Friday, January 26, 2007

After Frey Debacle, Oprah Picks Poitier Book for Club

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Oprah Winfrey chose Sidney Poitier's ``The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography'' (HarperSanFrancisco, $14.95 paperback) as the next pick for her television book club. The choice is all but certain to turn the memoir into a bestseller.

``Measure'' is the first title Oprah has given her seal of approval to since James Frey's memoir, ``A Million Little Pieces,'' was exposed as partially fabricated and caused Winfrey considerable embarrassment. Oprah's Book Club has been a major boon to the publishing industry; her imprimatur on a title means gold at the checkout counter.

Originally published in September 2000, ``The Measure of a Man'' is Poitier's second memoir and recounts his rise from an impoverished childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas to his Oscar-winning film career. The book includes meditations on integrity, commitment, faith and forgiveness and finding meaningful pleasures in life. The book sold 125,000 hardcovers and paperbacks in its first run, according to the publisher.

Winfrey was chastened when the Smoking Gun Web site revealed that Frey had faked significant portions of ``A Million Little Pieces,'' a book she heavily promoted through her club and initially defended. That book had gone on to sell some 1.7 million copies following her imprimatur and in excess of three million copies in all.

Despite the scandal, Winfrey still managed to turn a revised edition of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir ``Night'' into a million-copy bestseller.

Inspirational Story

Mark Tauber, vice president and deputy publisher of HarperSanFrancisco, called Poitier's memoir ``a great inspirational story about an authentic life.

``Oprah loves these kinds of stories,'' he added in a telephone interview today, ``and she's never been shy about saying how much he's been important to her career. It makes a lot of sense.''

Until the debacle, Oprah's Book Club had become the nation's premier venue for promoting books. Begun on Sept. 19, 1996, with the selection of Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel ``The Deep End of the Ocean,'' a Winfrey endorsement has nearly always prompted a dramatic boost in a title's sales.

14-Month Hiatus

Tauber anticipates the same will hold for Poitier's book. ``The Measure of a Man'' sold 75,000 copies in hardcover, landing briefly on the New York Times bestseller list in 2000, and an additional 50,000 copies in paperback.

Though Tauber wouldn't reveal specific numbers, he said, ``it's safe to say that we're printing several hundred thousand new paperbacks.'' He reports that pre-sales of the book, which has already been delivered to bookstores and will be on sale today, have been strong.

In 2001, author Jonathan Franzen voiced his discomfort with the ``Oprah's Book Club'' sticker affixed to his novel ``The Corrections.'' Franzen was dropped from Winfrey's show for his perceived snobbery; he later acknowledged her in his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. She'd probably made him a bestselling author, too.

After a 14-month hiatus from selecting books between April 2002 and June 2003, Oprah shifted the focus of her club from choosing works by contemporary authors to promoting classic novels. The first, John Steinbeck's ``East of Eden,'' sold in excess of 1.6 million copies. Subsequent choices fell off a bit. Yet even missteps can account for significant sales.

The final selection of the classics club, a three-volume, $29.95 box set of William Faulkner's ``As I Lay Dying,'' ``The Sound and the Fury'' and ``Light in August'' was perceived as too daunting for many but still sold in excess of a half million units.

Including today's selection, Winfrey has picked 58 titles in all for her club, making instant millionaires of some the authors.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Children's Book Prizes Go to Small-Town Quest, Surreal Pictures

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Susan Patron's children's novel ``The Higher Power of Lucky'' (Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books) won the John Newbery Medal, while David Wiesner's illustrated book ``Flotsam'' (Clarion) took home the Randolph Caldecott Medal at an awards ceremony hosted in Seattle today by the American Library Association.

The prizes, which date from 1922 and 1938 respectively, are among the most prestigious in children's book publishing.

Patron's novel portrays the adventures of Lucky, a motherless 10-year-old who quests for a ``higher power'' among the quirky citizens and 12-step programs of the tiny desert town of Hard Pan, California, where she is looked after by her father's ex-wife, a Frenchwoman seemingly more interested in her on-line restaurant-management course than in caring for Lucky.

Wiesner has twice won the Caldecott Medal, first in 1992 for ``Tuesday'' and again in 2002 for his re-imagining of ``The Three Pigs.'' His ``Flotsam'' is a gorgeous, wordless depiction of a young beachcomber who finds the barnacle-encrusted Melville Underwater Camera. The camera is filled with astonishing photos of a strange undersea world, including a puffer fish rigged as a hot-air balloon and an intricate mechanical sea creature.

Closer examination with a magnifying glass and microscope reveals self-portraits of other children who have stumbled upon the camera, one dating back to the early 20th century.

In addition to the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, the ALA awards various other prizes for children's books. The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for nonfiction went to ``Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon'' by Catherine Thimmesh (Houghton Mifflin).

The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature was given to ``American Born Chinese'' by Gene Luen Yang (Roaring Brook Press), the story of a child's alienation at school and the first graphic novel to be honored with the prize.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Edward Nawotka at .

Eat Everything, Play Golf, Talk to Snails: Lifestyle Books

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Dismissing most food experts as cranks, sociologist Barry Glassner reasons that since scientists, nutritionists and dietitians can't make up their minds about what foods are good for you and what foods aren't, you might as well eat what you want.

In his convincing ``The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong'' (Ecco, $25.95), Glassner looks at conflicting myths about food, such as the suggested health benefits of the Atkins diet and the purported deadliness of eggs and hot dogs.

Glassner decries those who preach ``the gospel of naught,'' the idea that ``the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks.'' He thinks America's obesity epidemic has been exaggerated, in part by a food industry eager to sell higher- priced ``natural'' products, many of which have no more nutritional value than processed foods.

The right path, he says, is to learn to take genuine pleasure from your meals. You'll be happier, which in and of itself will make you healthier.

Other highlights this month:

``Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas: A Golfer's Pilgrimage to the Courses of Ireland'' by James W. Finegan (Simon & Schuster, $14). A golfer's dream book, this revised edition of Finegan's 1996 travelogue and guide covers nearly all the country's famed courses -- from new challenges, such as Druid's Heath (a ``thrilling, scenic, unyielding'' 7,450-yard par 71 outside Dublin) to classics like Ballybunion's outstanding links (one of Bill Clinton's favorite courses).

``Money Changes Everything: Twenty-Two Writers Tackle the Last Taboo With Tales of Sudden Windfalls, Staggering Debts and Other Surprising Turns'' edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell (Doubleday, $24.95). Among the essays in this intriguing anthology are pieces by a Sept. 11 widow who discusses her conflicted feelings about the compensation she received for her husband's death, by an heiress who struggles with ``affluenza'' and by a married couple who nearly divorced over the family finances.

``The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts'' by Milan Kundera (HarperCollins, $22.95). The acclaimed Czech author of ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' summarizes his notions of what makes a great novel and addresses the novel's role in Western Civilization -- where, he argues, fiction has helped create a shared experience that transcends languages and nationalities.

``The Lady in the Palazzo'' by Marlena de Blasi (Algonquin, $23.95). The cookbook writer does for Umbria what Frances Mayes did for Tuscany in this memoir about renovating the ballroom of a medieval palazzo in the heart of Orvieto. As prescribed by the genre, the undertaking doesn't go as planned, but eventually she wins over her eccentric, suspicious neighbors with her food and charm.

``Alternadad'' by Neal Pollack (Pantheon, $23.95). If you think being the parent of a young child might cramp your style, think again, says Pollock in this funny and vulgar memoir of trying to mold his toddler, Elijah, into a Ramones-loving little hipster -- a mirror image of himself -- while avoiding the ire of his too tolerant wife.

``Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction'' by Jake Halpern (Houghton Mifflin, $23). This breezy, intriguing book casts a cold eye on the culture of celebrity -- the aspiring stars of reality television shows, the personal assistants and entourages who bask in reflected glory and the kingmakers at celebrity-obsessed magazines like US Weekly.

``Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French'' by Stephen Clarke (Bloomsbury, $14.95). A witty, tongue- in-cheek demystification of such enigmas as why French waiters are rude and why French workers are always going on strike. Clarke also offers his hard-won advice on seducing French women and on speaking French, if need be, so as to be polite and cutting at the same time.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Edward Nawotka at .