Monday, September 23, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas

Title: The Burning Sky
Author: Sherry Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Read: September 2013
Genre: YA Fantasy
Where It Came From: ARC from the BEA
Rating: 4 out of 5 Fairy Tale Training Stories

The Quick and Dirty:

Take one girl born to be the greatest elemental mage of her generation, add one crown prince determined to reclaim his governing powers, and mix them together in a magical Realm, 1883 Eton and a fantastic interactive fairy tale book. What you get is the charming beginning of a new trilogy.

The Wordy Version:

I was telling my mother about how interesting the fantasy author panel I attended at the Brooklyn Book Festival was, when she asked why I was even at the panel when I don’t read fantasy books. “But I DO read fantasy!” I protested, “Just not ADULT fantasy, for the most part.” The adult fantasy world seems so complex at times (and with such complex morality) that it’s difficult for me to start a book from those shelves. It doesn’t mean I don’t like having magical creatures and spells in my books, it just means I read six books at a time and have trouble juggling characters and terminology when they’re too intense. Enter YA fantasy, where magic comes with Right and Wrong and generally fewer plot threads; and enter, in particular, Sherry Thomas’s new Burning Sky.

Living in a magical Realm controlled by the Bane, a powerful and mysterious mage, Iolanthe has been in danger since her birth under a portentous meteor shower and her subsequent mastery of elemental magic. When, at sixteen, she summons lightning to fix an elixir, the secrecy measures her guardian has had in place are not enough to keep the Bane’s organization and the Realm’s nominative Crown Prince Titus from realizing that Iolanthe’s power can rival the Bane’s. Titus whisks Iolanthe to the nonmagical world of 1883 Eton, where she masquerades as a returning student and prepares to help Titus defeat the Bane and reclaim his rightful power over the Realm. The Bane’s Inquisitor suspects Titus is helping the mystery mage hide, and through spying, torture and might, she draws ever closer to finding Iolanthe, and destroying Titus’s chance for change.

It’s a relatively ordinary type of story—teenagers with exceptional abilities team up against a distasteful government, while discovering deeper feelings for each other—but with good main characters and enough details of its own to make the book charming. Character-wise, it’s all about Iolanthe and Titus. Titus is focused on his goal to the point that he is a jerk to Iolanthe without realizing how much his morals are in question. This rings true to me, as does Titus’s crush on Iolanthe, and the ways that his behavior changes to be more sensitive to her. Iolanthe keeps her motives for acting independent of the prince until she has gotten to know him as a friend and as a young man doomed to die young (more on this later). Her power (and Titus’s for that matter) is never so great that it overwhelms the world, but it is great enough that she can act meaningfully. It’s good that the main characters have so much going for them, because nobody else is developed enough for me to distinguish, though there are glimmers here and there that we may learn more about them in later books. Personally I’m hoping for more on Wintervale and his mother. (And a schoolmate who actually knows that a class on the Greek New Testament would NOT involve the long-gone locative case...)

As for fun fantasy details, the best is that Titus has inherited the Crucible, an enchanted book to help him learn magic, and he can go jumping through fairy tales in the Crucible as though he’s in a video game. I love the Crucible. Considering that Titus and Iolanthe come from a magical Realm and travel to high Victorian England, I was not expecting the stand-out setting of the The Burning Sky to be a not-quite-real world that shifts for each of its owners. But the Crucible is endlessly interesting. In addition to the training fairy tale modules (like defeating dragons to get to Sleeping Beauty), each reigning monarch of Titus’s line has created a classroom and an image of himself or herself to impart magical knowledge to the new user of the Crucible. As a way of explaining the history of the Realm and some of the limitations of the magic Iolanthe and Titus use, the Crucible’s classrooms are convenient, but when Iolanthe meets Titus’s image in his own tutorial, the Crucible becomes poignant. (As a slight spoiler, the Crucible’s training fairy tale grounds play a massive role in the plot in general. It’s only a slight spoiler because if you had created a fun magical type of video game, you would totally use it for the plot potential too.)

Also well done is Titus’s other inherited book, his late mother’s diary that magically shows him relevant prophetic visions she had before she died. I love prophecies in books, especially when someone has had a prophetic vision of death. There can be tension in characters doing dangerous things and risking their lives, but there is a beautiful urgency to characters moving towards their own envisioned deaths. Especially when the character is a teenage boy who hasn’t finished prep school or resolved his romantic longings yet.

On the subject of romance, this is one author who knows what she is doing. The pacing is not too fast book-page-wise (although within its world it is a little accelerated), and the details she uses to soften Titus’s character are excellent. I love that Titus’s favorite things to read in his leisure time are ladies’ advice columns on etiquette because they have solvable problems. And I love that he uses Iolanthe’s face for Sleeping Beauty’s so he can speak to her without real life rejection.

In all, The Burning Sky is a perfect example of why I don’t need to venture into the adult fantasy shelves. With a clear foe, a cute central romantic pairing, prophecies, a book world of fairy tale training, and the promise of two more volumes to finish the trilogy, my reading pile already has magic in it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Honey, You Should See Me with a Hive, or The Honey Connoisseur

Title: The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey, With a Guide to More Than 30 Varietals
Author: C. Marina Marchese & Kim Flottum
Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
Publication Date: June 4th, 2013
Read: Summer 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Non-fiction with a side of cooking
Rating: 4.5 Happy Honeybees

This book made me want to find a swirly skirt and go spin around in a verdant field somewhere à la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Does that sound weird for a book about honey? I might have thought so prior to reading, but it’s really not—as this book enlightened me, so much of how honey tastes is dependent on the land where it’s produced, and The Honey Connoisseur is a wonderful celebration of that fact, and the locations, plants, and bees that bring us this delicious food. Beautiful pictures of the outdoors! Fields of greenery and flowers! Honeybees working hard! Twirl with me!

I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. I really enjoyed this book. (Can you tell?) Wow—it covered more stuff than I ever knew I didn’t know about honey—how bees make it, how it’s harvested, its composition… It’s a very thorough, well-written guide to honey, and the authors’ passion and enthusiasm for their subject is contagious. Did you know heat can compromise honey’s delicate flavors because it makes the volatile organic compounds, which are components originating from the flower whose nectar was collected, evaporate? No? Neither did I! Did you know a worker honeybee (they’re exclusively females!) will make only 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her life? I didn’t, but I’m glad I do now! It certainly puts that bear-shaped bottle of honey in my pantry into perspective.

Following that first chapter educating us on honey, bees, and the related basics is a lovely chapter about the concept of terroir, or how the environmental factors (soil, in particular) of a certain location affect the flavor of the food that is grown (or in the case of honey, produced) there. It’s a beautiful, enlightening discussion, with pretty pictures to help you understand what plays into the terroir of certain regions. As you may have guessed, this is where the desire to frolic in a meadow came in.

The next section of the book (and quite a big chunk at that, 82 pages!) is devoted to a discussion of many plants from which varietal honeys are made, accompanied by tasting notes on each and illustrations of the plants in question. These plants range from the well-known kings of honey, like clover, to the delicious and intriguing, like blackberry and apple blossom, to the unexpected, like avocado. Before I really knew what was happening I found myself with plans start a honey hoard and host a honey-tasting party.

Ever the thorough authors, there is also a chapter concerning the dark side of honey, including illegitimate honey finding its way to our grocery stores (hilariously called “funny honey”), the many ways in which it can be made illegitimate (such as “cutting” it with sugar, like a drug!), industrial honey-processing vs. smaller-scale honey production, honey from genetically modified plants…like I said, thorough. Who knew there was so much stuff like this going on in the world of honey?

After that foray into honey’s gritty underworld, we transition into that most fun and interactive part of the book—tasting! You will have to provide your own honey samples, unfortunately, but they provide the rest. The authors’ goal with this chapter is to “help you learn to identify and appreciate the flavor of every honey you taste,” and to that end they cover how to observe the color, how to inhale the aroma, and the proper tasting technique. Other fun extras to help you along in developing your connoisseurship include a plan/supply list for honey-tasting, a color guide, a tasting scorecard, an aroma and tasting wheel, and a glossary of terms to consider and use to describe the aroma and flavor. To go further still with your honey-tasting adventures, there is a guide to planning your own honey-tasting party (they must’ve read my mind earlier), a practical guide to selecting and purchasing good quality honey, a guide to pairing honey with cheese and other foods, suggested tasting flights and menus, and the book ends with a few simple honey recipes.

I love honey; it’s my favorite sweetener, and now I know more than I ever knew there was to know about it! This makes me very happy. (The pretty pictures make me very happy, too.) This is not a cookbook, and it’s not a simple surface treatment of the subject—it’s a comprehensive and ardent love letter to honey and a guide to initiate readers into the club. If you are into honey, or want to be, I think you’ll love this book. If you have more of a passing interest in the subject and your relationship with honey is more of the "the honey, it tastes good in my tea" variety, I believe you’ll still find something that interests you in this book, but you may not read it cover to cover. Or maybe you will, when a passion for honey you never knew you had awakens as you read!

How does honey rank in your personal hierarchy of sweeteners? Have you ever felt the urge cavort through the countryside amongst the wildflowers and honeybees? Do you think there’s such a thing as edelweiss honey? Inquiring minds want to know…

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Minding Your P’s and Q’s, or How Not to Be a Dick by Meghan Doherty

Title: How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide
Author: Meghan Doherty
Publisher: Zest Books
Publication Date: October 1st, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 3.5 Cheese Logs

Okay, I’ll admit it was the title that drew me to this one. It kind of reaches out and punches you in the face. How could I not be hooked by an etiquette guide so reminiscent of Wil Wheaton’s most excellent motto?

Just like the title states, this book is a basic etiquette guide. It starts out with tips on interacting with yourself and self-esteem (I thought that was a nice idea), and then moves into the territory of interactions with other people and situation-specific manners, such as at work, at parties, on the internet, etc. I especially like the inclusion of the internet section because, well, a lot of dickish behavior happens there! While a lot of the stuff is basic, I like that there is also info that goes beyond the sort of please-and-thank-you-I-learned-it-in-kindergarten stuff. How to act in a performance review at work, dealing with roommate issues, public transportation etiquette…these are the kind of things you usually end up learning about through real world trial and error, and it’s nice that there’s a helpful reference guide to shorten that learning curve.

What this book really has going for it is that it’s presented in an engaging, humorous way. It has lots of pop culture jokes and references, and has its own running jokes popping up throughout the book (cheese logs, tricycle racing, euphemistically referring to alcoholic drinks as sugary beverages…). It’s also full of funny ‘50s-ish Dick and Jane-esque drawings to illustrate the points.

One thing I will note is that I had some confusion about who the target audience is. It was listed on NetGalley under “children’s non-fiction” and I wondered how that would work out for a book with the word “dick” in the title, but it became clear very quickly that that categorization was in error. So, based on word choice in title and the content re: jobs and drinking, it’s not for kids—my next thought was that it’s meant for college kids and 20-somethings, what with the stuff about roommates, work, jokes that the internet generation would find funny, etc. But then we took a left turn into high school land with stuff about school dances. What?? I was confused. Taking it all into consideration, the best I can come up with is that it’s a book aimed at mid-high school age through 20-somethings. People beyond that age range can certainly enjoy it and use it, too, but the jokes and just-setting-out-into-the-real-world content target that age group.

Overall, it’s a practical book of etiquette for modern life and guidelines on interacting with others. A lot of it is basic, but you know what? Sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics. The humor and drawings keep it accessible and prevent boredom, and help make it both useful to and amusing for millenials. While it’s not a groundbreaking, must-read sort of book, it was a quick, fun read, and I also took something away from it. I need to be reminded not to be a dick at times, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that goes for the rest of the world, too. It’s nice that there’s a book to fill that very niche!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

EDIT: The publisher contacted me shortly after I posted this review to NetGalley and noted that the final version of the book had some differences from the earlier version that I reviewed. They then offered to send me a hard copy of the published version of the book to peruse and share my opinion of with our audience. So that’s what I’m doing! After browsing, the book seems to be largely what I’d already seen in the digital copy, but I do think there were more illustrations added. One other thing that I really like that wasn’t in the NetGalley version is the “Typology of Dicks” that appears at the very end. It identifies and discusses various common dicks, such as the Passive Aggressive, the Drama Queen, and others you might recognize from your own interactions with humanity. Both amusing and edifying!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things (Mister Max #1), by Cynthia Voigt

Title: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Year: September 10th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Middle-Grade-Historical-Mysteryish
Rating: 4 Delicious Pastries

The Quick and Dirty:

In the early 1900s, 12-year-old Max Starling’s actor parents are invited to a maharajah’s palace to start a new theatrical company, but when he arrives at the docks to sail away with them to India they are nowhere to be found. On top of that, there is no record of the ship they were meant to depart on ever being in port at all. Not knowing whether his admittedly flighty parents left him behind or were kidnapped, Max needs to strive to be independent and make enough money to live on until he can get to the bottom of the mystery. He is not alone in his endeavor, though, with his grandmother and a cast of other characters to help him along as he discovers that his talent may not be detecting, per se, but rather helping others solve their problems. This was a really fun middle-grade novel with perceptive, thoughtful, and humorous writing, and great illustrations.

The Wordy Version:

Sometimes, as an adult, the problem I run into when reading middle grade books is that they often feel, in a way, “dumbed down” for younger audiences. This might make sense—younger audiences at a lower reading level need books at their level, and as an adult it’s natural that the reading level and stories may not provide much challenge, and simpler writing and storylines might not hold one’s interest. Many times after reading a middle-grade book I find myself thinking things like, “That was a fun book—I would have loved it when I was 11,” or “I enjoyed it, but I probably would’ve enjoyed it more when I was younger,” or the dreaded and dismissive, “It was cute.” (“Cute” is not always a dismissive and diminishing descriptor, but I find it often can be.) And yet—there are middle grade books that are beloved by adults and kids alike, with no caveats or qualifiers to temper the adults’ esteem for these books. Harry Potter is the most obvious of this category. Good ol’ Mister Potter begins the series at 10 years old, and the book’s target audience is children in the same neck of the woods, age-wise. Of course there’s kind of a built in audience because as Harry and his friends grow up, the kids who started reading the books in their tween years grow along with them, but I think it’s safe to say that this is a series that is completely enjoyable regardless of the reader’s age. Another middle-grade series that seems to be quite popular across many age demographics is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I’ve only read the first book and can’t speak to specifics, but from what I can tell it’s pretty popular with people of all ages as well (maybe not to the same extent as HP, but almost nothing compares with that juggernaut!).

There’s a fine line to walk between middle-grade enjoyable for mostly just the middle grades, and middle-grade that is genuinely enjoyable for everyone. This is something I ponder a lot (because I’m weird like that), and I haven’t yet been able to enumerate to my satisfaction what separates the two. Here are some of the qualities I’ve found that characterize the latter category:

  1. Good writing is good writing. No matter what audience an author is writing for, if the writing is good, people will respond to it. (Usually.) Less experienced readers can read and enjoy less skillful writing, but as you grow and read more and your tastes develop, you get a better sense of what good writing is. From that place, it is difficult to go back and enjoy things you may very well have loved if you read them when you were younger, and be able love them in the same way without any sort of qualifications. Really skillful writing, however, is enjoyable regardless of age.
  2. There is plot complexity without engendering confusion.
  3. Solid world building creates an implicit trust between author and reader.
  4. Writing isn’t shallow—it’s perceptive and insightful, and it can be those things without being overly deep and heavy.
  5. Kids can handle depth, though. When the writer handles it well, depth provides emotional resonance, and that’s a good thing.
  6. Readers can connect with characters besides the protagonist—characters are depicted as real people, not caricatures or tropes.
  7. Readers can empathize with the characters even though they may be in a situation the reader has never encountered. This usually comes part and parcel with the creation of realistic characters.

Pretty much all of those tie straight back into number one—good writing is good writing, and that applies to all books, not just middle-grade. Whew! All of this rambling and discussion just for me to finally get to the point and say I think Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things is on the “enjoyable for all ages” end of the spectrum.

I thought this was a well-written, entertaining book. I mean, duh, Cynthia Voigt, right? At the beginning of the book, though, I was a little skeptical. I was like, who are these flaky parents?! Poor Max, they don’t seem to care about him at all! But of course it’s not as simple as that. Through the course of the story, even though they are absent for most of it, the reader comes to see how much they really love Max. Moreover, while I was quick to judge his parents as flighty, the reader learns that Max, instead of feeling angry or bitter, admirably accepts them for who they are. Max is a precocious and wise 12-year-old, but at the same time he also manages to be realistic for that age.

Like Max’s parents, the other characters are more than their first impression would suggest—Baroness Barthold, Joachim the painting instructor, Ari the tutor—they are far from perfect people, but as more of each of their personalities is revealed, they become more compelling and sympathetic. (Refer to 5, 6, & 7 in the above list.)

The many mysteries Max is juggling throughout the story held my interest. The writing is perceptive, and Max in particular is a smart cookie. Topics of depth are explored without bogging the story down—my favorite of these is when Max takes a job to find a missing dog. When he finds her, he realizes that maybe her owners are not the best people to take care of her. He was paid to find the dog, but he doesn’t think it’s right to send a creature with no way to stand up for itself back to people who don’t care for her very well. What is right in that situation? The letter of the law vs. what’s right debate was handled an interesting way without straying into pedantic or heavy territory. I was hooked—I wanted to know what Max was going to do to solve the problem. (Refer to 2, 4, & 5 above.)

I also thoroughly enjoyed the style the book is written in. Max’s fascination with plays and acting, readily visible through the many characters he takes on to aid in his investigations and the way he thinks about his life as if it were a play, is also reflected through the set-up of the book. Chapters are titled in the “In Which Blahblahblah Happens” fashion, or alternatively, as if they were scenes in a play. For example, “The Lost Dog, Act 1” is the first chapter focusing on his search for the missing dog.

Overall, I liked this book a lot. The writing is intelligent and engaging, with enough going on to hold the interest of youngsters and grown-ups alike. Max is relatable—he wants to be an independent person and feels a sort of sense of adventure where that’s concerned, and I can remember feeling the same sorts of things at that age. The other characters are people you want to get to know better, and I always wanted to know how Max would end up solving the problems set before him. As an added bonus, the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno interspersed throughout the text are lovely and contributed to my enjoyment of the book. Bottom line: I liked spending time in this world with these people and would like to visit it again when the next book comes out.

What are some middle-grade books or series you have enjoyed, either when you were in the middle-grade demographic or later? Can you think of anything I should add to my running list of things that make a book targeted at younger readers appeal to people beyond that demographic?

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sophoclean Snickers and Posh Poetry: Antigone

Over the summer we were browsing the titles available on NetGalley when we saw a collection of poems and art inspired by the Antigone by Sophocles. This appealed to us both: Alyssa studied a translation of the tragedy in high school, and Susan is a card-carrying classics nerd. Regardless of our enthusiasm we both let about a month pass without actually reading it because we both wanted to look at the Sophocles to have a good understanding of the story before we started the modern work.

We decided to read the first 200 lines together, and by the time we looked at the clock it was hours later and we had finished Sophocles (translated by Ian Johnston, who has generously made all his accurate and fluid translations available free online) and also Marie Slaight’s Antigone Poems. Some classics are healthy for your soul, and other classics are freaking awesome in general. The Antigone is in the latter camp. It has the Deep Thoughts and Tragic Ending you expect from a top-notch Greek drama, and then it has humor that you wouldn’t expect to see in tragedies.

If you already can quote the Antigone in English and Greek, feel free to skip ahead to “The Antigone Poems.” If you’ve never felt inspired to read the play (or if your memory of it is a little rusty), here’s our summary. We cut out 90% of the morality debate because if you care enough about that part of the play, you can read it yourself.

The fun begins right away with BITCHY TEENAGE GIRLS. It’s like Sophocles had his finger on the pulse of YA lit 2500 years before it became a thing. We were surprised to find, at the beginning of one of the most famous tragedies of Western tradition, that the first 100 lines are just two sisters snarking at each other. Granted, their sniping is over whether they should give their dead treasonous brother some funeral rites, or whether they should obey the law of the ruler that traitors should be left for dogs to eat. It sounds really heavy when you list what their fight is about, but let’s look at a little of the passive aggressive bitchiness instead:

What? You’re going to bury Polyneices,
when that’s been made a crime for all in Thebes?

Yes. I’ll do my duty to my brother—
and yours as well, if you’re not prepared to.
I won’t be caught betraying him.

You’re too rash.
Has Creon not expressly banned that act?

Yes. But he’s no right to keep me from what’s mine.

O dear. Think, Antigone.
I’ll ask those underground for pardon—
since I’m being compelled, I will obey
those in control. That’s what I’m forced to do.
It makes no sense to try to do too much.

I wouldn’t urge you to. No. Not even
if you were keen to act. Doing this with you
would bring me no joy. So be what you want.
I’ll still bury him. It would be fine to die
while doing that. I’ll lie there with him,
with a man I love, pure and innocent,
for all my crime. My honours for the dead
must last much longer than for those up here.
I’ll lie down there forever. As for you,
well, if you wish, you can show contempt
for those laws the gods all hold in honour.

I’m not disrespecting them. But I can’t act
against the state. That’s not in my nature.

Let that be your excuse. I’m going now
to make a burial mound for my dear brother.

We’re pretty sure that the correct way to read almost all of Antigone’s possessive adjectives is with a prominent italic-font sneer. “My honors for the dead must last much longer than for those up here.” Burn. Ismene is not enough of a mean girl to get in too many zingers in response, but she lets Antigone know that she is “incapable of carrying out” her mission, which “makes no sense.”

Antigone leaves in a huff, telling Ismene to go to hell (although in her loyalty and piety she is the one prepared to go there herself).

Because it’s a Greek drama, the chorus tromps in to explain the actual context for the play (Oedipus’ sons just had a civil war the previous day and killed each other; their uncle Creon is now the insecure ruler of Thebes). They use a lot of beautiful poetry to get their point across.

Creon, the stubborn new king, is proclaiming his decision to dishonor the corpses of the civil war losers and punish anyone who dares to say a prayer over them, when an inept guard trudges in to tell us that someone has --gasp-- done some funeral ritual for the dead traitor bro. The guard is a proto-Polonius out of Hamlet. He explains three different ways that he didn’t run to give Creon the news (“don’t shoot the messenger” isn’t standard practice in Thebes, it seems), gives a CSI report on the crime scene (“no sign of digging,” “no trace of a wild animal,” etc.), and then hangs around long enough to check that he’s irritating Creon just by speaking (“I offend your ears”). The guard is comedic gold by the end of his scene; we double checked that we were reading a tragedy as we spat out our tea in laughter.

The guard, who would never have been able to solve the case through his own skill, gets a lucky break when Antigone returns to the scene of the crime to mourn some more, and he brings her before Creon for questioning. Creon must be one of actors’ favorite roles because it’s completely unclear how Creon initially feels about Antigone’s crime. Reading it yesterday, we got the impression that he gives her a few chances to talk her way out of the proclaimed death penalty, and that it isn’t until she is a sanctimonious rebel that he decides to follow through on the punishment.

Creon and Antigone have a spirited debate, in which he jumps to the conclusion that any sign of wavering on his part will be an inversion of nature, and that listening to Antigone will emasculate him. Because being a woman is contagious. The only possible explanation for Creon’s apparent intense hatred of women, despite the obvious love he bears his wife that we will witness in a later scene, must be that he is experiencing temporary insanity due to lack of sleep since OH YEAH THERE WAS A CIVIL WAR YESTERDAY. Go take a nap, Creon, before trying to make any life-altering decisions!

Anyway, after Antigone unleashes some Little Red Hen style scoffing off of Ismene’s attempt to die with her, everyone from Creon’s son (and Antigone’s fiancé) Haemon to the legendary blind prophet Tiresias to the entire old men chorus tells Creon that his plan to seal Antigone in a cave to choose her own death is unsound, politically and morally. Antigone’s already been sealed in, bitterly lamenting that she has no friends with her as she dies (and conveniently forgetting that she rejected her sister’s attempt to fill that very role), by the time Creon realizes that, yes, freeing her would be a good idea.

A messenger tells Creon’s wife the rest of the story: as Creon was ambling up to the tomb to free Antigone, he and his men saw traitor bro’s body getting eaten by animals. They stopped to do a real funeral, and then made their way to Antigone’s tomb from which was emanating the voice of Haemon. Haemon, crazy with grief over finding Antigone hanged, attempted to kill his father and then turned his sword on himself. Creon’s wife silently goes back into the palace.

When Creon returns, holding his son’s body and blaming himself for the tragic death, he’s greeted with the news that his wife has committed suicide earlier. Creon prays to die, and the chorus tells him that he’s going to have to carry on and be wiser about piety.

Which brings us to the (very) slim volume of poetry being published next year . . .

The Antigone Poems

Title: The Antigone Poems
Author: Poetry by Marie Slaight, Art by Terrence Tasker
Publisher:Altaire Productions and Publications
Publication Date: January 15th, 2014
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Poetry
Rating: 3.5 Lines of Sophocles

Hit it publisher/poet (the poet is the founder of the publishing company):

Passionate, brutal, and infused with extraordinary lyricism, The Antigone Poems provides a special expedition into the depths of the ancient Sophocles tragedy. The work’s obsessive, ritualistic and ultimately mysterious force brings into sharp focus the heroic, tragic figure at the center of the primordial compact between gods and humans. The work, a collaboration between poet, Marie Slaight and artist, Terrence Tasker, was created in the 1970’s, while the artist were living in Montreal and Toronto. [sic]

If it were not for the title of the book and that blurb, there would be no way to figure out that the poems and art had anything to do with Antigone. This is basically how our conversation about the poems went:

Susan: So when in the Antigone story are these poems taking place?
Alyssa: I don’t think it’s supposed to be that literal.
Susan: But it’s in chapters! Doesn’t that mean there’s an order?
Alyssa: I think the book needs more explanation.
Susan: Yeah.
Alyssa: All I’m getting from these poems is sex.
Susan: Who is having sex in the Antigone, anyway?
Alyssa: I’m not sure it has to be so literal. But maybe Haemon and Antigone, before the events of the play? Wait! Maybe there’s something on the page I just read.
Susan: Yeah, I think I see some glimmers too.
Alyssa: But what is it with the sun?
Susan: Maybe she’s getting sealed into the tomb?
Alyssa: I really don’t think it’s supposed to be that literal.
And so on. We were confused and it took a bit of work to speculate about what's in the poems.

This isn’t to say the poetry isn’t beautiful. Slaight’s writing is excellent, and sets up moments of surprise through unusual diction. Most pages have only a few lines of free verse, with a conclusion that isn’t as simple as it appears at first.

We live our lives
The instant between life and death.
To touch death always,
That is the sun.
This poem seems lovely at first read. Basic, and with a line between death and life that is all too near. But as part of an Antigone collection, it gathers more meaning. To touch the sun is a Greco-Roman way of striving past human limits, and invariably results in a human dying. When Phaethon tries to drive the chariot of the sun, he can’t keep from harming the earth by his erratic path; Icarus flies too close to the sun and falls to earth as the wax in his wings melts; and Odysseus’ crew is killed for eating Helios’ herd. We can layer this idea with that of the Antigone itself, chiefly that the Thebians are overreaching by ignoring the rites of the gods. Slaight, in her poem, is not so literal as to make that connection, but rather twists the mythological idea: no longer is it touching the sun that is death, but the sun is touching death. One interpretation could be that the gods, unlike humans, have no choice about the boundaries between the mortals and divine. They simply uphold the standard.

The final pages are the clearest, and complicate the poet’s claim that the collection is meant to focus on the relationship between human and god:

And why.

I wanted everything.

To live all lives, all deaths, encompass all women.

To smash every confine.

And what have I done.

I don’t know.

I have written a few words

Created a few images

Influenced a few lives.

I live at the corner of St. Lawrence and Pine.

I have three children.

The final charcoal image shifts from classic drama masks and timeless sketches of nudes, to a modern-dressed person, with softer lines and a warmth to her face. Her shirt collar is uneven, one side proudly up and the other flat on her clavicle. This is no heroine of classical tragedy, but rather a woman who is grappling with life in its more mortal sense. Not to be a name whispered throughout the city, not to change the world with one action. But to be a person, whose accomplishments are on a smaller scale, and perhaps less transgressive than those of heroic myths.

The Antigone Poems is a very short collection, capable of being reread several times with one cup of tea. Though its poems vary in accessibility, the book’s interplay of image and poetry is consistently polished and intriguing. Its connection to Sophocles and the human compact with the gods seems tenuous, however, and that is disappointing since the book is advertising itself as a response to Sophoclean themes. We cannot dislike poetry that has moments of exquisite beauty, but it seems disingenuous to claim that we understood enough of it to truly love it.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

So I Guess That Wasn’t the Last of the Man Booker

Okay, okay…we may have lied about this post being the last of the Man Booker Prize Olympics 2013 posts. In an egregious oversight, we forgot that there would be an ACTUAL shortlist and an ACTUAL Booker Prize winner looming on the horizon! Or maybe we were just that confident our predictions were spot-on? Mmnn…perhaps not.

Whether or not our concern for the shortlist results is purely self-centeredly motivated, the shortlist was announced on September 10th and we were quite keen to compare it with our own uneducated guesses. So for our third event, we present The Man Booker 2013 Shortlist Results!!!

Here’s a refresher on our predictions:

Alyssa’s Prognostication

We Need New Names
The Spinning Heart
The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann
The Lowland
A Tale for the Time Being

Susan’s Augury

A Tale for the Time Being
The Spinning Heart
The Lowland

And the actual shortlisted are…

We Need New Names - NoViolet Bulawayo The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton Harvest - Jim Crace The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahir A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki The Testament of Mary - Colm Tóibín

We both independently managed to predict 50% of the shortlist correctly, and with our combined powers of guessing we garnered a not-wholly-shameful 67%! It’s also worth noting that both of our predictions for the book that will ultimately take the prize are still in the running. We will be back in October when the prize winner is announced to see if one, or neither, of us will take the gold in this final MBPO (we thought it was time we had an acronym, don’t you agree?) event.

How about you? Did you make any predictions? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Recipe: Fried Chili Corn, from the Mighty Spice Express Cookbook

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Remember this cookbook? We recently reviewed it here, and enjoyed it very much! Now, as promised, we have a recipe from it to share with you.

I love spices and exotic flavors in food, but don’t always have a lot of time to devote to cooking a huge, complicated meal. Why should we have to sacrifice flavor when we’re short on time? Well, we don’t! And this cookbook has plenty of options showing how to simultaneously achieve the goals of “yum” and “fast.” Wanting to make the most of my advanced reader’s copy of the book, I decided to try out John Gregory Smith’s recipe for fried chili corn. His inspiration for this one came from a family vacation in Thailand (let’s take a moment to let that one settle in…), and the fried corn snack prepared for them by the very talented chef at the house they stayed at on Phuket. I chose this recipe from the book because I feel it exemplifies the fast-but-tasty frame of reference of the book as a whole, and it’s deliciously crunchy and addictive. I can see this being the perfect snack to munch on by the pool or at a summer barbecue. The author recommends having it with a beer, and I must say I agree with that pairing wholeheartedly!

Fried Chili Corn

(Reproduced with permission from John Gregory Smith’s Mighty Spice Express)

3 1/4 cups sunflower oil
9-ounce can whole kernel corn
1/4 cup corn starch
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
Sea salt

Heat the oil in a deep pan over high heat. Meanwhile, drain the corn thoroughly in a colander. Pour it into a mixing bowl and add the corn starch, chili powder, Chinese five-spice powder and 1 1/2 tablespoons cold water. Stir everything together well so the corn is completely coated with the corn starch and spices.

Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the corn to the hot oil. Stir, then deep-fry 3 minutes, or until golden and crunchy. Remove from the oil and drain very well on a plate lined with paper towels. Add the corn to serving bowls and season with salt. Serve with ice-cold beer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used the more typical 15-oz. can of corn, and it worked out fine. I also substituted peanut oil for sunflower oil, since it was what I had on hand and it holds up well to high temperatures. The recipe notes that it will serve 2 and be ready in 10 minutes—mine would probably serve more than two (no surprise, as I used more corn), and it took me about 20 minutes to prepare, since due to pan size I had to fry the corn in 3 separate batches. My first batch turned out best—I think in the waiting the spice-mixture-batter somehow slid off the remainder of the corn, and as a result the second and third batches didn’t turn out quite as nicely as batch number one. Still tasted great, though! Here, join me in the cooking process:

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Ingredients assembled!!!

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Corn, corn starch, and spices assembled!!!

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All stirred up. I added a bit more corn starch to suck up some of the corn juice that didn’t get completely drained away.

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Frying prettily in the oil.

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Scooping time!

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Out of the frying pan…

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…into the paper toweled draining dish!

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Season with salt to taste and it’s ready to be nommed.

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Serve with beer for a great summer treat!

Thanks again to the author and publisher for allowing us to share this recipe!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Mighty Spice Express, by John Gregory Smith

Title: Mighty Spice Express Cookbook
Author: John Gregory Smith
Publisher: Duncan Baird Publishers
Publication Date: October 1st, 2013
Read: August 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 4 Cinnamon Sticks

I love spices and international food. Susan does, too! Check out our “about us” sidebar. See? It’s true! You know those stories about college students who subsist on ramen noodles and Sunny D? Yeah, that wasn’t us. We had a fantastic cookbook from which we derived 90% of our meals, planned each week’s meals out in advance, had a complex method of splitting grocery bills between all flatmates…in short, food was a priority in our lives, and delicious, adventurous food filled with tasty spices and herbs was the highest food priority of all. Mighty Spice Express reminds me a bit of that college go-to cookbook of yore, and brings back wonderful food-memories from that time in my life (like the time we blew out a blender motor trying to make falafel. and the time we attempted keftas from frozen lamb and ended up with an unchewable result. I could go on, but that subject could be a blog post unto itself!). The author’s love of spices and international inspiration are displayed in his first cookbook, Mighty Spice Cookbook, and in this follow-up he sought to highlight the “express” option when it comes to cooking—even if you don’t have much time, you can still have delicious international food! To achieve this end, he turned to street food for inspiration. How cool a job must that be, to travel the world and eat things and then invent recipes based off of it?

Well, he took his inspiration from street food around the world, and I found the resulting cookbook to be in turn very inspiring. The photography is gorgeous and drool-inducing, of course, and well-staged to help you imagine the locale from which the food originated. The majority of ingredients are easy to source, with some of the more exotic fare easy to track down in a specialty food shop, an international grocery store, or through the magic of the interwebs. (Hot lime pickle? I will probably need to go to the internet for that one.) Stories about his world travels at the beginning of the book and interspersed between recipes help provide context, and a primer on the different spices and seasonings involved in the book helps you get a handle on the flavors you’ll be playing with. Most importantly of all, though, the recipes are fantastic.

There were a few things that got the skeptical eye—sun-dried tomatoes appearing in salsa multiple times, for example. (That one actually made me paranoid enough to turn to Google and see if that’s something common that I just completely missed out on.) A recipe for a “green salsa” which sounded delicious and I had no complaint about, save that it might have been more appropriately called “guacamole.” (While not an expert by any means, I’m an admitted snob where Mexican food is concerned.) A preponderance of ingredients being described as “smoky.” (I actually wrote them down and made a list ranging from “yeah, that’s smoky” to “is that smoky…?”: Chipotles, paprika, bourbon, sun-dried tomatoes, maple syrup, tequila. You be the judge.) But for every eyebrow raised in skepticism, there were scads more things that made salivate in anticipation of cooking them.

The Good and the Could-Be-Better

  • As I mentioned above, the photos are beautiful and the food looks great. I just wish they were able to include photos for all the recipes! This would be especially helpful for some of the more exotic dishes, where the average reader may or may not have an idea of how the finished product is supposed to look.
  • On a related note, there are pictures of the included spices at the bottom of every recipe page for quick reference. It’s a cute idea, but it’s most useful if you can recognize spices at a glance. Additionally, the other ingredients in the recipe aren’t necessarily pantry ingredients, so you’ll need to look at the full ingredient list anyway before grocery shopping. In the end, though, I like it—it adds color and interest to the recipe pages without being distracting.
  • I love that he looks to India, Mexico, Thailand, Korea, China and other amazing places for culinary inspiration! I think food is a fantastic way to experience other cultures, and the author really brings that out in this book. However, with the titles of some of the recipes I was left with questions. Okay, so we’re making a brewat, but what is a brewat? Chumula? Kedgeree? It’d be nice to know what these things are and at least have the cuisine they derive from specified. Of course the internet can solve these mysteries, but I always appreciate it when a cookbook is a self-contained entity with all the desirable info at my fingertips sans internet.
  • I love the header text that precedes each recipe—it’s nice to get a little context for the recipe, whether it involves the culture a dish comes from or the author’s experience with it (or in the best cases, both!). I suspect it may be a function of fitting recipes onto pages, but quite a few of the recipes do not have that header text, and I really wish they all did! While it’s not necessary, it’s definitely enjoyable and helps the reader connect with a chef/author and his or her recipes.
  • The cookbook is divided into the following chapters: Mighty Bites, Not Quite Lunch, Midweek Lifesavers, Nice & Easy, Something Spectacular, and Naughty But Nice. It would be handy if each recipe were listed with a page number under the chapter headings in the table of contents for easy reference—oh well. The recipes range from serving 2 and averaging 10 minutes to make in the Mighty Bites section, to meals serving 4 and taking more time in the Nice & Easy and Something Spectacular sections. I like that there are options for different numbers of people and different cooking times! Naughty But Nice then covers desserts and cocktails for a well-rounded selection of goodies.
  • I love love LOVE that the author includes ingredient preparation in the recipe itself and counts it towards the recipe’s cooking time. I really hate when recipes tell you it will be ready in 30 minutes, but then forget to tell you there’s another 30 minutes of chopping and measuring that they expect to be done beforehand. Leaving out prep time is cheating, and I’m glad this book doesn’t do it!

And Other Random Stuff

  • I love that there’s a recipe for crab cakes that does NOT involve bell peppers! So many crab cakes include them and I feel they overpower the delicate taste of the crab meat. No peppers here, WOOT!
  • Many recipes in this book require a mini food processor. I imagine a regular one will get the job done, but there’s a lot more surface area for you to scrape a small amount of sauce/paste/whatever off of. Mini food processors available for purchase on Amazon range from about $15 to $60, for those interested.
  • I learned a cool new word: spatchcocked! It’s a way of preparing poultry.
Overall, this cookbook is easy to operate and contains recipes for awesome food. Blue Mosque goat cheese tart? Oaxaca tostadas? Dongbai roast cod? Yum, yum, and yum. I will definitely be purchasing this cookbook so I can make these lovely dishes and more, and I’ll probably check out the author’s previous one, too. If you are interested in international cuisine and bold flavors, I would recommend this cookbook to you as well. Cook on, my friends, and be spicy!

In related news, the publisher has been kind enough to give permission for us to reproduce a recipe on the blog, which I will test out and indulge in a little iPhoneography to present to you. So keep your eyes peeled for that, coming soon to a screen near you!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Docket: Code Name Verity

Hi everyone! For the month of September, the book club that we belong to has chosen to read Elizabeth Wein’s acclaimed YA WWII novel, Code Name Verity. We have heard great things about this book and could not be more excited to get into it! At the end of the month we’ll have some sort of post discussing it, so we thought it might be fun if you join us! We’d love it if you were able to locate a copy of the book, read it along with us in September, and then join in our discussion at the end of the month. Or, if you’ve already read it (we know we were a little slow to get to this one), feel free to skip that first part and go straight to the month-end discussion of all things awesome and Code Name Verity-y. Just no spoilers on the companion novel (out September 10th in the US)! Here's the book blurb found on Amazon and Goodreads:

Oct. 11th, 1943—A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called “a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel” in The New York Times, Code Name Verity is a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other.

Sounds pretty awesome, no? We are EXCITED! So please join us. Have you already read this one? What other historical fiction books have you enjoyed lately?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thursday Crafternoon!: P.S.-You're Invited..., by Erica Domesek

Title: P.S.-You’re Invited…
Author: Erica Domesek
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication Date: September 10th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Crafts & Hobbies
Rating: 2.5 Glue Guns

The DIY/crafting movement has gotten big the last few years, and like many other internet-goers I have found myself more than a little drawn to it. Tempted by adorable handmade stuff for sale on Etsy, inspired by blogs like Design*Sponge, seduced by all the gorgeously photographed DIY tutorials spreading through Pinterest…it’s easy to want to get involved, and, even better, easy to actually do so. And the best thing is that the tutorials are more often than not for DIY’d things you’d actually want—follow the instructions for well-designed, professional-looking results.

My interest in DIY led me to this book. The author is quite famous in the DIY/crafting world, with a popular website called P.S.-I Made This… and a book by the same name. In fact, while googling for the link to her website, I came across an article headline in the search results referring to her as the “millennial Martha.”

The title of this book led me to believe that it would be about DIY related to parties (themes, decorations, favors, etc.), but it turns out that’s not quite the case. The introduction rather describes it as a book with a “focus on celebration and stylish living.” Most of the projects are for accessories or décor objects. Things you could wear to a party, or use to help decorate for a party, but not quite as party-focused as I had imagined it would be. And that was fine--just a little different than I had expected.

After a foreword from Stacy London of What Not to Wear fame (!) and the author’s introduction, the book is divided into 10 different themed chapters with about 4-5 projects falling under each theme. Themes are things like “Sexy Mexi!” with fiesta-inspired projects, or “Make a Splash!” with outdoor summery projects, to name a couple. Each chapter opens with an explanation of the theme, a tableau featuring people wearing/using the projects for that theme, and then the featured projects pictured and named alongside it, too. The design and photography are gorgeous and bright and fun. The project instructions seem straightforward and easy to understand, with photos to help you along. One really cool thing about the book is that it’s what the publisher is calling a “smart book”—it has QR-code-type-things interspersed throughout the book that you can scan with your phone and see videos with tips about various projects. I like the multimedia aspect, especially because sometimes it’s easier to learn from watching someone do something than from simply reading about it. I also love that there’s a section in the back that provides info on websites where you can purchase the specific materials necessary for every project.

Unfortunately, though, the book ended up not being as much as I hoped it would. Let me be clear, I love the author’s philosophy of DIY and crafting as a creative outlet, as a way for you to be you, and as a way to create a beautiful, fun life. I’m with her there. I fully agree with and support that. But for most of the projects featured in the book, I’m not sure the cost of materials/time needed/look of the finished product equation balances out for me. Some of the stuff looks pretty cool, but maybe not enough to make it worth my time and money that would need to go into it. When I DIY, it’s definitely to have fun, but it’s also important to me that the project doesn’t look overtly DIY. I don’t want it to look “crafty” or “homemade,” to use those words in the Project Runway sense, which usually means not-so-professional-looking or kitschy-in-a-bad-way. And some of these projects looked a little too cheesy or cheap-looking for my tastes. I want it to look just as good as, if not better than, what I could buy in the store or pay someone else for. For example, there’s a project for a fedora with faux stitching where you use Sharpies to color in parts of a straw fedora hat to make it look like a pattern has been stitched on. Cool idea, and I bet it would look good from far away, but I wonder if up close it would look like precisely what it is—a hat colored with markers.

That being said, there were some projects that I liked and would consider trying out. I thought the project embellishing a pair of flats with lace was simple and sweet; a patchwork blanket project would be perfect for picnics and visits to the beach; the turban headband is trendy and cute; and the cork clutch is really, really cool. Additionally, there were some projects that while I wasn’t so into the finished product, there was a really cool technique involved that could be extrapolated to something I would be interested in making. For example, there’s a project involving Sharpies and rubbing alcohol to achieve a watercolor effect on fabric, which is a really awesome idea. The example uses it on a skirt, but I might use it on a light summer scarf instead. There was another project that uses looking glass spray paint and a vinegar-water solution to achieve a mercury glass effect. Fantastic idea! I would probably use it on some decorative vases instead of what was in the book.

Between the projects I would be interested in trying out and the ones where I’d like to try the technique involved on something else, I end up interested in about 11 of the 46 projects in the book. That’s 24% of them, which probably isn’t enough for me to go out and buy the book—I would rather check it out from the library when I got the crafting urge. I was disappointed that many of the projects weren’t to my crafting tastes, but I imagine there are plenty of DIYers out there who would love this stuff. If you are into crafting or DIY, maybe find the book at the library or flip through it at a bookstore to make sure your personal style jibes with the book’s before committing to purchase. If you already know you love Erica Domesek and the projects she posts online, you will probably love this, too!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Man Booker Prize Olympics, Part the Second (and Last)

In case you missed our first post, Read This / Eat That is commemorating the month and a half of furious reading that allows the Man Booker Prize judges to whittle their 13-book longlist into a manageable 6-book shortlist for the truly dedicated reader by September 10th (Pro-Tip: wait until October 15th and you only need to pick up one book).

But perhaps you weren’t sold on the value of the Man Booker Prize by our aptly picked Wiki quotes and our guessing the plots of recent nominees by their titles. Perhaps you shook your head and said, “I’ve never even HEARD of these books. How can they possibly have been nominated for an important literary award?” Or perhaps you simply decided that your enjoyment of Culture goes only so far as Downton Abbey.

Yeah . . . we’re kind of with you.

Especially because Booker Prize commendations are notoriously unreliable. Susan has completed 13 Booker nominees and winners, and her average rating for them is 3.3 out of 5. She's not the only dissatisfied reader: many of the Booker selections have average ratings in the low 3 range on Goodreads. Considering that the prize is awarded to the best novel of the year by a nation ever having belonged to the Commonwealth of Nations, this could mean that a third (!) of the world is publishing lackluster literature at its best.

Since we all know that literature has not died in the 45 years of the award’s existence, that theory is clearly wrong.

As far as we can tell, based on the generally uneven books given this prize, the chief enjoyment of the Man Booker may not be for readers to match wits with the judges and determine what the “best novel” eligible is; it is more pleasant to determine how the biases of the judges play out in declaring a winner. The Booker has a rich history of juicy controversy, from awarding only elitist books to awarding books that are not elitist enough. Our favorite scandal might be that Life of Pi received press for appropriating a basic plot outline from a Brazilian novel. The Daily Beast introduces some of the most public controversies associated with the prize, and a Poetry Foundation blog asserts that the Man Booker judges award books for using a combination of tropes.

The unfairness of the judging (point 6 in the Daily Beast piece) is so notorious (Susan has heard about shady quid pro quo from people familiar with a judge almost every time she’s brought the prize up in conversation—lesson being: don’t praise Bookers near your lit professors) that we can only guess that the Booker’s continued influence means that other awards have equally dubious judging.

They also most likely involve less posh award banquets:

Great Hall at Guildhall - c Janie Airey
Held at Guildhall, a 600-year-old building "designed to reflect the importance of London's ruling elite"

Man Booker dinner menu - c Janie Airey
Three forks at each place setting

Alison Moore and bookbinder Stephen Conway - c Janie Airey
Shortlisted author Alison Moore and bookbinder Stephen Conway in front of special handbound copies of the nominees

2012 judge Bharat Tandon - c Janie Airey
Black tie dress worn by 2012 judge Bharat Tandon

Martha Kearney, Dan Stevens, Victoria Hislop & Ian Hislop - c Janie Airey
Here we see proof that Cousin Matthew (also a judge) really could use a valet.
(Hint: Black tie dress involves a bow tie.)

And the ultimate sign of just how prestigious this prize is...

This year's longlist was in the form of a royal birth announcement.

Booker Prize Olympics, The Second Event

Let's meet the new members of the Booker family, Balderdash style. (This means that we initially looked at covers and sent each other our guesses of what the plots of the nominees were. Real answers are abridged from the official Man Booker synopses. Some of our guesses were very close to the real plot descriptions; some were just very close to each other. Play along; answers will be at the end!)

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki
  1. An unreliable narrator recounts in hallucinatory prose the strange events in her life that have always occurred after an encounter with the same mysterious (and perhaps imaginary) Japanese child.
  2. Ruth discovers a diary, possibly washed ashore from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl, and contains a mystery. In Tokyo a young woman navigates the challenges of modern life and family mysteries through a diary.
  3. A woman grieving for her sister recalls the stories they used to tell as children playing with their porcelain dolls. The doll’s shattered arm is a symbol.

Almost English - Charlotte Mendelson
  1. A semi-Hungarian Londoner tries to fit in at a traditional English public school, while her immigrant mother deals with her own painful secrets.
  2. An alien comes down to Earth with the mysterious ability to speak a language eerily similar to, but not quite, English. It takes on the appearance of a young girl and enrolls in a London public school in an attempt to master both the language and the nuances human interactions.
  3. An immigrant realizes how much she has changed since entering England as she fights to get her son into an elite public school.
NB: An English public school is traditionally a preparatory boarding school with extremely high tuition. Since most people would note that such a school is hardly a public option, hearing the expression is as confusing to American ears as potato crisp/chip/fry terminology or floor numbers.

Five Star Billionaire - Tash Aw
  1. A wealthy hotel owner learns true wealth is getting know some of his eccentric clients.
  2. The Five Star Billionaire's lessons for success unsettle the dynamics of four disparate lives in China.
  3. A man becomes involved in a deal with numerous publishing outlets wherein he is compensated for writing five star reviews of all of their books. Many years later, after he has made a fortune as a result of this agreement, he wonders whether compromising his integrity and taste was truly worth it.

Harvest - Jim Crace
  1. A man sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbors held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .
  2. In this horror story, a sheaf of wheat recounts his golden days waving in the Midwestern breeze, followed by the harrowing reaping of all of his friends and family members at the hands of cruel, heartless farmers and their scythes.
  3. Against a landscape of WWII bombings, a British farmer focuses on his crops in an attempt to ignore how much the world is changing around him.

The Kills - Richard House
  1. A military camp in Iraq is being converted for civilian use when there is an explosion and an attack on a regional government office. One worker has disappeared and over fifty million dollars of reconstruction funds are missing. As the camp tries to restore order and get revenge, there is a murder in Italy that reduplicates a well-known novel.
  2. A retrospective on the beloved musical group.
  3. A spy questions the morality of his latest mission and looks back on his long career of assassination.

The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahir
  1. A disgraced bank executive trades in his suit for some waders and sets out on a walkabout in the Everglades, befriending an alligator, a manatee, and a roseate spoonbill who help him begin to know himself and realize his true purpose in life.
  2. In India a communist zealot looks for peace after participating in armed assaults on wealthy patricians of his city.
  3. Two Indian brothers' lives diverge as one becomes drawn to the Communist movement and the other moves to America to pursue a PhD. The repercussions of one's actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton
  1. A scholar researches a group of mercurial poetesses of the 1800s, but finds resistance in his field because he is male.
  2. A new immigrant in New Zealand is drawn into the mystery of a series of unsolved crimes that make a network of fates and fortunes as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
  3. A group of poets and artists, radical in their time but destined to be great in the estimation of future generations, start a movement providing lanterns to poor families in their city. In the present, a young scholar uncovers one of these lanterns and its connection to the murder of one of the artists, and must track down more to perhaps finally solve the mystery.

The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman - Eve Harris
  1. An Indian woman marries a Jewish man—hijinks ensue as the wedding day approaches and their two families attempt to connect with each other and understand a different culture.
  2. Buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice, as a young woman preparing for an arranged marriage learns what it means to be a Jewish wife.
  3. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as Chani plans a wedding with a Gentile.

The Spinning Heart - Donal Ryan
  1. A young boy befriends an old man in the park who is afflicted with a medical condition that causes his heart to literally spin in his chest. As the boy meets the man there for weekly chess lessons, he learns much about life, hardship, and the power of hope.
  2. After her husband dies, a woman finds solace in spinning his hairs with her own. But when she runs out of his hair, she wonders if her pastime was chiefly about her love for him, or her interest in textile arts. Could textile manipulation be a new direction for her life?
  3. In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

The Testament of Mary - Colm Tóibín

  1. Mary Miller, a hopeless and despondent mother of 3 living in the suburbs of Anaheim, begins having seizures, claiming to receive visions and messages from God. As the media gets involved and people flock to see her in either pilgrimage or skepticism, her friends and children learn about the nature of belief, faith, and acceptance.

  2. A retelling of the crucifixion and early Christianity through the eyes of a postmodern Mary Magdalene.

  3. Living in exile and fear, Mary mother of Jesus tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son's brutal death. She slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.

TransAtlantic - Colum McCann

  1. Personal stories of four generations of Irish women are woven together to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.
  2. In the 1930s, a man invents a new mode of transportation—basically a spinning swing ride from a carnival, but it spins fast enough to create its own gravity and propulsion. In order to test it out and get people to take the invention seriously, he enlists a mismatched group of people to help him navigate it across the Atlantic.
  3. An Irish family’s brief visit to America is derailed by World War, and they must reluctantly make their home in the shadow of the endless carnival of Coney Island.

Unexploded - Alison MacLeod

  1. Living near a demilitarized zone, a woman is inured to finding undetonated bombs as she walks. But her frustration in her marriage leaves her increasingly mentally unstable.
  2. A woman visiting Normandy with her family in the 1950s comes across undetonated ordnance left over from WWII. While she ponders what to do with it, secrets from the war accelerate the deterioration of her family life.
  3. In 1940 Brighton a woman struggles to fall in with the war effort and the constraints of her role in life. Her developing relationship with a German-Jewish prisoner of war will shatter the structures on which her life, her family and her community rest.

We Need New Names - NoViolet Bulawayo
  1. Six young girls live in a shanty, and dream of escaping to America, Dubai or Europe. But if they do escape, will these new lands bring them everything they wish for?
  2. African emigrants living in London struggle to fit in with their neighbors.
  3. Two young graffiti artists trying to parlay their skills into the NYC art scene decide to invent more exciting names and pasts for themselves to ease their acceptance into the art world.

Based on these synopses, which books do you see making the shortlist next week? Do you have a guess about the winner yet?

We, naturally, have made uninformed opinions about the shortlist and winner.

Alyssa: We Need New Names, TransAtlantic, The Spinning Heart, The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, The Lowland, A Tale for the Time Being
Winner The Lowland

Susan:A Tale for the Time Being, The Spinning Heart, TransAtlantic, Unexploded, The Lowland, Harvest
Winner Harvest

Balderdash answers!
A Tale for the Time Being, 2
Almost English, 1
Five Star Billionaire, 2
Harvest, 1
The Kills, 1
The Lowland, 3
The Luminaries, 2
The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, 2
The Spinning Heart, 3
The Testament of Mary, 3
TranAtlantic, 1
Unexploded, 3
We Need New Names, 1

For those of you keeping track of our Olympics points, Alyssa won this event with her inventive and elaborate plot descriptions. (Especially compared to Susan's typically short and literal guesses.) From corrupt publishing in her version of Five Star Billionaire to the amazing self-propelled carnival swing in TransAtlantic, it's likely that Alyssa's plot descriptions would be more fun to read than the actual shortlisted books. Combined with her score from event 1, Alyssa is the uncontested winner of the Read This / Eat That Man Booker Prize Olympics! We expect to get cereal endorsement offers any minute now . . .

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