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November 2012

Gonzo Curiosity: David Wolman and "The End of Money"

David_wolman_end_of_moneyThe most important thing that teachers can impart to their students is a desire to learn. Similarly, there's a certain class of book that I think of--and evangelize--as "nonfiction for non-specialists." When successful these books tackle widely relevant subjects via more or less dramatic narrative, spun in language that's unabashedly intended for a popular audience. (Recent blockbuster examples include Moneyball, Steve Jobs, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). The very best of these inspire a desire to find out more.

Enter David Wolman, a Portland-based journalist and contributing editor for Wired whose surprising bibliography illustrates just such eclectic curiosity. When I first came upon his work--via his Kindle Single, The Instigators--Wolman had already written books on the history of English spelling and the meaning of left-handedness. This year, he published The End of Money (print | Kindle). An Amazon Best Book of 2012 (#85 on our Top 100 list: Print editions | Kindle books), this fascinating book explores "the coming cashless society" through a cast of compelling characters that includes an end-times fundamentalist who views the growing obsolescence of cash as a sign of the coming rapture; an Icelandic artist whose claim to fame illustrates the complicated relationship between cash and nationalism; an American libertarian and coin-maker convicted on federal charges for the distribution of "Liberty" coins and Ron Paul dollars; and an Indian software engineer (self-billed as "the assassin of cash") whose firm is enabling digital payment methods that are lifting the living standards of thousands of poor New Delhi residents via their cell phones. Raising the stakes with a personal experiment, Wolman even goes (almost) a full year without using cash at all.

Readers need neither an advanced degree in economics nor even a basic understanding of currency markets to have a lot of fun with this book. If you've ever paid for a purchase in cash, you’ve got all the background you'll need. "I suspected the book would resonate, but I didn't anticipate such a loud and sustained response," Wolman tells Amazon. "Perhaps I should have. After all, the story of cash is enmeshed within the much broader story of money, the economy, and value itself."

Continue reading "Gonzo Curiosity: David Wolman and "The End of Money"" »

Writer Derek Haas on the Three Things You Can Do in a Novel But Not Onscreen

Derek HaasDerek Haas is a writer of movies (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted), creator of TV series (Chicago Fire), and acclaimed novelist (the just-released The Right Hand). In this exclusive guest post for the Amazon Studios Hollywonk blog, Haas explores the ways in which storytelling varies by form:

I was once asked:  what are three things you can do in a book that you can’t do in a movie or TV series?  An interesting question… a. because why three?  Why not 5 or 7 or 1?  And b. because there actually are three main things you can do in a novel you can’t do in a movie or TV series. How did my interviewer know the exact number to ask?  Anyway, here are my answers.

First, you don’t have to worry about a budget. At all. If you want to write that the main character drives a motorcycle through the biggest earthquake ever to strike Los Angeles, have at it. If you want to have characters jumping from Russia to Prague to London to Washington DC to LA, no one is going to stop you. If you want five-hundred assassins attacking the Olympic Opening Ceremonies … all you have to do is put it down on paper. Of course, you can’t do that in a movie script or you’ll give the President of Production at the studio a heart attack. Unless you have Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp in the movie together, then you can do anything.

Second, you get to move inside the heads of your characters.

See the rest of his answer here.

Amazon Asks: National Book Award Winner Louise Erdrich

Sara Nelson talks with the beloved author about the important books in her life, about her current author crush, her most memorable author moment, and more.

How much do readers love Louise Erdrich's The Round House? The prolific author’s 14th novel -- which, like most of her earlier books, observes contemporary Native American life -- was our No. 1 pick of 2012, and then won the coveted National Book Award for Fiction.

"Powerful," many reviewers called it, and so it is -- but the story of a brutal racial attack is also ultimately redemptive, written as it is in Erdrich's masterful, magical prose and focused with such love on the adolescent boy at its center.

Warm and friendly and in a very good mood a few days after her wins, Erdrich talked to us about writing, reading, and a couple of weird artifacts she cherishes.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

It's a story that asks the question: Will a 13 year old boy kill to save his mother?

What's on your nightstand?

When I'm writing, I only read for the book, so now one of the joys has been reading for pleasure. I just read Jaimy Gordon's The Lord of Misrule. I read all the fiction finalists [for the National Book Awards: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, A Hologram for the King, This is How You Lose Her, Yellow Birds], and I've been reading Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Dinaw Mengestu's How to Read the Air and Michael Ondaatje's Cat's Table.

What is the most important book you never read?

There are so many but one would be Ulysses. I've never been able to forge all the way through it. It's one of those that I've got on a shelf and it stares at me. It says, "You're going to pick me up." Maybe someday.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are actually three:

  • The Bible. As for so many writers, its language informed my earliest speech, writing, thoughts.
  • Second was Animal Farm; I thought it was about pigs. I knew about pigs because my grandparents had a butcher shop. Then it got me.
  • The third book is my father. He's a book. He's the most intelligent, literary, funny and tender human being I know. He's the main reason I became a writer. He wouldn't say he was a writer, but he is. He writes still, has volumes of his letter. He has written memoirs because he wants to. Poetry, reams of poetry. He has constantly written. He's 87 and still lives with my mother.
  • What's your most memorable author moment?

    First moment was when I found out that I won a magazine award from Chicago magazine. What I'd written was a story that became the opening of Love Medicine. I was broke and Studs Turkel and Kay Boyle and one other writer made the decision -- it was 1983. It paid $5,000. It was huge. It was astonishing.

    What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

    I'd like to make everyone I love immortal. I don't think they'd even want it, but I'd want it.

    What's your most prized/treasured possession?

    It's a Thunderbird egg, like the one Cappy gave to Joe [in The Round House]. I got it from an old person.

    Who's your current author crush?

    Junot Diaz. I thought I'd discovered him, but I guess not.

    What's the last dream you remember?

    When I'm writing I don't dream. But I had a dream last night. It was so exciting. It was about one of my brothers. He was riding a 12-foot-high horse, and he had glowing saffron robes flying out behind him. It reminded me of one of my favorite images: walking through Christo's gates in Central Park in 2005. I remember the snow, the bare branches.

    What's your favorite method of procrastination?

    I have my daughters -- 28, 27, 23 and 11 -- so I always have things to do. I have one to bring to school and get things prepared so I don't go straight to my work in the morning anyway. But I'm not a procrastinator. What happens after you write for 30 years, you form an addiction to being someone else, or living in someone else's world. And having the silent intensity of communication with a character in another situation is truly addictive. I don't have to force myself to get there. I need to get there.

    What's the best piece of fan mail you ever got?

    I had written a story called Saint Marie, and this reader wrote to me and called it "a nauseating phantasm of convent life." I loved that. I thought, "I have really struck a nerve." I was very angry when I wrote the story; I was angry at Catholicism, the coverups in Catholic life, the priesthood, and I knew from that letter that the reader felt my anger. I used to have a confessional in the book store; I bought it when a church was being torn down. People used to go in there and confess, but then we put up a little sign that says "Our insurance doesn't cover damnation." Now we prefer to think of it as a forgiveness booth.

    Elevator Pitches: How to Talk About Your Book

    WritersdontcryOne of these days, you’re going to have to talk about your book. It’s true! No matter if you’re submitting it to an editor or agent, trapped in an elevator with another writer, or just chatting with someone’s book-junkie grandma over cocktails--unless you never talk to anyone about it ever, it will come up. So, it’s in your best interest to figure out how to talk about your book. Briefly, because you can always talk about it more later, once they’ve expressed interest.

    This is means coming up with the dreaded elevator pitch—the fastball version of your book so short and compelling you can sell someone on it between floors. Now, the elevator pitch has a lot of mystique built up around it. Most authors hate it—I mean, seriously? If you could capture the whole essence of your book in a mere paragraph of prose, why would you have written a whole book? Your story is complicated! It has layers! It is inexpressible in a measly paragraph. (Hence: book.) But you are a writer. You can do this. All you have to do is write one paragraph that gives readers a quick but strong impression of your book.

    The best part is? Just the process of figuring out that elevator pitch will make it way easier to talk about in the future, with or without your script. So, to those ends, here are a few tips for creating an elevator pitch of your own.

    X Meets Y
    It’s like Highlander meets Black Swan . . . in space!

    One popular method for creating an elevator pitch uses the framework “my book is X meets Y,” where X and Y are popular books or movies—sometimes with an additional qualifying factor, like “in space.” Now, some people loathe this method, since when done poorly, it tells you exactly nothing about the book (though it can be downright hysterical). But it has to be said: when done well, it is an awesome shortcut to describing your book.

    Continue reading "Elevator Pitches: How to Talk About Your Book" »

    Sixty Years of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea

    Sixty years ago, Ernest Hemingway was the biggest story in town. On September 1, 1952, Hemingway’s famous story, The Old Man and the Sea, was published in Life Magazine with Papa pouting on the cover. The book version followed on September 8. Life reputedly sold five million copies of the issue containing the author’s story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, and his epic battle with a marlin.

    The Old Man and the Sea is still going strong today. It’s taught to students of English literature all over the world and rare copies are adored by book collectors. A signed first edition of The Old Man and the Sea sold for $18,500 on Amazon’s sister site in August. Anything signed by Hemingway has significant value and probably always will. Hemingway’s literary legacy was cemented in the years following The Old Man and the Sea – he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.  

    The Old Man and the Sea first editionWhat The Old Man and the Sea lacks in length, it makes up for in punch. It’s an easy, short read but builds and builds. I had not read the story for more than 20 years before picking up a copy last week - pure simplicity is still the over-powering aspect of the book. It should really be called The Old Man and the Fish – I feel the sea doesn’t come into it. To Hemingway’s old fisherman, the marlin is a noble creature and a worthy opponent. Sharks are mere scavengers in comparison to the majestic marlin. The old man likes to fish and read the baseball scores in the newspaper, and that’s his life. He marvels at Joe DiMaggio but he knows the ocean like the back of his hand until he hooks the once-in-a-lifetime marlin. As Hemingway, an experienced sports fisherman, knew, hooking the fish is one thing, hauling him in is another.

    The short passage, a single paragraph I think, when the old fisherman sees the marlin rise out of the water for the first time is wonderful. Hemingway’s prose is so short and sharp, and the reader can easily imagine the silvery fish breaking the surface with the fisherman aghast at its size and beauty. Hemingway must have loved his days out on the ocean with a beer in one hand and a line in the other waiting for the big one to bite.

    I was also particularly drawn to his description of the old man remembering his days as a young buck with an arm powerful enough to win arm-wrestling contests around the docks of Havana. It adds nothing to the narrative but is pure bravado. Surely, the author is looking back at his own glory days as a World War I ambulance driver, a hunter, a fisherman, a world traveler and a war correspondent?

    It’s easy to dismiss The Old Man and the Sea as machismo nonsense, but how many of today’s bestselling novels are still going to be read in 2072? Although this story has been analyzed time and again, Hemingway proved that a simple story well-told can go a long way. He also knew what he was talking about – he was skilled at outfitting boats to catch large fish and, just like Santiago, battled predatory sharks. Fans of Hemingway can still visit the author’s home in Key West where they will encounter a lot of cats, many of whom are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s pets.

    It’s also perhaps worth noting that Hemingway was in the twilight of his career when The Old Man and the Sea was published. He died in 1961. His final years were sad and muddled by illness, alcohol and mental problems. The story was a powerful retort to critics who thought his best days were behind him. With readers suddenly wanting to pick up his earlier works, Hemingway must have loved the impact of this story.

    -- Richard Davies

    The Legendary John Skipp Brings Readers “Psychos”

    Psychos2Never one to do things by half measures, the legendary horror writer John Skipp has turned to editing anthologies with a vengeance, his titles including Zombies, Demons and Werewolves, and Shapeshifters. His latest is Psychos, a collection of thirty-eight terrifying tales of serial killers at large, written by the great masters of the genre. Authors include Neil Gaiman, Amelia Beamer, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris.

    Omnivoracious caught up with Skipp to ask him, among other things, what makes for a great story about a psycho.

    “Well, for starters, don’t skimp on the psychosis! That’s your primary ingredient! Past that, I’d say it’s a combination of great storytelling on the one hand and great psychological probity on the other, with language that manages to get authentically inside the experience of insanity, and pull you along.”

    Since Psychos includes stories from several decades, Skipp has gained some perspective on how psycho stories have changed over the years. “I think we’ve just gotten a lot more honest about how crazy we all are sometimes, and the painful minutia therein. Its part and parcel of a larger shift—our cultural embrace of the monster—which you can see everywhere from the success of [the Showtime series] Dexter to the proliferation of sexy vampire and werewolf romance.

    “Not saying that everyone does crazy right. Not even close. But these days, we’re much less apt to suggest insanity by having the character cartoonily bug one eye out and go ‘Hern hern hern…’ You know? Even the dumbest CSI wannabe spinoff on television demands greater sophistication than even fine writers of fiction used to routinely get away with. And that is good. But the great writers—the ones who truly excel at this—know too much, and are willing to share it in signature bursts of alarming clarity. And this book is full of them.

    Continue reading "The Legendary John Skipp Brings Readers “Psychos”" »

    YA Wednesday: The Inspirations of Laini Taylor

    Last year Laini Taylor's The Daughter of Smoke and Bone was our #1 pick of the Best Teen Books of 2011 and we all waited (and waited..) for a chance to read the follow-up.  It's always a bit of a dice roll, reading a second book when you really love the first, but Days of Blood and Starlight delivered everything I'd hoped for, and more.  Days is on our 2012 list of Best Teen Books, and right from the beginning it engulfs you in a story rich with emotion, brutality, and breath-taking twists.  Like the first book, Days also takes you to exotic, faraway lands--lands Taylor visited and photographed.  In an Amazon exclusive, Taylor shared some photographs from her trip to Morocco after she finished The Daughter of Smoke and Bone--she's an amazing photographer and the places that inspired Days are even more beautiful than I imagined.  Note to self: go to Morocco and pack Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight for re-reading.


    When I wrote DAUGHTER, I had been to Prague but not Morocco, but it was the source of my travel lust at the time, so I did the best research I could, including watching videos, and created a sense of place that way. Then, going to Morocco was my reward for finishing the book. I did not know at that time that the trip would inspire book 2 in such a major way, but it did. Whereas Marrakesh features in DAUGHTER, the action of DAYS (well, some of it) has moved on to the land of kasbahs and palm oases in southern Morocco. My husband Jim and I came *this close* to abandoning this portion of our trip as a result of the driving time. Clementine was 16 months old and hated her car seat with a burning passion, so that drive over the Atlas Mountains was ... blood-pressure raising. We actually stopped at one point and seriously considered turning back to Marrakesh. But I'm so glad we didn't.

     Here is a glimpse of the world that inspired my "land of dust and starlight"--Laini Taylor


    kasbah of Telouet, which was the real inspiration for the primary setting of DAYS:














    Ait Benhaddou, the most famous kasbah in Morocco; it is where Zuzana and Mik are when "it" begins: "It. The thing that would never be eclipsed, that would own the third-person neuter pronoun "it" forever. Where were you the day it began?"















    Agdz, where Karou goes to buy supplies:















    Imagine Karou standing here, and that blue robe as a flash of her blue hair:


    The Reader's Guide to Love


    You read This Is How You Lose Her, the new Junot Diaz. It's a novel in stories, which is a concept you like because you majored in English. It grabs you immediately. Each story shows the bold voice and street-smart wit Diaz is known for, but there's a deeper tenderness here that haunts every page of the book. You tell everyone you know to read it. You talk about how this is the way you want the future of literature to look. You tell them that this might be better than The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the novel for which Diaz won a Pulitzer. (Later, at a lunch with an editor, you will give this rant, and it will turn out that he edited Oscar Wao.)

    The book confronts every form of love, and really picks up in the second half. But it's not until the last story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," a tremendous, earnest tale of heartbreak written in the second person, that you realize that this is a book you cherish. And the timing couldn't be better, or worse, depending on how you look at it: you just got dumped.

    You have nothing in common with Diaz's protagonist Yunior--you are not a macho Dominican-American with a penchant for sleeping with lots of sucias--other than a shared sadness. You go through the same motions as Yunior. You start going to the climbing gym again. You get in the best shape you've been in since high school. You bury yourself in your work, every late hour in the office a welcome distraction.

    A few months later, you move across the country to New York. You left for family reasons, but when you arrive at JFK, you immediately wonder if you're there because of her. It takes you a while to get used to the subway. At first it's annoying going for long stretches without cellphone reception, but you soon realize it's good reading time. You have a lot of books to get through for work, but you instead read "The Cheater's Guide to Love" again. It's just as good the second time, maybe better.

    You used to think writing from the second-person was a lazy gimmick, that it let a writer frame otherwise dull, declarative statements in a semi-interesting voice. But you realize this is not the case with Diaz in "The Cheater's Guide to Love." He knows the power of "you." The second person is a recognition that every heartbreak is unique, but the pain is universal.

    Weeks later, she'll tweet a photo of her and the person who is apparently her boyfriend. You knew he existed; you just never knew what he looked like. You expect to be angry, upset, anything. They look cute, and you're actually a little happy for them. Maybe you're actually happier for yourself because you realize that you feel very little. You're over it.

    On the subway, you read "The Cheater's Guide to Love" again. It devastates you the same way it did the first two times you read. You may be over her, but you are not over this story. You accept that you never will be.

    -- Kevin Nguyen

    The Grand Mathster: Nate Silver

     We’re at best amateur forecasters, but somehow we knew that The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't would be a big deal. It started when our own Darryl Campbell held up the book up and said, "This is going to be important." As more of our team read it, we agreed.

    Granted, our methodology was, by author Nate Silver's standards, more "hedgehog" than "fox"--more gut instinct than data driven. Still, we're proud of the entirely verifiable fact that we voted The Signal and the Noise into the top spot on our September 2012 Best of the Month list. As Darryl wrote then, "In today's metrics-saturated world, Silver's book is a timely and readable reminder that statistics are only as good as the people who wield them."

    Now that the 2012 election is over, and Silver's taking victory laps from his home turf at the New York Times to MSNBC to the Huffington Post to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the signal's clear that Silver is just that good, and not only at political forecasting. He also looks at the role predictions can play in gambling, sports, and weather. More importantly, as discussed in an exclusive Amazon Q&A, he explains how our human nature is both an asset and an obstacle in interpreting data. "The book, in some ways, is about accepting our flaws, as well as recognizing the things that we're good at."

    In honor of The Signal and the Noise ranking at No. 17 on Amazon’s 2012 Best Books of the Year list, let’s dig into the data. Here’s a (mostly) objective look at the numbers guy by the numbers:

  • 538 – The configuration of the electoral college (435 representatives, 100 senators and three electors from the District of Columbia), the inspiration for the name of Silver’s blog
  • 74 – Nate Silver's overall author ranking on Amazon (based entirely on the sales of this book).
  • 64 – Number of days The Signal and the Noise has held a spot on Amazon’s Top 100 Best Sellers list.
  • 50 – Number of states that Silver correctly forecast in the 2012 presidential election. Although he improved his presidential forecast score, he did misjudge 2 of 33 Senate races by predicting Republican wins in North Dakota and Montana.
  • 49 – Number of states that Silver correctly forecast in the 2008 presidential election. Indiana was his only miss as Obama won the state by a 1 percent margin. He accurately predicted all 35 U.S. Senate race outcomes that year.
  • 34 – Age of Nate Silver: statistician, poker and baseball buff, author and “the other winner” of the 2012 presidential election.
  • 2 – Peak position on Amazon’s 100 Best Sellers list. It’s currently ranked at No. 15.
  • 1The Signal and the Noise rank in Business & Investing books both for hardcopy and Kindle versions.
  • (All rankings are accurate as of Nov. 19, 2012.)

    Writers Don't Cry 2012 Picks: Five Books for Writers

    Writersdontcry WDC PicksWriters crave a steady diet of fierce, thoughtful, and heartbreakingly well-worded books. These books should have the paragraph structure of the gods, dialogue to die for, and a narrative voice you would follow through gates of hell (though it would never lead you there). And it is through enjoying and analyzing these rare and inspired books that writers can best hone their craft.

    But which books in particular are good examples of such technical expertise? Well, you could make the argument that you can learn something from just about every book you read—brilliant or not so brilliant. And that even if something is not to your taste, there is something to be gleaned there. But, I have to say, I prefer to learn while enjoying my pants off.

    So! To that end, I’ve put together a list of five books I think make great studies for writers. Now, I understand that traditionally, these lists are temporally discriminatory, in order to keep Harry Potter, Twilight, and George R. R. Martin from ruling the world (or rather, this corner of it). However, since I don’t just read books that came out this year, this is not going to be such a list. Instead, I will attempt to immortalize five (just five!) of the many inspiring and instructive books I read this year. (Or maybe the year before. Hey, it’s my first list, cut me a little slack!)

    May I present, in no particular order, five books for writers, how I found them, what they’re about, and what you can learn by studying them.

    Continue reading "Writers Don't Cry 2012 Picks: Five Books for Writers" »