21 recommended books by Wisconsin writers from the 21st century – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I could say plenty of mean things about the 21st century. But give it credit for bringing us a profusion of books by Wisconsin writers, including ones who have been reviewed in the fanciest places and won major awards.
Because I’m a cultural journalist who writes about books, friends and readers occasionally ask me for suggestions about what to read. So today I bring you 21 books by Wisconsin writers published in the 21st century. 
In compiling this list, I followed some ground rules:
I’m not claiming these are the 21 best Wisconsin books of the young century so far. Like any other reader, I have preferences and blind spots. Also, I composed this list as a collection, with a variety of voices and subjects and emotional tones. Think of it as a themed table in your favorite bookstore or library.
People keep writing. Five years now, this list could be different.
My goal is modest. If you discover one book here that you enjoy, I’m happy. They are listed in chronological order of publication.
Michael Perry (2002)
Perry grew up north of Eau Claire on a dairy farm in New Auburn. He earned his nursing degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and eventually moved back to his home territory, where he became a volunteer firefighter and EMT as well as a writer. His breakthrough book is about getting to know his community as an EMT, and it has many light moments. But it opens and closes with Perry being summoned to terrible car accidents, each one involving a woman he knows personally. So “Population: 485” is also a book about the preciousness of life and the suddenness of death.
Lynda Barry (2002)
Barry, a cartoonist and writer who teaches at the UW-Madison, earned a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for both her personal work and for the methods she has developed to teach creativity. 
“One! Hundred! Demons!” is a memoir in the form of short cartoon vignettes. She took the notion from a Zen monk centuries ago who painted his own demons to make them less powerful. Barry draws the demons that trouble her, from mundane things like head lice and the smells of other people’s houses to the troubling suicides of childhood friends. True to her mission of encouraging creativity, she finishes with a guide to painting your own demons. 
Peter Straub (2003)
Straub, who was born in Milwaukee and graduated from UW-Madison, has something critical in common with his friend and fellow horror writer Stephen King: They both were seriously injured in car accidents. Straub’s happened when he was only 7 years old, and it’s easy to understand how that experience could lead a boy to write stories about death. 
“Lost Boy, Lost Girl” is both a haunted house story and a cyberspace story (in a way that fits the year it was published). And perhaps there’s a serial killer, too.
edited by Kathleen Tigerman (2006)
To live in Wisconsin is to be surrounded by names derived from Indigenous communities: Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Oconomowoc. Those names may be all some of us know of the Anishinaabe, Menominee, Potawatomi and other peoples who lived here long before Jacques Marquette canoed the rivers of this territory.
Tigerman was a professor at UW-Platteville when she compiled this anthology. She does not identify herself as Native American, but she consulted closely with tribal elders and leaders in putting this book together. It consists of dozens of short pieces of writing by Indigenous people from the present going back into oral tradition: letters, formal petitions, reminiscences, fables, a few poems and one-of-a-kind works, such as a sermon on the evils of alcohol delivered by a Mohegan pastor at the request of a condemned man. This is the kind of book that you can read a page or an entry at a time, and let it seep in over the course of a year.
MORE:25 books that form a portrait of Wisconsin, a beautiful and changing state
Chad Harbach (2011)
Racine native Harbach ties together baseball and Herman Melville in a playful way, setting his novel at an unnamed small college on the Lake Michigan shore. It is a gently satirical book with unruly love stories that might appeal to readers who love the novels of John Irving and Jane Smiley. You do not have to care much about baseball to enjoy this novel, but if you do care about baseball it will add to your amusement.
Kathie Giorgio (2012)
Giorgio lives in Waukesha, where she has been writing and teaching for decades. When she was a teenager, she wrote a letter to Ray Bradbury and he wrote her back, dooming her to a life of writing. 
“Enlarged Hearts” is a collection of stories that restores humanity and dignity to a pair of subjects often treated with derision: big women and the mall workplace. The hero of each story is a Fat Girl who hungers for something: love, connection, sex, self-acceptance, freedom, an end to suffering. It’s rare to find a literary writer who depicts the inner life of an overweight or obese person with both acute honesty and compassion. Giorgio populates her book with more than a dozen such women.
Amy Timberlake (2013)
Timberlake, who grew up in Hudson, makes use of a remarkable natural event in Wisconsin history in this novel for tween readers. The largest nesting of passenger pigeons ever recorded happened here in 1871. It might have taken up as many as 850 square miles in south-central Wisconsin. 
When 13-year-old Georgina’s older sister goes missing with some bird hunters, Georgina searches for her, accompanied by her single-shot Springfield rifle. Georgie is a crack shot who never misses. But she has a lot to learn about people.
For either kids or adults, “One Came Home” is a strong historical novel about Wisconsin’s pioneer days, and about the value of life, human or avian.
Jennifer Chiaverini (2013)
Madison’s Chiaverini has written more than two dozen popular historical novels that focus on women’s lives. My favorite is “The Spymistress,” which stars Elizabeth Van Lew, known as Lizzie to her friends, a well-off 40something who lived with her mother in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War, and became one of the Union’s most effective spies and provocateurs behind enemy lines in the South.
Like the Jane Austen heroines she admired, Lizzie used both the courtesies afforded her and the limits placed on her as a woman to get things done. She ultimately would place a female Black servant in the household of Jefferson Davis himself, the president of the Confederacy, opening a key pipeline of information. 
Nickolas Butler (2014)
I would be happy to recommend any of Butler’s works of fiction to you. In a way, he’s doing the same thing Michael Perry is doing, writing about lives in small-town Wisconsin today, but with a different emotional tone — usually darker in Butler’s case.
Butler lives in the Eau Claire area. He went to high school with Justin Vernon, better known today by his musical stage name Bon Iver. There is a seemingly similar world-famous musician in the cast of “Shotgun Lovesongs,” though Butler would caution you against reading it literally. The famous rock star comes back to small-town Wisconsin for a friend’s wedding. The fault lines of friendship and romantic entanglements shake everyone up, and vulnerabilities get revealed.
When I interviewed Butler about a subsequent book, he told me, “It seems like every book that I write is kind of about friendship, and I’ve thought about that a lot.”
Katherine Addison (2014)
Addison is the pen name of Madison writer Sarah Monette. “The Goblin Emperor” won the Locus Award for best fantasy novel the year it came out, and it was short-listed for all the major fantasy prizes. It is the story of Maia, the biracial and least-favored teenage son of a powerful emperor, living far from the capital. After a stunning airship explosion, he unexpectedly becomes emperor. So this unassuming and quietly spiritual young man is thrust into a world of menace and intrigues.
If you are leery of fantasy, I would encourage you not to be in this case. It’s really a coming-of-age story, and a story about trying to find one’s way in the midst of incredible changes. 
Dasha Kelly Hamilton (2015) 
Dasha Kelly Hamilton is both the Wisconsin and Milwaukee poet laureate. She’s a spoken-word performer. But she also writes fiction. This novel is really two stories in one about the same person, Cece. The contemporary story is about an emotionally stunted young woman trying to find friendship and romance. The story that really interests me is about her childhood, growing up poor, Black and with a mother so crippled by depression that little Cece has to be the responsible one in the family. Her childhood is so vividly drawn it may make your heart ache.
Jennifer Morales (2015)
Morales, who used to be a Milwaukee School Board member and now lives in Viroqua, takes racism and racial conflict head on in this interconnected collection of stories. The triggering event is a serious injury to a Black teenager who is doing a chore for an older white neighbor. As ripples from this event spread through the community, we are exposed to the inner lives of his family and many other people, including the unacknowledged racism of some white adults.
Larry Watson (2016) 
Watson taught English and creative writing for many years at UW-Stevens Point and at Marquette University. Now he lives in Kenosha. I’ll bet some of you have read his best-known novel, “Montana 1948,” published in 1993, which has been used in many one-city one-book programs. 
Most of the time, Watson writes about sparsely populated territory in Montana, the Dakotas and western Minnesota, between the 1940s and early 1960s. They’re not Westerns per se, but the men in these worlds often remind people of cowboys, because they can be strong, silent types. 
In “As Good As Gone,” one of these cowboys rides back into town for a few days to look after his grandchildren while their mom has an operation. And in a novel that’s often very funny, he bumps into situations in which being such a cowboy does him absolutely no good, including some sparks with a widow next door who is one of my favorite Watson characters. It’s a story about when happens when an old myth for getting along in this world stops working. 
Jane Hamilton (2016) 
If you followed Oprah’s original book club, you may know about Hamilton’s early novels “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World.” Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Hamilton met a man from Wisconsin, married him and went to live on the family apple orchard in the village of Rochester in Racine County. “The Excellent Lombards” is a novel about a family on a Wisconsin apple farm, particularly Mary Frances, a girl who is wildly in love with the orchard and doesn’t want anything there or in her family to change, which means she is doomed, of course.
This is a funny novel. Mary Frances is opinionated. In fact, she has ruined Honeycrisp apples for me. When a character from a different farm offers her a taffy apple with a Honeycrisp in the center, she turns it down. “The showy Honey Crisp was without character, a fruit only a philistine would grow,” she says. For the record, Hamilton says that’s Mary Frances’ opinion, not hers.
But “The Excellent Lombards” is also serious about important things, like the difficulties of running a small farm today with suburban encroachment, and the challenges of succession from generation to generation.
Nick Petrie (2016) 
War is one of the great subjects of literature, going back as far as Homer. Another important subject, also going back as far as Homer, is what happens to the men, and now the women, who come home from war. “The Drifter” is the first novel in a series by Nick Petrie, who lives in Whitefish Bay, featuring Peter Ash, a lethally skilled veteran of the Gulf Wars with significant post-traumatic stress disorder. Ash becomes a grubby knight-errant, righting wrongs that the regular authorities can’t touch. Petrie’s written six so far, with both this debut and the most recent one, “The Breaker,” set in Milwaukee.
Now Petrie will be the first person to tell you he’s writing thrillers; his main focus is keeping readers entertained with suspense and danger. But at the same time, he’s also contributing to our communal picture of what life is like for veterans of the Gulf Wars, which have happened in slow motion around those of us who are not in military families. Peter’s PTSD is real and Petrie’s novels show him slowly facing it over time.
edited by Tim Hennessy (2019) 
“Milwaukee Noir” is one in a long line of fiction anthologies from Akashic Press, set in cities around the globe from Amsterdam to Zagreb. The word noir used to have a specific meaning when it comes to films, but in this series and this book it means people behaving badly, or angrily, in specific local settings. In the first and my favorite of the 14 stories, “Runoff” by Valerie Laken, a teenage foster home survivor crawls through pipes under the street to rob East Side homes and discovers something horrible in a garage. A bonus gold star to Laken for the way she worked the North Avenue sinkhole of 2010 into this. 
There are stories about middle-aged mothers who punish other women for getting out of line, stories about turf wars over lawns that get deadly, and a story that focuses on the unrest in Sherman Park. And just to keep things weirdly local, Matthew J. Prigge’s “3rd Street Waltz” takes place during the final days of the Princess Theater, a downtown adult-movie house. 
Ayad Akhtar (2020)
If you go to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, you’re probably familiar with Akhtar, because the Rep has performed four of his plays, including “Disgraced,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. The son of Pakistani immigrants, both doctors, Akhtar grew up in Elm Grove and went to Brookfield Central High School. To oversimplify his work, he explores two big subjects: conflicts between the Islamic world and the West, especially for Muslims living in the United States; and the corrosive effect of greed in a capitalist society. 
“Homeland Elegies” is probably the most challenging book on this list because there is so much in it and so much intense discussion between characters. The first 80 pages are an amazing historical tour de force about the India-Pakistan partition, the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, and Sept. 11, culminating in memories of a family visit to Abbottabad, the military city where Osama bin Laden would eventually be killed. This novel is about immigrants who love an America that doesn’t always love them back. But in another respect, this novel is about a son coping with the decline of his father.
Akhtar was an actor before he became a well-known writer, so if you enjoy listening to books, you might consider the audiobook, which he narrates himself.
Melissa Faliveno (2020) 
Faliveno could probably have a long conversation with Michael Perry about growing up in rural Wisconsin. But her path has been different. Her coming-of-age memoir begins with her fascination with tornadoes — she grew up in Mount Horeb, only eight miles from Barneveld, where an F5 tornado caused horrific destruction in 1984. Unlike some memoirists, she interviews people and does extensive research to build her essays.
Faliveno also writes about the upheavals of gender, specifically of not feeling at home in the roles prescribed for her, like having to be physically strong and tough just to survive daily life as a woman in the country, while at the same time absorbing all those social messages about the need to appear feminine.
Steven Wright (2020)
For a long time, I avoided fiction about contemporary politics, perhaps in the mistaken hope that if I ignored ugly politics it would go away. Well, the past few years have shown us that politics cannot be escaped. Steven Wright’s day job is UW-Madison law school professor and he’s a former Department of Justice trial attorney, so he knows his way around malfeasance. “Coyotes of Carthage” is a smart satire about a political consultant, meaning a fixer, in some trouble who has to run a dark money campaign on behalf of a sleazy mining company. Here’s a sample line: When the wife of his good-old-boy candidate asks if elections aren’t about getting people to like you, the fixer answers: “That’s a common misconception. Elections are about getting voters to hate others.”
Quan Barry (2020) 
Barry, who is a poet and a fiction writer and a UW-Madison professor, has stirred many things into this bubbling cauldron of a novel about a high school girls field hockey team: the Salem witchcraft trials, the possible magical power of a photo of Emilio Estevez, teenage pranks, sexual experimentation, the complications of being a person of color in a mostly white school, and many 1980s pop-culture references. This witchy novel has a first-person plural narrator — a collective We is telling the story, shifting around to tell the story of each character. 
Lauren Fox (2021)
Fox may disagree with me, but I would say her fourth novel is a case of a writer taking on a subject she was destined to write about. Her grandmother fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust and settled in Milwaukee. In her own 20s, Fox discovered in her parents’ basement a box of letters from her great-grandmother, who never made it out of Germany. This historical novel is about four generations of women, from Germany to Milwaukee, including Fox’s own generation. She incorporates bits of her great-grandmother’s real letters in the novel, using them as tiny poems or epigraphs. Each generation, of course, doesn’t completely understand the other ones, so that creates some of the friction in this fiction. 
Prior to this novel, Fox’s stylistic superpower was witty sarcasm. She can write really brilliant sentences. In this book, she channeled that verbal energy in a more subtle way, in service of the story. 
This article is adapted from a talk given at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Jim Higgins at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

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