Add these local books to your 2020 reading list

23 books written by local authors or about the Madison area
A stack of books on a mantle next to a vase, a candle holder and a succulent
A few titles from Madison Magazine's 2020 local reading list (Photo by Andrea Behling)
A few titles from Madison Magazine's 2020 local reading list (Photo by Andrea Behling)

If reading more books is on your New Year’s Resolutions list, here’s a good place to start. In this annual reading list we put out at the beginning of every year, we pick a few staff favorites of recently released books that are written by Wisconsin-connected authors or have to do with the Madison area or Wisconsin. Reading two books a month would get you through this entire list in 2020. Or, blast through this lineup like Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich — author of one of this year’s book picks, “When Death Becomes Life” — who mentions in his acknowledgements that growing up, his parents made him and his brothers read two books a week. If you do it that way, you’ll finish these books by April!


“Outspoken: Why Women’s Voices Get Silenced and How to Set Them Free” by Veronica Rueckert
In this 2019 release, author Veronica Rueckert unpacks the cultural injustices women face whenever they open their mouths. In an effort to close the “speaking gap,” Rueckert offers exercises for women on how to breathe, how to overcome stage fright and how to identify speech patterns like vocal fry, upspeak and hedging. Listen to “Outspoken” as an audio book narrated by Rueckert, who worked as a radio host for Wisconsin Public Radio and earned a degree in vocal performance. The author is currently a speaking coach and conducts media training and national media outreach at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. –AB

“My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Kate Elizabeth Russell weaves a modern narrative into an archetypical tale of a student-teacher affair. Years after the relationship she had at 15 years old with her 42-year-old teacher, Vanessa Wye questions the context she’s given to the events of her past. As the #MeToo movement exposes the wrongdoings of powerful men, Vanessa grapples with the thought that her experiences might be horrifyingly different from the “first love” she has built in her memory. Russell, who has been a Madison resident for about a year, received praise on her debut novel (being released in 2020) from Stephen King, who said “My Dark Vanessa” is “a hard story to read and a harder one to put down … a well-constructed package of dynamite.” –AB

“The Wisconsin Story: 150 People, Places and Turning Points that Shaped the Badger State” by Dennis McCann
Among the many short gems included in “The Wisconsin Story” is the story of the construction of the territorial Capitol in Madison in 1837. Actually, the building wasn’t ready to be occupied by lawmakers, nor did the still-developing city have adequate accommodations when they arrived to gavel the Legislature into session. Use was found for the unfinished basement of the Capitol, however, when the contractor decided to house his hogs there rather than outside in the cold. McCann profiles Robert and Belle La Follette, touches on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the 1960s campus protests — and those are just some of the stories that took place in Madison. The book includes fascinating characters and touchpoints from around the state. Kudos to Wisconsin Historical Society Press for republishing the book which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assembled after printing these historical pieces each day for the 150 days leading up to the state’s sesquicentennial on May 29, 1998. Since McCann retired as a columnist for the newspaper in 2007, he has written other books for the press, including “Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story” in 2010. –JP

“The Rise and Fall of Cannabis Prohibition in Wisconsin” by Gary Storck
Marijuana legalization activist and Madison resident Gary Storck describes this book, a reflection of his life’s work, as “one part history book, one part memoir and one part encyclopedia.” That’s indeed how Storck, editor and publisher of, organized this comprehensive, nearly 400-page self-published reference book. Storck tracks the gradual changing of attitudes and support by Wisconsin residents for legalization of medical and recreational use of cannabis by citing polling data and news stories on the subject along the way. He includes his own story — using marijuana starting in his teens in the 1970s to treat the glaucoma he’s had since birth, and becoming an activist for legalization in the late 1990s. While “Rise and Fall” could be expected to read like a one-sided screed, it does not. Storck may not be impartial, but he is a decades-long observer of the legislative process and he relies on statewide arrest records, drafts of bill and local mainstream media coverage to flesh out his chronology of the debate. After following all the twists and turns of the cannabis story Storck recounts, readers are left wondering why the question of legalization hasn’t come to a head yet in Wisconsin. –JP

“Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee” by Chris Zantow
It took Madison resident and Brewers fan Chris Zantow three years to write “Building the Brewers.” Fortunately the book arrived six months before the start, this March, of the 50th anniversary season of Milwaukee’s baseball team. “Building the Brewers” reminds fans not to take their team for granted as the book recounts in detail the five-year struggle for a group of business owners and citizens, led by car dealer Bud Selig, to replace the Braves after that team relocated to Atlanta in 1965. Coincidentally, Bud Selig’s autobiography “For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball” came out last July. But Selig’s book is focused largely on his long, eventful tenure first as acting commissioner then commissioner of baseball from 1992 to 2015. “I can’t fault him for that because his legacy in Milwaukee is secure as the main person who fought to keep baseball in the city,” Zantow says, having read Selig’s autobiography. Zantow’s book, in contrast, sheds light on the time when professional baseball had an uncertain future locally. “I’d like to think our books compliment one another,” he says. Thoroughly researched and an obvious labor of love, Zantow’s first book engagingly traces the ups and downs of the Brewers’ fortunes and the fans’ support. –JP

“Ridge Stories: Herding Hens, Powdering Pigs and Other Recollections From a Boyhood in the Driftless” by Gary Jones
The family farm where Gary Jones grew up sat on a windy ridge with panoramic views of other farms between the forested valleys of Richland County between Spring Green and Viroqua. Despite the idyllic upbringing he describes in “Ridge Stories,” Jones makes clear in the introduction that he knew at an early age he didn’t wish to become a farmer like his father; that he wanted to become a teacher, like his mother, and a writer. Fortunately for readers, Jones manages to do justice to all three livelihoods in this collection of interconnected, clear-eyed recollections of his formative years. Jones describes several colorful relatives, including his Granny Jones who had a penchant for crude yet vivid turns of phrases, especially to express disapproval. While Granny Jones was intolerant of people different from herself in ways that wouldn’t be laughable today, Jones writes that her vulgar figures of speech were “unwittingly instrumental in nurturing my love of language” and “inspiring me to become an English major in college and a writer throughout my life.” Jones earned degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee, and taught English at Weston High School near Reedsburg and at UW–Platteville, until he retired at age 70. He and his wife, Lu, spend their summers in Door County — where he’s written for several local newspapers — and spend their winters in Platteville, not far from his family’s former farm on Pleasant Ridge. More akin to the gently humorous writing of Jerry Apps than the riotous modern hobby farming stories of Michael Perry, “Ridge Stories” is a welcome addition to any library of first-hand accounts of life in rural Wisconsin that would otherwise fade from memory. –JP

“The Christmas Boutique” by Jennifer Chiaverini
This prolific Madison novelist has added another book to her list of titles with “The Christmas Boutique,” published in October 2019. This release marks the 21st book in the series and 20 years since the publication of the first novel in The Elm Creek Quilts series by Jennifer Chiaverini. If you’re new to Chiaverini’s series, she assures readers on her website that she writes each book to stand alone (although the storylines relate and overlap). This story — starting with a pipe-bursting blizzard that Wisconsinites will find relatable — is the catalyst for an idyllic winter morning when cozied up with a blanket by the fire. –AB

“Dairlylandia: Dispatches From a State of Mind” by Steve Hannah
Living in Wisconsin wasn’t the plan for Steven Hannah, a former reporter and editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and CEO of The Onion, a humor publication launched in Madison. But life led him to America’s Dairyland, and in his new collection of his “State of Mind” columns, “Dairylandia: Dispatches From a State of Mind,” Hannah tells stories about ordinary, yet extraordinary Wisconsin folks. “Yet the bigger story that emerges — in a blend of autobiography and selected profiles — is how completely Wisconsin and its people, across more than 40 years, stole Steve Hannah’s heart,” writes Doug Moe, who recently featured Hannah and his new book in a “Doug Moe’s Madison” blog. –AB

“When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon” by Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich
Dr. Joshua D. Mezrich invites readers into his fascinating life as a transplant surgeon in “When Death Becomes Life,” released in early 2019. Mezrich is an associate professor of surgery in the division of multiorgan transplantation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, where he also heads an immunology lab. In his book, he weaves together the history of transplantation with his own patient stories, offering his perspective as the surgeon during moments that are tragic, beautiful, difficult and awe-inspiring. From the first few who dreamt it a possibility in the 1800s to its status still as science fiction through the 1940s, transplant surgery now happens on a daily basis in today’s world. Mezrich succeeds in demonstrating that it will never stop being a marvel of modern medicine while simultaneously revealing the very human side of the surgeons who help create life from death. He wraps his stories with appreciation for the human condition and how one death becomes meaningful and powerful through its ability to help others. Mezrich was not gifted just with the hands and mind of a surgeon, but also the talent of a thoughtful storyteller. –AB

“The Second Home” by Christina Clancy
For those who loved Chloe Benjamin’s story of the Gold siblings in “The Immortalists,” it’s time to meet the Gordon clan. In Christina Clancy’s “The Second Home,” the fate of three siblings’ Cape Cod summer home is what brings them back together, as well as their complicated history. The once-close siblings have drifted apart 15 years since the summer of 2000, when their lives changes forever at the second home they shared. “I wanted to write about how vulnerable a family is to change, and how purposeful we need to be about maintaining familial bonds when it’s healthy to do so,” says Clancy, who formerly taught at Beloit College and earned a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. “The Second Home” is on sale June, 2, 2020. –AB

“The Painted Forest” by Krista Eastman
Krista Eastman’s “The Painted Forest” is especially thought-provoking to the reader who might be familiar with the southern Wisconsin places she writes about in this book of essays. Eastman’s analysis of her own sense of place invites you to consider the meaning you’ve given to the lands you’ve stood upon. Eastman, who now lives in Madison with her partner and young son, has wandered from the Driftless region where she was born to places near and far, from Wisconsin Dells to Antartica. Her interesting narratives demonstrate how we tangle stories, memories and feelings into places that turn into points on a map in each of our journeys forward.  –AB

“The History of Living Forever” by Jake Wolff
This debut book by Jake Wolff is a journey from cover to cover. “The History of Living Forever” features Conrad Aybinder, a 16-year-old boy who falls for his favorite teacher, Sammy Tampari. Tampari suddenly dies and Aybinder is left with Tampari’s journals. The journals outline 20 years of research aimed at creating a recipe for the Elixir of Life. As Aybinder’s father is dying, he tries to race against time to uncover the missing part of the recipe. Chloe Benjamin, the author of “The Immortalists,” called this book “full of compassion and creativity, humor and suspense.” Jake Wolff now lives in Orlando, Forida, but received his MFA in fiction from UW–Madison. –MI

“Imperial Liquor” by Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Many poems in this collection by Amaud Jamaul Johnson describe how black men carefully choose actions and take precautions because they know what society sees — nothing matters except the appearance of their bodies. The author considers the shooting deaths of Walter Scott and Latasha Harlins, and he calls to mind the lives and stories of Fred Hampton and Teddy Pendergrass. “Imperial Liquor” is “a chronicle of melancholy, a reaction to the monotony of racism,” reads the description of the book, which is on sale Feb. 15, 2020. “With a shaken lyric voice, ‘Imperial Liquor’ burns doing down,” writes Douglas Kierney, an American poet who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. Johnson is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing. –AB

“The Coyotes of Carthage” by Steven Wright
In Steven Wright’s debut novel, he takes a look at American politics through fictional character Dre Ross. Ross, who was formerly incarcerated as a juvenile, became a successful political consultant thanks to his boss and mentor Mrs. Fitz. Fitz sends Ross to Carthage County in South Carolina to introduce a ballot initiative that will manipulate locals into voting to sell their public land. “The Coyotes of Carthage” exposes the dark side of politics and the unraveling of Ross. Steven Wright, previously a trial attorney, is a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School, where he codirects the Wisconsin Innocence Project. –MI

“Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice” by Great Lakes Poets Laureate
Works from 78 poets laureate from the Midwest and Canada appear in this anthology addressing climate change, racism, sexism, the rights of indigenous people, police brutality and other pressing issues. “Undocumented” is organized around themes in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.” “We need our poets to remind us of the power of people working together, that our collective action can create big changes,” writes co-editor Andrea Scarpino in the prologue. Oscar Mireles, Madison’s 2016-2017 poet laureate, contributed to the book his poem “History Lesson,” in which he recalls his mother and three other women picketing, in the 1920s, the deportation of Mexicans from Minneapolis on cattle car trains. Scarpino takes notice of the women in Mireles’ poem: “They bear witness to atrocity, just as the poet bears witness to it in his poem.” –JP

“Add This to the List of Things That You Are” by Chris Fink
In this collection of short stories, Midwestern men find themselves displaced in New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Arizona and California. But some are just as confused in the southern Wisconsin towns of Blue River and Mount Horeb. Author Chris Fink, an English professor at Beloit College and contributor of essays to Northern Public Radio, has lived in most of these places and it shows in his attention to scene setting. The collection of 14 stories includes several works of “flash fiction” — extremely brief, yet developed stories. One example is the title story, a list of ill-advised rules on how a man ought to behave in Finland and Russia after a breakup. Fink’s economy of words makes the stories he tells all the more arresting and affecting. –JP

“Long Way Round” by John Hildebrand
John Hildebrand rediscovers his home state of Wisconsin by journeying through America’s heartland in a small boat. In “Long Way Round,” published in 2019, he tells of his travels through “original blue highways.” He purposefully avoided big cities and instead ventured into backwater towns along his “Round River” — a clockwise trail traversing the Chippewa River, the mighty Mississippi, Wisconsin River, Fox River, Bad River, Bois Brule River, St. Croix River and Lake Pepin. Come along for the ride as Hildebrand meanders through the state, with stories from his experience and his meditations on how waterways are only one of the things that connect us. Hildebrand, who teaches at UW–Eau Claire, has written several other books. –AB

“Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work” by Bianca J. Baldridge
Bianca J. Baldridge offers a deep dive into community-based after-school programs, which have always been crucial to black communities but are impacted by the dynamics of race, class, gender, sexuality, power and privilege. In “Reclaiming Community,” the author sheds light on the inner workings of Educational Excellence, a program that exists in a rapidly gentrifying area in a large city in the Northeast. Outlining the precarious process of preserving the programs’ true and original intents to support black youth and other youth of color, Baldridge “tells the story of both the power of community-based after-school spaces like EE and the problems these spaces confront as they strive to determine how youth should be engaged,” as the opening chapter reads. Baldridge is an assistant professor in the department of educational policy studies at UW–Madison. –AB

We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History” by Dick Wagner
All the Walls of Belfast” by Sarah Carlson
Running Country Roads & Life Lessons Learned” by Renee Halverson Wright
All the Hometown Boys: Wisconsin’s 150th Machine Gun Battalion in World War I” by Brad Larson
Job Man: My Life in Professional Wrestling” by Chris Multerer with Larry Widen
We Ride Upon Sticks” by Quan Barry (Coming March 2020)