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