One of the most famous lines in Dr. Seuss’s classic holiday picture book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is the description of how the grumpy Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes” when he learns to truly appreciate the selfless values of the holidays.
So Random House Children’s Books took that line as inspiration for their new campaign titled “Grow Your Heart 3 Sizes.” Beginning Dec. 1, the publisher is encouraging children to make thoughtful gestures as part of the holiday season during its “25 Days of Grinch-mas.” If a child fills out a card listing three good acts he or she completed and sends the card to the publisher, Random House will donate a new book to the area where the child lives. Bookstores across the country will be creating events based on the campaign and its message. Kids can get the card at participating retailers.
“Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we wanted to reinforce the message that Christmas is not all about giving gifts, but about doing things from the heart, and creating a sense of family and community, which sometimes gets lost,” executive director of Random House Children’s Books marketing Kerri Benvenuto told Publishers Weekly. “We thought this holiday season was the perfect time to launch this campaign, given all the community efforts we saw in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when people really came together.”
North Carolina-based Shelley Hobson owns the toy shop Learning Express, which has a sizable book section. She has hosted three Grinch events already and told Publishers Weekly she was very impressed with the response from customers. Hobson and her team created three Grinch events over two days, two at her store’s two locations and one at her local children’s museum in Wilmington.
“We had big crowds at each [store] event, and as many as several hundred at the museum,” Hobson said. “The staff all wore ‘I Grew My Heart 3 Sizes’ buttons, we read ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ twice, families had their pictures taken with the Grinch, and we had a young actress dressed up as Cindy-Lou Who, who did a great job warming the kids up. The cool thing is that the Grinch is multigenerational now, and we had lots of parents and grandparents who are fans. It was a great way to kick off the holidays.”
To see if your local bookstore is participating, check out the Grinch-mas website.
Australian author Hannah Kent has a single novel to her name, which isn't surprising for a woman who hasn't yet reached her thirties. But in other ways, she's managing to bypass expectations.
For one thing, the novel, "Burial Rites," has nothing to do with Australia. It's set in Iceland of the 1820s and 1830s and tracks the real-life story of a young woman facing her execution.
For another, the novel is a sensation among book reviewers drawn to its depiction of the struggles of a gritty people and a doomed woman amid a harsh landscape. "Gorgeously atmospheric," declared The New Yorker, and the Sunday Times in the U.K. called it "a remarkable achievement" on par with the work of Margaret Atwood.
Here in the pages of the Monitor, I praised the "haunting elegance" of an "intense exploration of a young woman's mind, an insular community's fears, and the destructive power of those who can entrance others."
In an interview, Kent talked about the horrific events that inspired her work, the role of Iceland as a character in the novel, and humanity's ever-present rush to judgment.
Q: What's the true-life story behind "Burial Rites" and how did you come across it?
A: Ten years ago, I lived in Iceland for 12 months as a Rotary exchange student.
The town that hosted me was in the north of the country, and turned out to be located quite close to the site of Iceland’s last execution. A few months after I arrived, my host parents drove me past this site and told me a little about the 1828 murders that had resulted in two people being beheaded there.
Two men had been killed as they lay sleeping in a remote farmhouse, ostensibly because the perpetrators wished to rob them. As my curiosity about these events deepened, however, and as I continued to find out more about the case, I realized that the crime was much more complicated than it originally seemed, and that the motives of the two people who were convicted for the murders might have been deeply complex.
Q: What about the case did you want to unravel in the novel?
A: One reason the two men might have been killed is because of money. But their murders seemed also to have been the tragic culmination of a story of betrayal, ambition, unrequited love, poverty, and loneliness.
Most writers are drawn to what is unknown, rather than what is clear in any tale. The silences in this particular story were what held the greatest appeal for me.
I found that the largest gaps in the story surrounded the life, character and actions of Agnes Magnusdottir, the woman who was convicted of the murders alongside the 17-year-old Fridrik Sigurdsson. Where I hoped to find unbiased consideration and exploration of her early life and the circumstances that had contributed towards her involvement, I found only the caricature of an inherently wicked woman, hell-bent on revenge.
There was no ambiguity in any representation of her person, only an assumption that – because she was not a victim, and because she was different – she was unequivocally monstrous. A desire to subvert this popular opinion and provide a more contextual and complex representation of Agnes led to my decision to write "Burial Rites."
Q: Do you think of the novel as a mystery in the traditional sense?
Yes, it is a mystery, as all novels are. There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters.
But I believe the mystery lies more in characters than in the plot. I think of the novel as a whydunnit, rather than a whodunnit. The why is so much more interesting. How did a 33-year-old woman, in possession of a fine intelligence and known to be "very well brought up," find herself being tried for the brutal murder of her employer? Why was her community so swift to condemn her?
The mystery at the center of "Burial Rites" is not who killed whom on the night of March 13, 1828. It is the mystery each of us encounters: Can we every truly know another? Can we ever truly know ourselves?
Q: Iceland is a major character in itself. What do you hope readers pick up about that place and that time?
A: I have a deep and ongoing love of Iceland, particular the landscape, and when writing "Burial Rites" I was constantly trying to see whether I could distill its extraordinary and ineffable qualities into a kind of poetry.
The climate and the natural world there shapes you in ways that they do not in other countries. The characters in "Burial Rites" are products of their environment, and their awareness of and subordination to the landscape and its beauty and hostility is necessary.
Q: Some of the characters in the novel seem tough and brittle, chilled and perhaps unforgiving. Is that a fair assessment? If so, do you think this is a matter of their living in that time and place?
A: I do believe that some of the characters’ qualities are a direct consequence of their being reared in that time and place.
For instance, many of them possess a certain stoicism, and that is a characteristic I continue to see in contemporary Icelanders. To survive in that landscape requires a phlegmatic disposition. Many of them have a huge appreciation and love of literature, and that is something that I feel is shared by many Icelanders: The country’s lifeblood is story.
But I do not think that the unforgiving actions or words spoken by certain characters are indicative of that historical period or of Iceland. In fact, they're more suggestive of an attitude that can be found the world over.
Look at how swift we can be to condemn those who behave outside accepted social norms? We can be just as judgmental, just as inclined to stereotype those we fear. This is a universal and sadly timeless behavior.
Q: You're Australian. Do you see any connections here to your own country's past?
A: Yes and no. I see a certain connection to Australians' attitude and relationship towards our natural landscape: We too live in a country that can be simultaneously beautiful and hostile.
I possibly drew on that a little, but probably not consciously.
Q: What do you hope the novel makes readers think about? Do you feel like you're encouraging a certain kind of mood or feeling?
A: The story of Agnes Magnusdottir consumed me for years and years, and I have been both moved and changed by my research into her life and the events in 1828 and 1830.
I hope that readers will be similarly moved, but I would never say I hope they feel one way or another. Much of the joy of reading comes from the way a novel's story intersects with our own lives and causes us to reflect on various facets of both.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm currently researching my next book, which will be set in Ireland in the early 19th century. I've always been very interested in superstition and folklore, and this next novel will hopefully look at the way in which disempowered individuals have used superstitious beliefs to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. I want to explore the allure and consequences of this.
Thought "Harry Potter" and "Hunger Games" were just fun and games?
Today the series’ famously cult-like fans are using these popular fiction books as a means to affect social change.
The Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of fans who use “the power of story to inspire and affect social change,” is launching a campaign inspired by Suzanne Collins’ "Hunger Games" trilogy to fight social injustice in the US.
The nonprofit Alliance has created a "The Hunger Games are Real” YouTube video and a social media campaign called “The Odds Are in Our Favor” which shares statistics about poverty, hunger, and income inequality in the US with fans.
In an LA Times op-ed, Harry Potter Alliance executive director Andrew Slack writes, “If the books are supposed to function as a cautionary tale against the real class divide in the U.S., we need not look far for evidence. The future of Panem is upon us: More than 20 million Americans can't find full-time jobs, 22% of children live in poverty and middle-class wages have been largely stagnant since 1974. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at an all-time high.
“If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist, the same can be said of systemic economic inequality. The pull of the American dream is still so strong that many believe the only reasonable explanation for poverty is that it's poor people's fault.”
The “Hunger Games are Real” campaign is using excitement behind "The Hunger Games,” a story about inequality, to attract interest. “The Hunger Games” is a story about economic inequality, Slack argues, in which the fictitious country of Panem is actually the United States some decades in the future, where a fraction of people control almost all of the wealth and starvation is a daily experience.
According to the UK’s Guardian, actor Donald Sutherland, who plays President Coriolanus Snow, the archvillain of the Hunger Games series in the latest film, said in a Guardian interview that “I hope that they [young people] will take action because it's getting drastic in this country.”
The campaign hopes to spread its message through its YouTube video, social media, and a three-fingered salute used in the “Hunger Games” as a symbol of solidarity against corruption and inequality.
In the Times op-ed, Slack writes, “Perhaps Lionsgate will embrace the simple but radical message of its blockbuster films: No one should have to go hungry in a nation of plenty. After all, fantasy is not an escape from our world but an invitation to go deeper into it. And we will keep going deeper until the odds are in everyone’s favor.”
Using popular fiction to inspire social change – what do you think of this trend?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Thanks to “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” Deborah Solomon’s new book about one of America’s most popular artists, readers are getting a fresh look at an enduring Thanksgiving image: Rockwell’s celebrated holiday illustration “Freedom From Want.”
During World War II, Rockwell, who was best known for his homespun cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, conceived a series of paintings to honor President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech outlining the four freedoms essential to any civil society: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.
In Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” the viewer is taken “into the dining room of a comfortable American home on Thanksgiving Day, and you can tell from the light coming through sheer curtains that it is still mid-afternoon,” Solomon tells readers. "The guests are seated at a long table, and no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the white-haired grandma solemnly carrying it – do they even know she is there?”
The grandmother in the painting was actually the Rockwell family’s cook, according to Solomon. The nine adults and two children who appear in the portrait were photographed in Rockwell’s studio and later painted into their various places at the dinner table.
Rockwell later had reservations about the painting, feeling that he made the turkey too big, Solomon reports. Some critics, especially those outside America, saw the picture as a perfect if unintentional expression of American excess. But Solomon notes that the casual chatter around the table points hopefully to a nation in which citizens enjoy traditions but aren’t constrained by them. The wry face staring directly at the viewer from the corner of the picture hints that Americans don’t take themselves too seriously.
Viewers can see “Freedom from Want” online at the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Rockwell (1894-1978) has been widely dismissed for his idealized images of American life, but “Freedom from Want” is a reminder that he was a subtler artist than his reputation suggests.
All the more reason, as Americans gather around their own holiday tables today, to give thanks for Norman Rockwell.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
So what would happen if an 11-year-old dressed as Harry Potter went to New York's Penn Station and asked for help in finding his departure location?
The group Improv Everywhere decided to find out, sending 11-year-old actor Sebastian Thomas to the train station dressed as Harry, complete with white owl and old-fashioned school trunks, as part of their “Movies in Real Life” series. The group carries out what they call “missions,” activities which “create scenes of chaos and joy in public places,” according to their website.
Many commuters seemed very excited to see Harry, with some smiling and capturing video of him on their phones. Thomas’s stops included a ticket booth and an Auntie Ann’s pretzel stand, where he inquired whether pretzels were good for owls.
One commuter knew the answer to his departure query and pointed him towards platform nine, telling him, “Run really hard at the pillar. You’ll get there.” Alas, Thomas tried it with no results.
Check out the full video.
What do business books and 19th-century literature – seemingly polar opposites – have in common?
A lot, it turns out.
Money – and the social changes its possession or lack thereof effects – forms the backbone of so many works of literature that one Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writer decided to read the classics with an eye toward extracting financial lessons.
The result was a surprisingly insightful and timeless primer in understanding money.
“Money wreaks so much havoc in Victorian novels – arriving or departing almost magically in the opening pages – that they provide a kind of survey course in what not to do,” Jeremy Olshan writes in a piece titled “Novel Financial Lessons from Dickens, Flaubert, and Tolstoy.”
Writing about financial crises, he quotes Columbia University comparative literature professor Nicholas Dames, who said, “It became one of the offices of the novel to explain how these things could happen. The narratives teach us how no one is exempt from financial peril, even if personally blameless.”
Courtesy of WSJ's Olshan, the following are four lessons for recession-weary 21st-century readers from the pages of 19th-century literature.
Read Dafoe to understand money
Money is simply a means to an end – not the end in and of itself. To understand this concept, Olshan turns to Robinson Crusoe, who literally and figuratively missed the boat. After his ship is smashed on the shores of a deserted island, Crusoe scavenges for anything that might be useful in surviving island life – tools, food, alcohol – until he happens upon a cache of gold coins.
“I smiled to myself at the sight of the money: ‘O drug!’ said I, aloud, ‘what art though good for?... I have no manner of use for thee.’” And then he scoops up the money happily.
“This is precisely what the financial world gets wrong,” Don Phillips, Morningstar’s head of global research, tells the WSJ. “Intellectually, we understand that there are more important pursuits, that money is nothing but a means to an end – to support the lifestyle we want – and the goal in itself. But Wall Street turns it into a game in which we have to amass bigger and bigger piles than the ones we already have.”
Read Flaubert before swiping that credit card
Trickster merchant Monsieur Lheureux entices Emma Bovary with fancy wares she cannot afford, much like high-end ads tempt 21st-century shoppers. When she purchases the lovely wares on credit, Bovary, like so many of us, ultimately sinks into debt, and in the drama of the novel, drowns her troubles in a bottle of arsenic.
Read Dickens to learn the difference between saving and hoarding
“Bah! Humbug!” That classic line from the mouth of Ebenzer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” epitomizes the miserly ways of some modern-day scrooges who are as reluctant to enjoy a penny of their wealth as Scrooge was in his time.
The WSJ talks to a pair of financial psychologists who view the three ghosts as three therapists who help Scrooge – and insightful readers – understand how to responsibly enjoy his savings while he (or we) can.
Read Tolstoy before heading to the car dealership
Is Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” a novel about adultery? Pshaw, says Olshan, it’s a manual for negotiating with car dealers!
“At one point, Oblonsky, a Moscow nobleman, visits his friend Levin's country estate, announces that he's just sold a parcel of land, and asks whether he got a good deal,” Olshan writes. “Levin simply asks, ‘Did you count the trees?’ Oblonsky didn't – but Levin assures him that his buyer did.”
“Only a fool buys or sells something without knowing its true worth,” Olshan writes. “That sounds simple – but how often do we sit with the car salesman without knowing the real value of the car?”
We love this clever reading of classics we thought we knew. Who knows what financial lessons are lurking in the pages of Austen, Brontë, and Dostoyevsky?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
And now a movie will center on the author himself.
The movie will come from Fox Searchlight and writer David Gleeson, described by the Los Angeles Times as “a Tolkien superfan and scholar of sorts about the Middle-earth creator” and who wrote and directed the 2003 film “Cowboys and Angels,” is penning the script.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the second of a planned trilogy based around Tolkien’s novel, is coming to theaters on Dec. 13. While the first installment in the series, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” received tepid reviews, the movie grossed more than $300 million domestically. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was a critical and financial success and the third film in the series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” won the Best Picture Academy Award.
Forget about subject matter. In the controversial world of publishing and retail, even genre can stir a storm of biblical proportions.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the incident in Southern California, where a pastor tweeted a picture of a Bible for sale at a Costco labeled “fiction.”
‘Costco has Bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION,” Caleb Kaltenbach, pastor at the non-denominational Discovery Church, wrote. “Hmmm….”
Reaction was swift, strong – and mixed.
Others said they saw nothing wrong with the label and applauded Costco’s labeling.
In the end, Costco apologized and said it fixed the problem, which it said was an accident. End of story?
Not quite. The incident got us to wondering about the seemingly straightforward science of genre labeling. Sometimes there’s a very fine line that divides fact from fiction, or more specifically, memoir from fiction, or science fiction from fantasy, or historical fiction from fiction. And while that may not appear to be a significant problem at first glance, genre labeling can convey a strong message – as when the Bible, or a memoir, is labeled fiction.
It can also make or break an author’s livelihood. That’s because certain genres are very popular and are more likely to be sought out and discovered at a library or bookstore. In fiction, for example, some 48 percent of readers read mystery/thriller/crime books in the past year, according to a poll by Harris Interactive, as compared with, say, Westerns, which only 5 percent of readers read. Also high on the list was science fiction (26 percent), literature (24 percent), and romance (21 percent). Chick-lit (8 percent) and graphic novels (11 percent) were relatively low interest genres.
In non-fiction, history (31 percent) and biography (29 percent) take top spots, with true crime (12 percent) and business (10 percent) titles drawing far less interest.
In some cases, a poorly labeled book could cost an author in readers and sales – or lead a writer or publisher to pursue lucrative genres. (From Bubble Cow, see “What is the best genre to write if you want to get published.”
Frustrations with genre labeling novelist Sylvia Engdahl to write an article on “The Trouble with Genre Labeling,” in which she complains about how the categorization of some of her novels as “science fiction” has cost her in readership.
The LA Review of Books hosted a fascinating discussion of the topic, “Why Genre Matters,” this fall in which one writer Scott Nadelson noted, “I worry that we as a literary culture have become obsessed with labels. I worry that as readers we have come to rely on labels – a product of the marketplace – to teach us how to read. I worry, too, as that as writers we have allowed our self-imposed labels to keep us from understanding and appreciating the choices of writers who work in other modes.”
One Globe and Mail writer’s take? Writers should leave book-genre debates to marketers.
Genre labeling, as Costco recently learned, is no small matter.
The film depicts the alleged relationship between Dickens and an actress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones of “Like Crazy”). The movie co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Ternan’s mother, Tom Hollander as writer Wilkie Collins, and “In the Loop” actress Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wife Catherine.
The beginning of the trailer shows the ending of a play, possibly the show “The Frozen Deep,” which was written by Dickens and in which Ternan acted. Later, Jones is seen with Scanlan.
“’Tis a fiction designed to entertain,” Scanlan tells Jones of Dickens’ work.
“Surely it is more than that,” Jones says. “It changes us.”
Fiennes and Jones are seen spending time together and later, someone offscreen asks Jones, “Do you love him?” and she replies, “He is married.”
“The Invisible Woman” is based on writer Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name which posits that Dickens and Ternan had a secret relationship and lived together for many years. The details of Dickens and Ternan’s relationship have never been entirely clear, with the circumstances of it much debated by historians. Dickens very publicly left his wife in 1858.
The movie opens Dec. 25 in the US.
Check out the trailer.
London’s public benches will soon be getting a little more literary.
Beginning next summer, a public art program designed to promote fun reading and stories taking place in the city will take the form of benches that will look like giant books. The benches will be scattered across the city and will be based on such novels as “Peter Pan,” Michael Rosen’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” and others.
The project, titled “Books about Town,” is a fundraiser for the National Literacy Project and the benches will be auctioned at the end of the display time. According to the Guardian, the benches will first make an appearance next July and be on view for 10 weeks.
Some benches, such as “Pan” and “Bear,” have already been commissioned by businesses. The National Literacy Trust is reaching out to businesses to sponsor benches and offering the businesses the choice of choosing the book their bench will depict or leaving it to the NLT. According to the Guardian, the NLT hopes 50 to 70 businesses will sign up for the project.
“We are delighted to be launching Books about Town to spread the love of reading across the capital,” NLT director Jonathan Douglas said in a statement.
What famous London-set work would you want to see on a bench?