September 9, 2014

The Fall of Man

Fall is the time of Man - the Man Booker Prize, that is. Today the famed literary award panel announces its short list for the coveted prize, and that in turn means that I have a lot of reading to do.
This is one of my two favorite book award programs - the other is the Dagger Awards, presented by the Crime Writers Association. Oddly, although the Man Booker is a British award, I find it to be less stuffy and highbrow than the U.S. awards, like the National Book Award. Or maybe it's just my Anglophilia showing.
All I know is that I always love the Man Booker selections, whether they win or not, and I quite often completely agree with the award winner. This year will be especially interesting since it's the first time that the Man Booker group has expanded its rules, allowing all books originally printed in English to be nominated, no matter the nationality of the author. Take that, National Book Award.
So here is the short list of nominees this year. I'll let you know soon which one I believe should take the top prize. And if you're going to read along, get cracking! The prize will be awarded on Oct. 14.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris (US)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (Australia)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (US)
J, by Howard Jacobson (UK)
The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee (UK)
How to Be Both, by Ali Smith (UK)

September 5, 2014

Life-Enhancing Technology

Leave it to the Swedes to deliver "life-enhancing technology" with the droll/dry wit they are known for. Ikea has rolled out its 2015 catalog in a format that is so simple and intuitive that it "feels instantly familiar." What is this amazing device? They are calling it a bookbook. (And yes, that name is trademarked.)
In a very tongue-in-cheek video (see below), Ikea says its bookbook comes fully charged with a battery life that is "eternal." Think of it! No cord required. Wow.
Not only that, but the device offers tactile navigation with "pre-installed" content that loads instantly. Shazam.
I gotta get me one of those bookbooks. I just hope there isn't a long line at the store on launch day...

September 4, 2014

That Thing on Facebook

There are so many quizzes, questionnaires, and tags on Facebook that it can be practically impossible to get anything done. I get pulled in just like everyone else - which means I now know that I should be living in England, that I'm darn good at history and science (15 out of 15!), that if I was a cheese I would be Provolone, and that if I was a Disney princess I would be Mulan. Duh.
But the new fad that's going around made me stop and really think (instead of mindlessly clicking on green when asked my favorite color). When tagged by a friend, you're supposed to name the 10 books that "most impacted your life." Note that it doesn't ask for your 10 favorite books, or the 10 books you couldn't put down. It's hard for me to narrow any book list down to just 10, but this one was especially difficult.
Since it was already a fairly long post when I finished listing the titles and authors on Facebook, I didn't take the time to explain why and how each of the books impacted me, so I thought I would do that here. As you can see, many of these I have already reviewed or referenced on this blog - just follow the links for more.
And now consider yourself tagged - which 10 books most impacted YOU?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This book was completely mind-blowing for me. The symbolism was rich and intense and the writing was different from anything else I had ever read. If I could tell you the number of times that I think about Ellison's description of Optic White and the 10 drops of black...now that's an impact. And here I must thank my high school English teacher, Ms. T, who assigned this to the class that adores her to this day.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I know a lot of little girls may have dreamed of being Jo, but I tried to make it a reality. I created my own Pickwick Papers, developed plays for my sisters to showcase their talents, and set myself on a lifelong writing path in the process.

Light in August by William Faulkner
I went through a full summer of Faulkner as a teen, and this book is the one that started the whole thing. It appealed to my sense of being a misfit (weren't we all) and it was thrillingly full of Southern Gothic themes of race, sex, class, and religion. It made me question everything I thought I believed.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Like Light in August, this book came along at the right time in my life. With its gentle protagonist and his simple-but-not idea to change the world, this book reminded me that life isn't always about the destination, but the road you travel.

Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
This huge chunk of writing transformed me into the Anglophile I am today, covering pre-history to modern day at the magical English site. It was also the first book in the sweeping-historical-saga genre that I actually appreciated, er, loved and obsessed over. One of the highlights of my life was re-reading Sarum while staying one mile away in lovely Wiltshire.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I am a huge fan of YA fiction and of Neil Gaiman, and this is my favorite of his books. It is charming, witty, and unique, and it made me appreciate the category all over again.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Where to begin? It is set during a favorite historical time period, it is set in one of my favorite countries, and it is a completely different take on a story that I thought had been told in every way possible. But that isn't what impacted me - no, that was Mantel's writing, which is straightforward, gripping, and worth every award she received. I could not put this down.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
There are two books that I consistently give as gifts. One is Peter Mayle's A Dog's Life, because it's so funny and everyone needs a good laugh. This is the second one - and I press it into people's hands with a determined "You have to read this." A completely different take on race, crime, and Southern literature, it really is that good.

With No One as Witness by Elizabeth George
There is no one in the same class as George when it comes to writing characters, and her Lynley-and-Havers duo ranks among my favorites in all of literature (yes, I do mean that). There are 19 books in the series at this point, and I selected this one as having the most impact on me because it is one of maybe three times in my life that I gasped out loud at a book's plot twist. Incredible.

First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough
Historical fiction is a tough genre - veer too close to the history side and it's boring, swerve over into the fiction lane and it's too fluffy. McCullough finds the perfect middle ground in her Masters of Rome series with meticulous research combined with her imaginings of the real men and women behind the myths. She even includes her own sketches of the historical players - and they're quite good. There are three historical time periods that I'm nuts about, and that can be attributed to three books. This is the one that dragged me into ancient Rome, and I've never left. In case you're curious about the other two points in history: Ancient Egypt and Tudor England.

Of course, once I saw everyone else's lists, I wanted to add more books to my list. So here are some honorable mentions: To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride & Prejudice (Austen's sarcasm obviously had an impact), Pillars of the Earth, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Handmaid's Tale, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


September 2, 2014

Bookmarks Goes Big for Its 10th

My favorite local book festival, Bookmarks, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a BIG lineup of authors and a new location.
The free festival is the largest of its kind in North Carolina, and it takes place on Sept. 6 at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts and Spruce Street in downtown Winston-Salem. The headline speaker this year, James Patterson, will speak at Reynolds Auditorium on Sept. 4 to kick things off.
I have to confess I'm not a Patterson fan, but I am definitely looking forward to the full day of festivities on the 6th, featuring authors like Rita Mae Brown, Frances Mayes, James McBride, Scott Berg, and J.A. Jance.
There are also booths full of books at the festival, naturally, including little-known and brand new authors trying to get a foothold in the book world. I always find a hidden gem or two.
If you're in the area and want to go, just click here to learn more.
And if you're having a hard time getting back to work after the long holiday weekend, let me just link you through to a list of David Bowie's 75 favorite books as a distraction. You're welcome.

August 29, 2014

Summer Love: Sally's Baking Addiction

As an award-winning baker myself (hey, it was 3rd place for cupcakes at the Dixie Classic Fair so it totally counts), I am very picky when it comes to baked goods. The best recipes need to strike that balance between being delicious and not too time consuming.
So a few years ago, I found the best blog ever for fabulous recipes that fit my impatient time limit. Thank the chocolate gods for Sally's Baking Addiction - and if you don't know this blog, click over there right now.
"Sally" is Sally McKenney, a woman who has the patience to try try and try again until she finds the perfect set of ingredients for the very best cakes, pies, and cookies. That is a true talent. I love to bake, but I'm one of those "just throw it in there and see what comes out" kind of girls. Sometimes that works, and sometimes that doesn't.
Every single thing I ever made from Sally's blog popped out of the oven just as perfect as she said it would be. And the cupcake recipes always make exactly 12. That happens to be a sticking point for me with other cupcake recipes, frankly. Yes, I realize that's weird. But obviously Sally shares that odd obsession.
I was thrilled this summer when I received a cookbook of the best recipes from her blog, called oddly enough Sally's Baking Addiction. And, as many of you know, I spent this summer baking my way through the cookbook.
I'm obsessed with cookbooks, and I enjoy baking, but I rarely want to try every single recipe I find in a single cookbook. This was the exception - I loved every recipe and wasn't disappointed with any of the processes or ingredients. Everything was fairly easy and straightforward. And I have a lot of happy friends, since I passed along most of what I made.
So head to her blog and search through the thousands of recipes, or give this book to the baker in your life. Meanwhile, scroll below through the photos of the sinful goods I made this summer!

Jumbo Blueberry Muffins

Chocolate Glazed Orange Macaroons (I did the glaze my own way)

Mint Chocolate Chip Brownies (sans the green food coloring)

Skinny Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Brown Sugar Marble Pound Cake (pre-bake, of course)

Sugared Lemon Bars

January 15, 2014

A Brown Study

I have a deep suspicion of two types of books. The first is the book that "everyone" says I should read. Those usually include Nicholas Sparks, Fifty Shades of Whatever, and Dan Brown. The second type of book is the one that critics applaud for "unique" and "existential" writing (or whatever intellectual word is hot at the moment). I'll give you my rant on the latter type in another post, but today let's focus on the first.
I understand (I suppose) the appeal of a populist concept or a formula that works. For example, I am a fan of Dick Francis, and his books are really all about the same thing. But he does it so well.
What I cannot forgive is crappy writing - and yes, I  am aware that I just wrote something "crappy" there myself.
Misspellings, repetition, lack of original descriptions, the inability to stay on topic - I hate that those failings are celebrated in books like Dan Brown's. I've always said that I will at least give him marks for coming up with (slightly) original ideas. They are obviously intriguing enough to get people talking. But let me be clear: He is one of the worst writers who ever sold a million books.
In The Da Vinci Code, I almost threw the book across the room when he wrote that a character had "merlot-colored hair." I barely made it through that book, and almost hurt myself trying to not scream at people who told me how fabulous it was.
What infuriates me is that there are so many fantastic writers out there that do not get their due, and instead we're all treated to a Today Show segment set up only to reveal the name of Brown's new book. Sigh.
So imagine my glee when I discovered that two writers had reviewed Brown's latest book by writing their snarky comments in the margins, and then posting it for the world to see. I know I've said before that I don't like to see books defaced, but if any book deserves it, it would be Brown's.
Showcased on TheMillions.com, the reviewers highlighted Brown's over-use of the same words, his terrible pacing and plotlines, and his inability to stop sprinkling ellipses all over the pages like crumbs. My favorite quote from one of the margin-scribblers: "He writes like an in-flight magazine." I have friends who actually do write for those in-flight magazines and a comparison to Brown is insulting...to them. (Hey, Brown, check out that use of an ellipsis.)
The reviewers now plan to send the book on to others, asking for more fun and to-the-point commentary. I plan to follow along with glee. Read what they have done so far here.
To those of you obsessed with Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, or that Fifty Shades chick, I promise you there are books out there that are just as engaging, but much better written. Please please find them. I offer my book reviews to you as a guide.
And to Mr. Brown: Hire yourself a good editor. There are plenty out there who are out of a job right now.

January 2, 2014

Make a Smarter Resolution

It's that time of year  the time when we all make those resolutions that usually fall out of favor by Jan. 25. I have a suggestion for a resolution that you will enjoying sticking to: Read more books.
Not only will you have fun reading, according to new research you will also improve your intelligence. Conducted by Emory University, the study showed that those who read a good novel showed measurable changes in brain function up to five days after finishing the book.
I've always thought that readers were smarter than others, and now we have proof. Read the Independent's coverage of the study here, and then get out there and start exercising your brain.
If you need suggestions, see my favorite selections from 2013 here.