Who's writing the best literature in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin?
That's a question WNIJ's Dan Klefstad tries to answer twice a year. This December, his Winter Book Series will feature works by five authors which, he says, convey a strong sense of place:
"We handle snakes at a Pentecostal gathering in southern Illinois," Klefstad says. "We reconnect with nature at a Michigan cabin. In another, we meet Troilus and Criseyde of ancient Troy, but this time their tragedy plays out in Wisconsin."
The series kicks off with Snakewoman of Little Egypt, a novel by Robert Hellenga. The story involves a love affair between an anthropologist, Jackson, and a woman just released from prison. The woman, Sunny, served six years for attempting to kill her husband, a snake-handling Pentecostal minister. Sunny grew up handling snakes and earned respect among fellow inmates when she wrangled a stray rattler in the prison kitchen. Both main characters are pulled in different directions as Sunny, eager to leave snake handling in the past, enrolls at the university where Jackson teaches. Jackson, on the other hand, follows her estranged husband to southern Illinois to study the religious ecstasy of snake handlers.
The next book, Troy Unincorporated, is a retelling of Chaucer's tragic story Troilus and Criseyde. Poet Francesca Abbate transplants these lovers from ancient Troy to Troy, Wisconsin. The poems follow Chaucer's plot but are set in industrialized farms and strip malls.
In Cabin Fever, middle-aged suburban author Tom Montgomery Fate finds solace and meaning in a Michigan cabin. The author modeled his memoir after Henry David Thoreau's Walden and tries to apply the hermit philosopher's insights to modern life.
Next we delve into poems by Ricardo Mario Amézquita. Then She Kissed El Paco's Lips Now! Or April in DeKalb borrows from Amézquita's experiences in the Air Force, as a teacher, and in the Veterans Administration. Many of the dreamlike poems in this collection meditate on the deaths of famous people such as Elvis and Marylin, plus Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and Jesus.
The series ends with Cloudbreak, California, a memoir by Kelly Daniels. The book centers on Daniels' relationship with his father, who was arrested for killing a man when the author was nine. As his father flees justice, Daniels also runs away -- to Europe, Mexico, and central America. In Honduras, he nearly dies from malaria. In El Salvador, he stays at a free resort where bats are the only guests. And on the beaches of California, he experiences a bittersweet reunion with his father.
Hear interviews with each author Mondays in December during Morning Edition, after NPR news at 6:30 and 8:30. You'll find additional content on our website, including recordings of the authors reading their work