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.

December 31, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My lovely holiday book tree.
When I started 2013, I made a resolution to read 100 books this year, and let's just say mission accomplished. As you can see from my Pinterest board here, I've read 114. That's more than I thought I would read, to be honest.
What really helped me reach the goal was all of the air travel I started in June - there's a lot to be said for a Kindle and some flight delays. 
But what you may have noticed is that something else took a back seat. I had so much fun reading everything I could get my hands on that I had less and less time to write about it. For those who want to see what I thought about every book I read this year, I have been providing mini-reviews on that Pinterest board. 
So my resolution for 2014 will be to read less (maybe) and blog more (definitely). I like to write as much as I like to read, so I'll try to balance the scales a bit in the new year.
Meanwhile, since it's traditional on this infamous Eve, let's rewind a bit and look back at my favorite books from 2013 (listed in no particular order). This was tough because I read a lot of great books this year - but I got each genre down to the top five picks, except for fiction. There were just too many good books in the fiction category this year. And that isn't a bad thing.
Can't wait to see what 2014 brings me to read.
Happy New Year!

Top 5 in Biographies

Heir Apparent, by Jane Ridley. It can be hard to find something new and fresh to say about a life lived very much in the public eye, but this book about Edward VII hits the mark with a very engaging read.
Queen of the Air, by Dean Jensen. The story of how Leitzel (just one name, please) became the biggest star ever for the Ringling Bros. is look behind the curtains of the famous circus, with a diminutive but daring star at its center.
Mo' Meta Blues, by Questlove. If you're a fan of The Roots (and you'd better be), you know that Questlove is the heart and soul of the group, and in this book he takes a trip down memory lane, providing us with a playlist of memories along the way.
After Visiting Friends, by Michael Hainey. This real-life mystery shines a light on the world of hard-core news reporters, on a young widow trying to cope after the death of a husband, and on a young man who needs to find the truth about his father.
Fever, by Mary Beth Keane. Okay, this is a fictionalized account of the real-life Typhoid Mary, but Keane did her research, using news reports and medical records to breathe life into Mary, the first person identified as a healthy carrier of the dangerous fever. Couldn't put it down.

Top 5 (7) in Fiction 

Tilted World, by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. Last year, Franklin's Crooked Letter Crooked Letter was my #1 fave. This book is a close second, with a compelling drama of a bootlegger, a revenuer, and the 1927 Mississippi flood.
Lexicon, by Max Barry. An absolutely unique story about a group with the ability to use words to control and persuade others to do their bidding. In this fabulous and complex book, words do hurt.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, by Elizabeth L. Silver. On death row for murder, a young woman is visited by the mother of her victim. The mother will fight to halt the death sentence if Noa will just tell her story, something she's refused to do before. Did Noa commit that murder it, or didn't she? Ah, that's just the point.
The Cleaner of Chartres, by Salley Vickers. This is a quiet and lovely story of a young woman who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and weaves herself into the very fabric of a small town. I read it straight through in one night.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Harold Fry was just an ordinary Englishman, simply putting one foot in front of the other, but not really living. And then he received a letter from a long-lost friend and his life took a detour. This is probably the book that touched me the most all year.
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson. Of all the much-lauded and award-nominated books this year, this was my favorite. Pak Jun Do is the "son" from the title, who grew up in a North Korean orphanage run by his father. The book paints a vivid picture of a secretive, brutal, and self-destructive country, and a man determined to survive it.
Joyland, by Stephen King. This gentle (and fantastic) ghost story is so well written and wistful - and it was another that I read in one sitting. It's a nostalgic tale of a young man who finds a summer job in 1973 at a possibly-haunted amusement park.

Top 5 in Mysteries

Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Gailbraith J.K. Rowling. Forget all the hoopla about Rowling writing under a pseudonym and just read this great mystery. It will remind you that Rowling deserved the writing accolades for the Potter series - it's that good.
Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus. This modern-day mystery has a tinge of the fairy tale about it, and not just because of the title. It centers on a man wrongly convicted of murder and a twisted village full of malice.
Defending Jacob, by William Landy. Everything unravels when a man's son is arrested for murder. Like any parent protecting his child, the father is determined to find the true killer, but that isn't as simple as he believes. Watch out for a mega-mind-twist.
Round House, by Louise Erdrich. I've recommended this book to about everyone I know. It's a tough tale about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is brutally attacked on their reservation, so he and his friends make it their mission to find the man who did it.
Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina. This woman cannot write fast enough for me. I inhale each of her books, featuring a feisty female Detective Sergeant in Glasgow, this time investigating a murder, robbery, and political intrigue.

Top 5 in Nonfiction

This Town, by Mark Leibovich. This Town opens with Tim Russert's funeral, a crass and crazy event for Washington insiders. After the first few pages, you'll find yourself as agog as Dorothy was when the curtain pulled back to reveal the true Oz. You think you know how bad Washington is, but you have no idea.
Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright. A well-written, well-researched, and endlessly fascinating look inside the world of Scientology. How bad can a religion be that's founded by a man who is at turns a bully, a misogynist, a dreamer, and a fantasist? Pretty bad.
The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel. Behind every great man...is an astrowife. The Mercury Seven astronauts were feted and lauded, as their wives took care of things back on Earth. But they also found themselves in a spotlight they didn't ask for and their marriages played out for the whole world, for better and for worse.
Asylum, by Simon Doonan. Is there anything better than a dishy look behind the scenes? Oh yes there is, particularly when the "scene" is the fashion world, and when our guide is the ever-cheeky Mr. Doonan. Crazy indeed.
Londoners, by Craig Taylor. Yes, I am an Anglophile. I admit it. But this is not your ordinary Brit Lit - it was a five-year project that gathered interviews with Londoners (and lovers of London) of all ages and from all backgrounds. Fascinating.

Top 5 Popcorn Books

Note: I define "popcorn books" as those that are fast and not-so-filling reads. They must feature good writing, and they must be FUN.
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. The dating/mating world is confusing enough for "normal" people, but it's hilariously hazardous for socially awkward and super-genius-level geneticists.
Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine. A funny and sweet story of love, loss, and learning the true definition of a family.
The Hive, by Gill Hornby. In every hive, there is always a Queen Bee. This book brings the buzz, with plenty of stings and honey from a group of competitive moms.
Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. This is a Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous for the eastern side of the planet, with an inside look at how the super-wealthy of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai spend all that cash.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. An amusing tale about a mom who has trouble fitting into her life in Seattle. When she disappears, her young daughter learns more than she bargained for about her fabulously complicated mom.

September 30, 2013

Seeing Double

When I was in wearing my editor hat, there was one writer who drove me crazy. He double-spaced every single sentence he wrote, no matter how many times I pointed out that it was incorrect.
I spent many many hours using find/replace to rid myself of all that extra space.
Any style guide used by a writer, journalist, or editor points out that a single space between sentences is the correct (and only) way to separate them.
So why do so many people not only use that double space, but also insist on it being correct? Slate has come to my rescue with a well-researched answer. The short version is that it's the old-fashioned typewriter's fault. You can read the article here.
We haven't used typewriters (or their old-school type) for years, so I wish that all you high-tech computer users would stop being so spacey.

September 27, 2013

Getting Graphic

I am a huge fan of infographics, those fabulous visual maps that break down facts, figures, and info into colorful blocks. They are kind of like board games for information.
Random House has a great new infographic for its books coming out this fall, called "What Do You Feel Like Reading?" You can find it by clicking here.
You can decide that you want to read something mysterious, and then decide if that mystery should also include ghosts, an inspector, or perhaps a serial killer. The whole thing is designed to match you with the perfect fall read.
And now I need to go add most of those books to my list of what I have to read this fall.

September 25, 2013

Your Government at Work

I'm not including a recipe with this book review, because after reading it I experienced a strange combo of nausea and heartburn. Not because of the writing, of course, just the topic. It's bad enough just watching our government at work from afar (cue ridiculous filibuster news), but this behind-the-scenes look is all you imagined it could be. And more.
This Town starts with the sad event of Tim Russert's funeral. It was a time for reflection, for moments of silence ... and for Pan Cake makeup and jockeying for position.
Russert's funeral is a crass, crazy event for Washington insiders, but actually nothing different from every other interaction between the two parties and various hangers-on. And, after the first few pages, you find yourself as agog as Dorothy was when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the true Oz. Author Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, is our guide and, thanks to his inside-yet-outside post in D.C., he has a great view of the hive of activity behind the curtain. In fact, he reminded me of a Dominick Dunne for politicos, dishing the dirt while occasionally getting a bit on himself.
I find it fascinating that Leibovich can dish and still get access later for articles and exclusives. But that's part of the game – when those in the spotlight say they don't want to be mentioned, but are devastated when they really aren't.
Pollsters, politicians, pundits, and press all get the same straight-shooter treatment in This Town – and Leibovich doesn't spare himself. He recognizes the absurdity of skewering the very group that he is a part of.
Here are a few examples of the searingly funny insights:
Describing Sen. Harry Reid: "Entrusted with a Senate supermajority and endowed with all the magnetism of a dried snail." A persnickety straight shooter who can't bring himself to employ social graces like saying goodbye on the phone. When he's done, he's done.
Former Sen. Trent Lott is described as a creature of habit who likes things just so, including "his luscious helmet of senatorial hair." That paints a picture for you, right?
And then there is the insider-speak of the Congress, which includes the phrase "my friend," as the "formal bullshit of the Senate." And the word "cordial," which is used as "the bare minimum salute and Washington dog whistle for obvious hatred."
It's funny how all of this bluster and blather seems so critical on the scene and in the hothouse that is D.C., but outside the Beltway is often laughable. Except when you realize that they are playing with our money and with our futures. Not so funny at that point.
The media is all part and parcel of the game, often participating with almost too much enthusiasm. "Founding father" Tom Brokaw nailed it when he "bemoaned what the political-media culture had become. Americans, he said, had come to view the political system as a 'closed game.' In addition, the media is now less concerned with being in tune with America than they are with promoting their own brands and worshipping celebrities. 'It's all Look at Me, Look at Me, Look at Me,' he said." Yep.
This Town also offers revealing coverage of the 2008 and 2012 elections, describing an aloof President (or candidate) Obama and his "not us" crowd who get dragged into the political fray whether they want to or not.
As the saying goes, politics make for strange bedfellows, like the sometimes sticky relationships between POTUS and VPOTUS: "While Obama had come to like Biden, he often talked about him with a patronizing over fondness – as if the VP were the beloved family dog that kept peeing on the carpet."
But the old dog can bite back too, saying that "the minute you agree to be someone's running mate, you get your balls cut off."
On the bus during the campaigns, Leibovich says that Romney's eventual running mate Paul Ryan was a "bold pick they had assumed the cautious Romney would never make." Ryan was known as a "man of substance" who wore the "Halo of the Wonk." After all, he had actually studied the federal budget, which you'll be happy to know most politicians in Washington never do.
And Romney seemed "to acquire an instant lightness after his Ryan selection -- like a shy eight-year-old transformed by a new pet turtle." It's sentences like that one that made me a fan of Leibovich's writing.
As we all know, the bruising fights between the Romney-bots and Obamites got really ugly really fast. Politicians themselves said they hated what it had all become, with supporters pumping billions into political campaigns while the net worth of American families dropped to a median of $77,300, about where it was in 1990.
In reality, though, Leibovich says, "This Town loved the trickle-down payday of it all. Millions more paid to the ad makers, 'strategists,' and networks."
The insanity of the build-up to an election can be all-pervasive and seem never-ending, and then it can oh-so-quickly vanish: "The Romney campaign had filed permits to celebrate Mitten's big victory with an eight-minute fireworks display over Boston Harbor." But within minutes of POTUS winning a second term, Mitt Romney's "Secret Service detail vanished like unused fireworks."
After the scrum of months (years, really), everyone walked away feeling a little dirty.
But even with the election hangover, it just took a few aspirin and some time apart before the whole machine started kicking in again. After all: "The only certainty is that the city fathers of This Town will endure like perennials in a well-tended cemetery."
Hillary in 2016, anyone?

September 23, 2013

American Writers Museum

What do China, Germany, Korea, Scotland, Brazil, and Ireland have that the U.S. does not have? A national writers museum. Although the U.S. has over 17,000 museums, there isn't a single one dedicated to the plethora of fabulous authors this country has produced. Yes, there are small museums that showcase a single writer, usually in his or her former home, but there isn't a national institution that celebrates all writers.
A new foundation is working to right that wrong, hoping to launch the American Writers Museum in Chicago in 2015. In the plans are core exhibits that will highlight the history of American literature in chronological order.
Other planned exhibits include Nobel Laureates, Great Characters in American Literature, Poetry of Revolution, Rare Books, Children's Literature, and Censorship: Banned Books. There will also be a Hall of Honor for major award winners, as well as art and photography exhibits to celebrate cover art.
I'm making a donation to be a Chapter One Patron. If you love books, consider supporting this amazing museum by clicking here.