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Two Books, Two Perspectives on Spirituality

Well, the season's upon us, and I feel compelled to write about two of my favorite religious books of the last year. They are two deceptively small titles published by one of my all-time favorite presses, New Directions. The books are collections of related work by that 20th-century religious titan, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The first is On Eastern Meditation; the second, On Christian Contemplation. Needless to say, they're published in uniform editions with French flaps and are nothing less than exquisite — just like anything you see from New Directions. Of course, there's nothing really new in these little books, outside of the editors' introductions, but the way they've been assembled and presented offers up a challenge and a source of solace and inspiration to seekers of whatever flavor.

The introductory material in each book is fabulous: learned, astute, and informative. On Eastern Meditation is edited by Bonnie Thurston, a founding member and past president of the Thomas Merton Society, and On Christian Contemplation is edited by Dr. Paul M. Pearson, the director and archivist at Bellarmine University's Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Powells.com Guest Bloggers of 2012

Here at Powells.com, in addition to exclusive interviews, original essays, and Q&As, we feature a wide selection of guest blogs from noteworthy authors. Each week, a new author contributes to our blog for five days straight, revealing everything from their thoughts on the writing process to details about their favorite neighborhood cat. We're constantly amazed at what comes out of these series, and we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to be able to host so many brilliant authors in one place.

As the year comes to a close, we thought we'd give a rundown of all our guest bloggers for 2012 in case you missed — or want to revisit — any of their posts.

Adam Johnson (January 9 - 13)
Books | Guest Blogs
Adam Johnson, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow, teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His previous work includes a short-story collection, Emporium, and the novel Parasites Like Us. His second novel, The Orphan Master's Son, is an epic tale that charts a young man's undercover journey in the world's most mysterious dictatorship: North Korea.

Exclusive to Powells.com: Johnson ...


Smitten Kitchen’s Savory Pot Pies

Editor's Note: While we were thinking about Thanksgiving, we couldn't think of a more beloved authority than Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, whose new cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, is one of the titles we chose for our Holiday Gift Guide. Deb shared with us the following recipe, one of her favorites. Bon appétit!

Over the years, we've had a lot of dinner parties. I've made mussels and fries and red pepper soup; I've made meatballs and spaghetti repeatedly; brisket and noodles were on repeat until I got the kinks ironed out of the recipe in this chapter, and there was this one time when I decided to make nothing but delicate flatbreads for dinner. It was a terrible idea. Don't do this unless you want to spend three days making doughs and mincing vegetables, only to have everyone leave hungry.

I'm pretty sure if you asked my friends what the very best thing I've ever served them was, they'd still go on about chicken pot pies I made from an Ina Garten recipe all those years ago. People, it turns out, go berserk for comfort ...


A Love Deferred

Let me be perfectly honest: I'm not a terribly religious person, nor did I, in the years I was growing up, ever have a parish priest who was hot enough to be crush-worthy. So I'm not sure what sparked my love for historical romances featuring vicars as heroes. But give me a vicar (or a virgin or, best of all, a virgin vicar) for a hero, and I get all swoony even before I begin reading. Add in a former courtesan who has the gall not to feel ashamed of her past, a village full of judgmental gossips, and a gaggle of besotted young ladies, and what you would seem to have is the recipe for a comedic romp or even a farce.

What you have, instead, is A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. Although this book has its moments of levity, what it's truly full of are pages and pages of unfulfilled longing. It's the kind of longing that is all furtive glances and "accidental" brushes of hands and that I, as a reader, felt all the way down to my toes. It had ...


Art Forgery as Novel Inspiration

It was just a bit after midnight on March 18, 1990, and the city of Boston hadn't even begun to recover from a raucous St. Patrick's Day celebration, when two men, dressed as police officers, bound and gagged two guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They spent 81 minutes ripping paintings from their frames, then threw them into their rusty Datsun hatchback and drove away with 13 pieces of art today worth over $500 million. The heist remains the largest art theft in history.

The cache included priceless masterpieces such as Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Manet's Chez Tortoni and Vermeer's The Concert. Despite thousands of hours of police work, a lapsed statute of limitations, and a $5 million reward, none of the art has ever been recovered.

As a longtime Boston resident, the heist always fascinated me, and I wondered how I might write a novel about it. So I began spinning "what ifs." What if one of those priceless paintings wasn't priceless at all? What if Rembrandt didn't paint Storm of Galilee? What if some unknown artist did instead? Would the painting ...


The Pop-Culture Romance

Why is it that if I read one romance novel with a particular theme, I seem to read several all at once? It's happened with fairy tales and with spies being held prisoner by the French, and now it's also happened with pop-culture references. Two authors whose work I've really enjoyed in the past have dipped their buckets into the world of 20th-century pop culture for the foundations of their most recent novels.

First, there is Jeannie Lin's My Fair Concubine. As you can probably tell from the title, Ms. Lin got her inspiration from My Fair Lady. But she only borrowed the most basic plotline: a young man from a good family must turn a girl of a much-lower social class into a "princess" in a very narrow window of time. Of course, in My Fair Concubine, over the course of this transformation, our hero, Fei Long, falls for our heroine, Yan Ling.

The major conflicts at the heart of the novel — the enormous debt left by Fei Long's father at his death, and the problem of how Fei Long and Yan Ling can be ...


Four Poetry Books You Can’t Live Without

It's been a while since I've had the pleasure — or the time — to write for the Powell's blog, so I thought I'd dip my toe into something I really love: a roundup of a few of the best poetry books I've read in the last year. This list, of course, is by no means exhaustive, and I'm sure that every reader will come up with a whole slew of different titles. If you know a book or an author I missed, by all means, let me know — I'll be eternally grateful.

Okay, here we go...

÷ ÷ ÷

The first book on my list came out at the end of last year and immediately stole my heart. You may know it already, but if you don't, you should definitely, by hook or by crook, pick it up. It is Patti Smith's Woolgathering (New Directions), a slim little volume that flawlessly weaves her melodic, hypnotic voice into a mesmerizing memoir.

Originally published as one of the legendary Hanuman Books (a series of tiny little books, mostly written by Beats and their hangers-on, that was inexpensively published ...


Falling for Another Fairy-Tale Romance

Gack! Another fairy-tale-themed romance. It really wasn't my intention to go back to this particular well, but I thought this book was so lovely that I almost felt like I had no choice but to share my affection for it with you.

Eloisa James is one of my must-read authors, and in The Ugly Duchess, she combines two of my favorite tropes: friends turned lovers and a story borrowed from a fairy tale. In this case, it's Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling (surprise!). Before you go all history police, Ms. James herself is aware of the anachronism inherent in basing a novel spanning the years 1809–1816 on a fairy tale first published in 1843 and acknowledges it clearly in the afterword. (And, really, isn't "The Ugly Duckling" just a Cinderella story with feathers?) The fairy tale is just a framework, anyway — a dressmaker's dummy around which to shape the fabric of the tale.

And, oh, what a tale it is.

Theodora and James have been friends for years. When James proposes, he does it in such a way that Theo is convinced he ...


A Romance Novel That Doesn’t Need the Love Story

Wow. It's been quite a while since I nattered on about romance here. Part of the hiatus was due to a busy, busy summer, and part was due to the fact that nothing I read had really knocked my socks off. Oh, I read a lot of books that were good, and some were even really good, but I didn't come across anything that stuck with me for days and made me want to shove it into other people's hands.

Until this week.

The book that finally broke the meh streak was Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex. I'll be honest and admit that the heroine, Sally, was a bit too good to be true (but not quite into Mary Sue territory), which was occasionally annoying. But there was so much that I liked about the book that I was willing to let some things slide that, in other books, might have made me stop reading. What really, really, really worked for me was that the book was set almost entirely on a naval ship, and there was a big, climactic action scene set during the Battle of ...


Spies in Prison

I have learned a lot from reading historical romance novels. Unfortunately, one of the primary things that I have learned is incorrect. During the Napoleonic Wars, many Englishmen were spies, as many as a quarter to a third, apparently. Not only that, but a lot of them were seemingly very bad at it and got captured by the French. Not all of these fictional English spies were awful enough to be captured, but enough were to make me wonder how, if this was the quality of the opposition, Napoleon was ever defeated. Okay. Okay. It's true that the villainous French captors often let slip Very Important Information during their sessions questioning/torturing their British captives. And these captors almost inevitably met their deaths at the hands of their erstwhile captives. But that doesn't excuse the fact that they got caught in the first place.

I think the book that finally made me roll my eyes at the frequency of the capture of English spies was A Lady's Revenge by Tracey Devlyn. Not that the book itself is deserving of eye-rolling, just that it started right off with the rescue of a captured spy called ...


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