Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Sit down, pull up a chair (or pick a spot under your favorite tree) and smile as Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom. A paean to his terrible good dog, Speck, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People offers a knowing and humane meditation on the devotion of a man to his dog and a dog to his man.

Bragg first found Speck among a pack of strays eating trash in the middle of the road; when he approached the pack, the other dogs scattered, but Speck lingered, and so Bragg took him in. Speck’s mismatched eyes—a light brown left eye and an almost solid blue-black right eye—“did not ruin his face; they just made him look like the pirate he is.” Bragg wasn’t looking for a dog when he found Speck, and even if he had been, this isn’t the one he might have expected. “I had in mind a fat dog,” he writes, “a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops.”

Yet, this dog—who chases cars, drinks from the toilet and rounds up jackasses—has a story, and Bragg tells it with all the “exaggeration and adjustment” of a rattling good storyteller. Bragg weaves his own stories of health challenges and his brother’s cancer diagnosis throughout Speck’s journey, as the two take care of each other in the wilds of rural Alabama. Bragg concludes that Speck “just wants some people of his own, and some snacks, because a dog gets used to things like that. . . . And, when the weather turns bad, he wants someone to come let him in, when the thunder shakes the mountain, when the lightning flash reveals that he was just a dog all this time.”

The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

The Speckled Beauty confirms Rick Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.

When people think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, they might think of the greeting cards in which they’ve read her most oft-quoted lyric: “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways.” Fiona Sampson’s dazzling and absorbing Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is likely to change that.

Sampson challenges the usual portrait of Barrett Browning as a “swooning poetess” whose identity is closely bound up with her father and husband. Modeled on Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning’s narrative poem divided into nine books, Two-Way Mirror chronicles Barrett Browning’s growth as a poet, her long-term illness, her marriage to Robert Browning and their subsequent lives in Italy.

Drawing on Barrett Browning’s copious correspondence, Sampson illustrates that the poet was a “pivotal figure” who was acknowledged during her lifetime “as Britain’s greatest ever woman poet” and who attracted international acclaim. Barrett Browning’s use of the female voice in lyric and narrative poetry represented a radical departure from other narrative poems, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath,” in which women characters were, as Sampson writes, “ventriloquized by men.” In the end, according to Sampson, “Elizabeth’s poetry too composes a kind of self-portrait, or rather mirror. As she became herself through writing, her writing reflected that developing self. And so her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it: her choices and opinions, what moved her, habits and characteristic turns of phrase.”

Two-Way Mirror will enthrall readers and encourage them to read Barrett Browning’s poetry, whether again or for the first time.

People often think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a “swooning poetess,” but Fiona Sampson’s dazzling and absorbing biography is likely to change that.

Hurtling down the blind curves and treacherous twists and turns of family dysfunction and social displacement, Antonio Michael Downing searches for himself among the cultural clutter of sports, religion and music. Combining staccato prose and singsong storytelling, Downing’s Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming navigates loneliness, uncertainty, fear, hopelessness and hunger.

Downing grew up in Trinidad with his grandmother, Miss Excelly, dreaming of mango season. She taught him two important things: how to sing and “the magic of the Queen’s English.” While his childhood was not idyllic, Downing felt safe with his grandmother and her love. When Miss Excelly died, however, he and his brother were shipped off to Canada to live with an aunt, and thus began a peripatetic lifestyle marked by a lack of security or family love.

Downing was shuttled between aunts in Canada. He never quite fit in at any particular place, though he valiantly threw himself into basketball and music in high school. He eventually recovered his love for language and writing at the University of Waterloo and put together a show with an artist friend who painted scenes from a short story Downing wrote. That experience gave birth to DJ Mic Dainjay, Downing's alter ego that he used as a performer during a time when he was also working at Blackberry as a sales representative. Today he performs music as John Orpheus.

Downing’s heart-wrenching memoir chronicles his saga of trying on and casting off many masks, learning the dimensions of the face through which he sees the world and the world sees him. As he writes, “This is a story about unbelonging, about placeness, about leaving everything behind. This is about metamorphosis: death and rebirth. . . . This is a story about family and forgiveness. About becoming what you always were.”

Combining staccato prose and singsong storytelling, Saga Boy hurtles down the treacherous twists and turns of family dysfunction and social displacement.

Art can redeem suffering, but it can also reveal brutalities that degrade the human spirit. Art can capture the hopelessness of individuals hemmed in by fences not of their own making, even as it portrays the hopefulness of scaling those barriers and strolling in the expansive paths beyond. In Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, Winfred Rembert recounts to co-author Erin I. Kelly his own gripping, often harrowing stories of growing up in Cuthbert, Georgia, and of turning to painting to represent the atrocities and celebrations of his life.

Rembert opens his memoir by recalling the journey to find his birth mother, who gave him away as a baby. He stole away from Cuthbert and walked up the railroad tracks 40 miles to Leslie, Georgia, where he found his mother but discovered she was none too happy to see him. Back in Cuthbert, Rembert celebrates the bustling juke joints and stores on Hamilton Avenue, depicting flourishing scenes of Black men and women going about their daily lives.

Life turned bleak when Rembert was arrested while fleeing a civil rights demonstration in 1965. He was brutalized and nearly lynched by law enforcement officers and a gang of white men. Eventually Rembert was sent to a chain gang, which he describes as being “like slavery. You have to meet all those demands and keep a sense of yourself as well.” In a stroke of good fortune, Rembert met a young woman named Patsy, whom he eventually married when he was released from prison.

While imprisoned, Rembert developed his artistic skills, and he continued to carve and paint on leather until his death in 2021. His art, which is reproduced throughout the book, depicts the people of Cuthbert, his family and his time on the chain gang. “With my paintings I tried to make a bad situation look good,” Rembert writes. “You can’t make the chain gang look good in any way besides by painting it in art.”

Chasing Me to My Grave is a testament to the ways one man used his art to educate, delight and depict the trauma that arises out of memory.

Winfred Rembert recounts gripping, often harrowing stories of growing up in Georgia, surviving a lynching and discovering art while imprisoned in a chain gang.

Our homes are vessels in which emotions ebb, flow and shape our lives. In some cases, we look back fondly on the vessels that shelter us on the turbulent seas of life; in others, we gladly leave behind the tattered family dwellings of our past as we emerge into less ravaged territories. In Vessel, Cai Chongda reflects on coming of age in and taking leave of his complicated home in a rural fishing village in the Fujian province of China.

The words of Chongda’s great-grandmother echo deeply throughout the memoir. When her body begins to fail her at age 92, she tells Chongda, “Make your body serve you, not the other way around! . . . Your body’s a vessel. If you wait on it to do something, there’s no hope for you. If you put your body to work, you can start to live.” After his father suffers a stroke and eventually dies, Chongda must embrace these words as he becomes head of the household. It’s a role he’s hardly ready to assume, especially when it includes tasks like keeping his mother from swallowing the rat poison she keeps wrapped in a scarf in her bedroom, or comforting his sister when she breaks up with her boyfriend because their family is too poor to pay her dowry.

Never comfortable with his family responsibilities, Chongda leaves his hometown, first for university and then for a life as a journalist. He looks back on his home with a studied ambivalence as he tries to develop his own life and career. In the end, though, he accepts the lesson that so many pilgrims before him have embraced: “A home is not simply a structure that gives one shelter but a place you are linked to by blood and soil.”

Vessel sails briskly over rough seas, bobbing and weaving in stormy waters. It’s never smooth sailing, but Chongda’s candor and courage make up for the tumultuous ride.

With candor and courage, Cai Chongda reflects on coming of age in and taking leave of his home in a rural fishing village in the Fujian province of China.

Although oceans cover over two-thirds of our planet’s surface, we’ve spent more time and money probing the deep blue of the stratosphere than we have diving into the waters that lap at our shores, to our detriment. With a passionate love for and fervent desire to educate us about the depth of the ocean’s resources, as well as about our lack of understanding and mismanagement of them, Frauke Bagusche’s captivating The Blue Wonder: Why the Sea Glows, Fish Sing, and Other Astonishing Insights From the Ocean plunges us into the mysteries of the ocean. Along the way, Bagusche shares stories of the fascinating creatures that dwell there, as well as the increasing dangers the oceans face from human misuse.

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As Bagusche points out, many of us only see the ocean from the sands of a beach and therefore never discover the teeming life and unbelievable animals that swim beneath that surface. Guiding readers below the waves, Bagusche introduces them to the microplankton that move, often in phosphorescent schools, throughout the waters, providing food for animals from shrimp to blue whales. She takes us on a journey to the coral reefs, the nurseries of the sea, where we meet clown mantis shrimp and learn about the appendages they develop to help them adapt to the reefs. We also learn why some seas taste saltier than others and about the difficult but wondrous journey of sea turtles, the singing of whales and the giant squids and isopods that are the denizens of the bathysphere, the ocean’s deepest and darkest waters.

The Blue Wonder takes its place alongside Carl Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean in revealing the marvelous marine world and the urgent need to preserve a dazzling ecosystem we too often neglect.

With a passionate love for the ocean, Frauke Bagusche plunges readers into the dazzling mysteries of the sea.

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