Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Jennifer Egan's Nonfiction Picks

| Thu May 13, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan's answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Jennifer Egan: The nonfiction book I recommend to anyone who will listen is The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin. This book, published in 1961, is spectacularly prescient on the implications of image culture. Boorstin sees it all: the ever greater hunger for "reality" that arises from the increasing mediation of experience, and the corresponding feats of mediation (eg. reality TV) that attempt to satisfy that hunger while actually sharpening it. In a book that was published even before the televising of the Vietnam War, much less blogging, Boorstin's ability to forsee all of it, conceptually, is staggering.

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?

JE: Same one. What's so good is that every time I return to The Image, media saturation of everyday life has intensified and metamorphosed into bizarre new shapes. And every time, Boorstin gives me a framework through which to consider and understand it. Last time I read The Image, YouTube and Twitter hadn't happened yet, so I think it may be time for another look.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

JE: We had lots of reference books at home that my parents had ordered through LIFE magazine. They urged me to read them when I had questions. One of these books, about Louis Leakey and his discoveries in Olduvai Gorge, in Kenya, made a huge impression on me. I read it again and again, and was swept up in what I imagined as the romance of archeology. For a long time—until I got to college—I was convinced I would be an archeologist, mostly because of the impact of that book. Of course, what I'd hoped to get out of archeology—the chance to dig into people's lives and reconstruct them imaginatively—is what I do now as a fiction writer and a journalist.

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Really, JetBlue?

| Mon May 10, 2010 4:50 PM EDT

My roommate just gchatted me asking if I wanted to go with her to Austin tomorrow night and come back Wednesday morning. Um, excuse me? But wait, she told me, it gets better: The grand total cost for this jaunt: $20 round trip on JetBlue. My answer? Of course I want to go! I've always wanted to visit Austin, and the price is unbelievably right.

Well, I can't go because of a bunch of other commitments, but believe me, I am tempted. I wondered if I could take a rain check, so I decided to do some googling on this amazing deal. I found out that the promotion, part of JetBlue's anniversary sale, applies to certain flights this Tuesday and Wednesday only. Just for kicks, I looked up the emissions of a round trip flight from Oakland to Austin (2,987 miles) on TerraPass' emissions calculator. The damage: 1,108 pounds of CO2. For the same carbon price, you could eat 175 cheeseburgers. Or go see 73 really dazzling stadium rock shows. get my drift.

Far be it from me to complain about cheap airfares—I fly a lot, and I've grumbled about paying more for last minute flights than I want to. But I've also been deterred by high fares, and considering the high carbon cost of flying, that's probably a good thing. JetBlue professes to care about the environment. So why are they making it so easy (and tempting) to fly halfway across the country for dinner and a few drinks?

Frank Rich's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 10, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books, and over the next few weeks I'll be posting their answers right here on the Riff. Let's start with New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Frank Rich: Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, edited by Harold Hayes. Here in one brick of an anthology are some of the best pieces by the writers who brought American journalism and essay-writing into the modern age with great prose, narrative drive, hard-edged attitude as well as tireless reporting. Includes not only the enduring stars (Talese, Wolfe, Mailer, Baldwin, Lukas, Wills, Vidal, Wicker, Herr) but also some gems by the lesser known but equally gifted Jack Richardson and John Sack, among others. Collectively, the pieces also capture a much misunderstood, much sentimentalized decade as it unfolded. (Only conspicuous omissions—they weren't contributors to Esquire—Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson).

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good about it?

FR: Act One by Moss Hart. My favorite American memoir—about the early years and apprenticeship of the Broadway playwright and director. It's at once a suspenseful Horatio Alger story, a vivid evocation of 1920's New York (from the poorest immigrant tenements uptown to the glittery heights of golden-age Times Square) and a timeless account of how a young man with few resources but a passion for art employs every ounce of his being to escape a childhood blighted by poverty and bitter family dynamics.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when you were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

FR: Act One (see above), and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Both recommended by my mother, an avid reader and schoolteacher. To wait ravenously for the mailman to deliver Capote's then-shocking "nonfiction novel" week by week as it was serialized in The New Yorker was a seminal reading experience—a glimmer, I imagine, of what it must have been like to devour Dickens in installments in another age.

Post Spill, Is Wild Shrimp Still Better Than Farmed?

| Mon May 10, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A few months back, Cactus, one of my favorite local burrito places, announced that from now on, it would begin serving sustainably caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. I was impressed that this scrappy little taqueria had resisted the temptation of ridiculously cheap imported shrimp: 90 percent of all shrimp consumed in the US comes from notoriously ecologically disastrous farms in Asia. (Red Lobster Festival of Shrimp, I'm looking at you.) But last week I noticed a new sign up: Cactus' shrimp supplier was reassuring customers that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hadn't affected the shrimp, that so far they were perfectly safe to eat. I was skeptical: Oil is nasty stuff. Which got me wondering: For the time being, wouldn't it be safer to stay away from Gulf shrimp, at least until the spill is under control?

Not yet, says Micahel Massimi, a scientist at Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. "So far, we’re looking at fairly significant fishing closures but still plenty of coastal estuary and good shrimping to the west of the spill." Right now, only 23 percent of the Gulf shrimping waters are closed because of the spill. That could change with winds or currents, but the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife (LDFW) has announced the spring shrimp season will officially start today in most open areas, and at the end of the month in others. (It's too early to say yet how the oil spill will affect the second shrimp season, which typically lasts from August through December.) 

But oil moves, and so do shrimp. So is there any chance that oil-contaminated shrimp could make it to your local fishmonger (or my taqueria)? It's extremely unlikely, since all US seafood is subject to fairly rigorous inspections by food scientists before it can be sold. Martin Reed is the founder of the online sustainable seafood supplier I Love Blue Sea. "Most people who eat shrimp—they don't know it's coming from a farm abroad where they pump them full of antibiotics," says Reed. "I'd be much more worried about that than eating anything out of the Gulf." (More on imported farmed shrimp below.)

So for now wild Gulf shrimp is still the better choice, but it doesn't come cheap: It's already more expensive than farmed shrimp, and the spill will only drive the price up, likely by about 20 percent says Lance Nacio, a third generation Gulf coast shrimper. Aside from closures, another major reason for the price spike is a shortage of labor: Many Gulf fishermen and shrimpers have been hired by a BP subcontractor to help clean up the spill. "But the biggest thing now is actually stopping the leak," says Nacio. "Until they stop it, who knows how much we'll have to deal with."

A quick guide to some of the varieties of shrimp you might encounter on a menu:


Oil Spill Questions? Ask PBS' Need to Know

| Thu May 6, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

PBS' new weekly TV news magazine and website Need To Know is taking your oil spill questions, which reporters will answer during the show's premiere this Friday, May 7. We here at Mother Jones are especially excited about the premiere, since Need To Know is a co-collaborator over at The Climate Desk. In addition to environmental coverage, the show and site will focus on the economy, health, security, and culture. The tone? Not quite The Daily Show, but considerably more irreverent than the Bill Moyers news programs it's replacing: The New York Times reports that co-hosts Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham may occasionally indulge in some banter, and comedian Andy Borowitz will close each program with a segment called "Next Week's News." Promises Borowitz:

Now, before you start comparing me to Andy Rooney, I should say that I will not be behind a desk, nor will I spend the entire segment talking about my stapler.


Submit your oil spill questions here, and look up local air times this Friday here. Then check out the rest of Need To Know's site, which currently features stories on the history of the birth control pill, Bollywood's first gay kiss, and El Paso teens dealing with drug violence, among other topics.

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