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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Writer Don Hickey says in his view, America lost the War of 1812 – not a popular opinion, he says. 'The common view is that the war ended in a draw,' Hickey said.

Why America forgets the War of 1812

By Randy Dotinga / 06.08.12

Quiz time! Remember that famous movie about the War of 1812? You know, the one with that one big star and the other big star?

You don't. No one does since there hasn't been one. In fact, the conflict has only inspired two or three films, and those are largely forgotten. (It probably didn't help that the 1958 one starring 12,000 extras and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson was envisioned as a musical.)

It wasn't that the War of 1812 lacked drama. Our nation's capital actually got invaded, and the Battle of New Orleans actually occurred after a peace treaty has been signed thanks to the lack of rapid communication.

Even so, the war -- which actually lasted from 1812-1815 -- just hasn't fired up our imaginations.

What gives? As the war reaches its bicentennial this month, I called Don Hickey, professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska, to ask him that question.

He's the author of 1989's epic "War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict," which was updated and revised for a reissue this year. Hickey talked about the reasons for the war, the way our neighbors to the north look at it (they got invaded, after all) and the reasons why we could have avoided this conflict entirely.

Q: Why don't we remember the War of 1812 very well?

A: It's forgotten because the causes don't resonate much today.

We went to war to force the British to give up the removal of seamen from our ships and restrictions on our trade with Europe.

Nowadays, nobody goes to war to uphold maritime rights.

And to confuse the issues of causes, we invaded Canada.

We could not challenge Britain on the high seas, so we thought we'd conquer Canada and force concessions on the maritime front. That made it look like a land grab, and that's the way it's looked at north of the border.

Q: Do you think we lost the War of 1812, making it one of very few defeats for the United States in major conflicts?

A: By my count, we lost the War of 1812 and we lost Vietnam.

That's not a widely held opinion in the United States about the War of 1812. The common view is that the war ended in a draw.

But we invaded Canada in 1812 and in 1813, and in the west in 1814, and all three invasions pretty much ended in failure. It doesn't look like we achieved our war aims.

Q: At the time, Britain was busy with a giant conflict of its own, a war with France that made it crack down on shipping. But the war definitely concentrated minds in Canada, which got invaded. How is the war remembered in Britain and Canada?

A: Let me give you an old saw, a loose paraphrase of what a Canadian historian once said: Everybody's happy with the outcome of the war. Americans are happy because they think they won, the Canadians are happy because they know they won and avoided being swallowed up by the United States, and the British are happiest because they've forgotten all about it.

He didn't mention the biggest losers, who were the Indians.

Q: What happened to the Indians?

A: I estimate the American deaths were 20,000, the British at 10,000, and Indians at maybe 7,500, but that was a much larger proportion of their population.

They lost two decisive wars, one in the old Northwest (the area around Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) and one in the old Southwest (mostly Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi). That really opened the door to American expansion, and they were left without any allies that they could line up with against the U.S.

Q: Other American wars in the 19th century were largely about grabbing territories. Was that the case here?

A: If you think of this as a land grab, it fits into a larger history of American expansion. But that's not what caused this war.

Canada wasn't the end. It was the means. The end was to force Britain to give up their maritime activities.

Q: What can we learn from this war today?

A: The importance of military preparedness.

We were woefully unprepared for this war. The Republicans were anticipating what one anti-war Republican expected would be a holiday campaign -- that Canada is to conquer herself through the principles of fraternity.

Q: Sounds like something that we heard from Vice President Dick Cheney about the Iraq War, that we'd be "greeted as liberators," right?

A: That was the view. Also, we had a huge 15-1 population advantage.

Q: What went wrong?

A: Our military establishment was woefully unprepared and there were a lot of incompetent officers. Soldiers were recent enlistees who were ill-trained and without combat experience.

We faced a formidable foe -- a tough army in Canada aided by Indian allies who played a significant role in the defense of Canada -- and the logistical challenges of waging war on a distant frontier.

Q: Outside of the Revolutionary War, this is the only war in which the U.S. was invaded by a foreign power. Many people know about the burning of the White House in 1814, and the first lady, Dolley Madison, is often credited with saving the portrait of George Washington. Is there anything about the invasion that we misunderstand today?

A: The popular view is that Washington D.C. was burned, but they only burned the White House, the Capitol, and the state and treasury department. We burned the Naval Yard to keep it out of their hands during our withdrawal.

That was undoubtedly the low point of the war. But it was followed a month later by one of the high points, when the British threatened Baltimore but the Royal Navy couldn't subdue Fort McHenry. That inspired the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner."

And then, in the last great campaign, the British were decisively defeated at New Orleans, and that was a game changer in how we remember the war.

Q: Why does this war fascinate you?

A: I was intrigued because as a graduate student, it seemed to me that it was an ill-advised war. But people in academia thought it was just ducky even though they were dead set against the war in Vietnam.

The Federalists made the anti-war argument in the 1812 era, and these modern academics regarded them as a bunch of throwbacks and elitists. That's not true. They had a pretty coherent program of military and financial preparedness and avoiding war with Great Britain.

Q: What alternative was there to war in 1812?

A: Peace is the alternative. You don't have to go to war.

You live with the consequences of the world war in Europe. We're making money, we're doing OK, and our rights are going to be encroached on by both sides. That's life in the big city. Nobody really threatened our independence. You just wait for the war in Europe to end, and the problems go away.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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The role the character plays in author John Grisham's new book will be a surprise to whoever wins the right to name the character. (Bob Strong/Doubleday/AP)

Name that character in John Grisham's new novel

By Staff writer / 06.07.12

Thriller author John Grisham has kept fans on the edge of their seats before, but this time, the suspense isn't built into the plot of one of his book. Instead, it's being created by a contest.

Grisham is working with Charitybuzz, a charity auction house found online, to auction off the chance to select a name for one of his characters. The organization Ubuntu Africa, which assists HIV-positive children in South Africa, will receive the proceeds, and bidding is available through June 13.

The author won’t reveal who the character is or what role he or she plays in the book. So it could be anyone from a minor character with a walk-on appearance to the book's protagonist.

The contest winner will also get a signed copy of the book from Grisham.

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Author Ann Patchett won the award for Most Engaging Author at this year's BookExpo America convention. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Ann Patchett calls out Amazon

By Staff writer / 06.07.12

Author Ann Patchett had some choice words for book giant Amazon when she accepted an award at BookExpo America.

Patchett, who owns a bookstore in Nashville, won the Most Engaging Author award at the event and said in her acceptance speech, “Sometimes the little guy wins,” followed by part of a speech from “Henry V” by William Shakespeare.

“We band of brothers/ For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother,” Patchett said. Later in the speech, it became clear which conflict she was addressing.

“There should be a place for all of us, but Amazon aggressively wants to kill us,” Patchett said. Patchett opened Parnassus Books in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., late last year after some larger bookstores closed and the city was left without a bricks-and-mortar bookseller.

BookExpo America is a publishing event held in New York City and ends today.

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Natasha Trethewey is one of the rare poet laureates who is relatively young and in midcareer, unlike her predecessors Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin, both in their 80s when appointed. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Natasha Trethewey is named as the newest poet laureate

By Husna Haq / 06.07.12

Meet your new poet laureate, folks.

Natasha Trethewey, 46, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, was named the 19th poet laureate Thursday. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the very first, Robert Penn Warren, was named by the Library of Congress in 1986, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.

“I’m still a little in disbelief,” Ms. Trethewey told the New York Times earlier this week.

Trethewey is known for exploring the histories of forgotten peoples – black Civil War soldiers, domestic workers like washerwomen, mixed-race prostitutes – in her rich verse, which flows from free verse to more traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle.

She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book, Native Guard, that reflects on the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The Confederate soldiers were later memorialized on the island; the black Union soldiers were not.

A stanza of her poem reads:

“Some names shall deck the page of history

as it is written on stone. Some will not.”

“She’s taking us into history that was never written,” Librarian of Congress James Billington told the AP. “She takes the greatest human tragedy in American history – the Civil War, 650,000 people killed, the most destructive war of human life for a century – and she takes us inside without preaching.”

Mr. Billington said he chose Trethewey after hearing her read at the National Book Festival in Washington and was “immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it,” he said.

Trethewey said she began writing poetry after a personal tragedy. While she was a college freshman, her stepfather, whom she had long feared, killed her mother.

"I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11," she told the AP. "People who never had written poems or turned much to poetry turned to it at that moment because it seems like the only thing that can speak the unspeakable.”

Her poetry also speaks to her personal history as the daughter of interracial parents. In “Miscegenation,” she writes about her parents’ journey to Ohio in 1965 for a marriage that was illegal in their home state of Mississippi.

“They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

“begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.”

Trethewey, who is also the poet laureate of Mississippi, will begin her appointment in September, which is also when her fourth poetry collection, “Thrall,” about her relationship with her white father and other topics, will be published. Her responsibilities will include public readings across the country and promotion of poetry in schools. She will be one of the rare poet laureates to take up residence in Washington, which she will do from January to May. She is also one of the rare poet laureates who is relatively young and in midcareer, unlike her predecessors Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin, both in their 80s when appointed.

“We’re not necessarily on some kick to find a younger poet,” Billington told the New York Times. “The more I read of it, American poetry seems extremely rich in diversity, talent and freedom of expression, and she has a voice that is already original and accomplished. I have an affinity for American individuals who are absolutely unique, and I think that this is one.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Buzz Bissinger says he took a cross-country trip with son Zach because "I wanted to really focus on him, which, despite all my love for him, I don’t think I really had before." (Dominic Savini)

Buzz Bissinger talks about "Father's Day"

By / 06.06.12

When his son Zach, was 24, “Friday Night Lights” author Buzz Bissinger took him on a cross-country road trip. Zach – diagnosed with brain damage at his birth – operates on the level of a 9-year-old boy yet has exceptional recall of maps, routes, and dates. Bissinger’s story of their trip, recounted in his memoir, Father’s Day, is a tribute to fatherhood that is as painfully honest as it is disarmingly sweet. I recently had a chance to talk with Bissinger about the trip and about his book. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Q: You drove coast to coast across the United States with a son who would have preferred to fly. Why?

I wanted to do something different with Zach. I’d done special things with my other sons. I came up with this idea of a cross-country trip. I just thought we would have concentrated time together. He would see some parts of the country that were new. But I also structured so that we went back to all of the places that we had lived. Because he doesn’t care about scenery. He doesn’t care about Yosemite or Monument Valley or the Badlands.

I wanted to really focus on him, which, despite all my love for him, I don’t think I really had before.

Q: Four years have passed since the trip. What remains of it today for you?

Three things. At an amusement park, Six Flags in St. Louis, [we did] a bungee jump. We were dropped 158 feet from a crane. Zach loves these rides. I was scared to death. We had this free fall, and we were clinging to each other and I felt giddy and alive and bonded with my son both physically and spiritually in a way that I never ever had before. It was magnificent.

There was another moment in, of all places, Odessa, Tex., where I wrote “Friday Night Lights” and where they’re still not really so crazy about me. There’s a barbecue that takes place and Zach is there with some people I know [including] Brian Chavez, who is the tight end that I write about in “Friday Night Lights.” And everyone pats [Zach] on the back. He’s at the center of the circle. He’s one of the boys and I just loved seeing that. I thought it was marvelous that it took place in Odessa because Odessans, whatever they are, are the salt of the earth and really weren’t treating him any differently and he just loved it. He just loved, you know, being part of the circle.

The third thing was bizarre because we went to Las Vegas which was frankly a disaster. And he turned to me at one point at dinner. I was asking him personal questions. And he turned to me and said, “Dad, I’m having trouble with these questions because I don’t know how to answer them.” And I was proud of him for saying in his own gentle way, “You know, Dad, you just have to back off a little. I’m not a lab specimen.”

So those are three things that will always, always stay with me.

Q. What remains for Zach?

The great thing about how Zach lives his life is that he just plows on. He talks about the trip. He talks about the bungee jump. But I’m not going to say that he talks about it a lot. Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey Zach, how about that road trip? Do you want to go again?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll think about it. But only if we fly.”

Q: Zach is a very endearing character. Did you learn new things about him on the trip? 

I really did. First of all, his ability for empathy stunned me. He really wanted to help me and to calm me down. His abilities of observation also surprised me. He saw things that I didn’t think he saw. I also found that he doesn’t simply have a yearning for independence. He needs independence.

Q. You are brutally honest about yourself and your own struggles in this book. Why did you decide to do that?

My sense is, if you’re going to [write a memoir], you have to be honest. The things that I reveal, they inform me both as a man and as a father. It’s not in there gratuitously. The price of ambition, the need for success: I always loved the kids, but I lived very much inside my own head. And I paid a toll for that, and so did the kids to some degree. 

Q. What about Zach? Did you worry about the impact this book might have on him?

I worried all the time. I asked Zach how he would feel if I wrote a book. I knew what he would say. He would say he’d feel pretty good about it. That’s always what he says: “Pretty good.” He didn’t really know what that entailed. I also knew that he was defenseless. He doesn’t really have the capability of saying, “Well I want this in but I really don’t want that in.”

It was a huge responsibility but I am a journalist. I’ve spent all my life asking people to tell the truth and be honest. All I can say is that Zach is pretty much getting an A+ in this thing and I’m getting about a C- so I think he’s fared pretty well.

Q. What would your ideal Father’s Day be?
The ideal Father’s Day is, in a sense, what happened after the book. Zach expressed for the first time that he wanted to go away. He wanted to go overseas. And in fact we all did. Gerry [Zach's twin], Zach, and myself went to South Africa to visit Caleb, my youngest  son, who’s in Capetown on an exchange program from Kenyon [College].

Zach did beautifully. As a father it was like the first time, really the first time that it was just the boys and me – my wife wasn’t there – and as a father here were my three precious wonderful beautiful boys and it was boys' week out and we were together, as opposed to, as happened so often, Gerry and Caleb being together and Zach not being there because the feeling always was that either he couldn’t do it or he didn’t want to do it.

And to me that was an eternal Father’s Day.

Q: Anything else about the trip?

The thing I can say about the trip is: Did it change me? No, it didn’t change me. But it made my bond with a son whom I love madly much closer. He is the man that I admire most. I have never seen anyone who gives as much as Zach. He really makes people feel good about themselves. And I knew that and I saw that, but it took me a long time to accept it.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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'Hobbit' director Peter Jackson (l.), scale double Kiran Shah (center) and 'Hobbit' actor Orlando Bloom (r.) all featured in the newest vlog from the production set. (Peter Jackson/YouTube screenshot)

'The Hobbit': a glimpse of the studios (+ video)

By Staff Writer / 06.06.12

The seventh in the "behind-the-scenes of 'The Hobbit'” video series arrived today, with the production team taking viewers into the studios where the two movies are being filmed.

There are a couple of glimpse of the movies themselves, including a look at actors on the set just before they begin filming a scene in the troll’s cave (the camera tantalizingly cuts away just before shooting begins), as well as footage of the ensemble filming the sequence in which hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions escape elf stronghold Mirkwood by floating down a river in barrels, and a brief sighting of a dwarf walking through a forest that is on fire.

The video begins again with director Peter Jackson, this time driving into the Stone Street Studios, which is otherwise closed to the public during filming. (The area was also a production site for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Jackson’s version of “King Kong.”)

“It kind of feels a bit like I’m driving the tram through Universal Studios,” Jackson says later as he points out the various buildings to the camera.

Actor Luke Evans, who plays a character named Bard the Bowman in "The Hobbit," takes viewers on a tour of trailers on the set, which are labeled with character names like Bilbo and Dwalin. Evans brings the camera crew to the trailer of – among others – actor Aidan Turner, who plays dwarf Kili, and actor Peter Hambleton. Hambleton, who plays dwarf Gloin, offers viewers before and after scenes of his two-hour prosthetics transformation.

A stunt crew with lime green swords are seen battling it out outside the studio, some partially in costume.

Swordmaster Steven McMichael starts talking to the camera crew and is promptly mock-speared in the neck with one of the plastic swords.

“I just died,” he informs the camera, then continues. “This is the intensity we like to bring on set every day.”

A tour of the costume department reveals the creepily named “flesh factory,” where fat suits are constructed for the actors playing the dwarves, and artists John Howe and Alan Lee, who originally drew the covers for the "Lord of the Rings" series and now work on the films, greet the camera. Then the camera crew is taken on a tour through the model-making area, where small versions of many sets are created. (One model is blurred out with a red prohibited sign over it reading “Film 2.”)

Second assistant director Bruno Du Bois brings the camera crew onto the set before the troll cave scene, just in time to see actors Richard Armitage, who plays dwarf leader Thorin, and actor Ian McKellen, who portrays wizard Gandalf, cross in front of the camera. Piles of gold objects and craggy rocks can be seen making up the set.

“Now we’re just going to, ssshh, walk away,” Du Bois tells the camera as filming is about to begin, and the camera swings outside, followed by a sequence of actor Martin Freeman, who plays hero hobbit Bilbo Baggins, being spun in a barrel on wheels.

Members of the crew playing a very competitive ball game that resembles foursquare can also be seen. “Do not give in, do not make eye contact,” one of the players tells the camera about the game.

The camera crew is also given a tour of Weta Workshop, where creative director Richard Taylor lists the tasks accomplished there, including “molding, spraying, trimming, sanding."

For those wishing for more celebrity sightings, the video ends with a happy surprise. Actor Orlando Bloom, who played Legolas in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and is reprising his role in "The Hobbit" series, is found with Jackson. Jackson asks, “What are you doing?” Another camera then shows Bloom, holding the original camera and filming Jackson.

“I’m filming the blog,” Bloom tells his director.

“Shouldn’t you be killing Orcs or something?” counters Jackson.

Check out the full video below:

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Venice is a small city (population 60,000), says Donna Leon of the setting of her mystery novels. "Venetians "tend to know one another, which means they know history and gossip."

In Venice, dirty business for a thoughtful cop

By Randy Dotinga / 06.06.12

If your job requires you to endlessly struggle against a dysfunctional system, you've got some company in a Venice police detective named Commissario Guido Brunetti.

He must deal with ineptness both above and below. On top of that, he has to convince skeptical Italians to cough up the truth.

Brunetti's challenges make for scintillating reading in the best-selling mystery novels of American expatriate Donna Leon. In the latest, "Beastly Things," Brunetti must dip into the horrific world of meat processing to solve a ghastly murder. 

In an interview from Italy, Leon spoke about the annoying conductor who inspired her writing career, the moral codes of Italians, and her fears about her storied city's future.
Q: How did you begin to write mysteries?

About 20 years ago, I was in the dressing room with a friend of mine, who was then conducting at La Fenice, and his wife, both Sicilian.  We started to talk about another conductor, and there followed an escalation. We soon found ourselves discussing his murder, there in the dressing room.

I thought it might be an interesting subject for a crime novel, something I'd never thought of writing, and decided to try to write a book.

Q: For people who aren't familiar with him, could you describe Commissario Guido Brunetti?

He's a commissario of police and has been a policeman for some time. He's married to a university professor – happily, it seems – has two teenaged children, and is a cultured man who reads and reflects upon Greek and Roman history. He has a sense of irony, is seldom judgmental, and – luckily – is connected to many strata of society in the city.

Q: What special obstacles and challenges do detectives in Venice face?

Italians tend to be less rigidly moral and law-abiding than do Anglo-Saxons. They also have a profound suspicion of the state and most of its agencies.

Venetians feel affection and loyalty to their city, rather than to the Italian state. Since it is a small population – 60,000 – people tend to know one another, which means they know history and gossip. And there is, as so often in Italy, a political importance or weight to certain events.

Q: How are Italians less law-abiding?

It's more an attitude of profound suspicion toward authority of any sort. 

Just look at what seems to be happening in the world of soccer: the current accusation is that many of the games were fixed so as to favor betting syndicates.  There is also the current, and quite delicious, scandal convulsing the Vatican.

Q: Without giving too much away, "Beastly Things" focuses on the environment, including the ravages of urbanization and our treatment of the creatures around us. What do you fear about the future of Venice?

I figure the city will be under water in 50 years, or the acqua alta will be so beyond control as to make life here unlivable. The acqua alta is the flooding that comes in the fall – usually – and brings water into many of the streets and first floors of the city. 

Q: How did you end up in Venice in the first place, and what made you stay?

I came to Venice for the first time in 1968 and was lucky enough to make the acquaintanceship, and then the friendship, of two Venetians, Roberta and Franco, who remain my best friends here after almost 50 years.

I was gradually absorbed into their families and thus have cousins and aunts and, to a certain degree, familial obligations. I settled here in 1981, found a job, and decided to stay because I had friends and work.

Q: Your books give us a glimpse into Italian life. What do you think we can learn from reading about it? What do you want to get across about its strengths and weaknesses?

Good heavens, I don't want to get anything across to anyone. My purpose is entertainment, not preaching. The books suggest the way some Italians live and think. That's all.

Q: What's next for your detective?

Next is a book about language and how it makes us be human.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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In one demonstration of J.K. Rowling's 'Wonderbook,' a user summoned a dragon which then burned the book. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

Harry Potter 'Book of Spells' will come to life via Sony

By Husna Haq / 06.05.12

It’s being called the reinvention of the storybook.

At a Monday announcement at the annual video game conference known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Sony Entertainment of America announced J.K. Rowling’s “Wonderbook: Book of Spells,” an interactive spell book that comes alive on PlayStation 3 videogame consoles.

“This takes you on a journey of learning magic, like a student at Howarts,” Sony Computer Entertainment chief Andrew House said at the conference. “Welcome to the reinvention of the storybook.”

Sony’s new “Wonderbook” technology is an augmented reality platform for the Playstation 3 that presents virtual books on screen as stunning pop-up books that readers can interact with.

In “Book of Spells,” readers use a PlayStation Move motion controller as a magic wand to flip through pages of this spellbook written more than 200 years ago by fictional character Miranda Goshawk. Users wave the wand in specific patterns as if they were Hogwarts students as the spellbook teaches them the art of casting magic spells, dueling, making fire, unlocking gates, and more – all as they move through new “pop-up” stories written by Rowling.

“Wonderbook: Book of Spells is the closest a Muggle can come to a real spellbook,” Rowling said in a statement. “I’ve loved working with Sony’s creative team to bring my spells, and some of the history behind them, to life. This is an extraordinary device that offers a reading experience like no other.”

At a demonstration staged at the E3 conference, a “PlayStation Eye camera put students into on-screen scenes that then tested their abilities to set things ablaze or levitate objects in settings reminiscent of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” according to Agence France Presse. The level of detail is impressive: In the demo, a player summoned a dragon that burned the book, reports Forbes, and the player used his hands to wipe soot off the book.  

“Book of Spells” will be the first in what is to become a vast virtual library of “Wonderbooks,” according to Sony’s Mr. House.

“We are working with some of the world’s best developers and authors to make a broad library of content,” he said. “Imagine walking with dinosaurs or sailing the seven seas to explore an atlas.”

What book would you like to see come to life in Wonderbooks?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Oprah Winfrey picked 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed for her first book club selection after the group went on a two-year hiatus. Oprah calls her new book club "way different from the old book club," saying, "This time it's an interactive, online club for our digital world." (Charles Sykes/AP)

Does Oprah still have her book mojo?

By Husna Haq / 06.04.12

Publishers, book publicists, authors: rejoice. The Queen of book promotion is back.

That’s right, Oprah Winfrey, the publishing world’s unrivaled trendsetter, is reviving her bestseller-inducing book club after a two-year hiatus, leaving publishers and publicists salivating at the prospect of reaping the rewards of the “Oprah Touch” should their author’s book be chosen next.

Her first pick? “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir recounting the author’s epic hike up the Pacific Crest Trail as she struggles with her mother’s death and a failed marriage.

“I love this book,” Winfrey writes in the July issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, which highlights the new book club on its cover and features an interview with Strayed. “I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web. In fact, I love this book so much and want to talk about it so much, I knew I had to reinvent my book club.”

Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 launches Monday with digital elements like e-books, social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter, and cross-media promotion. Winfrey taped an online video announcement of the re-launch, calling the book “stimulating, thought-provoking, soul-enhancing.”

“This is way different from the old book club,” she said in the video announcement, posted Friday on her website. "This time it's an interactive, online club for our digital world."

And this time Winfrey won’t have the clout of her 12-million strong network television audience, a popular syndicated talk show, or the momentum of a beloved book club with devoted fans.

Which makes this new enterprise an attempt to answer the – literally – million-dollar question: Does Oprah still have her book mojo?

Previously, while she still had her syndicated network TV show, Winfrey had an almost magical ability to sell books. Between 1996 and 2011, she had chosen 70 books for her wildly popular book club. The selections, kept secret until a “big reveal,” were trumpeted with fanfare on a show that averaged 5 million to 6 million viewers when it ended last year and up to 12 million at its peak. The impact? According to Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, sales of “Oprah editions” of the 70 titles in her first book club totaled some 55 million copies, reports USA Today.

Toni Morrison, who had four novels chosen, says she got a bigger sales boost from Winfrey than from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993,” USA Today adds.

It was so spectacular a phenomenon it was dubbed “the Oprah Effect,” or “the Oprah Touch,” the book Queen’s singular ability to pluck little-known authors like Anita Shreve or Jacquelyn Mitchard from a pile, make them into household names in a few short weeks with her priceless Oprah seal of sanction, along the way instantly skyrocketing sales to more than one million copies, rarefied territory for any title.

“When Ms. Winfrey halted her daytime talk show last year, book publicists mourned the loss of what was easily the most desirable platform to promote an author,” the New York Times wrote in its Media Decoder blog.

Can she do it again?

Sure, she’s got a 24-hour cable network with her name on it, a weekly show, and a still-popular magazine and website. But the show, “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” draws an audience that ranges between a few hundred thousand to about 1 million, depending on the guest, paltry compared to her 12-million-strong audience at the peak of her network television career. And after two years away from Winfrey’s popular book club, will readers be ready to bounce back on demand?

If they’re anything like Winfrey, they just might.

"My first thought watching the video is that this is a woman who really misses talking about books with an audience of readers," Carol Fitzgerald, founder of, told USA Today. "As for impact … it will be interesting to see. The syndicated show had a pre-engaged group of readers who were tuned in for a specific experience with Oprah each day. While the interaction proposed here is multidimensional, it's also a lot more fragmented."

And with “Wild,” Winfrey may have chosen a book that resonates with many viewers. In it, Strayed sets off for a treacherous, months-long solo 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert up to Oregon to confront a life that appears to be falling apart – her mother had died of cancer and her marriage to a good man had dissolved. It is, writes the Times, “the kind of story of resilience and self-invention that Ms. Winfrey has championed,” and we might add, that her fans adore.

As for the re-invention of her book club, signs suggest Winfrey may yet be successful: “Wild” went from No. 173 on’s bestseller list Friday evening to No. 12 Monday morning.

As Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, the publisher of “Wild,” told the New York Times, “When it comes to a book, there is no better recommendation engine than a nod from Oprah.”

Some things, it seems, never change.

Watch Oprah’s video announcement here.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Stephen King's new book will be released through Hard Case Crime. (Michael C. York/AP)

Stephen King's next book will be paper format only

By Staff Writer / 05.31.12

Legendary author Stephen King will be releasing a new book next June – but fans will have to get it in paper format only.

King was on the forefront of the e-book revolution before now, releasing one of his titles, “Riding the Bullet,” in electronic format in 2000 before that was the norm.

“I also loved the paperbacks I grew up with as a kid,” the author said in a statement about his decision to go paper-only for the new title, which will be called “Joyland. “And for that reason, we're going to hold off on e-publishing this one for the time being.”

“Joyland” will follow a college student named Devin Jones who works at a carnival in North Carolina during the 1970s and learns of a past crime and a child whose time may be running out.

The book will be published through Hard Case Crime, an imprint under the umbrella of Titan Books.

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