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 author interview: Paul R. Ehrlich

Following Thursday’s review of The Annihilation of Nature, here’s Paul Ehrlich: Stories of Extinction.

Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Among his more than 40 books are The Population Bomb and Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. He is one of three authors of The Annihilation of Nature, along with Gerardo Ceballos, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a professor at the Institute of Ecology at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and Anne H. Ehrlich, a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is the coauthor of Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species and The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. Ceballos is the author of Mammals of Mexico and Diversity of Mexican Fauna.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

What is meant in your subtitle by the phrase “human extinction”?

There’s not the slightest question in anybody’s mind of why we’re facing an extinction crisis, both of populations and of species, and that’s human activities. It’s not extinction of humans, it’s humans forcing birds and mammals to extinction.

How does the three-author cooperative process work?

First of all, Gerardo’s first language is Spanish, mine is bad English and Anne’s is excellent English. Usually Gerardo, or I, or Anne will sketch out a chapter, depending on where our expertise lies. I will edit it the first time around and ask Gerardo to explain some things–his English is excellent, by the way; no one has any trouble understanding him or understanding what he writes–but it’s not colloquial enough in places. Then Anne goes through and replaces all my split infinitives and stuff like that. It’s really an ongoing process. Gerardo is more in charge of the photographs in this particular book–he’s a wonderful photographer on his own, he’s published many books of photographs. We all have students and others who’ve helped us. None of us publishes anything in areas that are even slightly controversial without having a lot of colleagues go over it, and of course we had that done for this book, too.

Anne Ehrlich

Anne Ehrlich

The cooperative writing process is three equal parts. The effort is equal, but we all have somewhat different talents and do somewhat different things.

Who is your target audience for this book?

Our target audience is intelligent people who read books. It’s not highly technical, but it’s not dumbed down in any way. We hope to make it both an attractive book and one that’s good reading. The whole idea is to introduce people to what we’re losing. The average person on Wall Street has never seen a natural ecosystem or, say, the animals on the plains of Africa, and can’t really picture what’s going on. We hope to get people to picture what we’re losing and get them to do something about it.

What does “climate disruption” mean, and why use that phrase rather than the more familiar “climate change”?

Gerardo Ceballos

Gerardo Ceballos

We adopted that phrase from the one used by Obama’s science adviser John Holdren, who’s a close friend of ours. He pointed out that it isn’t just warming–that we are changing the entire climate. Things like the frequency of hideous storms are going to increase, and not every place may get warmer: some places may get cooler. “Disruption” is more accurate than “global warming,” and even “climate change” doesn’t carry the implication of speed. We know the climate has always changed, and most people, certainly the people who will read this book, would know that there were ice ages and things like that. So one of the big issues that’s highlighted by using “climate disruption” is that the change is rapid. Getting older does not disrupt your life, but if you get married or divorced, that’s disruptive. That’s the main reason for using “disruption.”

Presumably many endangered species of birds and mammals didn’t fit into this book. How did you choose which species to discuss?

We chose the ones, first of all, that we know best. One of the problems, covered by a paper I was just involved in that got a lot of publicity, is trying to figure out whether or not we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re experiencing a mass extinction. One issue is that there are not enough biologists to track all the species we think may be endangered or, in fact, gone. For this book we wanted a good variety of birds and mammals–the organisms most people relate to and certainly the ones we know most about in these terms. For instance, I’ve spent a lot of my life working with butterflies, but there are very few butterfly populations where we know enough about what’s happening to say anything statistical about the rate of extinction. But birds and mammals we know. We know which ones we know interesting stories about, and there are a wide variety of them in a wide variety of circumstances. So this isn’t an attempt to analyze what’s happening to all birds and mammals, but rather to take a bunch of interesting examples and tie them into why it really counts.

What about animal species beyond birds and mammals, and extending into plants–what is the scope of mass extinction relative to the story told in your book?

The scope of the mass extinction is vast, but population extinctions are the absolutely critical thing. There are a whole series of reasons not to wipe out the only other living things we know about in the universe: one, of course, is just that they’re interesting, fascinating and beautiful, but many people would consider it more important that they’re working parts of our life-support systems. The importance of population extinctions is easily illustrated. If we could somehow miraculously preserve one population of every species on the planet, just one, permanently, we would lose no species diversity–but we’d all be dead in a few weeks, because we utterly depend on having lots of populations to provide us with what are called ecosystem or natural services. For example, honeybees are involved in producing something like $18 billion of agricultural produce in the United States–critical to giving us a much more varied and nutritious diet. If they all died out, we’d be in deep trouble, even though they could persist in, say, Italy and Africa and we would not have lost a species, but we would have lost a vast number of populations. And population extinctions necessarily go on at a much higher rate than species extinctions, because no species goes extinct until every one of its populations has been driven to extinction.

The stories that we tell in this book make up maybe 5% of the relatively well-known stories of species extinctions. But there are many more: for instance, we didn’t look at most of the so-called threatened species, the ones that the International Union of Conservation of Nature considers to be in great danger but they’re not sure exactly how much. In other words, we’ve taken the ones where we know a lot about the endangerment, we know a lot about the distribution, and where they have really interesting stories. If you look at mouse lemurs in Madagascar, we’ve discovered that there are many more different ones than people thought 25 years ago. I think it went from something like two species to 12. That also means that it added substantial endangerment. If there were only two species, the chances of losing either one were relatively small. When we discover there are really 12, all of a sudden there’s more endangerment. But the danger there is the same as the danger everywhere–destruction of habitat is the main thing–so it wouldn’t be interesting to tell the stories of 12 mouse lemurs. We felt it was better to find the most interesting stories to tell.

This interview originally ran on September 23, 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!

Author photos: Gerardo Ceballos courtesy Instituto de EcologĂ­a, UNAM; Anne Ehrlich by Anne Hammersky; Paul Ehrlich courtesy of the author.

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!

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.

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