Betty Abbott Sheinis was 84 and in the final weeks of her life when we met her. But we were immediately enchanted by her warm personality and peaceful spirit.
Anet James and I are owners of a local art gallery. Sheinis's husband Arnold had invited us to their home to see his artwork. As gallery owners, we often visit artists' studios to consider their work for exhibition. This particular home was packed with hundreds of pieces of artwork. There were stacks of art piled three and four feet high in the basement; many closets were filled to capacity and in virtually every room in the house the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with drawings, paintings, and photographs.
About half of the art on display was Arnold's and the rest was Betty’s. She specialized in beautifully crafted watercolors depicting landscapes, city scenes, and the ocean. Like Arnold, she had been an artist all her life.
But our biggest surprise on this March morning was a beautifully illustrated watercolor which Betty had painted 30 years earlier, found peeping out from underneath a pile of folded laundry in a storage room on the the second floor of the house. It was intended to be the cover art for a stunning children’s book. It featured a rabbit and a woodchuck, sipping tea in a lush forest setting.
"At first glance, we thought it might be an original Beatrice Potter or Tasha Tudor illustration for an unknown book,” Anet remembered later.
It was clearly a project dear to Betty's heart, produced with incredible skill. The mystery was, why had it not been published and where were the missing pages for the book?
“Is this my painting?” Betty asked when we showed her the book cover. She no longer recognized her own beautiful works of art but she accepted our praise with grace and humility.
Since Betty had no memory of producing the painting, we had was little hope of getting her to tell us the location of the missing pages. This was going to be a treasure hunt and, at the same time, a unique opportunity to learn more about this inspiring woman’s creative life. We were also given an insight into her 60-year love affair with her husband Arnold, her loyal friend and fellow artist.
“Oh, that’s Betty’s book.” Arnold said when we asked. He had no idea where the rest of the illustrations were or if they even still existed.
“Betty kept everything, so they must be here somewhere," he said. It was clear he wasn’t confident that they would be found.
But several weeks after Betty’s death, Arnold woke up in the middle of the night remembering that she had a secret hiding place for her favorite paintings. Beneath her grandfather’s antique bed, he found all the original paintings for the book stored safely in an old portfolio. They were in perfect condition. He also found the manuscript for the story printed in a small mock-up she had created for potential publishers to review the book.
It was time for this work to meet its public, Anet and I agreed. We decided to publish it ourselves.
The book – titled "Rhoda's Ocean" – tells the story of Wilma Woodchuck and Rhoda Rabbit, who are best friends. But Wilma and Rhoda are very different.
"Practical Wilma believes in neatness, while Rhoda is a dreamer who forgets her shoes and wonders what an ocean looks like," says Arnet. "'Rhoda’s Ocean' celebrates creativity, friendship, and the rewards of being yourself."
In some ways, it tells the story of Betty herself.
She grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of rural Tennessee where she was the only daughter of five children. At the age of 19, she received a full scholarship to Cooper Union and bravely moved on her own to New York City to attend the prestigious art school. After graduation, she went on to work as an illustrator for a top advertising agency, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. She won several major awards for illustration during her career.
Betty had met Arnold in the late 1940s at Cooper Union, where he was also an art student. Arnold often shares the story of how they met. “I asked her to have a cup of coffee at the local Automat," Arnold reminisced with a twinkle in his eye. "That was a strong cup of coffee, because we were together for sixty years.”
They went on to be married in 1952 and raised three sons in the same house in Natick, Mass. where they had moved in 1970. They have seven grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated.
“I remember her working on the book, but I never really paid much attention to it," Arnold said. "Betty was always doing artwork even while she was cooking or playing with the boys. We would travel and paint together all the time. She liked the mountains and I enjoyed painting by the ocean.,"
At her funeral, Arnold gave a moving eulogy, ending with, “She was a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, companion and friend. She was the only woman I ever loved romantically. Goodnight sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow.”
I asked Arnold if the characters in the book reminded him of anyone.
“I think I was Wilma and she was Rhoda," he replied. "I liked things to be a little neater than she did.”
Arnold lives alone now and paints every day in his basement studio. He also works out in the weight room at the new senior center in town and often stops by the library where Betty had been a volunteer for years. “She was a real lady,” a co-worker there says of her, recalling her “gentle and kind personality.”
Arnold also visits the gallery weekly to check on the book’s progress. He often tells us how much Betty would have loved seeing it finally published.
“She would have been thrilled," Arnold said. "She was a wonderful artist... I miss her very much.”
John Mottern and Anet James are owners of Gallery 55 in Natick, Mass. Gallery 55 is also the publisher of "Rhoda's Ocean."
I must admit – I am a binge reader. I will go weeks without reading a book, but then something will catch my eye and I’ll read it in a couple of hours. After that I’ll make multiple trips to the library to see if they’ve got anything more by the same author. I’ll check out three or four and have them back in two days. When I’m on the wagon, I’ll stay up late reading and get up early the next morning to read more. Which is why Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” series has been one of the more agonizing experiences of my life.
I started reading the series when I was 13. My best friend, who had the locker next to mine in middle school, handed me “The Eye of the World” (the first book in the series), and I couldn’t put it down. I was drawn in by Rand Al'Thor, Mat Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, the mysterious witch Moriane and her dangerous warder, and the strange magic known as the One Power. Their long (14-books-long) journey to the Last Battle to fight the Dark One was just beginning. The fascinating detail of their world and the lack of annoying Tolkein-esque songs didn't hurt, either. I am well aware of the series' weaknesses (endless subplots, too much description), but the books endeared themselves to me. They are old friends now.
It’s strange having lived with these books for so long. It’s like being one of the kids from Narnia – there’s a secret world only a few page-widths away that only I and a few hundred thousand other nerds know about.
I caught up to Jordan as a junior in high school. I’d read 11 of his books in five years. I found out that the next book wouldn’t be released until my freshman year of college. I buried my frustration, and waited.
Then came the news that Jordan had passed on. After that, more news – some guy named Brandon Sanderson would finish the series based on the notes that Jordan had kept. I didn’t know what to think.
Freshman year, when the 12th book arrived in my mailbox (figuratively, that is – the books are actually too big for mailboxes), I took a day off from school to read it. Sanderson did a great job of cleaning up the subplots and rebuilding momentum for the Last Battle. I was again a happy reader.
And now, two books later, here we are – at the end of the journey with "A Memory of Light." It will be a bittersweet goodbye to this gargantuan series for me. And yet I do know that the sound of the back cover closing on the last page of this book will be one of the most satisfying sounds heard in my life to date.
(Check out the audiobook clip below, courtesy of Macmillan Audio.)
Ben Frederick is a Monitor contributor.
Actress Anne Hathaway, currently the subject of Oscar buzz for her role as struggling mother Fantine in the film adaptation of “Les Misérables,” will now star in a movie adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” according to TheWrap.com.
Hathaway already has some Shakespeare under her belt – she appeared as Viola in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park’s performance of “Twelfth Night” in New York's Central Park in 2009. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Hathaway will presumably play Katherine, the rebellious daughter who is married off to a man who is sure he can make her a "biddable" wife.
Abi Morgan, who penned the script for “Iron Lady,” will write the screenplay, and the movie will be produced by Working Title and producer Debra Hayward. “The Taming of the Shrew” will be updated to a modern setting for the film (as in the 1999 romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You,” which starred Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger).
There is no set release date for the film.
It will be interesting to see how the adaptation is handled. “The Taming of the Shrew” has long been controversial in modern theater circles for what some view as its themes of spousal abuse and misogyny. In order to break Katherine’s spirit, her new husband Petruchio denies her food. The play ends with a speech by Katherine in which she declares her intent to be an obedient wife from then on and suggests that all wives should do the same.
Bestseller lists are about to get a little more crowded this spring.
Dan Brown, author of the mega-hit “Da Vinci Code” and “The Lost Symbol,” will release a new book May 14, his publisher Doubleday announced today. The adventures of “Da Vinci Code” protagonist and Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon continue in “Inferno,” which will center on the literary masterpiece “Dante’s Inferno.”
“Although I studied Dante’s Inferno as a student, it wasn’t until recently, while researching in Florence, that I came to appreciate the enduring influence of Dante’s work on the modern world,” Brown said on his website. “With this new novel, I am excited to take readers on a journey deep into this mysterious realm.... a landscape of codes, symbols, and more than a few secret passageways.”
The new novel will be set in Italy and has Langdon battling “a chilling adversary and [grappling] with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science” against the backdrop of Dante’s epic poem, according to a description of the book on Amazon.com.
In a brilliant marketing move appealing to “Da Vinci Code” fans’ love of puzzles, the book’s title was revealed by readers themselves who posted items on social media, which linked to a mosaic that slowly uncovered the book’s title.
“Dan Brown's enthusiasm for puzzles, codes and symbols is a passion shared by his readers,” Suzanne Herz, senior vice president at Doubleday, told Bloomberg, adding that the marketing stunt was intended “to harness that passion and use it as a catalyst to reveal the new title.”
Like the epic poem that inspired it, “Inferno” is likely to be among Brown’s darker works. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Dante is led by Virgil through hell, purgatory, and heaven. As such, “Inferno” will probably be in keeping with the religiously themed books that came before it.
One thing’s for sure: It’s not just readers who are holding their breath for Brown’s latest release. The book will likely come as a huge boost to Doubleday and Transworld, Brown’s UK publisher, as well as bookstores across the country, which are probably already planning events for the forthcoming book. That’s because “Da Vinci Code” spent more than one year – 54 weeks – on New York Times’ bestseller list, was translated into 51 languages and, according to the LA Times’ Jacket Copy, is considered “the bestselling adult hardcover of all time with 81 million copies in print worldwide.” All told, Brown’s books have now sold over 200 million copies worldwide and two have been adapted into films starring Tom Hanks.
No doubt, expectations are high for “Inferno."
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
The bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy is reversing the usual release trend.
Rather than first coming out in hardcover, then being released in paperback, the trilogy by E L James found success first in e-book and paperback format and only now are being released in hardcover. The new versions of the books will be released on Jan. 29.
“As interest in the "Fifty Shades' trilogy has grown, readers have been asking for hardcover editions of the books,” Anne Messitte, James’ publisher, told USA Today.
Some observers of the book business have suggested that the e-book format of “Fifty Shades of Grey” contributed to its early success because it allowed curious readers to read the erotic trilogy without having to publicly display the books. Perhaps the degree to which the books have gone mainstream – the paper and digital versions have now sold more than 65 million copies worldwide – has put any fears of public exposure to rest.
The new copies will include not only the original text from the books but extras such as red ribbon bookmarks and paper inside the covers patterned in items taken from the book such as ties and masks. The books will be sold separately as well as in a boxed set.
The international contest co-sponsored by Publishers Weekly, now in its sixth year, invites aspiring novelists to submit book pitches for a chance to win a contract with Amazon Publishing. Four finalists receive publishing contracts and a $15,000 advance and one grand prize winner receives a publishing contract, plus a $50,000 advance.
“Over the past five years, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has helped thousands of authors realize their dream of writing a novel, while connecting them with their peers as well as readers and giving them the opportunity to be discovered,” said Nader Kabbani, Vice President of CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing in a press release, as reported by Good E-Reader. “We’re excited to evolve the contest this year to recognize talented aspiring authors in even more genres, with bigger advances, more winners, and quickly bring the winning novels to readers around the world.”
Here’s how it works: Authors can submit pitches in one of five categories – general fiction, romance, mystery/thriller, science fiction/fantasy/horror, and young adult fiction at CreateSpace. Pitches should include concept, protagonist, setting, and writing style and be within 300 words. (See sample pitches from past entrants here.) Work fast: the deadline for entering pitches is January 27 and Amazon will stop accepting entries after it has received 10,000 pitches.
Those who advance to subsequent rounds will be asked for the first 3,000-5,000 words of a manuscript and later, complete manuscripts between 50,000- 150,000 words. The grand prize winner will be voted on by Amazon users and announced in June. Entrants can find published works of previous contestants, including books by past Breakthrough Novel Award winners, here.
This year’s contest comes with some changes. For starters, Amazon dropped Penguin as its publishing partner and now uses its own Amazon Publishing house instead. At 10,000 expected entries, this year marks the biggest contest field yet. And at five genres, it also marks the most categories open for entry, widening the field. We’re eager to see how quickly the entries pour in – and who is awarded the coveted contracts with Amazon in June.
For more information, see official contest rules here.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
There's a hot new literary genre being formed. The skeptical are calling it "Heaven Tourism" but for millions of readers it's proving a very real lure. Suddenly, accounts of near-death trips to heaven are all over the literary bestseller lists.
As USA Today notes, current bestsellers “Heaven Is For Real” by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander, and “To Heaven and Back” by Mary Neal all detail their authors’ alleged experiences of heaven and what they saw there and all have drawn large and enthusiastic audiences.
No matter readers' religious views, it appears many are curious about the authors' accounts.
While they have similarities, each of the stories is unique.
In "Heaven is For Real," Burpo writes about the experiences of his son Colton who says that – during an emergency appendectomy while he was 3 – he went to heaven and met Jesus, John the Baptist, his great-grandfather, and his sister who died when his mother suffered a miscarriage, an event his parents say they never told Colton about.
Burpo said in an hour-long program about the book that he is telling the truth about his son's journey.
"As a pastor and as a dad, I want my son to know I tell the truth,” Burpo said during the program. “He can read the book. He knows if I exaggerated or if I didn't."
Alexander, a neurosurgeon, went into a coma after being diagnosed with meningitis and says that while he was unconscious he met a beautiful woman whom he describes as a guide who brought him into another world. Alexander says he saw God and that he doesn’t believe God has a gender.
“I would've said no,” Alexander said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey when she asked him if he believed in God before his near-death experience. “There was no way to explain it based on my neuroscientific career.”
Neal, who is an orthopedic surgeon, became unconscious while trapped underwater and says that she went to heaven and met angels who eventually told her she had to go back to her life.
There have been earlier books, of course, by writers who claim they traveled to heaven. These include the 2004 title “90 Minutes in Heaven” by Don Piper, which also cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and “Flight to Heaven,” a 2010 book by pilot Dale Black.
Barnes & Noble vice president for marketing Patricia Bostelman says she thinks some readers have been convinced by the fact that Neal and Alexander are doctors.
“When you have people from science backgrounds, it adds a certain credibility," Bostelman told USA Today. "They provide an authority from a scientific perspective. It's not a popular point of view in their world."
Phyllis Tickle, religious editor for Publishers Weekly, says the appeal of the stories is simple: people want to believe there is a heaven.
“We want to hear from someone who has gone there, done that, seen it,” she said in an interview with USA Today. “That there is something beyond this life.”
The next time children in the UK open a Happy Meal from McDonald's, they won’t find a toy tied to the latest movie release. Instead, there will be a book waiting for them.
The fast food chain has pledged to distribute 15 million books by the end of 2014 through its UK units. The program, which is being called the Happy Readers Initiative, began Jan. 9. The books currently being distributed are nonfiction titles from DK Publishing's Amazing World series, which includes titles that explore topics like space and marine life. The DK books will be distributed for five weeks and then McDonald's will move on to other books. The company has not yet said which additional titles will be given away as part of the program.
“Initiatives like McDonald’s Happy Readers campaign play an important role in getting more books into the hands of children,” National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas said in an interview with The Telegraph.
If it succeeds in giving away the 15 million books, McDonald’s will be the biggest distributor of children’s books in the UK. The restaurant chain will also distribute vouchers, which families can bring to WH Smith and use to get books.
No plans have been announced for a similar initiative in the United States.
In spite of a gloomy economic environment, a dearth of red-hot holiday titles, and plenty of doom-and-gloom news about bookstores, we’ve got some good news to report on the state of the book world in 2012: Last year was a surprisingly strong one for independent bookstores.
Sales at independent bookstores rose almost 8 percent from 2011 to 2012 based on reports from about 500 bookstores, industry newsletter Shelf Awareness reported Friday. The strong numbers suggest indies are performing better than previously thought, despite the pessimistic news about bookselling.
“[T]he very healthy year-end number clearly demonstrates the vitality of independent bookstores,” said American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher in a letter to ABA members. “I know we are surrounded by those articulating a far more pessimistic appraisal of the state of bookselling, but our numbers are what they are. I don’t for one second underestimate the myriad challenges we continue to face.... but the fact is that 2012 was a good year for independent bookstores in the United States.”
Even better, indie bookstores were able to garner healthy online sales despite the dominance of behemoth online rivals like Amazon. Indies enjoyed a 28 percent increase in online sales for bookstores using the indieCommerce platform, according to e-reader newsletter Good E-Reader. And sales of Kobo Readers and e-books, though still in the early stages, are “encouraging,” Teicher said. “We significantly outperformed our earlier efforts in this area, and thousands of new e-book accounts were opened by indie customers,” he said.
Was it President Obama’s high-profile support of indie bookstores on Small Business Saturday? Is Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day finally catching on? Was it a “vote-with-your-pocketbook” reaction of a book-loving public against the gloom-and-doom news surrounding the publishing industry?
Whatever it is, we’re glad to know indie booksellers are alive and well. Here’s to an even better 2013.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Poet Richard Blanco joined the ranks of notables like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou when the White House Wednesday named him the 2013 inaugural poet. Blanco is the first Latino, first openly gay person, and youngest poet chosen for the esteemed role.
As inaugural poet, Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles who has professed a deep “spiritual” connection with President Obama, must compose an original poem to recite on the steps of the Capitol at the president’s swearing-in January 21.
“Richard’s writing will be wonderfully fitting for an inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation’s great diversity,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday.
“I’m beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude,” Blanco responded in a statement. “In many ways, this is the very ‘stuff’ of the American Dream, which underlies so much of my work and my life’s story – America’s story, really. I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry.”
Born in Spain to Cuban exiles and raised in Miami, Blanco worked as a civil engineer and composed poetry for two decades before devoting himself to writing full-time in Bethel, Maine, where he lives with his partner.
In an interview with CNN, Campbell McGrath, Blanco’s mentor at Florida International University, where the poet enrolled in a master’s program in fine arts and creative writing, said Blanco brought the “structural, analytical abilities of an engineer” to his poetry. “He was able to go beyond the beauty of the words, to look beneath the surface and examine the engineering of the poem,” McGrath told CNN.
Blanco has also said he feels a deep connection to Obama’s personal history and his roots.
“Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to his life story and the way he speaks of his family, and of course his multicultural background,” Blanco told the New York Times. “There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I'm writing about my family, I'm writing about him.”
Blanco’s first collection, “City of a Hundred Fires,” which explores his Cuban heritage, won the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, a prestigious literary award for a full-length book of poetry, and was published soon after. His second book, “Directions to the Beach of the Dead,” also plumbs his Cuban upbringing, while his most recent collection, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” explores his life as a gay man in a conservative Cuban culture.
According to the Times, Blanco learned of his selection Dec. 12 and began drafting three poems, one of which the Obama team will select for him to read at the inauguration.
“The challenge is how to be me in the poem, to have a voice that’s still intimate but yet can encompass a multitude of what America is,” he told the Times. He wants to write about “the salt-of-the-earth sense that I think all Americans have, of hard work, we can work it out together, that incredible American spirit that after 200-plus years is still there," he said.