Wednesday, July 29, 2009

100 Best Beach Books Ever

NPR's audience recently picked the 100 Best Beach Books Ever. Here's the link. It's not a bad list overall. I've read 49 of the 100 recommended, and some of my favorites are definitely on the list. Have a look and see what you think. If you are getting ready to take a vacation or just spending some time at home relaxing, you might want to try a couple of books from this list.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg

What a joyful treat it is to read a Fannie Flagg book. She is definitely one of my favorite southern writers. If you like your green tomatoes fried and your ice tea sweet, Fannie should be on your to read list. Fannie began writing and producing television specials when she was only 19 and went on to become an actress and writer for film, theater, and TV. She's an Alabama girl (like me), and her books are always rich, comedic, and charming with poignant narrative.

In this book we return to Elmwood Springs and a set of characters we first met in "Welcome to the World Baby Girl" and then revisited in "Standing in the Rainbow".

Norma Warren's aunt, Elner Shimfissle (a minor character in the other books who commands center stage in this one), accidentally disturbs a nest of wasps while picking figs from a tree in her yard, and after receiving multiple stings, falls from the ladder knocking herself out. The next thing she knows she is off on the strangest adventure of her life. Meanwhile Norma's high strung niece faints and takes to her bed, Elner's neighbor Verbena rushes to the Bible, her truck driver friend Luther runs his 18 wheeler into a ditch and the entire town is thrown for a loop and left wondering what life is all about anyway.

The best thing about this book is the characters. They have an obvious love for one another and Fannie manages to capture that close-knit feeling of community that is prevalent in small town life. One of my favorite characters is Tot Wooten, from the Tell it Like it Is Beauty Shop, who is concerned that the end of the world will come before she can collect her social security.

The book is packed with morals, messages, and home spun wisdom and Fannie's trademark humor applied to social commentary. There are even some bonus recipes in the back, including Neighbor Dorothy's Heavenly Caramel Cake, a recipe as sweet as the book itself. These same characters and situations might seem a bit corny in somebody else's hands, but Fannie manages to pull it off with aplomb and style. You know these people, and more importantly, you love these people. And we all learn together that heaven is actually right here, right now, with people you love, neighbors you help, and friendships you keep.

40th Anniversary of Moon Landing

July 20, 2009 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The act of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth requires three things: the proper spacecraft, the appropriate launch vehicle, and the requisite spacesuit. This is a book that is lovingly devoted to that last requirement. It is a series of dramatic photographs of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's collection. It also includes never before seen historical images of spacesuit development and testing. It is a feast for the eyes and worthy of any space enthusiast's bookshelf.

This book manages to capture the magnificence of the Apollo program probably better than any other book. It combines quotes from 23 of the 24 Apollo lunar astronauts with 160 images taken from NASA's new high-resolution scans of the photos the astronauts took during the missions. The astronauts tell their experiences in intimate detail and their deeply personal reflections allow their distinct personalities and varied perspectives to really come through. It is a unique chronicle of a historic moment in time.

In the harsh environment of the moon's Sea of Tranquility lies a tiny silicon disc bearing messages of good will from the nations of the earth. In the four decades since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it behind these messages have gone largely unread. Now we have a commemorative book which takes us back to that moment when transcending politics the entire human race really were one. It is a lesson that many nations might learn from today, and I only hope that this little gem of a book gets wide dissemination.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Awful Library Books

Time Magazine's Dan Fletcher wrote about a couple of Detroit area librarians who started a blog called "Awful Library Books". Apparently they were frustrated by the aging books in their stacks and looking for a way to punch up an upcoming speech. As the article says, they have certainly struck a nerve with frustrated librarians, who have to deal with such anthropological finds on their shelves because libraries lack funds to update their collections. Weeding shelves is a task that requires proper funding. Let's hope that their blog highlights the need for such funding and in the meantime we can laugh at some of the entries they list.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Signing Their Lives Away: the fame and misfortune of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence by Denise Kiernan & Joseph D'Agnese

Just read a quote by Edmund S. Morgan, in the essay "Dangerous Books", from his new book American Heroes. It said:

"The only way to make a library safe is to lock people out of it. As long as they are allowed to read the books 'any old time they have a mind to,' libraries will remain the nurseries of heresy and independence of thought. They will, in fact, preserve that freedom which is a far more important part of our lives than any ideology or orthodoxy, the freedom that dissolves orthodoxies and inspires solutions to the ever-changing challenges of the future. I hope that your library and mine will continue in this way to be dangerous for many years to come."

What a terrific quote, and so appropriate for this post Independence Day posting. And speaking of heroes, several of the brave men who signed the Declaration of Independence would probably no doubt be at home on such a list. This terrific little book was my Independence Day reading this year and I have found it quite fascinating.

In 1776, fifty-six men risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defy the British and sign America's birth certificate--our most celebrated document, and a model for other struggling peoples the world over. Most people could probably correctly identify John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and maybe even John Adams. But after them, a lot of people would be hard pressed to name any others. But all these men are worth knowing, and this book does a good job of filling us in on the remarkably interesting lives of a group who came together one sweltering summer under distressing circumstances and despite big differences in opinion and background crafted a document that formed a new nation. Some of these men prospered and rose to the highest levels of government, and some of them had their homes and farms seized by the British. They were statesmen, soldiers, slaveholders, and even a scoundrel or two. The book jacket is a copy of the Declaration itself, and in addition to the individual portraits of the signers, the book contains a Time Line and selected bibliography.

If you have an interest in that period of American history, but don't want to wade through some of the more dense offerings, this book is informative and entertaining and easily digested with its 3-4 page outlines of each signer. This is a book that would appeal to history buffs of all ages.

In conjunction with the publication of "Signing Their Lives Away,” the authors are traveling in the footsteps of these revolutionaries. The result: a documentary feature and a 13-part film series that examines not only their legacy, but the state of the American Dream and our own ideas about independence. Under the Trailers section, there are several short films about the signers. Click here to learn more.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Newsweek's Top 100 Books of All Time

You can really get in trouble by trying to make a top 100 Books list. I mean, it's purely subjective isn't it, and who's to say that their list is the absolute gospel? What Newsweek did was crunch the numbers from ten top books lists (Modern Library, the New York Public Library, St. John's College reading list, Oprah's, and more) to come up with The Top 100 Books of All Time. I think I would agree with a large number of the books on their list, though I might argue ranking, and I might argue for some notable omissions. See what you think. And as Newsweek says--let the debate begin.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Surprising Facts about 10 Bestselling Authors (Courtesy of Mental Floss Magazine)

1. Dan Brown didn’t get his start as a writer. Oh, no. Before he penned thrillers like The Da Vinci Code, Brown worked as a pop singer and songwriter. His second solo album, Angels & Demons, even shared its title with one of his literary juggernauts.

2. Former lawyer and politician John Grisham may not need to practice law now that he’s moved 250 million copies of his books, but he did head to court on one special occasion after his literary success. In 1996 Grisham returned to the courtroom to represent the family of a railroad brakeman who was killed on the job. Apparently Grisham still had his chops; he won the case (and over $650,000) for the family.

3. Nora Roberts has been a staple on the New York Times Bestseller List for years, but it wasn’t easy for her to get her foot in the door. According to Roberts, when she was submitting her manuscripts to romance giant Harlequin, the publisher sent her a note rejecting her work because they “already had their American writer.”

4. Danielle Steel’s life sounds surprisingly like something from a Danielle Steel novel. The author has been married five times, and there have been some real winners in the bunch. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, husband number two was a bank robber who was convicted of raping a woman while he was married to Steel, and the third Mr. Steel was a heroin-addicted burglar.

5. The late Sidney Sheldon wrote a whole raft of bestsellers even though he didn’t start writing novels until after he turned 50. Sheldon kept himself pretty busy before his career took off, though, by creating TV hits like The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for penning The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

6. Bestselling thriller author John Sandford’s work may not be considered high art, but he’s got something a number of his more ambitious literary colleagues would kill for: a Pulitzer Prize. Sandford, whose real name is John Camp, picked up a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing in 1986 for a series of articles in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that chronicled a year in the life of a Minnesota farming family.

7. Having Stephen King as your dad has its perks. In the late 80s, King’s son Owen was just as obsessed with G.I. Joe as any other boy. Owen, though, got a little shout-out most of us didn’t receive. When Hasbro introduced the new G.I. Joe Sneak Peek in 1987, the character’s promotional materials stated that his real name was “Owen S. King,” a gesture that may have stemmed from Owen’s dad helping to create another G.I. Joe character.

8. Thriller author Clive Cussler often writes about searches for underwater shipwrecks, and it’s a topic he knows a thing or two about. Cussler founded the non-profit National Underwater & Marine Agency, and together with his NUMA volunteers has located more than 60 historically significant shipwrecks.

9. Jodi Picoult has enjoyed quite a bit of success as a novelist, but she’s also dabbled in comics. In 2007, she wrote a five-issue arc for Wonder Woman.

10. Nicholas Sparks’ works like The Notebook fly off of store shelves, but they might not move as quickly as their author. Sparks not only attended Notre Dame on a track scholarship, he also helped set a still-standing school record in the 4 x 800m relay.

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