More sad news to report on “Three Cups of Tea": David Oliver Relin, the journalist and author who became famous as the co-author, with Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea,” died Nov. 15 near Portland, Oregon of an apparent suicide. He was 49.
Relin’s family said the author suffered from depression and was hurt, emotionally and financially, when controversy arose over fabrications in “Three Cups of Tea,” which recounted how former mountain climber Mortenson started building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his charity.
The book’s accuracy was called into question last year when a "60 Minutes program" reported on its numerous fabrications as well as financial discrepancies in Mortenson’s charity, both of which were detailed by author Jon Krakauer in his book, “Three Cups of Deceit.”
Mortenson denied wrongdoing, though he acknowledged that some of the events in the book were compressed for storytelling purposes. Relin did not respond publicly to criticism, though he did hire a lawyer to defend himself in a federal lawsuit that accused the authors and publisher of defrauding readers. The suit was dismissed earlier this year.
Ironically, the very assignment that shot Relin to fame – “Three Cups of Tea” would go on to sell 4 million copies and draw widespread support for Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute – also brought him much grief and may have led to his eventual downfall.
From the start, Relin spoke publicly about how Mortenson, who was often unreachable traveling in remote areas, should not have been named a co-author. Elizabeth Kaplan, the agent for the book, told the New York Times that the relationship between the co-authors was difficult from the start.
The legal, emotional, and financial difficulties that followed allegations of fabrications further damaged Relin, who already suffered from depression.
Relin had established himself in the 1990s as a journalist specializing in humanitarian stories about people in need. It appeared he had tried to move on from the “Three Cups” controversy; Relin had completed a new book on two doctors who are working to cure cataract-related blindness in the developing world, scheduled for publication by Random House in spring 2013.
He is survived by his wife, Dawn; his stepfather Cary Ratcliff; and his sisters Rachel Relin and Jennifer Cherelin.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
James is the pen name of Erika Leonard, a British former television executive who penned the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. The first book in the series was released in 2011 and came from a piece of fanfiction James wrote based on the “Twilight” series. James edited the story and changed the characters’ names before publishing her series. As of Nov. 30, the books had sold more than 35 million copies in America and garnered more than $200 million for their publisher, Random House.
But some are up in arms about the decision to anoint James with such a title.
“What was Publishers Weekly thinking?” asks LA Times writer Carolyn Kellogg in leads off her column, while the New York Daily News’ headline on the story reads, “Civilization ends: E.L. James named Publishers Weekly’s ‘Person of the Year’.”
Kellogg writes that she objects to the choice because she believes James didn’t set out to revolutionize publishing – her books happened to become popular and so she signed a deal with a publisher.
“Let me imagine some things an author in James' position might have done to merit such an accolade,” Kellogg wrote. “Create a model for viral ebook distribution, found an independent ebook store, work to legitimize fan fiction, establish or support networks of erotica readers and writers.”
Kellogg also notes the quality (or lack thereof, according to critics) of James’ prose.
“The prose is so embarrassing that to poke fun at the novel, comedians simply read it out loud,” she writes.
James was also selected by Time Magazine for its 100 Most Influential People of 2012 list.
A movie adaptation of the trilogy is in the works, with screenwriter Kelly Marcel adapting the first novel, according to a statement made by James. Casting decisions are still unknown. The film will be released by Focus Features and Universal Pictures.
The recent news that iconic novelist Philip Roth has stopped writing fiction knocked me back half a lifetime, to the day I took my seat in the Iowa Writers Fiction Workshop and watched starry-eyed as a tall, intense young man entered the classroom, snapped the creases of his chinos and settled himself on the edge of the instructor's desk. "I'm Philip Roth," he announced.
Of that time in his career, Roth would recall how, "still in my twenties, I imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament." And through two semesters, he changed my life not only as a career writer, but even more so as a reader of fiction. He instilled in my worshipful mind that fiction was the inner light. Over the years, he would confirm it for me in an avalanche of luminous novels and stories.
So it was bad enough when Roth told a London newspaper in 2011 that he had stopped reading fiction in favor of "other things." He was asked why. His quoted answer: "I don't know. I wised up."
The story rattled the literary world, fueling the endless debate over fiction's value in modern times. I was more than rattled then, and now, with Roth's declaration to a French magazine that he was through writing the stuff as well, I am staggered, staggered that he has thrown in the towel.
Unfair as it might be, given Roth's monumental contributions to the genre and his well-earned right to say, "It's enough!," I can't help feeling as if the Master – the patron saint of fiction for two generations – has let me down. Or that he's about to crack a grin in that long face and say, "Just kidding!"
As a Chicagoan, I am awash in historic letdowns, and I got to thinking about the kid who reportedly bawled, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" after baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson of the White Sox was accused of letting down teammates and fans by taking part in a World Series fix. And now I have to deal with fiction's premier slugger, my old coach, throwing down his glove.
I recalled playing softball with Roth in weekend rivalries between the Iowa Fiction and Poetry Workshops. Big Phil was a solid batter, slapping line drives, chugging the bases, and in doing so, striking a blow for fiction! Oh why, Phil, in your Hall-of-Fame years, did you have to squirt that chaw of ornery juice over the time-honored telling of tales?
Fiction. I was a believer in its unique, often-realized potential to express the human condition and help us find our own way through it; to report the infinitely varied news of the heart – the news that stays news, as they say; to deliver illuminations and pleasures available only in the unbounded reaches of the imagination.
I still believe. As close as I am to Roth in decades, I am still finding that inner light and joy in the fiction I've been savoring, including the oeuvre of Philip Roth.
Of course the man is entitled to rest on his laurels, to savor, as he turns 80, the pleasures of the world outside the claustrophobic writer's lair. As for fiction's relevance, while satisfied that his works have been of value, he has famously argued that true events mock the inventions of most modern novelists. (Just look at the day's headlines.)
But, Phil, more meaningful to me is what you said when you were batting out mid-career masterpieces. You wrote about the authenticity created by imagination when it is "so relentless and thoroughgoing that it is able to convert into its own nonconvertible currency whatever the author has absorbed through reading, thinking, and 'raw experience.'"
Such currency, the unique payoff of good fiction, is one I've long stood by as every other currency seems to be flying south. But now, as I reach for a novel or put hand to story, I'm starting to feel like the dupe of some Ponzi scheme. Has the imagination, too, become so devalued as to be worthless?
Oh, say it ain't so, Phil!
Arthur Plotnik's works include two Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and his latest of eight books, "The Elements of Expression" (revised), plus essays, fiction, and poetry.
The book, “Year of the Jungle,” will be autobiographical and based around Collins’ father’s time serving in Vietnam. The story centers on a young girl named Suzy who worries about her father's safety after he leaves to fight overseas.
James Proimos, who has written and illustrated children's titles such as "The Many Adventures of Johnny Mutton," will be creating the illustrations, and Collins said in a statement that he was the one who convinced her to write it.
“For several years I had this little wicker basket next to my writing chair with the postcards my dad had sent me from Vietnam and photos of that year. But I could never quite find a way into the story,” she said. “It has elements that can be scary for the audience, and it would be easy for the art to reinforce those. It could be really beautiful art but still be off-putting to a kid, which would defeat the point of doing the book. Then one day I was having lunch with Jim and telling him about the idea and he said, 'That sounds fantastic.' I looked at him and I had this flash of the story through his eyes, with his art. It was like being handed a key to a locked door.”
The first installment in “The Hunger Games” series was released as a movie last March starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, and the next three parts of the series (the last book is planned for two films) are set to be released in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The first "Hunger Games" book was released back in 2008, but the series still occupies the number four spot on the children’s series part of the New York Times bestseller list for Dec. 2 and ranks number six on the IndieBound children’s fiction series list for Nov. 29. Before “Games,” Collins had written a fantasy series for tweens titled “The Underland Chronicles.”
“Jungle” will be released Sept. 10 through Scholastic. It will be aimed at readers 4 and older.
Sure, disaster victims need food, clothing, and shelter during humanitarian emergencies – but books?
That’s what a new campaign is fighting for.
Books are “nourishment for the mind” and should be a critical part of emergency relief efforts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, or the Indian Ocean tsunami occur, according to a literary-humanitarian campaign circling the globe.
To date, more than 100 writers, intellectuals, literary groups, and public figures including four Nobel laureates and the humanitarian organization Libraries Without Borders have signed The Urgency of Reading petition, which states, “In humanitarian emergencies, reading and writing are essential to healing and reconstruction.”
“While there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical wellbeing of disaster victims, more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward,” the petition states.
Nobel literature laureates JM Coetzee, Doris Lessing, and Toni Morrison, along with Nobel peace laureate FW de Klerk and authors Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, are among those who have signed the petition. The campaign, organized by Libraries Without Borders, is challenging the UN and other international organizations to include “nourishment of the mind” as a fundamental post-disaster necessity.
“The first priority is life, but when life is secure, what can people do if they are staying in a camp?” Libraries Without Borders chairman Patrick Weil told the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “They cannot do anything, and they can become depressed. Once life is secured, books are essential. They're not the first priority, but the second... They are so important. They're the beginning of recovery, in terms of reconnecting with the rest of the world, and feeling like a human being again.”
Weil told the Guardian that the first email Libraries Without Borders received after the Haitian earthquake was a request for books to reopen a destroyed library. Libraries Without Borders not only helped reopen the library, it sent an emergency mission to the disaster-struck country to distribute books and educational resources to displaced persons. The work Libraries Without Borders and other literary organizations did in Haiti were transformational, Haitian writer Danticat told the Guardian.
“I saw personally how much comfort books can bring to young people living in internally displaced camps and tent cities through my involvement with an organization called Li, Li, Li! where Haitian teachers and artists, who were sometimes displaced themselves, read books to children in the camps,” he said. “Though people were in a lot of pain and were suffering a great deal, they were able, for an hour or so, to find some comfort in the pages of a book. I have great belief in the power of words, written or read, to help us begin healing. I have experienced it in my own life and I have also seen it in action.”
That’s why Danticat and signatories like authors Dave Eggers, Marie Darrieussecq, Amin Maalouf, and Amelie Nothomb are challenging the UN to include “nourishment of the mind” in its disaster relief efforts.
“LWB’s years of dedicated humanitarian assistance in Haiti and 20 other countries have demonstrated that books and educational opportunities for disaster victims are essential to healing, rebuilding society and recapturing lost humanity,” reads The Urgency of Reading petition. “...Today, however, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, do not include nourishment of the mind as a fundamental necessity in post-disaster zones. In order to challenge the United Nations and other international organizations to implement initiatives that respond to this need... Libraries Without Borders is launching this international call to action..”
Food, water, shelter, and health are “absolute priorities,” the petition affirms, but “nourishment of the mind,” namely books, should be a second measure to help disaster victims cope and move forward.
It’s an intriguing idea – and certainly a provocative one. We’re eager to hear what you think: Are books a necessity during humanitarian crises? Would you sign this petition?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Have you ever wondered about why woodpeckers don't get headaches? Or pondered the multisegmental dynamics of hula-dancing, the courtship behavior of ostriches toward humans, or the reason why discus throwers get dizzy but hammer throwers don't?
Scientists have. In fact, they've wondered about countless strange topics and written countless studies about them.
Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, has been tracking bizarre research since 1994.
He's the master of ceremonies at the annual Ig Nobel awards, which honors scientists and others who've launched peculiar research or done peculiar things. Yes, many of the winners come. And yes, they love it.
Recent honorees include the inventor of a bra that transforms into protective face masks, researchers who studied why bedsheets wrinkle, and the US Government General Accountability Office "for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."
Abrahams has compiled some of the world's oddest scientific efforts in his new book "This is Improbable."
I asked Abrahams to describe some of his favorite improbable research, explain its value (if any), and get to the bottom of the pressing issue of the "forces required to drag sheep across various surfaces."
Q: What is improbable research?
A: It makes people laugh and then think. When you first encounter it, there's something so unexpected that it's funny, then a week later you're still thinking about it.
Q: Is this all serious research?
A: When something is called research, it means somebody is trying to understand something nobody has made much sense of.
Q: Do they understand how strange it can look to, say, discover what happens if you give an anti-depressant medication to a clam?
Everybody does things that look pretty strange to people who don't do those things. They forget it will be interesting to other people and maybe funny.
Q: What's an example of scientists not realizing that their project is pretty darned loony?
A: There was a study called "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep across Various Surfaces."
That was done by seven scientists in Australia in a part of the country where raising sheep is one of the main industries.
When they shear those sheep, they bring thousands of sheep in a very short period of time into one giant building. The sheep do not always want to move where they're asked to, and the shearing involves big equipment that can be very dangerous.
The people who run the industry are always looking for ways to make the sheep move more quickly. It has to do with a lot of money and the potential for injuries. They brought these scientists in, and they found that if you design your floors differently, things will go better. One of the main conclusions is that it's easier to drag the sheep downhill instead of up.
Q: Shocking! What did the researchers say when you contacted them?
A: That was the first time it occurred to them that what they'd done seemed funny. They'd been brought in by an industry to solve a problem, and they've done that.
Q: A lot of strange research has to do with farming. What's up with the cows and the cat?
There was a study done in the 1940s somewhere in the Midwest by some professors who studied dairy cows. They were trying to figure out exactly why sometimes cows give a lot of milk easily and sometimes it seems to get stuck in there.
They tried to see what happens when a cow is startled, to see if the milk would come out. They came up with a technique of startling a cow: they'd put a cat on the cow's back and blow up paper bags, popping one every 10 seconds.
It quickly became clear that the cat could be dispensed with.
Q: Improbable research doesn't have to be scientific, right?
A: There was a long study about the history of the paper clip, but only one aspect: how the paper clip affected legal proceedings throughout the United States. In some cases, whether there was or wasn't a paper clip on a thick stack of documents was used as evidence that someone saw or didn't see the document. There were all kinds of regulations and laws about how things must be fastened: a paper clip or a staple?
Q: What's the oldest improbable research you've come across?
A: There's a beautiful report that must be close to 200 years old now from someone who was trying to figure out how fast the wind goes inside a tornado.
First you've got to find a tornado. But you can't go and stand there. That might be dangerous.
They came up with something that might behave a little like a tornado. They took some dead chickens, looked at the feathers on them, put them inside a cannon, aimed it straight up, and figured that when the chicken is flying through the air, the wind will be pretty similar to the wind in a tornado.
Then they'd be able to count how many feathers were missing. That would allow them to calculate how much force was in the wind.
About 150 years went by, then in the 1950s or '60s, scientists ran across this old report and realized there were some problems in the way they did this.
One of the scientists was Bernie Vonnegut, the older brother of Kurt Vonnegut, who was interested in science at least in part because he had an older brother who was a pretty well-known scientist.
Q: So was this an effective way of measuring tornado wind speed?
A: If you tracked down that carcass, you have no way of knowing how much of the effects you were seeing came from the wind and how much came from the explosion inside the cannon.
Q: Are there researchers who have performed a lot of improbable research?
A: Professor John W. Trinkaus has published almost 100 studies about things that annoy him. They're all everyday things.
One of them is about the express line where you're supposed to have 10 items or less. He counted how many times customers had less than the amount or more.
Now we know.
Generally, he finds that whatever the problem it is, it's getting worse over time.
Q: That doesn't sound like very optimistic research, does it?
A: It's not. But I think it cheers him up. He seems to have that outlook that everything is falling apart, and he can get proof of that. He's still counting things that annoy him.
Q: Well, at least he has a hobby. What about truly pointless research?
Q: A researcher named Beth Scanlon of Central Connecticut State University published a 1985 study called "Race Differences in Selection of Cheese Color."
She went to a supermarket, set up a table with pieces of white and yellow cheese, and stopped people and asked them if they'd like to take a piece of cheese. She'd note the ethnicities of those who chose the types of cheeses. There were just numbers and no explanation of what they might mean or why she was asking.
I have read this study any number of times, and I've shown it to people and have written about it, and I have yet to run across anyone who would understand what this person could have possibly hoped to learn.
It's beautiful that way.
Q: You were never able to track the author down. We could put out an APB for her. Beth Scanlon, where are you?
A: Maybe it will bring her out of the woodwork.
Q: Or at least out of the supermarket. Beth, hello?!
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
If there was any doubt in the publishing industry that self-publishing is here to stay, news that a top mainstream publisher is teaming up with a self-publishing company to create a self-publishing imprint should put those doubts to rest.
Simon & Schuster announced Tuesday that it is partnering with Author Solutions Inc. to create Archway Publishing, a separate publishing house focused on self-published fiction, non-fiction, business, and children’s books.
Self-publishing is a booming sector of the publishing industry, and Tuesday’s news reaffirms the significance of self-publishing.
“Self-publishing has become a viable and popular route to publication for many authors, and increasingly a source of content for traditional publishers, including Simon & Schuster,” Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “We’re excited that we’ll be able to help more authors find their own path to publication and at the same time create a more direct connection to those self-published authors ready to make the leap to traditional publishing.”
Simon & Schuster is marketing Archway’s self-publishing offerings as a premium service – which comes at a premium cost to authors. Archway will offer authors a range of packages from a basic $1,599 children’s package that includes “editorial assessment” and “cover copy review” to a $24,999 “Outreach” program for business books that includes an “author profile video,” and a reception at BookExpo America, the industry’s annual national convention.
It might be a tough sell. Archway will be staffed and operated by Author Solutions (not Simon & Schuster) and final products will not have the Simon & Schuster name attached to them. “With no Simon & Schuster personnel involved, and without the Simon & Schuster name attached in any way to the final product, Archway’s prices – significantly higher than the competition – could be a hard sell,” writes the New York Times.
Still, the partnership helps an established publishing house like Simon & Schuster get in on the skyrocketing self-publishing trend with relatively little risk.
According to data from research firm Bowker, some 211,269 books were self-published in 2011, up more than 60 percent from the previous year, as reported by Shelf Awareness.
Driven in part by the rise of e-readers, self-publishing has itself given rise to self-published author stars like Amanda Hocking, the e-book phenom and millionaire behind the “Trylle Triogy,” and John Locke, author of “Saving Rachel,” the first author to sell more than one million self-published e-books through Amazon.
Further proof that self-publishing is highly sought-after? In a move to capture some of the self-publishing market itself, Simon & Schuster’s rival Pearson, parent company of Penguin Group, bought Author Solutions in July, before Simon & Schuster’s announcement. That’s two large publishing houses (and three by extension, since Penguin Group is merging with Random House) going after one small self-publishing start-up.
As Bob Dylan said, the times, they are a changing.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
An estimated 100,000 fans showed up, including some who sported elf ears and wore the distinctive large and hairy hobbit feet. Some had arrived the night before to make sure they had an area from which to watch the action.
“It’s been a long day, but is it ever worth it,” Cinnamon Tararo, a “Hobbit” lover who came to the premiere with her husband and son and stood for eight hours, told the Wall Street Journal.
Before the premiere, Jackson spoke about how determined he was to secure Freeman for the project. Originally, scheduling conflicts arose because Freeman was involved with the BBC series “Sherlock,” on which he plays sidekick John Watson.
“That was one time I was very, very worried because if the casting of Bilbo was wrong, the films wouldn't work,” Jackson said at a press conference, according to the Guardian. “Bilbo has to carry the heart of the film…. I had downloaded the first series of Sherlock from iTunes and was watching it on my iPad at about 4 o'clock in the morning, and watching Martin, I thought there really is no better Bilbo in the world. He's got every quality that we want. I thought, when he needs to go back and shoot the second series ["season" in the US] we'll stop filming and make that work. It was a pretty radical thing to do but I'm incredibly pleased that we did it.”
Freeman told the Wall Street Journal that he loved many aspects of the character of Bilbo.
“I love his vulnerability but I also love his strength of character,” he said. “I love the fact that he feels the fear and does it anyway.”
As part of the event, New Zealand musician Neil Finn performed the song he had written for the movie, “Song of the Lonely Mountain,” with a band and also performed tracks originally done by his bands Split Enz and Crowded House.
“I wish I were there in my spiritual home in Wellington,” the actor who portrays wise wizard Gandalf said in the video.
Celia Wade Brown, the mayor of Wellington, saw the film and gave a rave review to the Wall Street Journal, adding that the 3-D used in the movie “made the cliff paths and the falls in the mountain terrifying.”
While the first "Hobbit" movie will come to the US on Dec. 14, the second film in the series, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," is set to arrive in 2013. The third and final film, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again," will be released in 2014.
Nobel Prize laureates will always have their detractors – it’s a given considering the eminence of the award – but rarely have the detractors been as critical as those of Mo Yan. After the Chinese novelist’s 2012 win, critics have been emerging from the woodwork with regularity, accusing Mo Yan of complicity with Communist leaders.
The latest criticism comes from 2009 Nobel Prize laureate Herta Muller, who told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter this weekend that Mo Yan’s victory was “a catastrophe” and an “incredibly upsetting choice,” according to the Associated Press.
She accused the Chinese novelist of praising his country’s tough censorship laws and called his win “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights.”
Known for his depiction of rural Chinese life, and particularly its women, Mo Yan was compared to William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and praised by the Nobel committee for his “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folks tales, history, and the contemporary.”
Since the win, Mo Yan, the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been accused of compromising his independence by being a member of the Communist Party and vice president of the official writers association. That association is especially troubling for Muller, who came of age under the totalitarian regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and whose own work was often subject to censorship. (She now lives in Germany.)
She isn’t the only one to call him out. Immediately after he won the award, dissident artist Ai Weiwei told the press, "Giving the award to a writer like this is an insult to humanity and to literature. It’s shameful for the committee to have made this selection which does not live up to the previous quality of literature in the award.”
We’re curious to see whether the Nobel Committee or Mo Yan himself respond to these escalating attacks.
Of course, Mo Yan’s homeland, which is planning a Mo Yan theme park, has nothing but praise for the writer. As the New York Daily News reports, “Chinese officials have openly celebrated Mo’s Nobel – an ominous sign.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
You are most likely aware of Take Your Child to Work Day, but a new holiday may be a little less familiar: Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.
The event, which lands on Dec. 1 this year, is taking place for the third time and was founded by author Jenny Milchman, who writes on the event's website that she thought of the idea for the special day when her children were young.
“I was going to story time at bookstores nearly every week,” Milchman wrote. “Did all children know the pleasure of spending time in a bookstore? I wondered. Of being drawn into a magic world for a while, then being left to choose treasures on the shelf? I wanted to begin a holiday that would expose as many kids as possible to this joy.”
Last year, 400 bookstores in the US participated as well as stores in the UK, Canada, and Australia. This year 1,100 stores have received materials related to the event – a newsletter and poster – meaning they may choose to participate.
The website for the day features a map which allows users to find bookstores in their area that will be celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and many stores are planning special events.
“On December 1st, 2012, take the child in your life to a bookstore,” Milchman wrote on the site. “Watch his face light up as you give him free access, not just to a new book, but to tomorrow."
While the celebration doesn’t specify you need to take your child to an indie bookstore, the day is exactly a week after Small Business Saturday, which encourages consumers to go to their local stores for their purchasing needs. President Obama headed to Virginia bookstore One More Page Books with daughters Sasha and Malia to honor the day, picking up picture books that will reportedly be given as Christmas gifts.