Making a List, Checking It Twice

Yes, I've been gone. I made it through yet another market (my day job for those not in the know). That would be roughly 12 days consisting of 18 hours of craziness work.
In my over-organized way, I did plan a vacation at the end of this week. And now comes another tough job – I have to decide what books go with me.
This is no small task. My biggest fear is running out of something to read in a country where it is a bit more difficult to buy English-language books.
Now that I have a Nook, that isn't what I worry about. It is now much more about what books to load onto the tablet.
At this point, I have five in fiction, three in biography, four in non-fiction, four mysteries, and I even have eight "classics." Hey, those were free so don't judge.
But do I have enough? Maybe I'm too light on the mysteries – arguably my favorite genre. I do think I need one or two more.
You can laugh, but I've been known to read two to three books on long-haul flights. That's six books for a round trip. And sometimes you have to be in the right mood for a certain book, so having plenty of choice is a must.
I won't read anything about my destination, I've already been there and done that, so to speak. Half the fun of any trip is the planning. I do have to admit to odd research for this trip, including a lot of fiction. But I'll regale you with that while I'm gone.
Meanwhile, I think I need to hit again...

How to Write a Hit

It's the frustration of many writers: Good books go overlooked while mediocre ones become huge hits. What's the secret?
According to the new book Hit Lit by James Hall, you just have to go for the emotional hot buttons of race, sex, or politics. And if you can include all three, even better.
He offers 12 main characteristics of runaway bestsellers like having a main character who is an outsider, but who is relatable. Or you could include a secret organization that's plotting against the world.
But what about good writing? Well, that's not always necessary. A good example would be The Da Vinci Code, which had a compelling story, but some of the most cliche-ridden writing I've ever read.
So if you want to be the next Dan Brown (and who doesn't), start working on this formula today. If you'd rather be a good writer, don't quit your day job.

Pulitzer to Fiction World: You Stink

For the first time in 35 years, there is no winner in the Fiction category for the Pulitzer Prizes. That despite the fact that three fine books were nominated: Train Dreams, Swamplandia!, and The Pale King.
But evidently those three books were not that great. Or at least that's my take-away from the announcement.
The judges are in for a PR-storm of mighty proportions. Even the three jurors who proposed the nominated books seemed mystified by the decision, or lack of decision. Juror Susan Larson, from The Times-Picayune, has said that she was incredibly disappointed that the judges could not come to a consensus for a winner.
She and the other 3 jurors went through 300 books to come up with their shortlist, or as she called it "the most intense book club ever." Larson was not a happy camper this morning on NPR as she said that this was a blow for fiction writers. However, trying to put a good spin on it, Larson said maybe now people will buy all three nominated books.
This isn't the first time that the nominees have been snubbed. In 1977, judges said the nominees just weren't worthy of the prize. Ouch. In 1984, the overall Pulitzer committee reversed the judges' decision and awarded the prize to a different book than the one selected. That must have been nice for the first-choice book.
And in 1941, no prize was awarded, despite the fact that For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated.
People can be wrong, and we all know that taste is very subjective. One person's Pride and Prejudice is another person's Ulysses. However, I think the lack of an award in Fiction hurts the publishing business at a time when it needs it least. There are too many fabulous writers out there that are not receiving much-deserved recognition.
Speaking of recognition, The Tuscaloosa News received a Pulitzer for its coverage of the tornadoes last year, The Huffington Post took the top prize for its amazing online reporting on soldiers returning from war, and The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., garnered the top award for its coverage of the Penn State scandal. As a former journalist, I love to see news outlets get the attention they deserve for serious reporting. That doesn't come for free, either, Mr. Internet.
For the full list of Pulitzers, click here.

Everything Old Is New Again

The Guardian and The Millions both recently wrote about the books we love to reread (click here for the piece on The Millions). I have several series of books that will pull me back in every few years or so. It's as if I'm seeing old friends after a long absence.
I don't think I could go so far as to read the same book at the same time every year, but some books just deserve that revisiting.
I started to reread Colleen McCullough's Rome series in anticipation of my trip in May. She has spun magic out of a dry history, bringing to life some of the greatest names in ancient Rome - Pompey, Cicero, Sulla, Marius, Spartacus, and of course, Caesar.
She also does an amazing job of mapping the streets, describing a soldier's life, and detailing the making of laws and governments in a way that keeps you engrossed and turning pages. That's quite a task.
If you haven't read the series, start with The First Man in Rome. I just finished "hanging out" with my favorite bad dictator Sulla in Fortune's Favorites and I'm about to watch the triumvirate between Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus disintegrate into civil war in The October Horse.
What are your favorite old friends in the book world?

All Grown Up

Quick on the heels of the news that the Harry Potter series is available in e-book format (finally), was the announcement about the fall release date for J.K. Rowling's first "grown up" novel, The Casual Vacancy.
In some of the news reports I've seen, there was a consistent and unfortunate theme that questioned whether Rowling can find success outside of the youth category.
What an offensive suggestion.
First, does that mean that because a person is an author of books aimed at children or teens that they are not a "real" writer? I believe that the Harry Potter books were popular with people from ages 8 to 80. And some of the most lyrical and inventive writing I've ever encountered was in the youth genre.
Second, there seems to be an underlying idea that the Harry Potter phenomenon was a one-off deal. Well, as long as you forget that there were seven wildly popular books, eight movies, two theme parks, and one very smart woman who kept control of the entire brand.
The Harry Potter books were a hit because they were well-written and offered well-developed characters that the reader could believe in. How is that different from any other good book, no matter what the genre?
I liked Rowling's writing because it was smart and funny. I liked her books because they offered engrossing stories that pulled me in within the first few pages, and then kept delivering right to the end.
That is why I'm looking forward to her new book in September. She is a good writer. Period.

Food Protest

Dear Garden & Gun,
Beignets? REALLY?
Don't get me wrong, I am the first to admit that the word "fried" and the word "sugar" are very popular in the Southern cooking lexicon.
But I think it is big stretch to say that beignets are the Ultimate Southern Food. They are not.
They are a regional Southern food, I'll give you that. But go into any restaurant in Kentucky, Tennessee, or North Carolina and try to order them. No go.
Cornbread? Yep. Barbecue? Of course. And most of the other items on your bracket would be on any respected Southern menu.
I'm a big fan of beignets myself. I even voted for them in the regional part of your food bracket. But I also voted for Fried Chicken (which lost to Country Fried Steak), for Mac and Cheese (which lost to Cornbread), and for Shrimp & Grits (which lost to Hoppin' John).
Before you say I'm bitter (cause I'm not), let's just admit that at least those items that beat my votes are quintessentially Southern, no matter which region you live in.
I do question your voting system, though. And your title. If something is "Ultimate," then it better represent. By that I mean that you should be able to walk into any Southern watering hole and say: "Hey, ya'll! What's a beignet?" and get a good answer.
You know and I know that it's just a fancy doughnut, but even doughnuts aren't super-Southern unless they have Krispy Kreme stamped on their box (look it up - they are based in N.C.).
No, you can't please everyone all the time. But I suspect your chart topper won't please anyone most of the time.
A Disgruntled Southerner

Chocolate Pieces

If you're still in a sugar coma from biting the heads off chocolate bunnies, here are a few pieces to keep you in that happy choco-mood.

by Michael D'Antonio
That old adage that ends with "try, try again," must have been written with Milton Hershey in mind. The eccentric businessman failed with his confectionery companies so often that his friends thought about having him committed when he suggested a huge new factory in the middle of nowhere. Like Willie Wonka, Hershey dreamed of bringing affordable chocolate to the masses, and to providing a Utopia for his workers. But soon after he opened his company in Hershey, Pa., in 1903, Milton Hershey found huge success. He never lost sight of his plan to give back, though, eventually starting a trust for children that today is valued close to $8 billion. Now that's sweet.
This is a fascinating tale of a man with big dreams and a big heart, who triumphed over failure and tragedy to build an empire.

Chocolate Wars
by Deborah Cadbury
Recognize the author's name? Yes, she is one of "those" Cadburys, a descendant of the famous chocolate makers.
In this engrossing book, she describes the history of Cadbury, founded by a family of Quakers who were determined that their company would reflect their social beliefs, particularly in fighting poverty and ending slavery. Chocolate obviously makes people do good things.
She also looks at the 150-year rivalry between the world's major candy companies – Cadbury, Hershey, Nestle, Mars – a not-so-sweet fight to the top of Big Rock Candy Mountain. Interesting note – a non-candy company won.

Sweet Tooth
by Kate Hopkins
This book, to be released this May, promises to fill my craving for sweet stuff. Combating a mid-life crisis, author Kate Hopkins embarks on a journey to recapture her sweet youth. Along the way, she walks the reader through the history of confectionery, from its roots as medicine to the dark world of sugar plantations and slavery.
She also offers fun facts about candy, her candid assessment of today's offerings, and the bittersweet idea that big business is quashing smaller confectioneries today.

Books vs TV

I'm working on a guest post for my friend Tobi Fairley's blog, so I'm going to take the easy way out today and leave you with this survey from my local Starbucks, with a photo I took this morning.
I know how I would vote.
Here's wishing you a terrific holiday weekend full of uninterrupted reading!

Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Photo from Apartment Therapy/Ernest Hemingway Museum
My best writing ideas often hit me when I am just on the edge of sleep. Some claim that's when your subconscious is most "open," allowing ideas to flow.
For that reason, I keep a pen and paper right beside my bed. And then I spend hours the next day trying to decipher my handwriting since I often write my thoughts down in the dark.
It seems I'm not the only one whose muse strikes at night. Apartment Therapy recently featured a great piece on the bedrooms of noted authors, with most including a writing desk very near their beds.
The 15 rooms also reflect the writer's personality - like Victor Hugo's dramatic red room, Henry David Thoreau's spartan space, or Proust's overstuffed lair.
There are a couple with desks practically in the beds, which leads me to believe that those writers either didn't sleep well or were very "still" sleepers.
The only room on the list that I've seen myself was Ernest Hemingway's room in Key West. It's a lovely, airy space that unfortunately smells like a whole lot of cat. Not very inspiring. But he did have an office in an outbuilding that was a bit less feline scented.
I think I'll keep my bedroom as it is, and do the bulk of my writing in my office space. That way, I should be able to read what I've written.

Cereal Killer

In the '70s (yes, I'm dating myself), I remember watching Zoom on TV while eating my Zoom hot cereal. That was the one cereal my mom didn't mind giving us because it was nutritional, without all that added sugar.
But what I really wanted was Cap'n Crunch. I used to dream about that super-sweet crunchy stuff, hoping my mom would bring home a box. I'd even have settled for Sugar Pops, Trix, or Cocoa Puffs. Rice Krispies and Cheerios were about as "crazy" as my mom would go, though. And we ate a lot of Grape Nuts.
Little did I know that Grape Nuts have been around for 130+ years (although when I was a kid, I would have said they tasted like they've been around that long).
The Great American Cereal Book gives us the history of the oh-so-American breakfast food. This fabulous (and hilarious) book covers the gamut, from the heyday of Kellogg's flakes that were supposed to cure any ill, all the way up to the days when cereal boxes were full of prizes and manufacturers proudly boasted about the sugar content right on the front. Example? Honey Smacks used to be called Sugar Smacks, as in "wait one hour and the sugar rush will smack you in the head."
Each cereal is listed in order of when it was "First Poured," and there are fun headings for each one, like "What's In It For You," "Notable Spokescharacters," "Slogans," and "All in the Family," which lists spin-off brands.
There are some interesting nuggets of info here, too, including the surprising fact that cereal is the number-two seller in grocery stores.
So if you think cereal is "GRRRRRR-EAT!" pick up The Great American Cereal Book. And now I am off to get some Cap'n Crunch. For dinner. Don't judge me.

Write On, Brother

I have a friend – let's call her Julie – who likes to scribble notes to herself in the margins of books. Sometimes they are comments about the author ("stupid point") or maybe it's something she wants to remember ("love this").
It drives me crazy. I don't like to borrow books from her because, rather than reading the book, I get distracted by her notes. I find myself thinking, "Why did she write that?" or "What does that say???"
Now I think that Julie might be on to something, thanks to an article on Brain Pickings.
It seems that the medieval monks who spent hours, days, and weeks producing beautiful illuminated texts had the same compulsion to write in the margins. But they used it as a forum for protest and complaint. Who knew?
It also appears that they loved their jobs just as much as we do today. Here are a few samples of the notes found:
"Oh, my hand."
"I am very cold."
"New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more."
And my personal favorite:
"Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink."
Amen, brother.
So I guess I'll have to tell Julie that maybe her margin writing will be beloved by future readers.
Just not by me.