Congratulations to the authors on the 2015 PEN Literary Awards Shortlist! The PEN Award—and the $25,000 that comes with it—is given to the debut author deemed to be the most promising of the year by a panel of judges. The winner will be chosen from the shortlist, which was announced today.
Looking for a new snack with a bit of a spicy kick? This recipe from Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil for Muhammara, a Middle Eastern staple, is sure to appeal to fans of hummus.
A sumptuous spread from that region of the Middle East where the finest culinary traditions of Lebanon, Turkey and Syria all blend together with a little Armenian influence as well. The best chile pepper to use in this muhammara (moo-HAMMa-rah) is coarsely ground or crushed dried Aleppo pepper, although other kinds of Turkish and Syrian chile peppers are good too. They are all available from World Spice Merchants in Seattle (www.worldspice.com) or from Kalustyan’s in Manhattan (www.kalustyans.com).
Sweet peppers are best when roasted over live fire—either a gas flame on your stovetop or charcoal embers in the fireplace or on the outside grill. Roast, turning frequently, until the skins are black and blistered. Failing gas or charcoal, you can also roast peppers under the oven broiler until they are collapsed and the skins are blistered—but they will not have the intense flavor of flame-roasted peppers. Whatever the method, put the roasted peppers in a paper bag and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to steam in their own heat and soften. At that point, it’s easy to remove the blackened skin, using a paring knife to pull it away. Then cut the peppers open, draining any liquid into a small bowl. Discard the stems, seeds, and white inside membranes.
Roast the walnuts, the pine nuts and the bread crumbs in a 350°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes. The walnuts are ready when their thin skins start to flake off; the pine nuts and the bread crumbs are done when they are golden.
Toast cumin seeds in a small skillet on top of the stove, stirring and tossing until the fragrance starts to rise. Remove immediately and grind to a powder in a spice grinder, or pound in a mortar.
MAKES 2½ TO 3 CUPS
CHOP the peppers coarsely and transfer to a food processor. Process in pulses until you have a textured puree.
IN a mortar, pound the garlic cloves to a paste with the salt. Add the roasted walnuts and continue pounding, adding a tablespoon or two of the reserved pepper juices. Once the walnuts are quite pasty, pound in the bread crumbs. (If you don’t have enough pepper juice, use a tablespoon or two of lemon juice instead.) Transfer the ingredients in the mortar to the food processor and process very briefly, just enough to mix everything together.
WHY, you may ask, do I not just put everything into the food processor to start with? Muhammara is supposed to have a rather coarse texture from the walnuts and bread crumbs; in order to control that texture, I think it’s better to pound the walnuts, bread crumbs, and garlic in the mortar and mix them very quickly into the pepper puree.
SCRAPE the contents of the food processor into a bowl and stir in the chile pepper, pomegranate syrup, ground cumin and 4 to 5 tablespoons of the oil. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice and taste. If necessary, adjust the seasoning with more salt, lemon juice, or pomegranate syrup.
WHEN you’re ready to serve, pile the muhammara in an attractive bowl and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top. Garnish with roasted pine nuts and serve with crostini (toasted bread crusts) or crackers or, to be most authentic, toasted triangles of Arab pita bread.
Note: Muhammara is also a beautiful relish to serve with any sort of roast or grilled lamb.
Excerpted from VIRGIN TERRITORY: EXPLORING THE WORLD OF OLIVE OIL © 2015 by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Nancy Atherton didn't intend to start a mystery series when she wrote her first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, and she certainly didn't intend to forever change cozy mysteries by creating the original paranormal detective. But she did! And with the publication of Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Atherton marks the 20th book in her beloved series.
Twenty books? I’ve written 20 books? Are you serious? I guess you are, because Aunt Dimity and the Summer King is indeed the 20th title in a mystery series I began writing more than 20 years ago.
Aunt Dimity has been around longer than Netflix, Google, Facebook and some of you. The fact that she’s still alive and kicking (so to speak) in a brand-new story is nothing short of miraculous. Not in a million years could I have predicted that my first book would lead to my 20th.
When I wrote my first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, I didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance of being published. At the time, there was no known market for a nonviolent, non-vulgar novel that was sort of a mystery and sort of a love story, with a supernatural element, some gardening, a bit of military history, a pink flannel bunny and a recipe thrown in because, what the heck, why not? The plot couldn’t be summarized in a simple catchphrase, and the story didn’t fit neatly into an established genre. It was a very strange little book—a marketing nightmare!—and I was absolutely convinced that it would remain forever in a box on a shelf in my closet, unseen by any eyes but mine.
And I was OK with that. I hadn’t written Aunt Dimity's Death in order to see my name in print. I wrote it because the first two lines of the story popped into my head one evening, and I simply had to find out what they meant. If there’s one trait I share with my characters, it’s a burning desire to get to the bottom of things.
I didn’t stop to write an outline, and it never occurred to me to do market research. I just hopped, skipped and jumped my way through the book like a kid on a treasure hunt. I never knew what would happen next, and I loved the excitement of not knowing. I wrote to please no one but my characters and myself, and when I finished the first draft, I knew for certain that it would never be read by anyone but me.
I’ve seldom been so happy to be wrong. To my utter astonishment, Aunt Dimity's Death found a great publisher as well as a loyal and highly enthusiastic family of fans. Best of all, it contained a snippet of dialogue that inspired me to write my second book. I hadn’t intended to write a series, but my characters insisted that I stick around to tell more of their tales, and I’m exceedingly glad they did. It has been a privilege to watch them grow and change over time. It has been a pleasure to share in their continuing adventures.
Not in a million years could I have foreseen the long and joyful journey that would spring from the opening lines of Aunt Dimity's Death. I never dreamed that my strange little book would lead to a series that’s still going strong two decades after its most unlikely birth. I hope you’ll join me in a toast to my 20th title. And I hope you enjoy Aunt Dimity and the Summer King. As for me, I'm off to work on number 21. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Nancy Atherton is the best-selling author of 20 Aunt Dimity mysteries, including the latest installment, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Viking; on sale April 14, 2015). The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Atherton lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Author photo credit Grey Taylor.
Fans of Elly Griffiths, author of the popular Ruth Galloway mystery series and winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award, will be delighted to hear she's kicking off a new series this September with HMH.
The first in the Magic Men Mystery series, The Zig Zag Girl follows Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens in 1950 Brighton as he attempts to track down a killer who seems to be mimicking a famous magic trick—the Zig Zag Girl, when the body of some lovely assistant is "cut" into pieces. To help solve the case, Stephens enlists the help of Max Mephisto, the inventor of the trick and an old war buddy. The two men served in a special ops troop called the Magic Men, which staged illusions to trick the enemy.
Perhaps what's most interesting about this series is Griffiths' personal connection to the story: She's the granddaughter of one of the members of the Magic Gang, the real group of camouflage experts that served in Egypt during WWII and famously made the Suez Canal "disappear."
Magic tricks, history and mystery? This sounds like one to look forward to on September 15.
What if you could go back to the past to prevent the biggest mistake of your life? That's the premise of Mark Andrew Ferguson's genre-bending debut novel. In The Lost Boys Symphony, college student Henry has broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Val, upsetting the triumvirate they were a part of with best friend Gabriel. Henry and Gabe just aren't the same without Val, so it takes Gabe a little longer than it probably should to notice Henry's spiral into schizophrenia. But when Henry is kidnapped by his two future selves—41 and 80, who dub Henry "19" accordingly—it looks like there might be a chance to set things right.
80 tapped the table with his fork. 41 stared at the last bits of dried orange yolk on his plate.
"You asked 80—before—you asked him if he wanted to begin," said Henry. "What are we beginning?"
80 stopped tapping. "To answer your stated question, 41 was referring to the difficult conversation we're all enjoying this very moment. But to answer your real question"—and with this 80 looked at 41—"the moment we took you from the bridge a whole new universe was formed. If we hadn't picked you up you would have become someone else. 41 and I have been that person. We've lived whole lives as that person. But we're not him anymore because that Henry is gone forever. Our pasts have been replaced many times over, and you as you might have been able to tell by 41's attitude toward me, those changes haven't all been for the better. But if we can teach you how to control yourself, your travel through time, we can begin a new future for you and a new past for ourselves. One we can all be happy with."
What are you reading this week?
With his National Book Award-winning YA novel, Godless, Pete Hautman explored themes of religion and spirituality through the story of a church that worshipped a water tower—the perfect blend of weighty, provovative themes and a humorous premise. His new novel, Eden West, touches on similiar topics, this time through the story of a teen boy who belongs to an insular, secluded cult, and what happens when the outside world begins to creep in on his protected world. In a guest blog post, Hautman shares his thoughts on readers' fascinations with cults.
Every few years some group of people who share an unconventional set of beliefs winds up in the news: The Branch Davidians. Heaven’s Gate. The Unification Church. Trekkies.* Because these groups are tiny and somewhat (ahem) peculiar, we call them “cults.”
This year, with the release of the HBO documentary Going Clear, the cult of the moment is Scientology—never mind that Scientology might not be a true “cult” (any more than it qualifies as a true religion). Our love of schadenfreude means that any excuse will do to put the sensational and pejorative word cult in a headline. (Did I just do that very thing? Yeah, I guess I did.)
But while the rest of us are congratulating ourselves for being comparatively normal, it’s easy to forget that these cults—or cult-like groups—are largely made up of smart, creative, well-intentioned individuals who are working hard to live good lives within a carefully constructed framework. The majority of cults don’t make the news. They are functional and largely invisible. And while most cults eventually self-destruct or wither away, a few groups with cultish origins—Christians, for example—have evolved to become accepted, mainstream religions.
Since nobody else was doing it, I wanted to write a story concerning a fictional cult that was functional—not your usual cults-are-evil-and-everybody-dies-in-the-end scenario. I wanted to write a love story.
Eden West started out that way. A boy growing up in an odd, insular cult compound in Montana meets a girl from the other side of the 13-mile-long chain-link fence. Inside the compound, several dozen hard-working people are raising their families and waiting peacefully for the end of the world. I wanted my fictional “Eden West” to be idyllic and entirely functional—a sort of backdrop to a more personal story, that of one boy who becomes tainted by contact with the outside world.
As often happens, things fell apart. My carefully laid plan to write a simple love story set against the backdrop of a utopian cult turned out not to be so simple. During the 12 years it took to write, Eden West became the story of a world within a world, a world colliding with itself. Unforeseen events lead the young man, Jacob, to an unexpected series of epiphanies, each of which chisels away at the foundations of his reality. My little utopia imploded, my characters were swept into the resulting vortex, and the story went to places I had never intended to visit.
I learned a lot, and it turns out there’s a good reason why most cults separate themselves from the mainstream—most of them simply can’t survive close contact with the juggernaut of the conventional. Not even in fiction.
*Just kidding, Trekkies. Live Long and Prosper!
And check out Pete's Eden West unboxing video below:
Two prize-winning novels and a pair of distinctive memoirs top the list of new paperbacks available this week:
By Lily King
Grove • $16 • ISBN 9780802123701
With a richness of themes that is likely to make it a book club favorite, King's dazzling fourth novel fictionalizes the real-life love triangle of three prominent anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea: Margaret Mead, her then-husband Reo Fortune and her future husband, Gregory Bateson. The paperback edition includes a list of discussion questions.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
Vintage • $15.95 • ISBN 9780804171472
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2014, Flanagan's powerful novel tells the story of the WWII "bridge over the River Kwai" through the eyes of an Australian surgeon. The story was inspired in part by the experiences of Flanagan's father, an Australian POW forced to work on the notorious Death Railway.
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
By Col. Chris Hadfield
Back Bay • $17 • ISBN 9780316253031
Best known to many for his entertaining YouTube videos (including a haunting David Bowie cover recorded in space), the first Canadian to command the International Space Station offers an inside look at what really goes on in an orbiting spacecraft. For those of us stuck firmly on the ground, Hadfield also explains how the lessons he learned in space—on things like leadership and perseverance—can apply to our everyday lives on Earth.
Tibetan Peach Pie
By Tom Robbins
Ecco • $15.99 • ISBN 9780062267412
In this long-awaited collection of "absolutely true stories," the author of Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues traces his unlikely path from small-town North Carolina boy to West Coast chronicler of the 1970s counterculture.
To celebrate National Poetry Month, I've been taking a break from my regular young adult (YA) lit reading to listen to the audiobook How to Read and Understand Poetry by Willard Spiegelman. Spiegelman argues that the English language loves iambic pentameter—that is, Shakespeare's meter—and he even goes so far as to say that this meter is English's default setting . . . with some notable exceptions.
Well, standard prose is also YA lit's default setting . . . with some notable exceptions. Unusual narrative formats can sometimes seem like they exist only for the sake of novelty, but the four books below never feel like their formats are forced. Instead, their formats and content are perfectly matched.
Changing narrators with each chapter is a common enough practice in contemporary YA lit. But what about changing narrators with each sentence? Especially when one narrator is talking in present time, and the other exists only as a sound recording?
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is often praised (and denounced) for its controversial content, a devastating account of a teen's decision to commit suicide. But its format is just as interesting. As teenage Clay listens to the audiotapes left behind by his classmate and crush Hannah, he adds his own running commentary, creating one of the most unusual dual-voice narratives in YA lit. As Hannah talks out of the past and Clay argues with her in the present, the conversation remains hauntingly one-sided: Clay can hear Hannah, but Hannah will never hear Clay.
YA lit has its share of heart-wrenching books, but it also has stories that make readers' hearts sing . . . literally. David Levithan's Hold Me Closer, a follow-up to the author's collaboration with John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, is told entirely in the form of the script of an autobiographical musical penned by character Tiny Cooper. Dialogue and rhyming song lyrics carry most of the plot and characters, while setting and everything else is told through detailed stage directions. Because the book is written as if it's Tiny's own composition, his confident, hilarious voice can be heard throughout; Tiny "speaks" even when the words belong to other characters.
Even the title of Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral's Chopsticks evokes choppiness. This tale of a lonely teenage musical prodigy and the attractive boy next door contains no narrative text at all. Instead, the story is told through a series of images, letters and other documents. While readers work hard to piece together the plot from these disconnected pieces, they're also being taunted by the creeping idea that what they're seeing may not be entirely true. How much of Glory's relationship with Frank is real, and how much is only in her head? The kaleidoscopic format is a perfect match for the increasingly disorienting content.
Novels in verse aren't a new idea in YA lit (or in literature in general —think of the Epic of Gilgamesh!), but every so often one comes along that's the perfect example of the form. Audacity by Melanie Crowder is a fictionalized account of the real life of Clara Lemlich, an early 20th-century Jewish labor union activist. Just as Clara has the audacity to challenge everything from the gender inequality in her family to the working conditions in New York City factories, Crowder audaciously tells Clara's story in a mix of free verse and concrete (shape-based) poetry, sometimes with as little as one word per line.
Readers, I'd love to know: What are some of your favorite unusual YA lit formats? How does the format work (or not work) with the content?
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. Read more BookPage reviews, interviews and posts by Jill here.
It's National Poetry Month, and here at BookPage, we're celebrating by highlighting some of the best new collections. In her second collection of poetry, Fanny Says, Nickole Brown offers a probing lyrical biography of her maternal grandmother while also considering the power of memory and Southern society. In this guest blog post, she lists the reasons you should be reading poetry—during poetry month and every other month in between.
Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry:
5. Because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown. Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.
For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”
3. Because it fosters community.
Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.
2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.
I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.
1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.
People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.
Thank you, Nickole! Readers, Fanny Says is now available from BOA Editions.