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Book Roundup
A twist on local history, evocative elephants, Feng Shui on the sly, and drinks for a dozen poets top M’s list of books to catch up with now.

By NAN BIALEK

January 2016

"Milwaukee Mayhem"

By Matthew Prigge

Those who long for more innocent times were probably not in Milwaukee from 1840 into the 1940s. Even then, says author Matthew Prigge, the city had its share of mysteries, crimes, disasters and murders.

Prigge first began discussing strange tidbits of local history while conducting Mondo Milwaukee riverboat tours. He says he took about two years to fully research the stories he tells in "Milwaukee Mayhem." The more he dug, the more scuttlebutt emerged.

The book includes the story of Mary Ann Wheeler, who was seduced by an older, married man named John M.W. Lace. When she became pregnant, Lace treated her with cruelty, rejecting her and mocking her in public. One morning, while Lace was standing in front of a downtown shop window, Wheeler walked up and shot him in the head in front of a dozen witnesses.

Wheeler pleaded insanity at her 1853 trial, and, Prigge says, from news reports of the day, "you get the idea that nobody really liked (Lace)." Wheeler walked.

"To my knowledge, it was the first use of the insanity defense in the U.S.," Prigge says.

"Milwaukee Mayhem" also covers disasters such as the Newhall House hotel fire and the sinking of the SS Milwaukee car ferry, as well as the events and characters that make Milwaukee’s early urban history a rough and tumble ride.

"Elephant House"

By Dick Blau and Nigel Rothfels

Working on a commission from the Wisconsin Arts Board, Dick Blau, co-founder of the Department of Film at UW-Milwaukee, was struck by the intimacy of the scene before him. He was making a series of photographs documenting life at work, when veterinarian Rick Tully began to do a serious dental procedure on a horse.

"You’ve got to anesthetize the horse," Blau says. "And he’s completely welded with this horse and taking his tooth out. It was form and content welded in one instance."

Blau had always focused his lens on people, and though he was interested in the relationship between man and animal, hadn’t planned on exploring it further. But he met writer Nigel Rothfels and the two agreed to work together on a book about elephants.

"He was charming and a great storyteller and also an internationally recognized historian of the zoo," Blau says.

In "Elephant House," Blau’s photographs and Rothfels’ narrative take the reader to the Oregon Zoo in Portland to examine the delicate dance that happens when enormous, sometimes unpredictably dangerous, animals interact with their keepers. Blau says the 50-year-old elephant house was "a barn, a prison and a cathedral. The way they treat the elephants, it’s a devotional activity."

The zoo recently razed the elephant house and built Elephant Lands, designed to be a more natural, engaging habitat for its fascinating herd.

"Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale"

By Pam Ferderbar

There are coins on the windowsill, and the south-facing doors of Pam Ferderbar’s Delafield home are painted red. After writing her novel, "Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale," she’s leaving little to chance.

Ferderbar’s fun-filled fable first manifested itself as a short story, creating a buzz. She sold the movie rights but, in a stroke of bad luck, her patrons at the film company lost their jobs within two weeks, and the project fizzled. Almost three years later, Ferderbar gave it another shot — this time as a book.

So can feng shui, an ancient Chinese system of creating harmony in the home, affect one’s fortune? The Chinese food deliveryman in Ferderbar’s tale has no doubt. As Charlotte, the down-on-her-luck protagonist, leaves the room to scrounge up the money to pay for dinner, he begins to clear the clutter.

"As the story progresses and he keeps coming back, he starts crushing on her. So he starts doing love stuff," Ferderbar says.

His anonymous acts of feng shui kindness, perpetrated with each delivery, seem to backfire as Charlotte’s luck goes from lousy to lousier. But Charlotte’s bad luck, like Ferderbar’s, isn’t the end of the story.

The book was recently named a finalist in the USA Book Awards, and Ferderbar is working on a sequel: "I’m really looking forward to spending time with these characters again. They’re so real to me," she says.

"A Toast to 12 Poets"

By Elliot Lipchik

One of the reasons Elliot Lipchik took an early retirement as a doctor and professor of radiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin was to pursue his avocation of reading and writing poetry. But a dinner with friends, with a discussion about food and wine pairings, nudged him in a new direction.

Since he is a poet, Lipchik reasoned, why not pair wine with well-known poets? Lipchik researched the topic for two years, searching for drinking references in the poets’ pieces and in their biographies. In "A Toast to 12 Poets," he writes about their lives, their work, their deaths and their connection to the drink with which they are toasted.

Edgar Allan Poe, an alcoholic, drank cheap wine. Lipchik toasts Poe with an excellent glass of cognac, a nod to the unknown person who, for 60 years, left a half-empty bottle of cognac on the poet’s grave.

Not all poets in the book were drinkers. Lipchik toasts Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska with mead because it is thought to be distilled in Poland, and in the 1600s and 1700s, drinking mead was believed to turn the drinker into an intellectual and poet.

"But I also toasted her with slivovitz," he says, because it is a kosher Jewish drink. "Poland was very anti-Semitic at one time, but she was a poet against anti-Semitism and a great humanist."

 


This story ran in the January 2016 issue of: