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“North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both”
c.2014, Harper $25.99 / $32.99 Canada 339 pages
You stopped in the store the other day, and stopped short.
In all its electric-colored glory, tie-dye is back. Or maybe it never left, just passed down by Baby Boomers like you who also loved groovy music, an everybody-helps-everybody mentality, and how wonderfully carefree that felt.
Ah, the good ol’ days… or were they? For author Cea Sunrise Person, the answer was “no” for years, but in her new memoir “North of Normal,” she explains how she made peace with it.
Cea Sunrise Person’s grandfather was more at home in nature than he was anywhere else. He’d always wanted to live in the outdoors and so, shortly after he came home from Korea , he took his new bride to live in the wilderness.
In about the mid-60s, the family (including three girls and a boy) moved to Wyoming , then to California where they fit in perfectly: they’d already embraced the emerging counter-culture, so “pot smoking, nude cookouts, and philosophical discussions” were easy additions. Their home soon became known as a clothing-optional place to hang out and score drugs, and “the parents were always totally groovy with it all.”
Not-so-groovy: Person’s mother was sixteen when she became pregnant. She married the boy but they parted before their baby was born, so Person’s first home was a drafty shack in the British Columbia woods.
Later, when she was a toddler, the family moved into a tipi on Indian land where she recalls the freedom of an idyllic childhood spent on chores, pretending, and running through meadow, woods, and water.
But that, too, would end: when Person was five, her mother met a man who whisked them away to a life of tent-living, theft, and things little girls shouldn’t see. By the time she was thirteen, Person had enough of the “misfits,” so she lied about her age, left family behind, and started a surprising career – though she still wondered why they couldn’t seem to be “normal.”
Twenty-five years later, broke and twice-divorced, she finally learned the truth.
As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I was really excited to start “North of Normal.” Would author Cea Sunrise Person’s recollections be ones that I shared, too?
No. Not even remotely, which just made this book more enjoyable.
Through memories of her own and that of her mother’s family, Person tells what it was like to be raised by an unconventional hippie mom who did her best but was, herself, a product of the times. That alone would be a far-out tale, but the way it’s told makes this a book to read: Person is a gifted storyteller, and that snatched me up from the first paragraph. I also was fascinated by her voice, as it changed with the age she was as she remembered.
Beware that this coming-of-age memoir contains explicit language, but it fits with what you’ll read. Yes, it might make you wince but you’ll be so engrossed in the tale that you might not even notice. For you, that’s a hint of what “North or Normal ” has in store…
“The Illusionists” by Rosie Thomas
c.2014, Overlook Press $27.95 / $30.00 Canada 480 pages
Now you see it. Now you don’t.
The magician’s coin jumps from hand to hat and though you’re astounded, that would be an easy trick to learn. You could research, and know how he made an elephant disappear. You could teach yourself how to conjure the right card from a deck.
But why would you? Being baffled is half the fun – unless your life depends on sleigh of hand. And then, as in the new novel “The Illusionists” by Rosie Thomas, the trick’s on you.
At the age of ten, and just before he killed a boy, Hector Crumhall fell in love with magic.
He couldn’t quite get over the stunts an itinerant conjurer performed. Hector pestered his father until the elder man explained that there was no such thing as magic, that it was all just entertainment for fools, but Hector thought it fascinating. So when he needed to flee tiny Stanmore for London , there were dreams of magic that the boy took with him, and little else.
But that was all he needed – that, and a name change to something more mysterious. And thus, only his best childhood friend, Jasper, knew the truth about Devil Wix, and that was how Devil wanted it to stay.
And it might have remained so, if not for a fortuitous meeting with a street performing dwarf who called himself Carlo. Recognizing an opportunity, Devil partnered with Carlo for a feat of illusion that would make them rich by attracting a good audience.
It also attracted the lovely Eliza Dunlop.
At just twenty years old, Eliza wasn’t like other women. She spoke her mind, traveled without chaperone and, against her father’s wishes, took a job as a model at an artists’ school. For a Victorian-era lady, that was scandalous but Eliza knew what she wanted – and what she wanted was Devil Wix.
Though she had surely caught his eye, Devil wasn’t the only man who wanted Eliza’s company. Jasper was madly in love with her, as was Carlo. And so was Herr Bayer, the automaton-maker who craved Eliza’s beautiful voice…
I suppose, with a theme of Victorian magic, sideshows, and darkness, it’s inevitable that this novel would be compared to two blockbuster books from summers past.
Inevitable – and wrong.
Here’s the thing: “The Illusionists” starts out well, with shades of malevolence that will give you shivers for around 30 pages. And there’s about as far as it goes.
After that, author Rosie Thomas’ story continues like a broken-down dray horse, forever plodding nowhere in particular; in fact, I waited for a punch line that never seems to come. There is no edge-of-your-seat climax in this novel – there’s no climax at all. The characters aren’t particularly likeable. I even thought the romance here was trite and predictable.
I guess if you’re a fan of 19th-century theatre or early prestidigitation, this novel might appeal to you; the descriptions and historic details here are exceptional. Other than that, though, as far as big enthusiasm for “The Illusionists,” I just can’t see it.
“The Skeleton Crew” by Deborah Halber
c.2014, Simon & Schuster $25.00 / $28.99 Canada 240 pages
You can’t find your keys. Again.
It happens every now and then: you get busy, distracted, and you put them down somewhere they don’t belong. Then you spend an hour looking for them.
Fortunately, you always find them because they won’t travel far without you. But, as you’ll see in the new book “The Skeleton Crew” by Deborah Halber, some things go missing for a lot longer…
Wilbur Riddle was a well-driller back in May of 1968 and was waiting for a job to start when he noticed a canvas sack on a stone slab just off Kentucky ’s Route 25. As he got closer, he could see that something was inside, and then he could smell it. He kicked the tent-canvas bag and was shocked at what he spied.
Inside the bag was a girl, curled up and bound tight with a rectangular bit of white cloth over her shoulder. She was long dead – long enough that identifiable features were nearly gone. Without a name to attach to the body, the media dubbed her Tent Girl.
The case of “Tent Girl,” says Halber, “drew me in.”
If you’re a fan of TV detective shows, you might think that the world is littered with unidentified bodies – and there are “shockingly large numbers of them out there,” says Halber. A survey done several years ago indicated “more than thirteen thousand sets” of unidentified bones moldering in morgues, but one estimate places the number nearly three times higher. While “many people are unaware of the extent of the problem,” a fierce group of folks are well-acquainted with the issue.
Lurking online under pseudonyms and handles that often belie their age and gender, these people spend hours “obsessed” with matching data for missing persons with data for unknown bodies. Often sneered at by local police (and sometimes totally ignored), this “Skeleton Crew” has single-handedly solved decades-old cold cases, given names to corpses anonymously buried, and offered closure to families of people who vanished generations ago.
They’ve solved murders in Missouri . They’ve ID’d vagrants in Vegas. They’ve closed cold cases in Canada . And in a situation that launched a career, one man ascertained the identity of Tent Girl.
You know you’ve got a great read in your hands when, on page two, you mourn that the book will end. That’s what happened when I read “The Skeleton Crew.”
With a mystery-true crime-science mix of facts and detective stories, author Deborah Halber explains why this two-pronged issue exists and how modern technology and amateur sleuthing is helping lessen it.
Along the way, Halber tours morgues and back-rooms, lurks near an exhumation, and tries her hand at solving one of New England ’s best-known cases.
And on that one, she learns that there’s some information best left buried…
If you tend to get a little queasy, this isn’t the book for you. It’s graphic and gruesome, but oh-so-fascinating and hard to put down. When it comes to your Books to Read pile, in fact, “The Skeleton Crew” is one that shouldn’t be missing.
“The Pocket Book of Weather” by Michael Bright
c.2013, Adlard Coles Nautical / Bloomsbury $18.00 / $20.00 Canada 144 pages
A stranger – unknown, but not unfamiliar – told you what to take to work today.
She also told you how to dress the kids, what to avoid this weekend, where to park the car, and whether or not you should water the garden.
And you appreciated the information; after all, what would you do without your weather forecast? In fact, you wanted more - and when you’ve got “The Pocket Book of Weather” by Michael Bright around, you’ll get it.
For as long as there have been people, there have undoubtedly been people who’ve looked skyward and wondered if they’ll get wet, sweat, or need more sunscreen. Just as it is now, their day-to-day existence was affected by weather – and because of that, early humans began to recognize trends in the atmosphere.
Of course, some of them were Old Wives and they had tales to tell but, even as far back as 400 BCE, meteorologists (a word coined by Aristotle) had real ways to measure what was going on outside. By the 1700s, meteorology was a “new science;” in the mid-1800s, information was shared internationally; and by 1900, the world had climatologists who understood winds and storm-making.
Today’s meteorologists have a lot of information with which to prognosticate: they can tell which clouds will soak you and which will dissipate. They can track the path of a tornado or hurricane (something birds seem adept at doing naturally). And they can offer a hint of what your weekend will be like, although Bright says that the farther out the forecast gets, the less correct it is.
In this book, you’ll learn what oktas are, and how to measure them. You’ll see that “high pressure” isn’t what you put on your weatherman when you want sunshine. You’ll find out why you should run from a pogonip, the difference between a cyclone and a tornado, why you should take flash flood warnings very seriously, how hail can kill you, what snizzle is, how bugs can tell the temperature, and why you should definitely avoid being outside at 7:30pm in July during a thunderstorm in central Florida.
If you’re like just about everybody I know, the weather has been a big concern of yours in the past year or so. You look to the sky, you check the batteries in your weather radio, and you read or watch the forecasts. Once you’ve got “The Pocket Book of Weather,” you’ll be able to understand what they mean.
But deciphering weather reports isn’t all that author Michael Bright offers his readers. We also get anecdotes about unusual weather phenomena, history of instruments and ideas, explanations of how weather is made, and how animals adapt to it. In addition, Bright goes on to look at climate change and the future of our planet.
I like this book because it’s wide in scope but not too much so. It’s easy to understand, it’s enjoyable to read, and with real information and facts you can believe, “The Pocket Book of Weather” isn’t just full of hot air.
“The Promise” by Ann Weisgarber
c.2013, 2014, Skyhorse Publishing $24.95 / $32.99 Canada 310 pages
It was a vow you took very seriously.
Friends forever, you said in school. Til death do you part, you uttered in front of an altar. Semper fi, on my honor, read my lips, it’ll get done, I’ll be there.
It’s easy to make a pledge to someone. It’s not always easy to keep it – especially, as in “The Promise” by Ann Weisgarber, the covenant is a big one.
Catherine Wainwright was well aware that she’d caused quite a scandal.
It was bad enough that she’d kept company with another woman’s husband. It was brazen to touch Edward’s arm in public and they were seen alone together at night, which made tongues wag. But what really caused Dayton’s society women to shun Catherine, to make her a pariah, was that the man was her handicapped cousin’s husband – and such audacity in the year 1900 was simply unforgivable.
Her piano concerts were canceled. Friendships ended. With her money almost gone and her mother unwilling to help, Catherine turned to a stack of letters from a suitor she’d spurned eight years before.
Catherine and Oscar Williams had known one another in school, their relationship stiffly cordial. Once he moved to Texas, they spent years corresponding through the mail but she’d wanted nothing to do with his working-class existence. Now, panicking, she wrote to him, and learned that he was a recent widower.
“My Son is in need of a Mother.” he wrote three months later. “I am in need of a Wife.” And so, in desperation, Catherine packed the belongings she hadn’t already sold, and boarded the train to Galveston…
Nan Ogden took pride in her roots and her stubbornness. She also knew that the word of a Texas woman was steel, so when she promised Oscar’s dying wife that she’d help Oscar raise his son, Nan was determined to keep her vow.
But it wasn’t going to be easy with the new Mrs. Williams in the house. Oscar and every man in Galveston saw Catherine’s loveliness, but not her laziness. So why couldn’t Oscar also see that Nan was really the better woman for him?
One good book. That’s all you need this summer - just one book that you can put down if you need to, but that you won’t want to.
And that describes “The Promise.”
With a real historical event as her background, author Ann Weisgarber spins a story of two women who are more alike than they’d ever admit, and the reasons they eventually learn of that truth.
That’s cause enough to become totally captivated by this novel, but what struck me most was the way in which this story is told: Weisgarber deftly turns the clock back 115 years, immersing readers in social mores, turn-of-the-last-century life, and tiny details of day-to-day survival. That, plus wonderful characters, makes this book a winner.
Just be prepared with a tissue, that’s all I’m going to say. Bring a box of ‘em, in fact, because this book proves that “The Promise” isn’t all that can be broken.
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