I was talking about. Truth to tell, haven’t really been paying much attention to politics, so don’t know much about him.

No, I was talking about the Cubs winning the World Series.”

Among the memorable pieces in Chicago Flashbulbs are “Life’s Final Snub: Getting Cheated on Your Obituary,” “Uh Oh, Oh Jeez: Let’s Go to the Teleprompter,” “The Platters and the Civil Rights Movement,” “The Greatest Baseball Player Ever,” and “The Death of EveryMom,” the last a reflection on the death of Barbara Billingsley. Chicago Flashbulbs closes with a well-constructed long-form essay about the legacy of the U.S. military herbicide Agent Orange.

That not all of the pieces note original publication dates is one shortcoming of Chicago Flashbulbs; the other is the curious lack of a Table of Contents. These peccadillos aside, Academy Chicago is to be commended for this compact, handsome collection of ephemera from a very gifted writer.

Three-Star Review

June 2013, Academy Chicago Publishers
Regional/Commentary
$22.95, paperback, 304 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8973-3718-2

—Reviewed by Patrick Quinn

Read some of Cory Franklin’s work at PoliticalMavens.com.

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