book beginnings on Friday: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I confess I’m a little surprised that I have finally gotten around to this one. I think I had developed the impression that this was one I could skip, despite public uproar. But my self-study of current creative nonfiction won’t let me abstain any longer. In fact, these opening paragraphs (plus a few) were the focus of a workshop I took recently, so there you are.

And they are a fine few first lines.

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off of a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did.

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.

I love how communicative these opening paragraphs are, how much we learn of the narrator and the setting and her personality.

Who am I to tell you anything new about the much-discussed Wild? I don’t know; we will wait and see, together. Stay tuned. I’m listening to the audio version, by the way, which is good so far. I hope I can keep up the pace a little, is all. Maybe Wild will be the book to force me to listen! Happy Friday, friends.

Maximum Shelf: The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 23, 2015.

annihilation of nature
Three academic scientists–Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford University and Gerardo Ceballos of National Autonomous University of Mexico–come together in a plea to halt Earth’s sixth mass extinction. The attractive, large-format The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals contains original illustrations by Ding Li Yong and 83 color photographs to accompany the authors’ heartfelt arguments about the value of global and regional biodiversity and the danger of extinction that currently faces so many species.

As stated in the preface, the goals of this project are to share the dire conditions with the general public, and convince that audience of the relationship between the continuing health of these diverse species and human well-being. In pursuit of these objectives, the authors have chosen to highlight mammals and birds specifically, because they are visible, sympathetic and thus likely to appeal to human compassion. The Annihilation of Nature is plainly written, well-organized and filled with arresting images.

Ceballos, Ehrlich and Ehrlich begin by describing the incredible richness of Earth’s diverse forms of life, which they call a “legacy”–humanity’s duty to protect and appreciate. They outline the planet’s previous five waves of mass extinction and their natural causes, making the point that the present sixth event is different in that it is caused by human actions. The current time period is called by many scientists “the Anthropocene,” in which “a huge and growing human population has become the principal force shaping the biosphere (the surface shell of the planet’s land, oceans, and atmosphere, and the life they support).” To illustrate the interrelatedness of human actions with every natural system, basic concepts such as the food chain are reviewed. The bulk of the book is then devoted to four chapters on extinct birds, endangered birds, extinct mammals and endangered ones. A combination of illustrations and photographs brings the reader’s attention to the long-gone dodo and the passenger pigeon, and species in need of conservation like the Philippine monkey-eating eagle and the New Zealand kakapo (a nocturnal flightless bird). Extinct mammals include the baiji–a freshwater dolphin endemic to China, called the “goddess of the Yangtze”–and the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial predator with several unique physical features including striped patterning and rearward-facing pouches on individuals of both sexes. Mammals in danger today include a variety of large species: whales, big cats (lion, tiger, cheetah), bears, apes, rhinoceros and elephants, joined by the small but scrappy Tasmanian devil.

All life forms in an ecosystem are intricately interconnected. When gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, their impact was profound and widespread: elk populations came under control and trees such as aspen, willow and cottonwood began to recover. The health of the willow helped beavers to rebound and beavers in turn improved riparian conditions and contributed to healthy populations of fish, waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles, as well as regulating stream flow. Songbirds have returned to the park in greater numbers with its new tree growth. Smaller predators have declined in numbers, which in turn increases numbers of small prey and then of mid-level predators like foxes and bald eagles. All these benefits came from the reintroduction of one keystone predator.

Having shared the remarkable and evocative profiles of so many creatures, the authors make their central point in chapter 8, “Why It All Matters.” Here they lay out the many human-caused factors that contribute to species extinction and population extinction, including habitat destruction; chemical pollution and plastic debris; the introduction of non-native species and diseases; legal hunting and illegal poaching for meat or valued body parts such as tusks, horns and organs; and killing because of competition for food sources (the Sumatran orangutan, which vies with farmers for fruit) or because some species are seen as pests (crop-raiding Asian elephants) or predators of livestock (the gray wolf). Finally, climate change is deemed a major cause of ecological upheaval and extinction. If forced to choose a number-one factor, the authors name toxic pollutants, but climate change “may be the most threatening problem ever faced by humanity” and “climate change alone could be sufficient to finish the sixth great extinction now under way.”

Finally, Ceballos, Ehrlich and Ehrlich argue that biodiversity must be valued and protected for many reasons, from the aesthetic and ethical through the services they provide to the world’s ecosystems and to humans: dispersal of seeds, insect and pest control, pollination and the sanitation role of scavengers such as vultures. Keystone species are described as those with an outsized impact on their environment. In an impassioned final chapter, the authors touch on means to conserve threatened species, including the question of direct or personal action versus institutional change. They consider ethical questions, such as whether to allow limited sport hunting of African elephants to help fund their conservation, and end with a message of hope, despite the dire picture painted by most of the book. “If we could just adopt a global policy of humanely and fairly limiting the scale of the human enterprise, gradually reducing the population size of Homo sapiens, curtailing overconsumption by the rich (while increasing needed consumption by the poor), then we might leave some room for the natural systems all humanity depends on.”

The Annihilation of Nature shows a deft hand with the complexities of its subject, as when wind turbines–good for the reduction of fossil fuel use–turn out to threaten insectivorous bats and the endangered California condor, or in discussing the economic inefficiency of allowing a species to die off to the brink of extinction (or even paying subsidies to kill them, as with the black-tailed prairie dog) and then spending millions to conserve the same species. This is a beautifully produced, deeply moving, powerful story that communicates what it intended to, with great emotional impact.

Rating: 7 extant individuals.

Come back on Monday for my interview with Paul Ehrlich.

author interview: John Norris

John Norris: Taking Pleasure in the Right Subject

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He has a graduate degree in public administration and has served in senior roles in government, international institutions and nonprofits, including with the United Nations, the State Department and the International Crisis Group. Norris has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and many other publications. He is the author of The Disaster Gypsies, a memoir of his work in the field of emergency relief, and Collision Course: NATO, Russia and Kosovo. His new book is Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.

photo: Rebecca Hale

photo: Rebecca Hale

When did you first learn about Mary McGrory, and when did you know you would write a book about her?

I knew Mary personally a little bit. I was working in the State Department [during the Clinton administration] and she would call to pick my brains some. I also, like so many others, got dragooned into volunteering at St. Ann’s [Infant and Maternity Home] and helping out with the Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties. I got invited to a couple of social gatherings at her house, so I got to experience both her organizing touch and her parties and bad cooking. At one party, Roger Mudd and I were in charge of fixing drinks for people. I was pretty young and fairly new to Washington, so the idea of serving cocktails with a legendary CBS anchorman was something. But at one point we looked and the ginger ale had gone quite bad. There was kind of a mossy substance growing on top of it. And Roger Mudd turned to me and said, you have to tell Mary. And I said, I’m not going to tell Mary! You tell Mary! So we argued like 5th graders about it… and then we decided we would just tell everybody there was no ginger ale.

But as I got to know Mary, I appreciated that there was a really good story there. It was kind of a Horatio Alger story, of somebody who worked her way up from not an awful lot to be very successful in what she did, but also that she had a fabulous, unique flair. After she had died, I started thinking about doing the book and poked around; it was probably about five years ago that I really began in earnest. It was much harder than I thought it would be to write, in some ways.

How long did that process take, from conception to a finished manuscript?

About five years. I’ve got three little kids–the oldest is seven and the youngest is a year old–so I was busy with them. I had just finished working in Nepal with my wife. And this was kind of a busman’s holiday, because I’ve got a full-time job that doesn’t deal with Mary McGrory or journalism particularly, as an international affairs expert. So there were a lot of competing challenges to juggle at the same time. I just chewed away on it, and by the time I’d sorted out a publisher, I had a finished book.

What were the research and writing phases like, and how did they play together?

You know, I imagine this is an experience that a lot of people have when they take on a biography or a historical project. At first, I was terrified that I wouldn’t have enough material, that it would seem thin. And then suddenly I woke up one day and said, I’ve got way too many words, I’ve got way too much, how do I condense all this down and make sense of it?

It was very helpful that Mary donated her papers to the Library of Congress. There are 164 boxes of her material there: notebooks, articles, clippings and correspondence. Her family was quite good about sharing some other things they hadn’t given to the library. I’d love to be one of those writers who, in a fit of passion, starts at sundown and hands the manuscript over as the sun comes up. But I nibbled away, stringing together passages, and the research and writing mixed together.

One of the really interesting things for me, having never written a biography, was being able to find data points, putting together three or four different things and then suddenly finding that there was a really interesting story there once you lined up all the dates and characters. My research style was to create a monstrously large chronology. I took everything in chronological order–interesting stuff from the columns, interesting stuff from interviews–and it started to make much more sense for me. For example, there had been a Time magazine profile on her not long after the Army-McCarthy hearings, and she got a ton of correspondence. But it was only after I had lined up some dates that I realized she had gotten four book offers from major publishers on the same day. She had never mentioned this to anybody, and nobody would have ever remarked or known it, without actually looking at her correspondence in a chronological fashion and jotting it down. Finding those kind of hidden nuggets was maybe the most rewarding part.

You seamlessly tie in the narrative of United States political history with the narrative of Mary’s life.

As I was writing, I realized at some point that there were three books that I was trying to do at the same time. One was a history of Mary as a person, which obviously was the core that I really needed to get right. Second was a big swath of contemporary American history that I needed to weave in. And then the third strand was, what does this say about journalism? What does it say about women in journalism, and how that’s evolved, and in some cases how it’s not evolved a whole lot?

What part of Mary’s story do you most identify with?

It would be easy to say that she wrote beautifully but it didn’t come easy to her, she fretted and noodled and kept revising and rewriting and redoing her work. The other lesson that she really carried for me was, there weren’t a lot of people who had faith in Mary. But she put her head down and kept at it. Even though she did have a big breakthrough with Army-McCarthy, she really had been toiling in near obscurity, wanting to cover politics for a long time by that point, and being politely but firmly being told no by a lot of people. But she kept at it, and she got a couple of stories, and when she had her chance, she really took it. I think that the persistence side of the story is one that is encouraging for any writer.

At the start of the book, it feels like you take an impartial outsider’s perspective, but by the end, it feels more intimately connected to Mary’s story. Was this intentional?

That’s an interesting question. I think that part of that might be because I knew her later in life, and I got to talk to her contemporaries and people who had been around her. Interviewing them was an advantage for the later material. Writing about her childhood and those early parts, that probably always feels more removed in some ways. But I think it’s also that you gain steam as you begin to explore a person and get to know them.

What in your background as a writer and as a political actor prepared you to tell this story well?

A couple different things. I’ve got three sisters, a strong-willed mother, a feisty wife and two very independent-minded young daughters, so that side of things certainly prepared me well. I’ve always been a bit of a political junkie. I write politics, I think it’s interesting, and I understand people who think it’s interesting, even when it’s a guilty pleasure, whether that’s Donald Trump or anything else. There are times when it is a noble calling, and then there are other times when it’s like watching an entertaining car crash. I think that ability to talk about politics, and understand people who think and write about politics, served me well both in trying to decode Mary and in interacting with her fellow reporters and other people I interviewed as part of the research.

Getting to talk with the people in Mary’s life was a great pleasure, just sitting down and talking to people and puzzling it through. You know, they say about fiction, and I think it’s equally true of nonfiction, that you want to pick characters that you’re not going to get bored with or tired of or angry at by the end of a project, and I never did with this one. I still have a bunch of questions I would love to ask her if I had a chance. It’s been a great ride.

This interview originally ran on September 22, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Teaser Tuesdays: Thunder & Lightning by Lauren Redniss

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

thunder lightning

This is a lovely, gorgeous art book, you guys, and isn’t weather fascinating? Clear win all around, and I can’t wait to share my review with you. For now, I couldn’t help but indulge in these lines, which cracked me up, in a men-Mars-women-Venus sort of way.

Look at men’s and women’s boots. The first chill in the air in September or October, women’s boot sales go right through the roof. Now, the weather’s still nice at that time of year in a lot of the U.S. Men’s boot sales don’t budge. Men’s boot sales move much later in the season, in late October or November when it’s really cold and really wet and men’s socks are getting wet.

(From a lengthy quotation by Frederick Fox, CEO of Planalytics.)

Even with intriguing and whimsical text, the visual art is the best part. Sign up for your copy now.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.

Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 Christmas parties.

South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby

A selective survey of Southern literature and its value to the South and the world.

south toward home

In her introduction to South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, Margaret Eby points out that “there is no popular category known as Northern literature.” The South and its literary products have been admired and maligned; it is a region and a body of work that are considered sometimes inspired and sometimes devoid of culture and intelligence. But for a Southerner, it is simply (or complexly) home. Raised in Alabama, Eby undertakes a tour of the literary sites that speak to her, acknowledging that the authors whose legacies she ponders make a less than comprehensive list.

Eby visits the well-preserved homes of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, along with the sadly less appreciated (or appreciative) areas in which Richard Wright and Harry Crews grew up. She contemplates the complicated relationship of Harper Lee with her birthplace; John Kennedy Toole’s mysterious life story; and the recent marks left by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown in Faulkner’s hometown. In making a physical journey, Eby breathes the air of these literary greats, and takes the time to share their histories in coming to tentative conclusions about what their work contributes. She also includes a list of recommended reading. As its title (a reference to Willie Morris’s North Toward Home) suggests, this study pursues a sense of Southern identity through its literature, and along the way helps to elucidate what makes Faulkner’s challenging writing so rewarding and why Toole’s New Orleans lives and breathes. South Toward Home is a thoughtful, well-informed evocation of both South and home.

This review originally ran in the September 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 peacock feathers.

The Living by Annie Dillard (audio)

the livingMy difficulty and back-and-forth feelings about Annie Dillard continue with this epic story of pioneer families in my place of residence, Bellingham, Washington.

The Living spans more or less the second half of the 19th century, and it expands to fill all those years and all that space. It is a big story, with lots of characters – several families, over generations – and I’m not sure it ever chooses one or several to center around. This is not a book that benefited from my regrettable new habit of taking months to finish an audiobook: I flailed a little in trying to finish, and I confess a feeling of relief now that it’s over.

There were certainly strengths. Dillard is an inspired writer, some of the time, and there were certainly passages I paused to appreciate, and will share with you here, in a little while. The stories were often moving – individual episodes, that is, within the larger saga – and the characters were often compelling, interesting, diverting people I wanted to get to know better – but again, only for a moment, and then we’d zoom out and on to a different character who was less intriguing. These were all small pieces of a whole that, as a whole, failed to capture my attention. There were moments of glittering, evocative, engaging story or character, but then we returned to a larger, sweeping view that repeatedly challenged me to continue to care. Again, this might work better with a quicker reading. It certainly didn’t work for me in the way I experienced the book.

Witness these shining moments of writing, though…

She lay under mats in the bottom of a canoe once, during the Indian troubles, and Rooney told the Haidas she was clams. Lived in five or six different places, including a stockade. She felt her freedom, reared two boys to manhood, busted open this wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands. She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of god’s wild breath on her face.

Great imagery there, and a strong retrospective view of the gravity of this woman’s life and what she’s seen.

He had long ago concluded that he possessed only one small and finite brain, and he had fixed a habit of determining most carefully with what he would fill it.

A funny and wise moment.

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. She read books as one would breathe ether, to sink in and die.

And, who among us doesn’t love such a quotation?

But the whole thing might have worked better if presented as a series of vignettes; the parts of it that I loved were relatively few and brief, with a great deal to be slogged through in between. Dillard created some likeable characters, but it’s almost as if she didn’t like them very much, herself. She asked some interesting questions about humankind and the broader sense of what we’re doing here, but she spent so much time setting them up as sort of clinical questions that she forgot to make me care about them, or about the little creatures involved.

I’m sorry to say this one didn’t work for me, especially (by coincidence) as it came up against Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, an infinitely better, more compelling story with its own momentum.

This review was short because I’m a little sick of The Living and very glad to be quit of it. I’m sorry. You can find better reviews elsewhere; me, I’m looking forward now, not back.

Rating: 6 deaths.

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