Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded. And vastly  outnumbered – about two hundred million to one.  So much for escape. Bugs are everywhere:  crawling, slithering, squirming, sucking, munching, mating, buzzing, biting.

Amy Stewart’s creepy new popular science book, Wicked Bugs, notes that many bugs are beneficial, necessary to the cycle of life and  the food chain. But she’s more interested in the dark side of the relationship  between humans and nature, as readers of her previous best-seller Wicked Plants well know.

This volume is just as witty and informative,  illustrated with detailed etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs  that make most of the subjects —  African bat bugs to the zombie–like jewel wasp — look as if they starred in ‘50s horror flick about radiation gone wrong. (Remember the monster mutants in Them!)

Of course, a number are downright deadly, full  of poisonous venom that paralyses the nervous system (certain spiders,  scorpions, and the well-named assassin bugs). Parasites hop along for the ride and infiltrate innards. Flies, fleas and cockroachess carry  filth  and disease. As Stewart observes: “Flea vomit is the true culprit in a plague  epidemic.’’

Her curious anecdotes often have a high ick  factor.  Body lice helped bring down  Napoleon’s army. A man woke up with a nose full of maggots after a fly laid its  eggs in his nostrils. And, yes, roaches will crawl in ears. Euwwww.

If you think staying inside is going to help,  well, consider bed bugs.  They dine on  you. Silverfish eat books. Weevils flourish in meal. Termites chew on wood.  What’s that tick-tock sound in your wall? Oh, just the death-watch beetle.

Florida is paradise for bugs. The Mediterranean fruit fly. Fire ants. Roundworms. Deer ticks. And what Stewart considers the  most wicked bug of all – mosquitoes, whose saliva transmits hundreds of fevers  and diseases, “making them the world’s most deadly insect. Malaria is believed to have killed more people than all wars combined.’’

Now you know. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…!

Open Book: I received an advance reading copy of Amy Stewart’s Wicked Bugs from publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It arrived with a stuffed bookworm that looks like a giant deformed banana with huge googly eyes. Terrifying.

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I am gorging on Florida strawberries, but I am studying okra and dreaming peaches. Let me explain.

SIBA — Southeast Independent Booksellers Alliance — recently announced its dozen “Okra Picks: Good Southern Books Fresh off the Vine” for the spring season as selected by its indie members. The fiction and nonfiction look appealing, but, yum, three books for foodies and cooks are on on the list,  High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica Harris (Bloomsbury), The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press) and A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home by Martha Hall Foose (Crown). Harris’ history of African-American cusine culture was published in January; the other two will be released in April.

I am especially looking forward to A Southerly Course because Mississippi chef Foose wrote Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook, an all-time favorite with its surprise take on traditional Southern fare — Sweet Tea Pie, dontcha know?!

My family (namely, my mother and the Caroline Cousins) tend to forget that just because I don’t cook much anymore doesn’t mean I don’t know how. How insulting is it when your nearest and dearest ask if you remember how to make a white sauce?! But even if I don’t spend time in the kitchen, I spend lots of time reading about food, especially Southern food. Why just the other day I talked my friend Jackie out of her new Southern Living because of the pound cake recipes. She graciously handed over the magazine with a hunk of her fresh-made banana nut bread, which I ate for breakfast.

The cover of Foose’s new book instantly drew me in with its picture of peaches tumbled together in an apron. Regular readers of this blog know that peaches are my favorite food. I have a large orange cat, the Giant Peach, and when I lived in the Midwest years ago, I stirred Peach Jell-O on the stove in winter just to smell its fragrance and remember summer.

The new Okra Picks —  http://www.sibaweb.com/okra — also reminded me that I signed up for my fellow book blogger BermudaOnion’s Okra Challenge back in the fall. You moved up the food ladder by reading a certain number of books and blogging about them. Four to six, for example, and you’re a Tater. To be an Okra, you have to read nine or more. I signed up to read seven to nine so I can be a Peach, of course.

I made it because I recently sat in a bookstore and read the only cookbook on the fall list, Southern Plate: Classic Southern Food That Makes Everyone Feel Like Family by Christy Jordan (HarperCollins). A home-grown Alabama cook with a wonderful blog, www.southernplate.com, Jordan offers family recipes, many as easy as pie (or cobbler). It was sort of like thumbing through my mama’s recipe box, or going through the cousins’ collections. Macaroni and cheese. Fried okra. Frozen cranberry  salad. Coupled with the color pictures, the recipes make for a mouth-watering volume. I haven’t bought it yet because I told someone I wanted it, and I’m hoping they didn’t think I was kidding.

Just writing this has me hungry and homesick. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some okra, corn and tomatoes in the freezer, so I’ll just go put some rice on. And, no, I don’t use that minute stuff. Honest.

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The empty swing on the cover of Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America provides an arresting image of a lost child, but what I’ll always remember is the photo of the grinning, freckled six-year-old in a red baseball cap.

 Still, Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a Hollywood, Fla. shopping mall on July 27, 1981, didn’t become the country’s most famous missing boy overnight.

Because this was before Amber Alerts and milk cartons, before America’s Most Wanted and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was just two distraught parents, John and Reve Walsh, looking for their son with the well-meaning help of family, friends and law enforcement departments at a loss without centralized communication.

Two weeks after Adam disappeared, fishermen found his decapitated head in a canal more than a 100 miles away. By then, the case had captured public attention. But the kidnapper/killer was never officially captured, and the rest of Adam’s remains have never been found.

A serial killer named Otis Toole eventually confessed to the murder,  but he confessed to a lot of murders, and he recanted more often than not. He died in a Florida jail in 1996 without detectives having verified his stories. It wasn’t until  December 2008 that the Hollywood police department announced that it had concluded that Toole was indeed the killer and it had made mistakes in the investigation.

In Bringing Adam Home, noted Florida writer Les Standiford and Joe Matthews, a retired Miami Beach detective and experienced polygrapher, detail those mistakes in devastating detail, such as lost bloodstained evidence crucial for DNA testing and valuable time wasted on less promising suspects. Matthews was hired by the Walshes to conduct an independent investigation to determine that Toole was the killer, and he spent frustrating years retracing leads, interviewing witnesses and verifying Toole’s whereabouts in order to do so.

Intertwined with this true-crime chronicle (Toole was one sorry career crook) is the important story of how Adam’s abduction turned his parents into powerful advocates for crime victims and how law enforcement across the country changed its response to missing children cases. Now, there are toll-free numbers, national databases, registries of pedophiles, fingerprinting programs, trained search-and-rescue teams.

Over the years, John Walsh kept Adam’s case in the spotlight, “not knowing {the truth} was torture.” The Hollywood police said it hoped that Toole’s positive identification brought some closure to the Walsh family. The book quotes John Walsh: “It’s not about closure; it’s about justice.”

Open Book: I reviewed a digital advance copy of Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford with Joe Matthews (HarperCollins) through NetGalley so I didn’t see the eight pages of pictures. But I remember them.

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I had my first sip of champagne when I was a young teen at a grand wedding.  The taste was tart, tingly, unexpected. 

In her Encyclopedia of The Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes that “a good champagne is feathery with small bubbles and complex, revealing a taste that is tart like a green apple, flowery with roses and violets, sweet like roasted pineapple, and toasty as a golden brioche.” 

At 14, I got the “tart” part right, but I was still years away from my first brioche. All I knew was that I liked, loved, champagne. Even in a plastic flute, it embodied sophistication and romance. (Again, my first champagne headache from the cheap stuff was years away.)

Kerwin’s book is a bit like a sophisticate’s version of Julie Andrews trilling “My Favorite Things.” Modeled after the exoctic encyclopedias of the 16th century, it’s a jewel box of trifles so delightful I dare you to read just one entry at a time. Two pages on “Fireworks” lead directly to “folly” and then to “frilly lingerie.” Ooo-la-a! 

Of course, it’s idiosyncratic. I always thought Cupid was cute rather than elegant. But Jenkins’ entry on “Amorini and putti” –Cupids, cherubs and baby angels — provides colorful context for the pudgy pink infants of the Renaissance, whose origins date to antiquity when winged boys delivered messages for the Greek gods.

Speaking of those mythical creatures, turn to “Nectar and ambrosia,” the sweet drink and food of the gods. Some historians, Jenkins writes, have concluded that both are actually forms of honey, either fermented or fresh. Sweet.

Chocolate, which I consider an indispensable food group, inexplicably didn’t make the book, although the expensive spice saffron receives its due, as well as a recipe for Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Toasted Almonds.    

Red lipstick. White paint. Black. Truffle. Fan. Unicorn. Love notes. Boudoir. Pentimento. Did you know that Cleopatra’s bling was faux jewels, and that rich and poor alike have enjoyed opulent glass emeralds and amethysts? Sequins go back to Venetian gold coins first issued in 1284. When the currency became obsolete, enterprising women pierced the “zecchino” coins and embroidered their clothes, “igniting the bedazzling fashion.” (Too tacky for words if carried to excess IMHO).

About the illustrations. They look like sepia clip art of old-fashioned drawings. Some sumptuous color would not be out of place. Indeed, a book that celebrates the exquisite and elegant deserves better. I also could do without the blurbs by Michael Kors, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tory Burch. Then again, Jenkins used to be an editor of W and now writes for Vogue.

But these are minor complaints — ants with alfresco. And it’s Jenkins’ book, so I forgive her a few sins of ommission — trompe l’oeil, blue and white china, old lace, valentines. But those are among my favorite things.

Besides, both Jenkins and I share a love of “far niente” in Italian, or sweet idleness, “the languorous sweetness of doing nothing at all.”

Open Book: I received my copy of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins (Talese/Doubleday) as a Christmas gift from my friend Laura. (Which reminds me to add presents and thank you notes to my list of elegant delights).

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Here’s how bad my memory is. I thought I had already blogged about that new book by whats-her-name. You know. The essayist and screenwriter I’ve adored for years, ever since she was The Wallflower at the Orgy. Crazy Salad. Scribble, Scribble. Once called Julie Nixon a chocolate-covered spider. Heartburn. When Harry Met Sally. Sleepless in Seattle. You know. Recently felt bad about her neck. Now more reflections on getting older. Same last name as my friend Seth only spelled differently. Ephron! Nora! Nora Ephron!

I think I may have met her once at some Knopf publishing thing, or maybe we just talked on the phone when I was doing a story on the reissue of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Theatre Shoes, which I read and reread as a kid and which Meg Ryan raved about in You’ve Got Mail. But after reading her new collection — the aptly titled I Remember Nothing — I’m almost positive that Nora Ephron won’t recall any conversation we might have had. After all, this is a woman who was surprised to run into her sister at the mall and didn’t even recognize her at first. Well, maybe her sister changed her hair. No, the whole reason Nora was at the mall was to meet her sister.

I hope she doesn’t mind me calling her Nora. Even if we haven’t talked — although I really don’t think I would have imagined it, her being kind of an idol of mine — I feel we’re on a first-name basis. I so relate to so much of this new book, although between “Google” moments (such a better name than “Senior” moments) and lupus fog, I may soon forget which parts.

Oh, “My Life as an Heiress,” in which Nora recounts how she and her sisters expected a large legacy from their Uncle Hal, reminded me of when a great-uncle I never knew died when I was high school or maybe college. He’d been in the state mental hospital for years and years because of “brain fever,” and died without a will, so his share of his father’s estate went to his many siblings and their descendants, including my mother. But like Nora, she never entered the “the fifth stage of inherited wealth: Wealth.”

And how could I not identify with “Journalism: A Love Story” ? Nora recalls working all hours of the night and into the morning as a mail girl at Newsweek. “It was exciting in its own self-absorbed way, which is very much the essence of journalism: you truly come to believe that you are living in the center of the universe and that the world out there is on tenterhooks waiting for the next copy of whatever publication you work at.” So true. Even if that publication is your own occasional blog.

Some of these essays are mainly lists or short paragraphs. Amusing, but I prefer the more substantive, such as “My Life as a Meat Loaf.” I wish I’d had had the chance to dine on Nora’s Meat Loaf at Monkey Bar before Larry Forgione changed the menu and recipe. Larry Forgione? Do I know him? I know I know the name. Wait, wait. It will come to me, but maybe not until the middle of the night or next week or never. Might as well Google it now.  Aha! He’s the new Iron Chef. I just saw him win the title last month on the Food Network.

Speaking of food, I agree with Nora when it comes to pie.

Open Book: I hope that if I ever meet Nora Ephron again, I recognize her. Maybe we can compare Arubas. I bought my copy of I Remember Nothing (Knopf) according to my credit card statement.

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Sometimes it is good to get away from the leaves of a book and take a walk among the real leaves, especially if you are reading John Fowles’ provocative book-length essay, The Tree. In it, he ponders and questions the connection between humans and nature, especially our perception of of the natural world, how we see both the forests and the trees.

 Now re-released in a 30th anniversary edition, this is a true “green” book, but not in the way you might think. Fowles isn’t much on classification and conservation, except in our preservation of wilderness, “the green chaos” that can’t be tamed at the very heart of things.  

Most readers know Fowles, who died in 2005, as a master novelist — The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, Daniel Martin, The Ebony Tower — which are among my favorite books. But he also wrote some wonderful nonfiction, and for a long time, I would read anything he wrote just because he wrote it in such graceful, elegant and discerning prose. I can remember being disappointed by his later fiction — Mantissa and The Maggot — but I was won back by the essay collection Wormholes, especially the pieces on nature and his beloved Lyme Regis. The two-volume The Journals were revelatory as to his times and intense introspection, but I admit to some skimming.

As for The Tree, it has been celebrated and anthologized, and it certainly bears rereading.  As Barry Lopez rightly notes in the introduction, Fowles’ ideas at time might appear too abstract and paradoxical except he’s too good a storyteller.

And so I willingly followed him back to the anecdotes about his childhood, which was divided by the war, between suburbia (his father’s preference) and the Dorset countryside (his own). He discusses the Victorian mania for naming things, and also the Middles Ages’ perception of the forest as “evil” in its wildness, “an immense green cloak for Satan.” Our fears of the wood, he contends, are hardly dead — the private garden detests “wild nature.”

My favorite sections of The Tree deal with the intersection of art and nature, how we struggle with words and pictures to capture its reality. Then there is the metaphorical forest, the preferred setting since Gilgamesh for the literary adventure and quest. Although the city appears to have replaced the forest in the contemporary novel, Fowles makes a good argument that “Sir Galahad and Philip Marlowe are blood brothers.”

In the last section, Fowles sets out to Wistman’s Wood, an almost hidden bit of primeval forest on the Dartmoor Moor, copses of ancient, twisted, dwarfish oaks, its floor like a “tilted emerald sea.” Here, in this isolated, strangely tropical place he contemplates how he came to writing by nature, and the secret being of the woods that can only be entered by the individual consciousness.

And so I take a walk to clear my head, to think and not think. Are the leaves on the dogwood dimpling with yellow because we haven’t had rain in weeks, or is it finally fall in Florida? The oaks are always green, one way or another, but the acorns crackle under foot in the growing dark. I hear an owl, lost to sight in the leaves and limbs of the tree above me.

Open Book: Ecco Press sent me an advance readers’ copy of The Tree by John Fowles as part of an internet promotion. It’s a “real” book, once a tree.

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As someone possessed by two cats and one dog, I know people love talking about their pets. As a birthday card I recently received stated, “They’re just children who eat off the floor.” Our pets are family.

But I also know that pet-less people (poor souls) often have little patience hearing about our rug rats’ antics and accomplishments.  Happily, there are the rest of us, and every now and then one of our own becomes world-famous. Such was the case of an orange kitten left in the drop-off box of the Spencer, Iowa, library in January 1988. Vicki Myron was the lucky library director who rescued the half-frozen furball and named him Dewey Readmore Books. For 19 years, he was “the library cat,” whose winning ways endeared him to library patrons, the town and everyone who met him. Then Myron chronicled his life and times in the best-selling memoir, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

“He was just a cat, but he had a way of inspiring our better selves,” says Myron in the new Dewey’s Nine Lives, which she co-wrote with Bret Witter. This book was inspired by the response to the first Dewey book; people are still writing Myron with stories about their cats. Here, she collects seven of them, bookended by two new Dewey tales, that illustrate the special bond between cats and their people.

If you are allergic to fuzzy and warm-hearted, this is not the book for you. I found most of the stories entertaining, especially those of the now-defunct Sanibel Island cat colony and the “church” cat of Camden, Ala. But because they’re Myron’s accounts of other people’s cat tales, the “Dewey Magic” is second-hand. Most of us cat-lovers can spin similar stories about our favorite felines.

That’s probably why publisher Penguin is sponsoring a “I Believe in Dewey’s Magic” story contest, http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/features/dewey/index.html  Winning stories will be included in the paperback edition of Dewey’s Nine Lives. Smart marketing ploy.

Even as I write, my orange cat, the Giant Peach, is curled up at my feet. Once upon a time he was a tiny kitten with huge mitts my friend Kathy found in a dumpster. I had just written about an extra-toed orange cat named Peach in the first Caroline Cousins’ novel, Fiddle-Dee-Death. Now, the same month the book was published here was a real-life Peach who needed a home. I know this picture of him draped over my bookcase is out of focus; it was taken with a old phone camera. But I like it even if it is fuzzy. . .

Open Book: Anne Staszalek, marketing associate with AuthorsOnTheWeb, offered me an advance readers edition of Dewey’s Nine Lives by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter (Dutton/Penguin). I’m not about to turn down a cat book in need of a home.

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I once shared a cab with several book conventioneers in Chicago after we all got tired of waiting for the shuttle bus that never came. We introduced ourselves, and the woman sitting next to me said, “I know you. You’re big in Duluth!” I looked at her in astonishment — never having been to Minnesota — and she quickly explained that my book reviews and columns, syndicated on the KRT news wire, were frequently published in the Duluth News Tribune.

I came home to Orlando and shared “Big in Duluth” with my friend Dewayne. We’ve collected odd phrases over the years that we think sound like intriguing titles for short stories. “Big in Duluth” joined such favorites as “But It Came with Extra Horsehair” and “Punch Were Served.”

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, and I’m having a Facebook/e-mail conversation with Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Turned out she’s from Duluth, so I told her my “Big in Duluth” story. Turns out she was the reason I had a rep in her hometown because she picked out the reviews that ran in the paper, where she worked for 18 years. Hertzel thought being books editor/critic must be the best job in the world and wanted to be “me” one of these days.

The newspaper world is small (and shrinking rapidly) so these kind of coincidences happen all the time. After reading Hertzel’s engaging new memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I could tell you a lot more that the two of us have in common, but suffice to say she’s really the one who is “Big in Duluth,” and a lot of other places as well, including Russia.

The narrative is chronological, beginning with Hertzel starting her own newspaper full of her large family’s activities as a preteen, to joining the smoke-filled, male-dominated newsroom as a clerk in 1976, to working her way up the reporting and editing chain while witnessing the factories closing in Duluth and the population moving away. Change threads its way through News to Me.

 Any writer/journalist, or readers with such career aspirations or interests, will learn a lot from this book about the pre-computer newspaper world of IBM Selectrics, pica poles and clattering wire machines. Those days weren’t all that far removed from hot type and “hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,” and female reporters still had to prove themselves outside of the women’s section. Hertzel got out of coffee-making duties for the male editors by making it undrinkable. Sorry, she shrugged. I don’t drink coffee, she told them, I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. (I’ll second that.)

But Hertzel hasn’t just compiled a bunch of “war stories” for fellow journalists to appreciate. As she writes,  she didn’t set out to be a journalist; it just sort of happened as she followed her motto, “When a door opens, walk through it.” Still, I don’t think it’s an accident she ended up having a successful and varied career. She’s a naturally gifted storyteller with an eye for the telling detail and a way with words. Not that she hasn’t made mistakes and blown deadlines. But those doors she walked through don’t slide open as effortlessly as she would have it, like those at a supermarket. Just finding them takes talent and persistence, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

Speaking of which, I’m not going to spoil for you how Hertzel found the story of a lifetime in the Soviet Union in 1986 in a small town near the Finnish border. But part of  it involves being met after an incredibly long train trip by smiling old people handing out flowers and speaking English. It’s a chapter in history that I was previously unaware of and now I want to read the book about it that Hertzel later co-authored, They Took My Father. Now there’s an intriguing title.

Open Book: The University of Minnesota Press sent me an advance reading copy of Laurie Hertzel’s News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist. I laughed at the cover picture because it looked almost exactly like the top of my old desk at The Fayetteville Times, right down to the standard blue-and-white reporter’s notebook, ashtray, press card, mug, newspaper clips, a clutch of pencils and pens. No computer in sight.

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Central Florida sometimes seems like ground zero for missing persons. There are the Amber alerts that make the national news (Caylee Anthony, Haleigh Cummings) but also the local searches for elderly folk who have wandered away or the guy who went fishing and fell in a lake. And sadly, there are cold cases, like that of Jennifer Kesse, the smiling young woman who seemingly vanished into thin air four years ago.

Recently, 11-year-old Nadia Bloom was lost in the swampy woods behind her east Orange County subdivision for five days before she was found. Our TV stations aired periodic bulletins of the search with footage of helicopters, organized grid teams and rescue dogs. I remember watching one black Lab with an  SAR (search and rescue) vest scenting the air before he put his head to the ground and took off, his handler following.

Thanks to Susannah Charleson and her Golden Retriever named Puzzle, I now have a much better understanding and even more respect for what the Lab was doing. Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog is a real find for dog-lovers, or anybody who appreciates a well-written tale.  It makes me want to go “wroo,” the triumphant sound Puzzle makes when she’s found someone, whether working through a towering debris pile or sweeping through the wilderness in the dark.

“We go where law enforcement directs us,” writes Charleson, who works with an elite volunteer team out of Dallas. “We run behind search dogs who tell us their own truths in any given area — never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here.”

It may look like a great game to outsiders — and games are very much a part of a search dog’s training — but this is is tough and serious work, sometimes in the wake of disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes, or at crime scenes or drownings.  A pilot and flight instructor, Charleson was inspired to become a field assistant for a SAR canine team after seeing a photograph of a weary Miami handler and his Golden in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Eventually she decides to run a dog of her own, and her search leads to a willful, blonde pup who causes consternation among Charleson’s pack of Poms and cats as she she grows into a skilled search dog.

Charleson fluently mixes the story of her and Puzzle’s training and adventures with information about SAR canine teams. We meet Puzzle’s smart and agile mentors, including German Shepherd Hunter and Shadow the Husky, and are on the scene of numerous searches, some with happy endings, others with no ending. A year before Puzzle was born, Charleson worked canine SAR when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas, and her account of standing over a bit of bone in a frozen field will tear at your heart.

Mostly, though, Puzzle and her teammates will make you happy. Maybe even go “wroo.” I know that if I’m ever lost in the woods, I want to awakened by that joyful sound. 

Open Book: Susannah Charleson’s Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which sent me an advance reading copy. Try and resist that cover. Good dog! Good book.

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