Friday, December 28, 2007

One of our deepest, darkest secrets

I probably shouldn't admit this here, but we do have a secret plan in mind when we mail out each new volume of Select Editions. Simply put, we want to grab you the minute you open the carton. As soon as you see the collection of books in that volume, we want you to drop everything and start reading. And there's a method to our plan.

First of all, we need some big names. Authors like Michael Connelly and James Patterson who practically own the bestseller lists. Then we need somebody new and good that you might otherwise have never heard of, like Patrick Taylor. We fill out the bill with one of our personal favorites, the deliciously romantic Elizabeth Adler.

Next, we need to mix up the stories. They've got to be different, and they've got to work together, like the courses of a meal. They've got to be complementary to each other. And it's nice if there's something in each volume to appeal to everyone in the family when they open the carton. So there's a police procedural (The Overlook), a love story with exotic settings with a undercurrent of suspense and a dash of humor (Meet Me in Venice), a mind-boggling crime-of-the-century caper (Step on a Crack), and a tender tale of a young doctor learning the ropes in rural Ireland (An Irish Country Doctor). Something for men, something for women, something for everybody.

So maybe that's our biggest secret. We're trying to find something for everybody, to create a volume you just can't wait to read and share. Our January 2008 volume is, we hope, a winner on all counts.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Let’s hope the apple falls far from the tree

When I read the climactic final action scene in James' Patterson's Step on a Crack,which takes place in the famous Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, a small, soft bell rang in my head. Hadn’t my mother-in-law once said that a relative of hers was imprisoned there a long time ago?

I asked my mother-in-law recently about this, and she confirmed that, yes, her grandfather had been imprisoned there for a few years. She doesn’t know the nature of his crime; she doesn’t know the exact dates or duration of his imprisonment; but she does have one letter that her grandfather wrote to her grandmother while he was incarcerated. Using this letter, which includes his prisoner number, she plans to investigate the matter further.

So now I’m connecting the dots: this means that my husband’s great-grandfather was a convicted criminal! My mother-in-law is a lovely woman who has been supremely law-abiding her entire life. And by all accounts, her own mother, the daughter of the convicted man, was of a similar disposition. But what if the outlaw gene strikes only the male members of the family? Should I worry that I’ll one day be visiting my husband in Sing Sing?

If so, he’ll follow a long line of famous prisoners, including mobster Lucky Luciano, bank robber Willie Sutton, and spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The prison has been featured in several well-known films, including Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002). In fact, according to the prison superintendent, so many movies have been filmed there that several staff members have Screen Actors Guild cards. There’s even a Sing Sing museum down the street from the local high school.

Click here to visit a terrific history of the prison.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Weekly doses of Lisa Scottoline

If you can't get enough Lisa Scottoline, check out her "Chick Wit" column which runs each week in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer's Image section (and can be accessed here online, along with all her past Chick Wit columns). Lisa's uniquely sassy, urban voice takes on subjects such as her diet, her FICO score, her visit to the White House ("I just got back from the White House. I stole nothing of value. More accurately, the thing I stole didn't cost anything"), and holiday shopping. It's all very funny and will keep you busy until Lisa publishes her next great Philly novel.


Friday, December 21, 2007

The art of condensation

Did anyone see the article entitled “The Corrections” by Adam Gopnik in the October 22, 2007, issue of The New Yorker? We here at Select Editions read it with interest, because it concerns “abridgement, enrichment, and the nature of art,” according to the subtitle. Unfortunately, The New Yorker hasn’t put the article on-line, so I can’t provide a link. But if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth a trip to the public library to get your hands on a paper copy.

Most heartening to us was Gopnik’s endorsement of the excellent job done by the editors at Orion, a British publishing house, who put out a line of condensed versions of classic literature, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. We also agree with Gopnik’s assessment that a condensed book is a valid work of art in its own right. It will never be exactly the same as the original, but people read for a variety of reasons, and every reader should be offered a choice.

I take issue, however, with Gopnik's conclusion:

“The real lesson of the compact editions is not that vandals shouldn’t be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses . . . What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental.”

Maybe the reason that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masterpieces seem a little unwieldy or "loony" to us today is because they were written so long ago. Cultural perceptions and expectations of language have changed over the centuries, and maybe the editors of those books weren’t obliged or accustomed to asking an author to cut his work. Today’s editor might ask Melville to take huge hunks out of Moby-Dick—cuts that wouldn’t necessarily jeopardize its status as a masterpiece. Maybe what Gopnik perceives as looniness or weirdness or self-indulgent excess is just a product of the times, a style that was tolerated by earlier readers just as a certain type of loony, weird prose is tolerated by today’s readers of literary fiction. Maybe it has nothing to do with quality.

Gopnik would probably argue that the works of Jane Austen, although economically written, have nevertheless attained masterpiece status because of their unique voice and point of view. But that seems to contradict his assertion that masterpieces are “inherently” loony.

What do you think? What books will be designated the masterpieces of tomorrow, whether "loony" or not?


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Enter Lisa Scottoline's book club contest to win an invitation to her home

While many authors are very good to their fans, Lisa Scottoline may take the prize for fan appreciation—via her book group parties. She recently hosted her 2nd annual Book Club Party for 200 happy fans at her Pennsylvania home. She loaded up her guests with tasty treats, regaled them with entertaining stories, and then signed books, of course. Next fall, Lisa plans to host her 3rd annual Book Club party, featuring her upcoming novel Lady Killer (to be featured in an upcoming Select Editions). If your book group would like to attend, be sure to visit Scottoline's website to learn how to enter her random drawing next spring.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The fix is in

There seems to be a trade journal for every occupation. For editors, it's Publishers Weekly. Without fail, on Monday mornings this week's edition arrives in our mailboxes, and we eagerly grab it and read it practically cover to cover. Personally, I'm most interested in the reviews. I've usually read the books they're evaluating, and it's interesting, and often surprising, to compare their evaluations to my own. It's especially gratifying to see a book that I've loved similarly lauded by PW. It's nice to know that you're not alone in the world.

You'll notice, though, that I said the magazine arrives on Mondays almost without fail. Sometimes it arrives a day late, or, heaven forbid, a couple of days late. The Monday morning fix has failed to arrive. That's when you see editors biting their nails, pacing their offices, grabbing extra cups of coffee (better make that decaf). If PW doesn't arrive on time, my advice to you is to steer clear of the editorial department until the problem is solved. I refuse to be responsible for anything untoward that may occur in that hostile environment.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It's a pleasure

I was having lunch with a colleague from another publishing house recently, and as we talked I began faintly to detect traces of envy. She, herself, has a job a lot people in the industry would kill for, at great offices in central Manhattan, and at a firm that puts out some of the most respected fiction and nonfiction in the business. But as I described what I do all day—hunt for book treasure among the best of the best of current publishing for our discerning readers, and then read and condense these gems—she was clearly musing about what it was like on my side of the fence.

Then I really laid it on. “I’m also the project editor for the World’s Best Reading collector’s series, and I have to read the great classics like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Robinson Crusoe and then write introductory essays for each one we select. Actually, I usually just listen to audio versions of each novel in the car driving to work.” That’s when she said: “You have a great job!”

I do. And one of the things I really like about it is not just a chance to work on the cream of the crop, but also the serendipity that goes with the job as I learn about the authors we publish. Just this morning, I stumbled on a web site for the Edith Wharton Society. And I was reminded that there are a lot of information-packed fan clubs out there devoted to favorite writers. Which brings me to another thing I like about my job—I get to share what I enjoy directly with you. For fun, try these links:

Edith Wharton
Edgar Allan Poe
Jane Austen
Daniel Defoe


Monday, December 17, 2007

One thing Americans and Germans have in common

No Time for Goodbye was published as Ohne ein Wort (Without a Word) in Germany. The book was a runaway hit, selling over 200,000 copies in its first eight weeks. That's success in any language.


Friday, December 14, 2007

P.S. I LOVE YOU goes Hollywood

Select Editions readers may remember an unusual romance we published in Volume 4, 2004. It was P.S. I Love You by 21-year-old first-time Irish author Cecelia Ahern. The poignant/funny story concerned Holly, a young Dublin woman dealing with the untimely death of her husband. How to get through the next year? Luckily husband Gerry has left a set of 12 life instructions for Holly, one to be opened each month.

We all loved the manuscript here but debated whether the setting and lingo were just too Irish--sometimes you needed a glossary to understand the cheeky dialogue. But the wonderful characters won out and we decided to choose Cecelia Ahern's debut novel as one of the select 24 we published in 2004.

Now we all have a chance to see what the story would be like if it were taken out of Ireland. Is it still as charming, still as heartfelt? On December 21, the Hollywood version of P.S. I Love You opens nationwide, starring Hilary Swank, Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon and Phantom and 300 hunk Gerard Butler. I just looked at the movie trailer and note that Gerard Butler gets to keep his Irish accent and there are scenes that take place in Ireland, but most of the movie happens in a very Swanky New York City. So the Irishness of the story becomes a non-issue (sadly). (The 2006 photo above shows actors Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler on the set flanking Cecelia and her famous father, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.)

For those of you who are Cecelia Ahern and/or chick lit fans, you may want to know that she is also a creator of the hit comedy series "Samantha Who?" on ABC on Monday nights. I've watched a few episodes of the show and am happy to report that Cecelia's trademark humor and heart shine through brightly. So check it out some time when you need a "bumbling-romantic-in-the-city" fix.


Tree spotting

"He climbed the ridge to high ground and scanned the tamarack trees that grew in profusion along the edges of the wetland."

Sometimes words need a little help. You read a description, no matter how effective, of a city, or a river, or some remote place, and you want to get hold of a picture to help enrich and extend the reading experience. I recently felt compelled to do this while reading William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay. In this case, I was after a tree. It’s the tamarack larch. The novel’s hero, Cork O’Connor was once the sheriff of Tamarack County where he lives in northern Minnesota, and Krueger evokes the tamarack several times in the story, which is set mostly in the lush wilderness of Canada and northern Minnesota.

I had an idea of what the tamarack looks like, but wasn’t sure, so I searched the net for a good image of these stately, cold-tolerant trees that grace the countryside of northern North America, Canada and Alaska. In the process I learned that the wood of the tamarack is tough and versatile. It is prized as firewood, but since it is durable and flexible, it has also been employed for years by the Algonquin tribes to make snowshoes and other artifacts useful for life in the wild. The bark and roots of the tamarack are also said to have medicinal uses. The stately deciduous, coniferous tree, which loses its needle-like leaves each autumn in a blaze of yellow and can reach a height of nearly sixty feet, is an indelible part of the experience of the northern wilderness.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

The fine art of endorsement

Almost every book in the bookstore seems to have an endorsement on its jacket or cover—either a favorable quote from a review or a blurb from a fellow writer telling readers how much he or she enjoyed the book. Additional quotes and endorsements sometimes appear in advertisements for the book. In the case of No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay, these quotes are truly impressive in quality and number—see Linwood's website for the complete collection.

Publishers consider endorsements from other writers vital to a book’s success. If a reader sees a blurb from a writer she’s read and liked in the past, then it stands to reason that she might like what that writer likes. That’s why publishers spend so much time and energy choosing just the right people to solicit endorsements from. Is Writer A’s work really comparable to Writer B’s? Do they appeal to the same audience? Answering these questions can be very tricky. Also, writers decline requests for endorsements all the time, so publishers have to spread a wide net—which makes Linwood Barclay’s array of positive blurbs even more remarkable.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Hello again from the Word Nerd. As those of you who have been following my obsession with word origins know by now (see postings 10/16, 10/24, 11/28), I find eponyms—words derived from someone's name—tempting. They are, in fact, tantalizing, which is, itself, an eponymous term that harkens way back to the eternally tempted Tantalus of Greek mythology.

Everybody knows that when they say something is Darwinian or they speak of Darwinism they are linking back to the theories of the famous 19th-century biologist, Charles Darwin. That's a good example of an eponym. And most Americans know that the Bowie knife is named after James Bowie, brave defender of the Alamo. But not many people know that the peppy little freshwater fish we call guppies are named after an English-born amateur naturalist and resident of Trinidad, Robert J. L. Guppy (1836-1916), who was one of the first discoverers of the species and who, in 1861, sent specimens to the British Museum for classification. Guppies, popular home aquarium fish, have been used to control the spread of mosquito-born diseases because they feed on mosquito larvae. They are also "live bearing" in that baby guppies hatch out of their eggs before birth and are born ready to swim.

Here are a few more eponyms:

Volt: The measure of electrical force, is named for Italian Count Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), inventor of the first modern electrical battery.

Stetson: The wide-brimmed hat that is today an icon of the Old West, is named for New Jersey hat maker, John B. Stetson (1830-1906).

Derrick: The scaffolding most people associate with Texas oil wells, is so-called in honor of one Thomas Derrick, an Elizabethan-era hangman who devised a “better” gallows for his 3,000 executions. From meaning any frame for a hangman’s noose, the term evolved to its more benign definition today.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007


I was raised on Hollywood. When I was a kid back in the Fifties, the local TV stations were awash in old movies. They were cheap programming: the Early Show, the Late Show, the Late Late Show. In New York, where I grew up, the “Million Dollar Movie” showed the same film all week, twice each night and then repeatedly over the weekend. If I saw King Kong once, I must have seen it a thousand times. In one week.

The thing about old movies, aside from the fact that, as a rule, they were pretty good, was that they had a clear value structure. The good guys always won, bad guys always lost, home and family were of the utmost importance, and love conquered all. It didn’t matter if it was serious films, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures—the values were the same. In fact, they had to be: the Hays office made sure of it. A studio couldn’t release a film unless it met these standards.

We could probably argue at length about whether these enforced moral standards were good or bad for the art of cinema, but I think they were good for the audiences at the time. After all, these movies were made during the Depression and World War II. What was wrong with movies that made you feel good at a time when the world itself wasn’t all that great?

I think this feeling about entertainment has stuck with me, and it comes out now in the books I like, and the ones I recommend for Select Editions. Sure, I can read so-called serious literature and send myself into a state of permanent depression as well as the next person, but I don’t enjoy it much. What I like is a book that’s fun. It can be serious or funny, it can be quiet or it can be adventurous, it can be a mystery or a thriller or a romance or a historical, but it has to be fun. It has to be entertaining. And underlying that sense of entertainment is, I think, a clear value structure. I like it when the good guys always win, the bad guys always lose, home and family are of the utmost importance, and love conquers all. It’s cornball, sure, but it’s my kind of cornball. I come by it naturally, having been raised on all the old cornball of Hollywood. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think so.


Monday, December 10, 2007


Confession: I have never been to Canada, though I've wanted to since I was a kid. And now I want to go even more than ever.

Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger has re-ignited my interest in our neighbor to the north. This book tells the story of a lust for riches—as well as other sorts of lust (you have to read the book)—found deep in the lake-studied wilds of Ontario. Canada, of course, offers more than hidden precious metals and a breathtaking countryside. It is very rich in history, including that of the early British and French settlers, the many aboriginal peoples, such as the Ojibwa, and Inuit in the far north, and the latter-day Canadians from China, India, Pakistan, and other parts of Asia.

For fun, I've gathered up some Did You Know? vital facts about Canada. Here they are:

Canada, the name itself, is derived from an Iroquois word for “village” or “settlement.”
Population: 33 million
Size: In terms of its borders, Canada is the second largest country in the world, after Russia. A lot of this is ice, of course. In terms of land mass it ranks fourth after Russia, China and the United States.
Trade: Canada is America’s largest trading partner.
Famous Canadians: John Kenneth Galbraith, Shania Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, Jim Carrey, and Dan Akroyd.


Friday, December 7, 2007

Good readers better able to retain brain skills

Be glad you never worked in a lead smelter plant. As reported in a recent issue of Neurology, when doctors examined employees who had worked for years at the smelter, they found no lack of neurological problems for those poor workers. But not every worker was affected equally, especially those who were good readers. The years of reading, the scientists speculate, may have helped the smelter employees' brains to develop more "cognitive reserve." So while their motor skills might have been affected like the other workers, the readers retained much of their thinking skills, such as attention, memory, mental calculations and decision making.

This cognitive reserve, built up from years of reading, has been found to shield people from the effects of other types of brain injury, as well. Yet more reason for readers to feel smarter than ever!


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Memory lane

On 11/26, in reference to William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay, I posted that one of my very favorite reads from my high-school years was Hal Borland’s When Legends Die. Like Thunder Bay, which sketches the eventful life of Ojibwe medicine man Henry Meloux, When Legends Die tells the absorbing story of a Native American, Thomas Black Bull, a Ute Indian, who gradually learns to prize his special identity and tribal heritage.

It wasn’t long after writing that note that a memory tugged at me: Didn’t Reader's Digest publish this as a condensation in the 1960s? When I searched my shelf of Select Editions volumes going all the way back to Number One (published in 1950), I saw, to my delight, the words: When Legends Die staring at me from the spine of Volume Four 1963! (A little before my editorial time: I was eleven.) I thought: This is going home with me one weekend soon, for some quality private time.

Then I couldn't help scanning the tables of contents of some of the other volumes lining my office, and so many of my past vorites are all there: The Caine Mutiny (1951), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1964), and The Flight of the Phoenix (1964)—all great reads, and all, incidentally great movies, too. When DeWitt Wallace started Reader’s Digest in 1922, he sought to publish reading material of lasting value. As far as I’m concerned, these titles prove his success. And to the editors here today in Pleasantville, N.Y., they are potent reminders of a weighty legacy that we aim to sustain. The bar is high, and we vigilantly search for the best of the best to meet the challenge.

One of my top picks from 2007 as a candidate for future favorites lists of this kind is The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig (featured in Volume 1, 2007). If you have any personal favorites like these from the annals for Select Editions/Condensed Books, we’d love to hear about them. Sometimes talking books is almost as much fun as reading them.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Going to the dogs

Marley & Me, John Grogan’s touching, hilarious take on dog ownership was a fabulously successful book published back in 2006. And like all such books its success has spawned an avalanche of imitators penned by others who've been touched by the antics of their canines.

I'm not complaining, mind you. This is what publishers do and a lot of the descendants are pretty decent as it turns out.

Some of the better follow-ups include My Life with George, Judith Summers' story of life with her Cavalier King Charles spaniel and how he helped heal her and her son after some sad events in their lives. This literary dog celebration cuts across political lines. Recently conservative talk show host Mark Levin chimed in with Rescuing Sprite, which chronicles his family's adoption of an adorably persnickety shelter dog. Not to be outdone by the vast right wing conspiracy, liberal Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen has weighed in with Good Dog. Stay., which features Beau, her beloved black Lab.

I've had a few dogs in my life, too, none of them inspiring enough for a whole book, but still they were not without interest. Take Prince (they did!), my gorgeous honey-colored collie who got in serious trouble when he bit a boy who dared to point his cap pistol in my direction when I was five. Very Rin-Tin-Tinny, I thought at the time. Then there was Dylan, space cadet dog of the sixties, who, without benefit of illegal substances, still spent a lot of time out back nosing a large rock over and over across the yard for reasons known only to him. Groovy, man. Kill the pigs.

In my own nuclear family we've had two dogs, a Brittany we called Angus (named for my maternal Grandpa) and Rosie, the sweetest and dumbest beagle to ever misconstrue a command. We bought Gus from a toney breeder in a snooty New York suburb who scrutinized my wife and I long and hard before we were deemed worthy to fork over a king's ransom for him. Still he was well worth it, a great companion dog who turned out to be a world class Frisbee catcher to boot. We had no kids then and looked at dog ownership as parent training. And it worked. Later the kids ate way more than expected and declined to follow orders, just like Gus.

Rosie the beagle was a downmarket dog from the other side of the tracks we got when the kids were around. We purchased her from a guy who owned a pizza place and kept the litter of puppies in the back, near the kitchen. My family took a few days to decide which puppy to take, but we immediately found another pizza place (yuk). The first night we had Rosie, the whole family arose at 3 AM to the most godawful sound any of us had ever heard. Thus we were introduced to the practice of "baying," a beagle vocalization that sounds roughly like the soundtrack to a disemboweling. Turns out she was just lonesome for her siblings and the baying subsided eventually.

Rosie was loaded with what's known as emotional intelligence, but was a trifle short of, well, the regular kind. On top of that she was naturally mischievous. Like Marley, Rosie knew rules were meant to be broken and so-called commands were meant to be stared quizzically at. She was nevertheless tempermentally sweet and physically adorable, which is the means by which beagles have so far avoided extinction.

So is that the kernel of an introduction first chapter of my dog book or not?

Let us know which dog books you're buying for friends this holiday season, and if you have a dog anecdote of your own, please share on this blog!


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Next Big Thing

They are going to get me for this.

They (and I won’t mention any names) have been telling me that e-books are the Next Big Thing for a while now. Meanwhile, I’ve weathered iPods and iPhones, YouTube and Google, MySpace and Facebook, but despite all those other Next Big Things, they insist that e-books are going to be the Next Big Thing. I don’t believe it.

Now, maybe if they gave the electronic book readers away, I might be interested, but the ones I’ve seen cost a lot of hundreds of dollars. Additionally, you have to pay to load books into them. That’s quite an investment, considering that books-on-paper (as I guess we’d better call them from now on) are pretty inexpensive. I can buy books at a variety of prices, most of them quite reasonable, about the same as a new-release DVD. I even know places where I can buy books secondhand. I can take a book anywhere, and start reading it right where I left off, and when I’m done with it, I can give it to my wife to read; with the Next Big Thing, we would need an extra electronic book reader, and I could barely afford the first one. Better yet, I can drop a book from the second-floor window, go outside, pick it up and start reading it again. Just try that with the Next Big Thing.

To my mind, some activities simply aren’t asking to be automated. They’re quite nice the way they are. Relaxing and reading a novel—that is, a basic old book-on-paper—is one of those activities. Not having to worry about the battery running out, or dropping it, or locking it up at night, are all part of the bargain. Putting it on the shelf when I’m done and remembering it fondly is part of the bargain. Passing it on to a family member or friend is part of the bargain. If e-books really are the Next Big Thing, I’m afraid this is one big thing on which I am going to take a pass. What's your take on this?


Monday, December 3, 2007

Lisa Scottoline on TV tonight

Murder by the Book, a hit TV show on Court TV, pairs mystery and suspense fiction writers with real-life cases that have inspired them in some way. Using documentary footage, first-person accounts and the author's own insights, each one-hour episode sheds new light on a particularly intriguing crime. So far the series has featured top writers such as Sandra Brown, David Baldacci, and Joseph Wambaugh.

Tonight at 10 pm, the show stars Lisa Scottoline (currently featured in Select Editions with Daddy's Girl). Lisa delves into the death of Karyn Hearn Slover, whose dismembered body was found in a lake near Decatur, Illinois.

Make a note: Select Editions authors on future episodes include Linda Fairstein (December 10), Jonathan Kellerman (January 21) and Lee Child (January 28).


Nice work if you can get it!

I was just checking in with Linwood Barclay's website, only to find out that he's taken a leave from his newspaper writing job. I love the way he puts it: "I’m officially off until Labour Day, 2008. I’m going to use the next year to work exclusively on book projects, and maybe watch all those DVD sets of classic TV shows I’ve been collecting. (Twin Peaks, The Outer Limits, Hawaii Five-O, many of which seemed a lot better when I saw them the first time…)"


Friday, November 30, 2007

A vicious circle

It's a sad fact. According to a recently released study from the National Endowment for the Arts, reading is in a continuing decline in the US, most frighteningly among school kids. Reading skills, and the grades that go with those skills, are in decline. "The study points to a failure to produce a new generation that reads," says NEA chairman Dana Gioia. As a result, business leaders can look to a future of employees who may not be able to put together a decent sentence in their memos, or maybe even be able to recognize a decent sentence when they see one.

The culprit in this bleak scenario? It's unclear, but put together the rise of the internet as a pastime and the lack of attention given to books in the media, and there just doesn't seem to be much out there influencing kids in the direction of reading as a positive thing to do. They're missing out on a lot of fun, and they're missing out on a lot of brain expansion. Each of us, in our own way, should do what we can to reduce this decline. Give a kid in your family a book as a present. Read books yourself. Make books cool however you can. That's probably our only way out of this situation.



As promised in a posting on 11/23, I rummaged about in my basement over the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend and found my old copy of A Pictorial History of the American Indian by Oliver La Farge. Boy, did that bring back memories! And to carry the memories on to the next generation, I was pleased to be able to share the book with my nine-year-old daughter for her school project on the Onandaga Indians of New York State. With an assist from her older sister—who had the same assignment a few years ago—she built a handsome, rustic Onandaga longhouse (pictured above) to go with her report on the Iroquois tribe.

Also, as promised, I looked up "Ojibwe" in the index to see what La Farge had to say about the Algonquin tribe featured in William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay. According to La Farge, the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa, “still live in fragments of their ancient homeland, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where once they had Lake Superior and Lake Michigan at their disposal. A wigwam people . . . They did very little farming, but fished on a tremendous scale.” The Ojibwe were also known as “good fighters.” Which will be no surprise to those who followed the tumultuous life story of the Ojibwe warrior turned medicine man, Henry Lemoux, in Thunder Bay.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Great American Songbook

My mother was a music major in college, and could also play piano by ear—without sheet music. But that didn’t stop her from amassing a huge collection of printed music, especially popular songs from the 1940s. In particular, I remember standing by the piano, fascinated, while she played “Three Little Fishes” (“Boop boop dittum dattum wattum—choo!”) and “Honey Bun” (“A hundred and one pounds of fun”) . . . those were the days . . .

So when the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song “I’ve Heard That Song Before” featured prominently in Mary Higgins Clark’s latest novel, I had to look for more information in my mother’s honor. To my amazement, I discovered that the Harry James/Helen Forrest version was released on July 31, 1942, the very day before the American Federation of Musicians, a powerful union, prohibited their members from recording any more music in studios. The union felt that so-called “canned” music was putting their members out of business. Live musicians were being replaced in cafes and bars by jukeboxes; live radio performances were being replaced by prerecorded tracks. For more than a year, no music was recorded by unionized musicians in America. But singers were exempt from the ban . . . because they weren’t considered musicians!

Two major record labels gave in to the union in 1943, and agreed to pay royalties to musicians for jukebox play and radio broadcasts. Two other major labels relented in 1944, and the ban effectively ended.

Since 1942, “I’ve Heard That Song Before” has been recorded by a number of artists. In addition to Frank Sinatra’s original version from the movie Youth on Parade, there’s Vera Lynn, Al Martino, the great Mel Tormé, and contemporary crooner Andrea Marcovicci.

Now here’s a question for all you devotees of the Great American Songbook: which three George Gershwin songs contain the lyrics “Who could ask for anything more?” We editors here are all stumped!


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Go figure

As we approach the end of the penultimate (i.e., next to last) month of the year, the Word Nerd can’t help pondering the origin of the word we use for it: November. At first I thought the term might have something to do with “new,” as in “novelty.” But no, November, I’ve learned, is a stubborn—and somewhat misleading—remnant from the ancient Roman calendar, which began in March. You may write, as I do, 11/28 for today’s date, but our eleventh month was Caesar’s ninth (novem means “nine” in Latin). This means, of course, that our upcoming twelfth, December, is —you guessed it—the old tenth. This is not higher math. It’s just a good example of what a great, shaggy, unruly garden the English language is, complete with curious roots.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fun Fearless Female Award

Lisa Scottoline has something I want. Not her legal career, not her writing career, not her millions of fans, not her paycheck. No, what I want is an award Lisa won called The Fun Fearless Female Award (from Cosmopolitan magazine). I am one of those things—female—but I truly aspire to be the other two. What could be more ... well, fun, than being recognized for being fun? I try, really I do, but life does tend to interfere in the form of bills, housecleaning, child maintenance, and other not-always-fun obligations. When you're a kid, fun is a priority. As we grow older, though, do we minimize the importance of fun? I wonder. And fearless! Who would not like to be a little more fearless. Let those bills slide! Let the house stay a mess! Play hooky from work! Let the kids fend for themselves, or watch TV all day! Live a little more fearlessly. Well, anyway, The Fun Fearless Female Award sounds a lot more impressive to me than, say, Employee of the Month. I could go google The Fun Fearless Female Award and see what it's really for, but I think that would ruin my fun fantasy. So I shall remain fearlessly in the dark.


Monday, November 26, 2007

The thrill is NOT gone

One thing that almost always disappoints me is the lack of thrills in most thrillers. The reading shelf in my office (and there really is a reading shelf, where most of the books that are sent to us by publishers sit waiting for an editor to grab them) is usually piled high with manuscripts being touted as the latest great thriller by so-and-so, or a debut thriller by somebody-or-other that’s even better than the latest great thriller by so-and-so. But when I read them, I remain sadly thrill-free. And a thrill-less thriller is a little like hot ice cream: it just doesn’t get the job done.

So when I initially read Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye, I will admit I wasn’t expecting anything. After all, I’d never heard of him, and he was just one more thriller writer highly touted by his publisher. And then—whoa, Nellie! I started reading this book—and I don’t say this as hype or exaggeration—and I simply could not put it down. It was unique, it was exciting, it was nonstop, it was funny, it had great characters, it kept me guessing. I was blown away. When I was finished, I wrote a report on it for my colleagues saying, simply, don’t read this report: read the book! I say the same to you: don’t read this blog, read the book!

I only wish more thrillers did the job the way this one does. It's in the current volume of Select Editions. Let us know what you think.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Bonus points

I always enjoy learning things. That’s why I’m a book editor, I guess. You can’t help learning things from good books, especially from well textured fiction like Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger in the current Select Editions, which threads fascinating background elements that really enrich the experience of the story.

We call these bonus treats—the parts that inform while you’re being entertained—“plusses.” In Thunder Bay, there are many of these plusses. But the two that stand out for me are (1) the detailed and often breathtaking evocation of the Canadian wilderness; and (2) Indian lore. Native American life and history are, of course, endlessly fascinating.

Krueger’s description of an Ojibwa medicine man made me want to learn more about the tribe, also called Chippewa, and its related group, the Algonquin. One of my very favorite books when I was growing up was A Pictorial History of the American Indian (1956) by the noted anthropologist and author of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge. This weekend I’m going to rummage around in my many boxes of books at home—there are never enough shelves in a book editor’s house—and retrieve that fine reference and see what La Farge wrote about the Ojibwa.

Another informative, fun novel in this vein is Steve Hamilton’s Blood Is the Sky (2004). Similar to Thunder Bay, this suspenseful mystery/adventure (featured in Volume 6, 2004 of Select Editions) is set in Michigan and Canada and features life on the rez—in this case, the Bay Mills Indian Community located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This naturally calls to mind Tony Hillerman's novels. His literate, best-selling mysteries set in New Mexico celebrate Navajo culture. Still another favorite is Hal Borland's When the Legend’s Die. Set out west in rodeo country, it was first published in 1963, and depicts the American Indian experience with sympathy and unforgettable drama. It is well worth a read, or many reads, for that matter.

If you have any special favorites like these let us know! We can start a book-club list..


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Booking for the holiday

The Great American Feast is upon us. And for a lot of us this means not only a long-anticipated meal with family and friends, but also copious hours of travel and some jealously guarded quality downtime over the long weekend. What better way to while away time in-flight or pre-security check at an airport than to tote a good book? Ditto for your post-Turkey quiet hours. Here are three charming American food memoirs I recommend just for this purpose.

American Pie by Pascale Le Draoulec is a quirky combination travelogue, cookbook, love story and memoir. When Le Draoulec, a California journalist, receives a job offer in New York, she decides to drive to the east coast, instead of fly, and turn the journey into a culinary quest along the back roads of America in pursuit of good pie. She is an accomplished but very un-stuffy food writer. Her story is offbeat and fun.
The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken by Laura Schenone. The title alone made me want to read this one. Here’s another quixotic quest chronicle. But it’s not pie this time, but the Italian-American author’s great grandmother's homemade ravioli recipe. Schenone’s mission takes her into her family’s past, to Genoa, Italy—where people take ravioli very seriously—and back to her own home kitchen in New Jersey. A real family-and-food feast.
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Yes, it’s set mostly in France. But there is no more important—or affably cheerful—influence on American cooking than the six-foot-two, clarinet-voiced TV kitchen celebrity, Julia Child. “My Life” is a lighthearted memoir begun by Child, who died in 2004, and finished by her grandnephew, Prud’homme. It recounts Child’s early years in France where her husband worked for the State Department. This one is a delightful armchair holiday for Francophiles, foodies, or anyone who enjoys a little whimsy with their joie de vivre.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A question of character

We keep coming back to this, as editors and as readers, and it's worth thinking about. What exactly is the most important factor in making a good book? My votes would be, in order, character, character, and character.

Take this example. My wife is an inveterate reader of mysteries. I mean, she will read any and every mystery, any time of the day or night. (She is not unhappy that I can fuel her addiction with books borrowed from the office.) And the vast majority of these books are series installments. For that matter, the vast majority of mysteries from the beginning of the genre have been series installments as far back as Sherlock Holmes. So why does my wife incessantly read these various incursions into all these different series? As she puts it, she just likes to visit with the characters again. She doesn't care about the mystery per se, although if the mystery is intriguing that's a nice plus. She cares about the people. She cares about the characters. She wants to see what they're up to next. Everything else is just gravy.

I maintain that this is true of all books. The underlying appeal of a good book is good characters. We care about the people in the story. Maybe we connect with them on some personal, emotional level. Or maybe they're people we'd like to be. Or they're people who are just so entertaining that we want to be around them. They can be nasty, weird, and exquisitely underhanded, and we just enjoy watching them pursue their evil ends. Whatever. Our favorite books—modern, classical, mystery, romance, adventure, you name it—are our favorites because of the people in them.

Try it yourself. Think of your favorite books. Ten to one, the thing you remember most is the characters.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Nice words from Lisa Scottoline

Lisa Scottoline, author of Daddy's Girl in the latest Select Editions volume, tells us, "I am honored to have my books included in Reader's Digest Select Editions! I'm a longtime fan of Reader's Digest, and I love the care and treatment you give my books, as well as being in the company of such fine authors. Kudos to Select Editions!"


Friday, November 16, 2007

Male readers from Mars, female readers from Venus?

We editors had a discussion recently about whether or not there is such a thing as a "male book" or a "female book." Sometimes this seems obvious: most likely, bodice-ripper romances are the territory of women, while military-techno thrillers are preferred by men. But wait—is this really true? Do men and women look for different qualities in a book? One old adage claims that men read male books (thrillers, mysteries, action-adventure) and women read women's books (romance, family drama) AND men's books. I can confide that on our staff it's not necessarily true: sometimes the men have more tolerance for weepy family dramas and the women love those shoot-'em-up thrillers. But maybe we are just oddballs....

Take a look at the current all-mystery/thriller volume of Select Editions, and then let us know what YOU think.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Picks of the month

Because I’m a book editor, I’m frequently asked, somewhat jokingly, “Read any good books lately?" Obviously I read a lot of good books—and some not so good. That’s how we pick the best of the best for the Select Editions readership. As I’m sure we’ve mentioned before in this space, Select Editions editors review hundreds of submissions to extract the treasure reads from the blinding number of volumes published in the U.S. and abroad every year.

But if asked jokingly, the question usually has a serious intent because choosing a good book to read is serious business. No one these days has unlimited time for that favorite of all pastimes—favorite, that is, for those of us lucky enough to appreciate book reading for the sublime joy that it is. Wasting time on a so-so book can lead to what I call, “so-so book rage.” And the offended victim is not fit to live with until something really worthwhile shows up. So getting a hot tip on where to invest your reading time is gold.

This week I'm encouraging people to pick up William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay, a suspense novel set in Minnesota and the wilds of Canada; and How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill, the memoir of a blue-blood New York City ad exec who lost his job, fell from grace, hit some hard times, and then found his way back serving lattes at a Manhattan Starbucks. The subtitle alone usually gets people started on this one: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everybody Else.

Of course, members of the Reader's Digest Select Editions and Today’s Best Nonfiction book series are privileged to receive these two stories directly at home through the mail. As you read those, let us know what books you're recommending to fellow book lovers this month.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another thought on thrillers in general

I’ve mentioned before that there are plenty of thrillers being written these days that just don’t get the job done. I’ve been thinking about why, and while this certainly isn’t true in all cases, and there are some exceptions, it’s nevertheless a pretty reliable predictor. Here’s the deal: If you pick up a thriller and it weighs more than a microwave oven, it’s probably not going to deliver all that many thrills. Almost by definition, a thriller has to move fast. Fast means sharp, fast means it zips along, fast means that it grabs you and takes you with it and you never get a chance to catch your breath. Now, in general, I have nothing against long books—in fact, Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors, and nobody ever accused him of underwriting—but length seems to be the opposite of what you need if you’re looking for excitement. Length is for luxuriating and getting lost in a story, while brevity is the soul of excitement. You know how blurb writers often say that a certain thriller is like a roller coaster ride? That should be an apt metaphor, but in my experience, a roller coaster ride lasts about two minutes. A roller coaster ride that lasts, say, a couple of hours? It’s just wrong.

I wonder if I’m alone in thinking this.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Mary Higgins Clark--more than just a mystery writer

In the current volume of Select Editions, Mary Higgins Clark's 31st(!) book I Heard That Song Before tells the bizarre tale of Kathryn "Kay" Lansing, a librarian who is deeply committed to community literacy and fundraising. Kay lives in New York and commutes to New Jersey where she grew up. Anyone who knows Mary knows that this particular character must be very near and dear to the author.

Like Kay, Mary Higgins Clark has deep roots in both New York City and New Jersey, and has been active for years in literacy education as well as a number of historical and literary associations. Mary is also very active in Catholic affairs, often lending her name and presence to various local and national fundraisers about hunger, youth education and family health. She counts the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master award and the Gold Medal of Honor from the American-Irish Historical Society among her many awards and medals, but nearest to our hearts is the 2002 Reader's Digest Author of the Year Award.

Above is a photo of Mary accepting that RD Author of the Year award, with me to her left. Mary is super-gracious and a wonderful raconteur, and had everyone at the awards ceremony smiling over her speech about her early days as a writer. When she expressed her gratitude to Reader's Digest for our global publishing support of her books from the beginning, we told her "We thank you for all the wonderful stories you've given our readers."


Friday, November 9, 2007

Characters we know and love

One of the things I love about Daddy's Girl, featured in the current volume of Select Editions, is Lisa Scottoline's deft hand with certain characters, beyond the book itself. Meaning: I know those guys! Take Angus, the offbeat-but-cool professor. Angus has a ponytail and wears fisherman-knit sweaters. Students flock to him. Girls have crushes on him. Honestly, don't we all remember our "Angus" from college? At my school there were a few: the young English professor who was a rising poet, who wore a white scarf and a leather jacket around campus, and held office hours at the local coffee joint. Then there was the philosophy professor who cross-country skiied to class in winter, and held class (or should I say "held court:") outdoors under the willow trees in fall and spring.

My other favorite Scottoline character in this book is Paul, the little brother who speaks only in capital letters. Boy, do I know him! He's the sweet but clueless friend who interrupts your deepest confidences with sports updates; he's the sister-in-law who always talks but never listens at Thanksgiving; he's the guy everyone loves but wishes would take it down a decible or two. All it took was a few sentences in capital letters, and Scottoline was able to capture Paul. That's talent.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

An exclusive interview with the author of THUNDER BAY

Once again our British Select Editions cousins have published a great author interview. Check out what esteemed mystery writer William Kent Krueger has to say about his early days and his current life as a writer.

Reader's Digest: Native American culture is a strong theme in your Cork O’Connor novels. What do you find most interesting or inspiring about it?
William Kent Krueger: I admire tremendously the courage of the Ojibwe. In the face of great hardship, they have endured. They have not lost their language, their traditions, or their sense of humour. I have a number of contacts and acquaintances within the Ojibwe community and they are amazingly generous with their time and their knowledge.

RD: And how did the main character come by his name?
WKK: Before I knew anything else about the books, I knew the protagonist would be named Cork. I imagined a character so resilient that no matter how far life pushed him down, he would always bob back to the surface.

RD: Did you have to do a great deal of research for this book?
WKK: I wouldn’t say a lot. At its heart, Thunder Bay is a love story and that’s something I’ve been researching all my life.

RD: Your childhood was a little unconventional in that you moved around a lot. Why was that, and what is your clearest memory of those times?
WKK: For a long time, my father worked for a large oil company and was often transferred. Rather than thinking of these moves as disruption or hardship, my family always saw them as adventure. What I remember most is our eager anticipation of a new place.

RD: You met your wife Diane quite early in life and are still happily married to her thirty years later. How did you know she was "the one"?
WKK: I don’t think anyone ever "knows." And love changes across thirty years. Like a garden gone wild, it grows dense and tangled and spreads far beyond its proper borders. If you’re lucky—and I am—the tendrils of love invade every nook and cranny of your life and one day you realise that the beautiful wild garden has swallowed you up.

RD: You were expelled as a student for taking a stand against what you saw as the university’s complicity in producing weapons for the Vietnam War. Are you still politically active?
WKK: These days I’m more spiritual in my approach to the turmoil of the world. I pray. I volunteer. On occasion, I still march. More and more, however, I simply tend my garden.

RD: You did a lot of jobs before becoming a writer. Which did you enjoy least?
WKK: When I was a young man, I spent some time logging timber in the Rockies. One day, as I ate lunch alongside my brother, we stared across a mountainside we’d helped clear of trees. It was a devastating sight. We quit then and there and walked twenty miles down off that mountain. It was one of the best days of my life.

RD: You’ve said that the act of creation is more important to you than the acclaim of being a published writer—what did you mean by that?
WKK: Commitment, discipline, creative accomplishment, joy in your work: these are within every writer’s grasp. Acclaim is something over which no writer has control, so I do my best to let go of that concern.

RD: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
WKK: Write because it’s what you love to do, because it gives you energy, because when you’ve created something that pleases you, the whole day is better. If you do this, good things will come of it, I promise.

RD: Do you have a favourite quotation from your character, Henry Meloux?
WKK: "Every falling leaf comes to rest where it was always meant to be."


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Life imitates art?

The word is that Tony Blair just sold the publishing rights to his memoirs for $9 million. He has not set the record, which apparently belongs to his friend Mr. Bill Clinton, whose memoir went for $10 million. The curious thing is, the book The Ghost by Robert Harris, a forthcoming Select Editions title, portrays a former British Prime Minister who does indeed get $10 million—Clinton money, in other words—for his upcoming memoir. Mr. Blair must be cursing his luck in matching neither his real counterpart across the water, nor even his fictional counterpart in a bestselling thriller. Poor guy. I mean, $9 million just doesn't go very far nowadays.


Monday, November 5, 2007

Some private traveling

The New York Times recently reviewed some books (including the new Dick Francis), discussing how each of them transported the reader to some new or unique place. Looking at the latest volume of Select Editions, I'd say we are definitely getting that job done this time out. No Time for Goodbye may be the story that is closest to home, until the narrative begins to unfold and we realize that home isn't exactly what we think it is. Daddy's Girl takes us early on into a prison riot; I can't say I've ever actually wanted to get caught in the middle of such an event, but it was pretty exciting to read about it. Thunder Bay takes us into the wilds of Ontario, both past and present, for the kind of adventure just made for the armchair traveler. And in I Heard that Song Before suspense diva Mary Higgins Clark takes us into the amazing world of some rich people who seem to have everything—including problems we're quite happy to let them suffer through rather than us.



Friday, November 2, 2007

The Case of the Mystery Volume

If you've received Select Editions Volume 6 of 2007, you'll know that once again we have put together an all-mystery volume. We started doing this annually a couple of years ago, for what we thought was a very good reason: When readers tell us what kind of books are their favorites, they overwhelming say mysteries. Mysteries are the number one genre at Select Editions, and if you look at the bestseller lists over a period of time, they seem to be the number one genre, period. I could go through a whole made-up litany why, but to tell you the truth, I don't really know. Because, let's face it, mysteries within the genre are not identical.

There's procedurals and locked-door puzzles and cozies and gloomy Scandinavians and historicals where the detective is anyone from the Pharaohs to someone real who happened to live around the same time as Sherlock Holmes (who didn't, in fact, live, but try to tell that to some people) and who gets involved with the Baker Street investigator by accident. There's young detectives and old detectives and kid detectives and undead detectives and hard-drinking detectives and teetotaler detectives and religious detectives. There's sexy mysteries and funny mysteries and literary mysteries and science fiction mysteries. There's mysteries where you find out who did it, mysteries where you know who did it and you find out why, mysteries where you know who and why but not how, mysteries where you know who, why and how, but not when. Or where. Or sometimes even if! There's mysteries filled with series characters and mysteries that stand alone. There's mysteries, in other words, in every shape, form and size imaginable.

Maybe that's why we like mysteries. Because we never know what they're going to be like. Because, well, they're always a mystery.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

Of lasting interest?

Julie Garwood and Jeffery Deaver, featured recently in Select Editions, are no strangers to national best-seller lists, as are many authors who appear in Select Editions. Of course, best-seller status doesn’t mean that every single book on such a list is a great book. It just means that lots of people are buying them--especially book buyers for Walmart of Costco or Borders. Such success could be a one-time, special-interest phenomenon or just the new book (which may not be very good) by a big-name author with a big following.

This is where Select Editions comes in. Think: Select. We pick only the best, regardless of hype or fame. And sometimes we agree with the bulk buyers at big chain stores. And sometimes, not. All of this has got me thinking about bestsellerness and those books that have stood the test of time. If you look through a history of annual top-selling novels over the past 100 years, you’re bound to come on some surprises. Going back exactly 100 years, for instance, you find that 1907 did not produce one best seller that anyone has ever heard of since. Naturally I recognize Frances Hodgson Burnett’s name. She’s the amazingly prolific and gifted author of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1909). But as for The Shuttle and the other titles, I confess complete ignorance. Of course, I’m being a little unfair. I haven’t read any of these. And perhaps I should. Anyway, here’s the list from 1907. If anyone has read any one of these novels, please let us know and give us a review!

The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little
The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
The Port of Missing Men by Meredith Nicholson
The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Brass Bowl by Louis J. Vance
Satan Sanderson by Hallie Erminie Rives
The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon
The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers
The Doctor by Ralph Connor
Half a Rogue by Harold MacGrath


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scribes of the uncanny

In honor of Halloween, we thought we’d offer you a chance to test your knowledge of the literary superheroes of the scary. See if you can match each author’s name on top with their classic works of horror, mayhem, thrills and chills below.

1. The Invisible Man
2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
3. The Picture of Dorian Gray
4. Frankenstein
5. The Phantom of the Opera
6. Dracula
7. Pet Sematary
8. Rosemary's Baby
9. The Haunting of Hill House
10. The Exorcist

A. Bram Stoker
B. Shirley Jackson
C. H.G. Wells
D. Gaston Laroux
E. Mary Shelley
F. Stephen King
G. William Peter Blatty
H. Robert Louis Stevenson
I. Oscar Wilde
J. Ira Levin

Extra credit: Which book was published earliest?

See the answers in the comments area to this item.


Monday, October 29, 2007

A most interesting dinner party

This doesn't happen very often, but take a look at the authors top six nonfiction bestsellers in the country this week: Jessica Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert, Eric Clapton, Alan Greenspan, Rosie O'Donnell,and Clarence Thomas. What a collection of celebrities! If you can find the one thing (other than their successful books) that connects them, you're smarter than I am. But I'll tell you one thing. I'd love to get the whole batch of them over for dinner some night. Find out what they really think about this and that, although Mrs. Seinfeld might just think, mostly, about nothing, and from what I've seen of it, Rosie has no problem speaking her mind about anyone, any time, including in her new book. Would presidential candidate Colbert seek Justice Thomas's advice on potential court appointments? Would the normally reclusive Messrs. Greenspan and Clapton swap publicity tips?

It would be a meal to remember.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Nora Roberts wins Book of the Year (see it on TV)

We were excited to see that Select Editions fan favorite Nora Roberts recently picked up a top book honor. This past Monday at the Quill Book Awards held in New York City, Nora won the Book of the Year award for her enthralling novel Angels Fall, which Select Editions published last January. Readers had selected the book in online voting from among the Quill contest's 18 category winners. (Nora's book had also won the Best Romance category.)

Upon receiving the big award, Nora said that she was going to thank the appropriate people: Her fans. “Everyone seems to be thanking their husbands, wives and kids, but mine didn’t write this book,” she joked, before raising her Quill in honor of the readers who voted for her.

A one-hour version of the event, which was held at the swanky new Lincoln Center jazz theater, will be broadcast on NBC stations tomorrow night, Saturday, October 27. Tune in to see a host of celebrity presenters (including Brooke Shields, Al Roker, Stephen Colbert, Tina Brown, Dan Rather, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York) plus many more best-selling authors, including Mary Higgins Clark. And the great thing is, they're all celebrating our favorite thing: reading!


Thursday, October 25, 2007

A character with the gift of giving

There is a character in the book Garden Spells that intrigues me no end. Her name is Aunt Evanelle, and like all the unusual Waverley women in the story, she has a remarkable power. For reasons she cannot explain, every now and then she is inspired to give someone a gift, usually an odd and often useless item, and sooner or later, the recipient absolutely has to have that very thing! As I say, Aunt Evanelle can't explain it, but the characters in the book know well that, whenever she gives you something, hang on to it, because eventually it is going to come in very handy.

Then again, I've got a few relatives that give me presents for my birthday or Christmas, and I have to admit, many of them are odd and useless. Too bad none of them are an Aunt Evanelle.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Secchione pieno di parole*

(See below for translation of Secchione pieno di parole)*

Peter Pezzelli’s Francesca’s Kitchen, appearing now in Select Editions, has started me thinking about all the many contributions Italian culture has made to our culture. First and foremost, of course, is food. As everyone who has read about Rhode Island’s most daunting fictional kitchen diplomat—Francesca Campanile—knows: Italian food has a special power to win over hearts and minds by means of the dinner table.

But that’s not all. The Italian language, which is famously musical to the ear and suited to poetry and opera, as well as cuisine, has enriched the English language with a cornucopia of borrowings. Everyone knows spaghetti (which, by the way, means “little strings”), pasta, and ravioli are Italian words we use in everyday English. But here are a few naturalized verbal immigrants from the Old World that may surprise you.

Malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, was originally associated with the bad air—mala aria in Italian—around swamps and marshes.

Prima donna, is Italian for first lady.

Buffoon, someone who is clownishly foolish, comes from the Italian word for jester, buffone.

Cartoons are so popular in America you might think the term is native born. It’s not. The word comes from the Italian cartone, meaning a sketch, drawing or caricature.

Zany, as in wild, unpredictable, funny is one of my favorites Italian terms. The word, probably Venetian in origin, comes from a nickname for John, or Giovanni in Italian. When you think about it “Johnny” is not all that far, linguistically from Zanni.

You might have noticed that two of these terms refer to clownishness. Now, there is nothing especially clownish about the culture that gave the world the Renaissance. But there is something uniquely funny from Italy. And that is the highly influential native-born improvisational theater called Commedia dell 'arte, which was extremely popular in Europe from the 1400s through the 1700s, and had a lasting influence on Western drama from the works of the Britain's Shakespeare, France’s Molière and, more recently, the Irish-born Samuel Beckett.

*Word Nerd (as admitted in previous postings)


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Proof that readers live longer

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine points out that older people who lack "health literacy"—meaning they can't read or understand basic medical information—may have a higher mortality rate than more literate patients. At the beginning of the study, the patients were asked about their health and backgrounds and given a health literacy test that required reading and some math. In the following years, those who had been identified as having inadequate reading skills were the most likely to die, even when overall education and other social factors were taken into account.

So keep those reading glasses prescriptions updated—it could extend your life!


Monday, October 22, 2007

Judging a book by its (UK) cover

An interesting, albeit minor, pastime could be comparing the U.S. and the British book jacket design for big-name authors. The most famous example regarding how different covers can be is the UK cover design of the Harry Potter books versus those from the U.S. It can be a matter of taste regarding which design you like better, but they certainly are different.

Here's a case in point closer to Select Editions' home. Look at The Sleeping Doll cover on the front of your Select Editions volume. Then look at the one from the U.K. (pictured above). I have to say the U.K. one has more creepy flavor than the more generic U.S. one. What do you think?


Friday, October 19, 2007

Tom's test kitchen

If you remember, we featured a stuffed mushroom recipe from Peter Pezzelli's family kitchen in the AfterWords section (page 271) that followed his tasty novel Francesca's Kitchen. And you may also remember that on October 8 on this very blog, I boldly vowed to try my hand at making another of Peter Pezzelli's favorite family recipes at home.

I wasn't able to corral my three daughters into the act. But I was able to whip up a version of Sue's Zucchini Frittata late one Friday night at home when all was quiet. (A rare moment at our place.) Below is a reprint of the instructions.

Since I was on my own for the event and since it was my debut frittata, as a test I halved the ingredients and followed the recipe closely. The result was beautiful. It was picture perfect, nice and fluffy—and a yummy late night supper. For cheese I used mozzarella. Along with the frittata, I enjoyed some white wine—Italian, of course. (I recommend Palazzone Orvieto Classico, about $9 a bottle.)

Of course, one of the first things I did the following Monday was e-mail Peter Pezzelli, to crow about my achievement and ask a few questions. More than one of my foodie colleagues here at the office had read the recipe and queried, "Twelve eggs?" It seemed too many and surely must require a huge skillet, they thought. Also I wanted to know Peter's wine and cheese recommendations for the dish. Here's his reply:

Hi Tom,
Yes, twelve eggs is correct. The more eggs you put into it, the thicker and more substantial the frittata comes out, but it's all a matter of taste. If you like it lighter, go with fewer eggs, but if you're serving a lot of people, you might want to use more. Sue usually uses grated Romano or Parmagiana cheese. She uses just an average sized skillet. The Orvieto you suggested sounds fine, but I generally prefer red wine. I like the Chiantis. Piccini is one that I've discovered that is very reasonably priced.
P.S. Have you tried eating the frittata with a little Tabasco or spicy mustard on it? Really good.

I immediately wrote back to thank him and promised to revisit the recipe armed with a full dozen eggs this time and three kitchen helpers--my daughters--and to have some Tabasco at the ready.

Sue's Zucchini Frittata

1 dozen eggs
1/4 cup grated cheese
2 thinly sliced zucchini
olive oil
1 whole chopped onion
garlic salt and pepper

Spray bottom of skillet with cooking oil spray. Beat eggs and grated cheese together. Sauté zucchini in skillet with olive oil and onion until al dente. Season with garlic salt and pepper. Add eggs to skillet. Let cook. Use spatula to check bottom of eggs. When bottom of eggs is brown, place skillet in oven under the broiler to brown the top. Serve hot or at room temperature.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

A side note on Sarah Addison Allen

Sometimes we can’t fit everything we want to into our author biographies at the end of a selection. The good news is, now we can put them here!

Sarah Allen, author of Garden Spells told us that she grew up in the South, amid the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, where, she says, her mother “still makes cornbread that is out of this world and her father plays old-time banjo, claw-hammer style.” Neither of these talents were passed on to Sarah, but she did become “very good at eating and listening.” The former, she says, made her “fond of elastic waistbands,” the latter turned her into a writer.

Now I’m hungry!


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In praise of the author?

It's not unusual for authors to promote one another's books. For instance, Stephen King provides a quote saying that such-and-such is a good book. Or John Grisham tells us that this new author is great. Or someone whose work we know tells us that the book in our hand is worth reading. I'm used to that. But Donald Trump takes it one step further with his latest book. The quote in the recent ad for his book says the following: "It's the best thing I've written." And, of course, the quote is from Donald Trump.

My hat is off to this wonderful example of quiet authorial modesty. And who but Donald Trump could get away with it?


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Word Nerd

I’ve always been fascinated by word origins. One reason is simply the adventure of it all. You get to go places. English is such a rabid magpie language that it welcomes accretions from almost any source and from speech born in the remotest of countries: “Tote” and “gumbo,” for example, come from Africa. "Chow” and “ketchup” traveled west long ago from East Asia. And "pajamas” and “bungalow" are from India.

But tracking word origins is not just an exercise in virtual world travel. It can also be time travel—all the way back to Sanskrit, and beyond (if you dare). And then there's the history behind every word as it traveled into modern English, which is inherently fun to discover. In this category, one of my favorite kinds of words is one that always packs the promise of a curious back story—the eponym.

Say what?

No, an eponym is not an extinct animal species or a gastric complaint. It is a word that describes a word derived from a person’s name. We all know them: Pennsylvania (named for the father of the Quaker colonist, William Penn, 1644-1718), the Teddy Bear (think Teddy Roosevelt) or Sandwich (from the card-playing English earl).

Thus it was with considerable relish that I stumbled on an old paperback copy of the A Dictionary of Eponyms (C.L. Beeching, Oxford University Press) at a library book sale last autumn. This is really fun reading for a word nerd like me. Full of surprises. Who’d have thought, for instance, that the commonplace bright, pink fuchsia flower, a native of the Americas, is named for Leonhard Fuchs a 16th-century German botanist and professor of medicine at the University of Tubingen? Or that the Happy-Face yellow forsythia shrub that explodes across America each spring (originally an Asian plant) is named for William Forsyth, the Scots-born head gardener at the Royal Gardens in London during the reign of King George III?

Okay, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that botanical terms would be named after botanists. But the fact is, I never think about it—the words have become so everyday-common their eponymous ancestors have dropped out of sight.

Here's another one that might surprise you:

Shrapnel, which now means any sort of explosive fragment, is named for Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), a British army officer who invented a devastating artillery shell filled with musket balls that exploded and broke apart on impact. The weapon was particularly effective against French forces at the Battle of Waterloo.