Some books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.
Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.
Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.
Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.
The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.
Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
After his success with What If?, Randall Munroe is back to tackle yet another aspect of science in everyday life — exactly how is the world around us constructed? In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Munroe delves into the workings of our world, from the insides of our cells to our solar system and a lot of what’s in between.
Munroe states in the introduction that “…there are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This book explains what they do.” So this book won’t help you pass a vocabulary test or memorize the terminology, but it will explain in simple terms how a lot of the world around us functions. And this is on purpose — Munroe crafted a list of the “ten hundred” most used words in the English language and then restricted himself to only using those words in the book. So instead of the Curiosity Rover diagram or Human Torso diagram, Munroe breaks down the Red World Space Car and Bags of Stuff inside You (by the way, this book has forever changed how I view bags).
It may seem slightly ridiculous or humorous to be discussing boats that go under the sea (submarines) and food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), but Munroe is known for balancing scientific fact and innovation with humor, and this book is no different. His blue and white sketches of the items he’s discussing include funny little asides from his stick-figure illustrations on almost every page.
Even still, his depictions of these engineering marvels are anything but ridiculous. Thing Explainer is a fascinating and stimulating read for all ages, letting us remember to appreciate the world around us because it’s a lot more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Even if we can explain it in ten hundred simple words.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
But Enough About Me: A Memoir is Burt Reynolds' no-holds-barred account of the people he has known throughout his life, including childhood friends, mentors and, of course, Hollywood celebrities. Sharing both his viewpoint and notable stories, you learn as much about those he has come in contact with as the man himself.
Told mostly in chronological order, Reynolds begins with his childhood in Rivera Beach, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. He then moves on to his time as a football player for the Florida Seminoles, with the remainder of the book focused on his career as a Hollywood stuntman and actor. Stories about the movie Deliverance, Gore Vidal and Johnny Carson are mesmerizing. You will savor his thoughts on Bette Davis, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood. And you will feel his strong sense of regret as he discusses his relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field. Sparing no details, he also shares the embarrassing aftermath of posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine, and the hesitation he had about working in the movie Boogie Nights, the role for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
If you are a fan of Reynolds or just like Hollywood stories, you'll enjoy this memoir. You'll smile, laugh and at times shake your head in disbelief! Reynolds delivers an entertaining yet honest portrait of himself and those he has known over the years. Humorous and even embarrassing, this book is definitely worth the read!
Readers who like this book may also want to check out Make ‘Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends by Debbie Reynolds or Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me: A Memoir by Stevie Phillips.
Following the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?
One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.
What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.
Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships.