A gift for writing

Novelist Sophie Kerr's gift to student writers 33 years ago is now the stuff of high drama.

The prize she endowed at tiny Washington College in Chestertown, Md., has become the largest undergraduate writing award in the world and grows bigger every year. Perhaps too big.

This year a check for $35,000 was handed to a student singled out as the most promising writer in the 205-member graduating class. Next year, the award may be close to $40,000.

Kerr gained her fortune, though not much fame, in the 1930s and '40s writing some two dozen novels and penning short stories for the Saturday Evening Post.

In her will, Kerr asked that half of the yearly interest from her original $573,000 bequest be awarded to a graduating senior who shows "the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

There have been surprises and even some upsets. There's also that so-called curse. According to campus superstition, award winners never reach the level of success the prize seems to promise.

- Todd Spangler

(Associated Press)

`A Widow for One Year'

In its simplest terms, John Irving's "A Widow for One Year (Random House, $27.95) is the story of a writer named Ruth Cole. But, of course, with Irving, it's never that simple. The first section - not quite 200 pages - is ostensibly about Ruth Cole at the age of 4, but it's really about her estranged parents, Ted, a somewhat famous author of macabre children's books, and Marion, strikingly beautiful and emotionally devastated since the death of her two sons at the ages of 15 and 17.

Into this unhappy household comes Eddie O'Hare, a 16-year-old Exeter (natch!) student hired as an assistant by Ted, who revels in seducing young mothers.

"A Widow for One Year" is about love and loss and grief, and it also demonstrates how life invades one's writing and vice versa.

I liked the idea of "A Widow" more than I liked the book.

Less would have been more.

- Linnea Lannon

(Detroit Free Press)

Another cup of soup

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, the Californians who wrote the best-selling "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series, have struck it rich. Their books sell like hotcakes. And there seems to be no end to them.

But getting wealthy hasn't been their main goal, one half of the team says.

"What we want to do is change the world - one story at a time," said Hansen. "We are merchants of hope."

In the process they've sold more than 20 million books.

Hansen is traveling the nation promoting the duo's latest book, "A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit," published by Health Communications.

Like the other Chicken Soup collaborations, it is filled with warmhearted stories about love, death and dying, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems. The central message they are trying to convey is simple.

"We want to give hope to people," Hansen said. "So many people today are disconsolate, depressed and despondent, even in a time of great abundance."

- Jim Jones

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)