My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South by Rick Bragg

Extraordinary, brief, true stories of the Deep South that are funny, haunting and redolent.

my southern journey

My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South showcases the singular voice, humor and perspective of Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’), in short, entertaining stories. As he introduces it, “this book is a collection of Southern stories, but it is not a litany of pig pickins and frat parties and cutthroat beauty contests.” Rather, these are fervent, funny, heartfelt memories of places and cultures that need remembering.

Bragg shares his experience of the Deep South, from his family home in northern Alabama to Florida, Louisiana and the Alabama coast. Readers quickly become acquainted (or reacquainted) with his large and lively family, as Bragg brings immediacy and intimacy to his setting and cast of characters. His mouthwatering descriptions of the food of his homeland–centered on various forms of pork but with a heavy emphasis on Gulf Coast seafood as well–are flavorful and evocative. He occasionally claims that “I can’t write well enough to tell you how good it was,” a risky writerly trick that Bragg easily pulls off. He considers the red dirt of northeastern Alabama as both physical and symbolic. Bragg’s tone is self-effacing and often hilarious, which belies his ability to approach serious issues, like his treatment of overfishing and the Deepwater oil spill.

In exploring family, a sense of place or home, and the distinctive details of Southern food and culture, Bragg exhibits an exquisitely nuanced, clever voice, partly disguised by a down-home accent. Readers will laugh, and cry, and yearn to head South.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 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: 9 paper bags of cracklin’s.

Mot by Sarah Einstein

A brief, quietly powerful memoir of the author’s friendship with a homeless, mentally ill veteran.


Sarah Einstein had worked with the homeless for all of her adult life when she met Mot. After being assaulted at work (at a drop-in center for adults with mental illness), Einstein left her job. Her marriage, just a year old, was faltering. In Mot, a gentle veteran who had lived outdoors for many years, she found a mildness that appealed to her. However, Mot also lived with a slough of harpies, dead ancestors, deities and villains in his head.

In her memoir, Mot, Einstein reflects on this relationship, the trips she took from her home in West Virginia to visit Mot in Amarillo and Oklahoma City, and the time she was able to bring him home with her. In a deceptively simple narrative, readers learn about the pantheon that lives in Mot’s head, a mythology Einstein is only sometimes able to follow. She relates the difficulties of her own marriage, and questions herself as she moves away from direct service. She doesn’t claim to have the answers, although in her epilogue she exhorts her readers to find ways to contribute. Mot is not, however, about helping the homeless at its center: it is about one man’s strengths, his kindness and skills (fixing up old cars, pruning apple trees, building things), and his difficulties in separating reality from those he calls the “Big Guys Upstairs.”

In her lovely, unadorned and unassuming storytelling, it becomes clear that Einstein is herself flawed and troubled. But the glimpse into Mot’s individuality and a rare friendship is illuminating and singular.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 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 summer thermostats.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

A comprehensible survey of poisons and a celebration of the Queen of Crime.

a is for arsenic

Chemist Kathryn Harkup combines her scientific expertise and love of a good mystery in her first book, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. B is for belladonna, and C is for cyanide, as Harkup works her way through 14 mysteries and 14 discrete poisons, with meticulous and informed explanations of the science behind each toxin’s effects (an appendix contains chemical structures). Each chapter also details famous real-life cases involving these deadly substances, including those that might have inspired–or been inspired by–Christie’s work, and analyses of how accurately the Queen of Crime represented the science within her stories. Generally the renowned writer does very well: as Harkup explains, Christie worked as a volunteer nurse in World War I and showed such aptitude that she was encouraged to continue her education and training as a pharmacist. By the Second World War, her work as a dispenser left her ample time to pursue her other profession, writing bestselling stories and novels.

Harkup’s writing style is accessible to the lay reader, although she does become technical when discussing poisons’ actions on the body, with full detail at the cellular level. She keeps these explanations short, however, and general readers will be able to follow along. For Christie fans, the review of famous mysteries is great fun, and the few spoilers come with ample warning. A Is for Arsenic is both informative science and a spur to read or reread the most popular mysteries ever written.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 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: 6 grains.

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.

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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