Today the final National Book Award category longlist was announced. For the authors involved, that means it's time for nervous hand-wringing to commence. For readers, well, it's time to dig into those lists and start reading, dissecting the judges' motives and/or rooting for your favorite . . . which is exactly what we're doing at BookPage! Read on for the behind-the-scenes action.
I’m pulling for young, experimental poet Maureen N. McLane—third er, collection’s the charm, right? The New York University English professor blends lush natural imagery with pointed, contemporary syntax in This Blue. At once playful and profoundly sobering, these poems examine mankind’s history and our tendency to exploit and abuse the beauty of our earth. Now is the perfect time to dive in if you missed this fantastic collection during National Poetry Month.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
Looking at the NBA’s nonfiction longlist reminds me of the old “Sesame Street” song: One of these things is not like the others. Roz Chast’s hilarious and moving graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, stands out from a crowd of traditional narrative history and biography. Could Chast emerge as the winner? It seems highly unlikely, but I’m thrilled to see her deeply personal look at the perils of aging among this year’s contenders.
—Lynn Green, Editor
One farm. One family. One hundred years. Jane Smiley is taking on a seriously ambitious literary project with her Last Hundred Years trilogy, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the first novel, Some Luck, grabbed a spot on the NBA longlist this year. This installment takes us through the life of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953, and if the next two books are anywhere near as marvelously executed, then don’t be surprised if the critical praise and award nominations continue to flow her way.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
It might feel shocking to see John Darnielle, a man most famous for being the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on the NBA longlist for his first novel, Wolf in White Van. But when you consider the fact that his lyrics might as well be poetry or short stories, it's really not that surprising. Blame it on my love of the underdog, but I'm hoping for a win for this musician-turned-novelist.
I'm also rooting for Molly Antopol and her quietly beautiful collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, because, well, wow. She's under 35 and this is her debut work of fiction. I'm under 35 and I just googled "how to handwash stuff" so I find this immensely impressive.
—Lily McLemore, Assistant Editor
As the fiction editor at BookPage, I'm starting to have a visceral reaction to the descriptor "post-apocalyptic fiction." But Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with her fourth novel, a beautiful and deeply felt story that uses its dystopian setting to explore our very human need for shared culture, art and stories. Here's hoping this original and insightful work moves on to the shortlist.
—Trisha Ping, Managing Editor
It’s no surprise to see Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, on this list, and you’ll likely see it on several more award lists before the end of the year. Her accessible and poignant story shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s in a country “caught / between Black and White” and how writing helped her find her voice.
Also, is there any living writer who better captures the hilarity, messiness (sexual, social and emotional) and adventure of being a teenage boy than Andrew Smith? Not likely. Although I thought Grasshopper Jungle was the better of his two books that came out this year, 100 Sideways Miles is another winner—and it’s about time Smith was publicly and widely recognized for his talent.
—Cat Acree, Associate Editor
Neela Paniz, a Mumbai native and California restaurateur, brings the splendor of "regional curries, creamy dals topped with vibrant chutneys, vegetable sides and fragrant rice pulaos, biryanis and khichdi" to the American table in The New Indian Slow Cooker. Try this richly spiced recipe for Cornish Hens with Rum and Saffron and, after a little bit of prep, let your slow cooker do the hard work while you do something else.
CORNISH HENS WITH RUM AND SAFFRON
On my many visits to India, I have sat with various members of the family gathering ideas for creating different curries. My mother’s aunt told me that it was most important to add rum and saffron to a Sindhi-style meat curry, sel gosht, in which meat is cooked for long hours with aromatics and whole and ground spices until the pieces melt in the mouth. I have taken liberties with this recipe to create a flavorful but lighter stew using Cornish hens and the slow cooker.
This recipe is best in a 6-quart slow cooker. It can also be doubled for a larger number of guests or cut in half for just two or three people. If your cooker is oval in shape, it is best to place the Cornish hen pieces in a single layer after mixing with the spice mix. Otherwise, try to spread the pieces throughout the cooker bowl with enough spice mix between the pieces.
SERVES 6 TO 8
Before prepping the ingredients, turn the slow cooker on to the high setting for 15 minutes, until the insert is warmed through.
In a skillet, heat the oil over high heat, with a lid handy. Tilt the pan to pool the oil and carefully add the cumin seeds; cover immediately to avoid splattering. When the sputtering subsides, add the sliced onions and brown for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, cassia, cardamom, cloves and bay leaf to the browned onions and sauté for 1 minute before transferring to the slow cooker.
Set the skillet aside. In the bowl of the cooker, combine the sautéed onions with the ground coriander and cumin, turmeric, red chile, fresh and canned tomatoes, tomato juice, yogurt, salt, serrano chiles, rum and saffron. Mix well.
Use the saved skillet to sear the hen pieces in batches; place them in the slow cooker and turn them in the spice mix. Arrange them as uniformly as possible. Turn the cooker to low, cover and cook for 3 ½ hours. Turn the cooker to warm, and remove the cassia pieces, cardamom, cloves and bay leaf. Stir in the cilantro when ready to serve.
Spice Preparation 101
Some recipes will call for roasting whole spices and then grinding them. The simplest and most efficient way to do this is to use a dry skillet. Place the whole spices in the skillet and roast them over medium-high heat, shaking continuously to get an even browning. As the spices roast, they will send forth an intense aroma and, depending on the spices you are roasting, they will deepen in color—especially cumin and coriander seeds. Whole red chiles will tend to burn if you’re not careful; constant shaking of the skillet helps them roast evenly. As soon as they’re roasted, transfer the spices from the hot skillet to a flat plate, spread them out to cool, and set aside.
To grind spices, use either a mortar and pestle (for a small amount) or a spice grinder—usually a coffee grinder that is dedicated to grinding spices (never coffee). Always store unused ground spices in an airtight jar or container (see page 9) and use them as soon as you can.
Many recipes in Indian cooking call for adding whole spices, such as cassia sticks, whole cloves, and bay leaves to the dish while it’s cooking. These are for flavor but not consumption: remove them before serving the dish.
Cutting Up a Whole Chicken
Indians prefer chicken skinned but left on the bone for many dishes: Curries stew for a while, and the bones help keep the poultry moist. As most chickens in India are smaller than American ones, I often use Cornish hens for my curries; the instructions below work for these smaller birds, too.
To cut a whole chicken into six or eight pieces (two each of thighs and legs, and two breasts with or without wings attached), start by pressing the thigh backward away from the body to display the joint that connects the thigh to the body. Cut through the joint with a sharp knife; repeat on the other side. Then sever the legs from the thighs by cutting through the cartilage at the joints. Set these pieces aside.
Insert the tip of the knife through the cavity of the breast and backbone to find the space between the bones; slice through and pry the backbone away from the breast. Place the whole breast on the cutting board with the exposed bones away from you. Press down on the meat with your left hand, and slice the breast in half, exerting a little pressure on the wishbone. Now you should have two breast halves with the wings attached. If the breast halves are large, you can further cut them into two pieces each, providing for a more uniform size of all the chicken pieces. Cut off the end tip of each wing. You can either leave the wings on or sever them from the breast. (Many do not enjoy the wings; I, however, love them! I skin them and add them to all my chicken dishes.) Save the backbone, wing tips and wings (if not using), to make chicken stock; it is best to freeze them if not using within a day.
To remove the skin from the chicken, grip each piece using paper towels for traction and peel and cut the skin away from the meat. Dispose of the used paper towels and the skin.
Every month, we review the hottest new romance releases in our Romance column. But why let the print books have all the fun? In Digital Dalliances, we highlight digital-only releases guaranteed to heat up your eReader.
Sometimes, it feels like I've seen every romance novel plot imaginable. But I certainly have never run across the plot in Claudia Connor's debut, Worth the Fall, before! Abby is a doting mother to her four children, but her life was driven off track when her distant husband was killed in a plane crash six months ago. Oh, and she's pregnant with his child.
When Abby packs up the kids for a beach getaway, romance is the last thing on her mind. Which is why she's incredibly perplexed when Matt, a Navy SEAL, starts hanging out with her on the beach. And even more perplexed when she finds herself daydreaming about him. At first she thinks he's just being nice to an obviously stressed-out pregnant lady. But could this beachside flirtation lead to something serious? Connor has a knack for writing convincing guy-dialogue and manages to convey the complexities of dating with children, while also making quiet family moments somehow romantic.
Abby sat back, taking a break, letting Charlie drive his Matchbox car over her foot. Annie silently observed the group from where she made drippy castle a few feet away. Matt listened intently to Jack, their heads close together, as they discussed and planned the neighboring castle of bad guys. It dawned on her just how little time Jack had actually spent with his father.
There hadn't been any playing on the floor with blocks or trains, no working in the yard side by side, no guy time. Having his ideas and suggestions validated by Matt, someone he already looked up to, was priceless.
Worth the price of eventual disappointment? That was the question, wasn't it? Her answer had always been no.
Do you think you'll be picking up any romance novels on your eReader?
It's not uncommon for a mystery or thriller author to have a pretty cool backstory. I'm thinking former CIA agent Jason Matthews (author of Red Sparrow), former MI6 agent Matthew Dunn (whose upcoming thriller Dark Spies will be reviewed in the October issue of BookPage) and Stella Rimington, the first female chief of MI5—and that's just off the top of my head. So Patrick Hoffman's history as a former private investigator isn't all that exciting—that is, until I cracked his debut and discovered this guy's eye for detail.
Hoffman transforms San Francisco into a noir playground for all sorts of shady characters—the kind that can only come from the mind of a writer who really gets people, their secrets and the lengths to which they'll go when they have no good choices.
The White Van opens on Emily Rosario. One moment she's drinking whiskey with a Russian businessman, and the next she's drugged up, in and out of sleep, and being prepped to perform a bank robbery. Cop Leo Elias finds himself in pursuit of the stolen cash, but not with entirely honorable motives. Read on for an excerpt, a flash from Emily's unnerving drugged-up perspective:
It had been six days in the hotel now. Six days filled with sleep. When she wasn't sleeping, when she floated back up into the world, Emily was greeted by the Russian, the woman, or both.
"You need to start doing a little more work," said the woman at one point. "We're paying you!"
"What?" was all Emily could manage to say.
"Look," said the woman, pointing at the table. Emily loked and saw a Styrofoam container filled with food. "You're making a fucking mess," said the woman.
"That's not mine," said Emily.
"Come," said the woman. Emily stepped toward the table. The woman, her face made ugly with anger, stuck her fingers into the brown gravy, held them up for Emily to see, and then smeared the gravy across the table. "Clean it," she said, holding a bathroom towel out for her.
Emily stepped forward and cleaned the gravy with the towel. The woman lifted the container and dumped the remaining food onto the table. "Clean it," she said.
Emily began wiping at it with the towel, but the woman, her eyebrows raised, interrupted her by pointing at a trash can. Emily, feeling a strange disassociation with her own body, brought the trash can to the table, put the Sytrofoam container into it, and then, with the towel, pushed in the mess of gravy and food off the table and into the trash. She then wiped up the remaining mess.
"See, good, not too hard, right?" said the woman. "A little work never killed anyone."
They fed her candy as a reward. They gave her Starbursts. The three of them, Emily and the woman and the Russian, would sit at the table and eat candy, piling wrappers in the center. They made her drink soup and eat slices of bread. The sore under Emily's mouth had healed. She was being taken care of. She slept.
The woman would stand over Emily's bed and—in a voice that was meant to sound comforting—sing Sinatra songs. She would sing It had to be you, her accent pronounced and her voice flat. It had to be you.
What are you reading?
Centered around Fiona Maye—a high-powered English judge appointed to the Family Proceedings Court of London’s High Court—McEwan's 13th novel is rife with conflicts of love, law and morality.
Fiona's marriage is being torn asunder by the "slow decline of ardour" and her husband's request for permission to take a mistress. But her work life soon becomes equally fraught when Fiona is assigned to the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia who has declined the blood transfusion that may save his life.
Our reviewer has high praise for this slow burning novel, especially for "McEwan’s keen judgment of human character and his ability to translate it so deftly that through his characters we can see ourselves with new eyes."
Watch the mesmerizing trailer below:
What do you think, readers?
Caitlin Doughty's delightfully morbid memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is our Top Pick in Nonfiction for September. In the book, Doughty, a licensed mortician, delves deep into the funeral business and takes an unflinching look at the realities of death and America's obsession with a sanitized death experience. Our reviewer writes that Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is "by turns shockingly gruesome, mordantly funny and, ultimately, [a] richly thought-provoking memoir." (Read the review here.)
We were curious about the books Doughty has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three favorites. Unsurprisingly, her picks are fabulously macabre.
Paul Koudounaris is a macabre bon vivant, traveling the world with his repertoire of velvet frock coats and gaining access to crypts and ossuaries that the average death-interested tourist could only dream of. What comes of his travels are bizarre stories, historical insight and gorgeous photography. The Empire of Death is not only a lovely book aesthetically, it also holds the lesson that how we "do" death in America is not how death has always been done or how it has to be done in the future. When you see examples of artisans decorating entire chapels with bones, it shifts your perspective on what is possible and acceptable to do with dead bodies.
Choosing to be in a monogamous relationship is fine (it better be, I'm in one) but there is increasing evidence suggesting that we may not be not as well designed for monogamy as we thought we were. Sex at Dawn shifted my perspective on relationships as well as my understanding of primal female sexuality. The idea that women have slower sex drives and want nice little monogamous lives with one man forever is deeply flawed as a cultural idea. But this book isn’t all science and anthropology, it’s also sarcastic and readable. The goal of my own writing is to call into question things we just assume to be true in 21st-century America. In that sense, Sex at Dawn is an inspiration as well as a learning tool.
I tried to pick a novel, I really did, but I'm a nonfiction girl. What can I say? My degree is in medieval history, specifically medieval death and the late-medieval witch-hunts. The persecution of women as "witches" accused of having sex with the devil is fascinating history, but you'd be surprised how dry some of the academic offerings can be. How you can make torture and demonic coitus boring, I'll never know. This book is the antidote to that problem—excellent research, none of the dry discourse. Lyndal Roper brings everything into this book: first person stories from the period, feminism, environmentalism, psychology and fears of the aging female body.
Thank you, Caitlin! Are you inspired to pick up any of these suggestions, readers?
It's the Queen of Crime's birthday, and we've got two book suggestions (outside of her massive and brilliant canon of mysteries!) to help you celebrate. You love her books, but how much do you know about the life of the woman who has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare? In An Autobiography, Christie reflects on a childhood spent dreaming up stories, a marriage that did not go as planned and surfing. Yes, Agatha Christie surfed. I wonder how her crown stayed on?
In her autobiography, Christie also explains the inspiration behind the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. And just in time for Christie's birthday, a new Hercule Poirot mystery written by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders, has been released! Authorized by the Christie estate, this new Poirot novel follows the beloved, quirky detective as he attempts to crack a string of bizarre murders in 1920s London. We had the chance to interview Hannah and Christie's great-grandson, Matthew Prichard, in the September issue, which you can find here.
Happy birthday to one of the greatest crime writers in history!
Katheleen Weber's Della Fattoria Bread is our September Top Pick in Cookbooks! With her unique knowledge and artisinal take on breadmaking, Weber takes you through the whole process of baking—from yeasted and naturally leavened breads to enriched doughs. Looking for the perfect entry-level recipe? Try this one-bowl recipe for Arborio Rice Bread.
Arborio Rice Bread
Makes 2 standard loaves
Inspired by a recipe by the brilliant British cookbook writer Elizabeth David, this is one of the easiest breads I’ve ever made. It comes together fast, is mixed entirely by hand in a single bowl, and is baked in two standard loaf pans. Almost no kneading is required.
It’s also one of the most unusual yeasted breads I’ve seen, as the dough calls for rice. I use Arborio rice instead of regular white rice. Arborio is, of course, the rice that gives risotto its creaminess, and, sure enough, those fat, starchy grains give the bread a similarly creamy texture. If you’re calculating exact ratios, the weight of the cooked rice will be 520 grams (18.3 ounces/2½ cups plus 2 tablespoons), which is 70 percent of the flour weight.
When toasted, this bread has a remarkably delicate crunch.
Arborio rice 158 g 5.5 oz ¾ cup
Water 525 g 18.5 oz 2¼ cups
All-purpose flour 735 g 26 oz 5¼ cups
total flour 735 g 26 oz 5¼ cups
Instant yeast 13 g 0.5 oz 1 Tbsp plus ¾ tsp
Fine gray salt 19 g 0.6 oz 1 Tbsp
Water, at room temperature
(65° to 70°F/18° to 21°C) 468 g 16.5 oz 2 cups
Total weight 1,755 g/1.75 kg 61.9 oz/3.8 lbs
14 to 32 grams (0.5 to 1.1 ounces/1 to 2 tablespoons) olive oil or milk, or a combination
1. To cook the rice, combine the rice and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the heat down to low and cook until the water is absorbed and there are little holes across the surface of the rice, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the lid and let the rice cool slightly. The rice should still be very warm when incorporated with the other ingredients.
2. Lightly oil or spray a deep 4½- to 5-quart ceramic or glass bread bowl. (The amount of dough for this bread will work well in a 3-quart bread bowl if you have one.)
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, and salt.
4. When the rice is still very warm but cool enough to touch, mix it into the flour until the mixture has the texture of a gummy meal. Pour in the water and continue to mix with your hands, gently gathering the mixture together, turning it and pressing it with the heels of your hands, until it all comes together. It will be very sticky, similar in texture to a milky biscuit dough; do not be surprised if you have quite a bit sticking to your hands.
5. Using a plastic bowl scraper, get what dough you can off your hands, pressing it back onto the dough, and turn the dough into the bread bowl. Cover the bowl with a lightly oiled or sprayed piece of plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough has at least doubled in volume and there are delicate bubbles across the surface, 1½ to 2 hours.
6. Fairly generously oil or spray two 8 ½-by-4½-by-2¾-inch loaf pans.
Flour the work surface. Turn out the dough, using the bowl scraper, and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. With your fingertips, very gently shape each portion into a bâtard, about 3 by 7 inches. Set in the prepared pans and very gently brush the tops with the wash. (This dough is not brushed again before baking because the loaves will be too fragile once proofed.) Cover the tops with a lightly oiled or sprayed piece of plastic wrap. Set the pans in your warm spot to proof until the dough reaches the tops of the pans, 1½ to 2 hours; remove the plastic wrap.
7. Meanwhile, position a rack in the lower third of the oven, set a baking stone on it, and preheat the oven to 450°F.
8. Place the pans on the stone and immediately lower the oven temperature to 400°F. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the tops are a rich golden brown. The loaves will be delicate, but they can carefully be taken out of the pans to brown directly on the stone: place the loaves on the stone and let brown for about 3 minutes, to brown the sides and bottom more evenly.
9. Transfer the breads to a cooling rack and let cool completely.