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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Fair
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Head-trip through the counterculture
Notes From Nethers looks back on another world
'There was so much exposure being a child on the commune.'
Eugster: 'There was so much exposure being a child on the commune.'

Sandra Eugster had no interest in writing a memoir, which only goes to underscore the adage that the most interesting people are exactly the ones who are most reluctant to talk about themselves. Nonetheless, Eugster, now a Madison psychologist, found herself drawn to writing about her childhood on a commune in rural southwestern Virginia. These were mostly self-contained stories about the many folks who drifted through over the years - not self-examination. But her friends who read the draft material kept asking the same question: What about you?

Thus was born Notes From Nethers: Growing Up in a Sixties Commune (Academy Chicago Publishers), the story of how Eugster's countercultural mom took her (at age nine) and her siblings out of a middle-class Baltimore lifestyle to a few-rules farmhouse/communal living environment. "It took me some time to accept that this was what the book was going to be," says Eugster. "It's kind of a bizarre situation. I don't share readily, and here I am trying to promote this book."

Eugster's reticence, she surmises, is itself a reflection of her upbringing: "There was so much exposure being a child on the commune."

Once she got used to the idea of writing about herself, though, looking back was fascinating. "And it hugely helped me in my relationship with my mother."

Eugster's recall is sharp. In fact she did keep journals and still has them, but couldn't face the thought of opening the box and actually reading them - "It was so abhorrent to me that I decided not to. I decided that this would really be a memoir." And it was surprising to her just how much, and how clearly, she remembered long-ago events once she opened her mind to them.

The events are nothing short of mesmerizing, at least to readers raised by June and Ward Cleaver in the burbs. From the sweat lodges to the rampant rats to an honest but inappropriate letter the teenage Sandra receives from a fellow commune-dweller regarding his obsession with her ("I don't want to lay a head-trip on you," he writes), reading about the milieu is arresting, shocking and alluring all at once.

Although Eugster was able to gain representation from a high-powered New York agent, she was unable to interest any of the big houses in the book. "I thought I'd made it. The baby boomers are a huge reading block," says Eugster. But the timing - it was then just after 9/11 - was off, and publishers were playing it conservative.

The book's current berth with a small Chicago house seems a good fit. Eugster feels that "just the wacky story" will appeal to many, but over and above that, she hopes that the "theme of how clueless adults can be" when dealing with children comes through. Any lifestyle heavy on ideology can be hard for kids to deal with, she says: "Even though everything here was done with the best of intentions - how can you go wrong with love? - the adults were unaware what this all meant to me as a young child."

The book is due out on Oct. 1, and Eugster will be reading from Notes From Nethers at Borders-West on Oct. 25.

Don't confuse Erika Janik's Odd Wisconsin with similarly titled books about weird paranormal events in the Dairy State. The material in Janik's new book with the Wisconsin Historical Society Press is all true - "Amusing, Perplexing, and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin's Past" as the volume's subtitle attests.

The book grew out of a Wisconsin Historical Society blog that Janik edits (she is also a contributor to Isthmus). Various researchers at the Historical Society would frequently come across strange, local stories in the process of researching other things and didn't think these often colorful tales should go to waste. "The blog is an ongoing project," says Janik.

The book is "more like storytelling," says Janik, "not dependent on links. They're all stand-alone pieces." Most of the stories were written as small-town newspaper accounts, written versions of local legends. Janik appreciates the colorful, sometimes florid language that 19th-century newspaper accounts and even government reports were written in. One of her favorites in the book is a Prohibition-era survey that finds Wisconsin to be "a utopia of the wets." And she was most surprised to discover that Wisconsin once had a large spiritualist movement, with a school for spiritualists (the Morris Pratt Institute of Whitewater and later Milwaukee).

Although all the stories are true, the book doesn't read like a traditional history text. "It's for anyone who likes a good engaging story, and wants to know more about where they live," says Janik, a Washington state native who came to Madison for grad school. "I know so little about Washington, it's shameful." She will be appearing at the Wisconsin Book Festival Oct. 14 and at a History Sandwiched In session at the Wisconsin Historical Museum Oct. 30.

Jackie Mitchard's latest novel, Still Summer, is described by Jackie in a video on her website - truly a contempo promo. "The only other authors I've seen do it are clients of my webmaster," Mitchard says via email - those authors being Jodi Picoult and Chris Bohjalian, and the webmaster Steve Bennett of Mitchard helped plan the concept and wrote (and reads) the text. It's somewhere between a book blurb and a movie trailer, with some of the immediacy of word-of-mouth recommendations, too. (To view, go to and click on "watch the multimedia preview.") The novel, a full-fledged thriller, is currently number 21 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Mitchard will be a part of the Wisconsin Book Festival's Book Club Night Club on Oct. 13. Mitchard describes it as a venue "for book clubs to meet favorite authors in a club setting with light snacks and drinks. Very much fun compared to an ordinary reading."

The Future City on the Inland Sea: A History of Imaginative Geographies of Lake Superior (Ohio University Press) by UW-Madison historian Eric Olmanson is a hybrid of environmental history and historical geography. It's a look back at the many ways white settlers envisioned developing the land around the great lake of Superior. Olmanson goes back to primary source documents, many of which were here in Madison at the State Historical Society.

Although the volume began life as his dissertation, Olmanson says he always conceived it as a book. His adviser, environmental historian William Cronon, has "no patience for dissertations that aren't conceived of as books, which was one reason I wanted to work with him."

Olmanson, a native Minnesotan, considered studying the Boundary Waters, but was intrigued by the Madeline Island/Ashland/Bayfield area on a trip up north. "From a very early date, there was an enthusiasm for nature. The boosters promoted the area as an escape, aimed at Chicagoans, to renew and rejuvenate themselves in nature. Yet they were pushing industry and nature. They didn't see those as contradictory. They would promote any way they could." The Future City on the Inland Sea won the Great Lakes American Studies Association book award.

Novelist Larry Watson (Montana 1948, Laura) has a new title on shelves this month: Sundown, Yellow Moon is set in Bismarck, N.D., in 1961. A man has shot and killed a state senator and hanged himself; his son and his son's best friend are left trying to make sense of the violence - even 40 years later. Watson, formerly of Stevens Point and now living in Milwaukee, will read at Borders-West Sept. 25.

Tom Montag of Fairwater, Wis., has published a thoughtful book of essays, The Idea of the Local (MWPH Books), that delve into life in the Midwest, although he also takes the Midwestern attitude down to Cozumel for a much-deserved winter vacation and up to the Boundary Waters for some rainy canoeing. The essays range from fully developed reflections to vignettes and prose-poems. Montag is fascinated with "what makes us middlewestern" and "the land's story, not in some generic historical sense, but in terms of particular lives lived here."

One of the University of Wisconsin Press' appealing fall titles is I Hear Voices, a memoir by Wisconsin Public Radio host Jean Feraca. Feraca is riding the wave of a warm review from Publishers Weekly: "Feraca knows the power of the well-chosen word.... [she] tells stories of her dearly eccentric brother, her demented mother, her wretched first and second marriages, her attempt to live the monastic life, her passion for her third husband and his taste in wine." Finally, PW pronounces that "Blending the spiritual and the profane, Feraca is beguiling." Feraca will launch a national book tour Oct. 4 at Borders-West, and will appear at the Book festival Oct. 14.

Also from UW Press: In a Pickle by Jerry Apps received a starred review in Booklist; it's a novel by this writer best known for his nonfiction; Apps will read Sept. 27 at Barnes & Noble West. David Obey will read from his new memoir Raising Hell for Justice at the book Festival on Oct. 14 (see review at right). And Cry Rape, by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders, is out in paperback.

Anne-Marie Cusac, contributing writer for The Progressive, has published a second collection of poetry, Silkie (Many Mountains Moving Press), about the silkie or selkie, a figure of legend that transforms from a seal to a human being. These poems stem from an unusual form of the tale, from a ballad Cusac heard while visiting a ceilidh on Prince Edward Island, an area of Canada with a strong Scotch/Irish presence. In the ballad, a male selkie impregnates a human female.

Mobius magazine editor Fred Schepartz is celebrating the publication of his first novel, Vampire Cabbie, with a book release party Oct. 24 at the High Noon Saloon, with Knuckel Drager and the Ashar Belly Dance Group. Yes, the story revolves around a Mad City cab driver who's also a vampire. So next time you're cabbing it, remember to tip generously.

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