Tag Archives: Wisconsin

A ‘Winsome’ World of Lies

CBR_Logo2A Winsome Murder
by James Devita

Chicago Police Detective James Mangan has a heavy case load—“two rapes, a North Side drive-by, a robbery gone bad with a baseball bat, and a dealer thrown off a roof in the projects”—when he is handed his next investigation.

That investigation is launched when Mangan opens a manila envelope to find inside a photograph of a dismembered hand, a hand that had recently been delivered to a local magazine editor in a padded envelope just like so many padded envelopes that every day are added to his unending slush pile of article submissions. As it happens, the hand turns out to winsome murderbe quite a story in and of itself.

James Mangan, a somewhat offbeat, self-educated intellectual who hears voices in his head, knows in his heart that the owner of the hand is dead—and so begins the search for that individual in A Winsome Murder, a tightly woven detective story full of colorful characters navigating numerous twists and turns.

Set in Chicago and Wisconsin, A Winsome Murder features several gruesome murders along with a cast of interesting people, from police officers and detectives to hookers and pimps to waitresses and writers—not to mention a psychotic, vengeful misogynist. Many of the lives so vividly brought to life in these pages intersect in interesting ways, and author James Devita does an excellent job of weaving the reader in to the tight-knit circle of crime that unfolds in this mystery.

Devita, a New York-bred playwright and author who now lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has written a fast-paced, multifaceted story that is as absorbing as it is entertaining. Detective Mangan drives the story, and he is an intriguing, complex character with fascinating yet believable quirks. Although it seems that so many mysteries are home to detectives with oddball idiosyncrasies, Mangan doesn’t come off as a cliché. Yes, he probably drinks too much. Yes, he’s overweight. Yes, his wife is no longer in the picture. And, yes, he has a daughter who ends up in jeopardy. But Mangan somehow still feels like a fresh, new character—and one who could easily become part of a long-lived series.

As the bodies pile up in A Winsome Murder, Mangan heeds the voices in his head, usually from Shakespeare or Melville, and those voices help him focus his thoughts and tap into a kind of sixth sense that propels him toward a solution to the crime. Peppered with literary references, Mangan’s unique quirk lends the story a erudite bent, one that might well be appealing to closet mystery readers who think the genre somehow beneath them.

Although a quirky detective seems a prerequisite for a mystery, A Winsome Murder is far from formulaic. Expertly paced, the story is an intricate web full of complex characters acting unpredictably—just like real people do. Even at those times when the reader might be a half-step ahead of the story, the developments remain gasp-worthy, surprising even if not shocking.

In addition to a unique detective, a wholly original story, and some literary flair, Devita has filled these pages with some timely and biting social commentary, which does much to add to the real feel of this creative whodunit. A Winsome Murder is well written, well wrought, and well paced. It is well worth a read, a fun, enjoyable, engaging page-turner that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Fiction/Mystery
$26.95, hardcover, 189 pages
ISBN: 978-0299304409

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Much More Than Half

CBR_Logo2Meet Me Halfway:
Milwaukee Stories
by Jennifer Morales

When Johnquell, a  seventeen-year-old African-American with a college scholarship, passes away after a gruesome accident in his white neighbor’s home, his community must find ways to bridge the gaps between races, ages, and orientations in their neighborhood. In nine linked short stories, Jennifer Morales untangles the complicated relationships among African-American and Puerto Rican teens and their white classmates and teachers, Vietnam vets, Latino landlords, former Black Panthers, and all their sprawling families as they search for common ground.meet me halfway

Morales’s collection is truly masterful, diving deep into her characters and layering them one on top of another to weave the vibrant tapestry of the Rust Belt neighborhood. Each of the nine stories highlights a different member of the community, and the author fully develops each, inhabiting the unique and believable voices of a grade school girl, an elderly racist neighbor, a sexually confused middle-aged woman, and many others. Morales’s thorough fearlessness extends beyond the voices of the characters; she penetrates the contemporary culture of racism and bigotry in a way that elicits empathy and demands respect from even the most detached of readers.

But Meet Me Halfway accomplishes something that many race stories don’t: This collection doesn’t divide good from evil, but paints the community in endless shades of gray. In the first chapter, readers are introduced to an elderly woman who cannot fathom why her best friend would go out of her way to cook dinner for her black neighbors. Later on, though, Morales tells this woman’s own story, and we see her as a widow rattling around in a too-large house, struggling to come to terms with her age as her family pressures her to move into an assisted-living facility. In no way does Morales excuse or undermine the bigotry her book addresses; rather, she villainizes the behavior while portraying its perpetrators as complex, multidimensional human beings. In this way, because no one “antagonist” is beyond repair, there is hope for a better future.

Meet Me Halfway has already been chosen as the Common Reading Experience for the incoming class at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and this is a title that truly deserves that recognition. Morales, who lives in Wisconsin, tells a Wisconsin story—a Midwest story—using one of the country’s most segregated cities as a backdrop. But the fact is that her message is evergreen and universally relevant, and her approach is gentle and insistent, preaching a vision of the future that makes room for every voice and every creed.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Fiction/Short Stories
$19.95, paperback, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0299303648

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

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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

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