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Author-Lawyer Alafair Burke's Favorite "Lawyers are People Too" Books

Our thanks to Alafair Burke for sharing her thoughts on the best and worst ("hearsay!") of legal thrillers and courtroom drama. Burke's latest novel is All Day and a Night, which again features her NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. Megan Abbott (The Fever) called it “A masterfully plotted, psychologically complex thriller."

As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Burke knows a thing or two about the law; she now teaches at Hofstra Law School. (And as the daughter of James Lee Burke, she also knows a thing or two about the written word). Burke's next project is a first-ever collaboration with Mary Higgins Clark. Their co-authored novel, The Cinderella Murder, is coming in November.

Alafair2
In 2004, a major editor at a major publisher told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature.Alafair

Fast-forward ten years, and books featuring lawyers are thriving. Perhaps not coincidentally, publishers have also found a way to market books about lawyers without pigeonholing them as “legal thrillers” or “courtroom dramas.”

I first started fantasizing about writing a novel because of my frustration at the portrayal of attorneys in fiction, especially crime fiction. I was a huge fan of the genre, but found myself wanting to throw books across the room when attorneys arrived on the page, yelling “hearsay!” and “calls for speculation!” Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.

In real life, few lawyers go to court. They delve into families, negotiating pre-nups, adoptions, and divorces. They merge and separate corporate entities. Even litigators spend a small percentage of their time in court. The vast majority of cases settle, which only happens after lawyers gather evidence, question witnesses, scour documents, and play chicken with their adversaries.

Michael Connelly understood this when he endorsed my debut novel by saying, “JUDGMENT CALLS expertly shows that the most gripping drama is not found in the courtroom but in the places where choices get made in the shadows cast by politics and corruption and human desires.”

FirmIn other words, when lawyers narrate a story, it’s still just a story, because lawyers are people too.  Here are a few of my favorite books that show the real lives of lawyers, outside the courtroom.

The Firm, John Grisham

Though Grisham’s A Time To Kill is one of the best courtroom novels I’ve read, The Firm captures an altogether different world, expertly portraying the pressures placed upon a junior associate at an elite law firm.

Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow

Turning the genre on its head, Turow tells the story of a career prosecutor charged with murder. He also masters the use of a (possibly?) unreliable narrator. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, read this back-to-back with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and draw the parallels.

TurowThe Alexandra Cooper series, by Linda Fairstein (The most recent installment: Terminal City)

It’s no surprise that Fairstein, who as supervisor for the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office broke new ground in the prosecution of crimes against women, also broke new ground in the depiction of prosecutors in fiction. Through Alex Cooper, she shows that the power of the prosecutor is not in the courtroom, but in the nearly unreviewable discretion they exercise outside of it.

The Mickey Haller series, by Michael Connelly (The most recent installment: The Gods of Guilt)

Much as Fairstein depicts the out-of-court life of Alex Cooper, Connelly delves into the life of defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s neither true believer nor scoundrel. He’s just a really interesting guy who happens to be a lawyer.

KermitIn the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt

In the way that atmospheric novels treat geographic setting as character, Roosevelt treats the law as a character here, both villain and protagonist.

The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen Carter

I’ve got to include a book featuring a law professor at the center of a sprawling thriller. Yale Law Prof Carter provides a searing portrayal of both academic and judicial politicking.

Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat

This forthcoming novel lifts the veil on the prestigious but cryptic role of judicial clerks. The author, founder of the law-blog Above the Law (think: Entertainment Weekly for lawyers), is a rock-star among law-geeks (to wit, he coined the term “bench-slap,” which now appears in Black’s Law Dictionary).

It’s within this context that I situate my tenth novel, All Day and a Night, which tells the story of a wrongful conviction claim from the perspectives of both recurring character NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and a young defense attorney named Carrie Blank. It has been described as a combination of police procedural, courtroom drama, and psychological thriller. To defy easy categorization is the highest praise I can ask for.

    --Alafair Burke

Deborah Madison Imagines the Future of Food--and Her Masterpiece, Circa 2030

Veg-CookingI met Deborah Madison for lunch in Seattle the day after her third James Beard Award win--this time for Vegetable Literacy, an elegant compendium of edible plant families. But her current tour was devoted to the sequel to her first Beard winner, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

The book's original incarnation (published in 1998) was a tour de force, with over 400,000 copies in print--including one stained, margin-scribbled copy that guided me through the first years in my own kitchen. But in recent years, we've seen such a dramatic expansion of vegetarian food choices, while tastes have become more adventurous and the appetite for simple, delicious vegetarian recipes has become so voracious that Madison decided it was time to give her classic a thoroughly modern revamp.

The result? A meatless masterpiece with 200 more recipes--over 1,600 in all.

Gone are soy milk and unhealthy oils like canola. New and old recipes incorporate newly available ingredients like non-dairy beverages, ghee, coconut oil, and ancient grains like spelt and a wider variety of quinoa. A slimmed down stir-fry section makes room for more simple sautes. And she calls out the healthier options you can find at now-ubiquitous farmers' markets. (See more about these changes in Madison's interview with The Washington Post.)

Madison and I are both ardent gardeners, so over lunch we inevitably talked about how changes in weather patterns will impact what and how we eat (and grow) in the near future.

I came away wondering what kinds of changes Madison would imagine making to a third edition of the book, if she revised it again in 2030, so I asked. Her answer is equal parts sobering and hopeful.  -- Mari

__________________________________________________________________________________

Drought, climate change, genetic engineering, nanoparticles in our food—these are things that worry me. I lose sleep over them. 

I think it will get increasingly difficult to truly nourish ourselves, even if we don't eat corporate food. That won't be enough, because what won’t be sullied? I also fear that the USDA Organic label, already disappointing, will mean even less--although I hope that's not the case, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure it's not. In short, I don’t feel hugely optimistic about the world of food 15 years hence.

But there will be some things to welcome, like the return of common sense, the sharing of meals, and probably smaller portions, as there might not be such a crazy abundance. I suspect grain will have changed to some extent, with more farmers growing pre-modern wheat varieties. That's starting to happen now, and that's good. But this better wheat, like all foods, will cost more and be less reliably available.

The upside of that is that we’ll have to learn to really value, care for, and be grateful for our food. We'll have to be willing to spend more time with it, not rushing home to cook up just the tender, fast-cooking parts of meats and vegetables. This will be hard on working families with low-wage jobs, and those who can provide food for themselves by cooking or gardening will be the privileged ones. I hope that there will be more cooking in the schools and more opportunities for kids to cook, so that they can take charge of their health and their lives and those of their siblings and parents.

If I were updating Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in 15 years, it would be a different book. It wouldn't be just vegetarian, for one. I think the quality of most plant foods will be so much lower—with the exception of that raised by those relatively few farmers who really know how to grow their soil—that meat will be necessary. But by meat, I don't mean supermarket chops and steaks, but better-raised, more wholesome and nutritious animals. Except for the wealthy, meat will be an occasional food, served in small portions (a good idea that’s already been explored), and it will include eating offal—the nourishing foods we've cast aside for so long. We'll be using bones to make stocks and broths.

Continue reading "Deborah Madison Imagines the Future of Food--and Her Masterpiece, Circa 2030" »

GOOOOOOL! Simon Kuper's Essential World Cup Reads

The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world. Don't argue: the 2010 final featuring Spain and the Netherlands drew an estimated 700 million viewers worldwide. But for many Americans, the sport of soccer remains alien, inscrutable. No hands? Check. No time-outs (and corresponding beer runs/bathroom breaks)? Time your runs. "Nil-nil" scorelines? Sadly, but get over it. Soccer hairstyles? Absolutely. Unhinged announcers? GOOOOOOOL!

But the World Cup is upon us; Croatia face host and favorite Brazil in the first game*, kicking off the quadrennial tournament on June 12. For those who don't know their Zico from their Zlatan, we've asked Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper--himself the author of several excellent books on the subject--for his "Five Essential Books for Understanding the World Cup." (Fine manners precluded him from listing any of his own books, but Soccernomics, which has been described as soccer's answer to Moneyball for its sweeping empirical analysis of the world's game, would make any other list.)

Some of these are out of print, but can be found used through third-party sellers. They're worth the hunt.

* Even soccer-related subject-verb agreement can boggle New World minds like mine.


The Five Essential Books for Understanding the World Cup

By Simon Kuper

Here are the best nonfiction books in English to help you get a sense of what soccer is all about.

All Played Out All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ‘90

by Pete Davies

First published in 1990

Davies was a little-known British novelist when Bobby Robson, England’s then soccer manager, weirdly invited him to spend the World Cup of 1990 as a sort of writer-in residence to the England team. Davies shared a hotel with the players, got them to trust him, and wrote the book that started the 1990s' wave of serious soccer writing.

 

 

Only a GameOnly A Game?

by Eamon Dunphy with Peter Ball

First published in 1976

What it’s really like to be a journeyman soccer professional? The answer: not much fun. This is the classic account.

 

 

 

 

Fever Pitch Fever Pitch

by Nick Hornby

First published in 1992

This completely original book was the first to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a soccer fan. It became the most influential soccer book ever written. Among other things it offers a hilarious but true social history of Britain from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

 

 

 

I Am Zlatan I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic

by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Lagercrantz (translated from the Swedish by Ruth Urbom)

First published in Swedish in 2011

The best player’s autobiography of recent years: honest, with close-up, warts-and-all portraits not just of the great Swede himself but also of men like Josep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. In addition, it’s an immigrant’s tale surprisingly like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

 

 

 

Brilliant Orange Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer

by David Winner

First published in 2000

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said, “Tell me how you play and I will tell you who you are.” Nobody has ever done that better for a country than Winner did for the Dutch. He’s also very funny.

 

 

 


Books by Simon Kuper

Soccernomics Soccer Against the Enemy Soccer Men Ajax, the Dutch, the War


See the full list.

Susan Jane Gilman on Everything You Never Knew About Ice Cream… and Then Some

Susan Jane GilmanTo write my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street I had to research the history of ice cream and modern-day ice cream production in great detail. This, as you might imagine, was extremely taxing. Not only did I have to go behind the scenes of a Carvel Ice Cream store in Massapequa, NY, but attend a "master class" at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Italy. I then read extensively about ice cream and, of course -- just to make sure I'd grasped the basics --ate a monumental amount of ice cream, as well. Really.

The things I have to do for my art. It's a wonder I managed to write my novel at all.

Still, after christening myself the founder of the "Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Research" and completing my book, I did come away with a whole assortment of cool, interesting facts about the 20th century ice cream industry:

Ice Cream Queen Cover1. No less than five different people claimed to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Four of these were Middle Eastern immigrants. One of them, Abe Doumar, called his invention "Syrian ice cream sandwiches." Using a waffle iron, he developed a cone machine after the fair; he later donated this to the Smithsonian Institution.

2. Prohibition proved to be a godsend for the ice cream industry. What were tavern-owners to do with their now-illegal barrooms and beer halls? They converted them into ice cream parlors. In 1920, one Brooklyn brewery even began selling ice cream in place of beer at Coney Island to make up for its lost revenue. By 1929, 60% of the nation's drugstores had installed soda fountains.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great Depression was devastating for the ice cream industry. It gave rise to "ice cream bootleggers," who produced a cheap, terrible product pumped full of air -- that did not adhere to the government's minimum manufacturing requirements -- and sold it under-the-table to ice cream outlets for less than the popular, mainstream brands.

4. In World War II, the United States government became the largest ice cream maker in history, producing 800 million gallons a year. Most other countries could no longer produce ice cream, due to shortages of milk, sugar, and infrastructure. But the U.S. military deemed ice cream "an essential item for troop morale" -- and so it dedicated all available resources to manufacturing ice cream on a grand scale for the military. It even commissioned two "Ice Cream Barges" -- dubbed "the world's first floating ice cream parlors." The ships' sole responsibility was to produce ice cream for the U.S.military. Their machines and crews pumped out almost 1,500 gallons every hour for distribution to troops across the Pacific theater.

Susan JaneGilman5. Even though Italy is thought to be the home of modern-day ice cream, during Wolrd War II, Benito Mussolini declared that ice cream was "too American" and banned the sale of ice cream throughout Italy, accusing the Italian people of being a "mediocre race of good-for-nothings only capable of singing and eating ice cream."

6. When rationing was lifted after the war, American began consuming ice cream in record amounts -- 20 quarts per person in 1946 alone. Today, the amount is even higher, though only slightly. Americans now consume about 22 quarts per person per year.

7. In the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in the hot months of summer. Since people naturally ate more ice cream and drank more soft drinks in hot months, scientists jumped to the conclusion that sugar -- and particularly ice cream -- caused Polio. Eliminating sweets was recommended as part of an anti-polio diet. For several years, ice cream was erroneously believed to cause polio.

8. Baskin-Robbins originally conceived of their famous "31 Flavors" so that they could offer a different flavor for every day of the month.

9. Only New Zealanders consume more ice cream than Americans -- 27 quarts per person, per year.
The first ice cream to be certified kosher was Carvel Ice Cream, founded by Thomas Carvelas, a Greek Orthodox immigrant.

10. However, if you go to a Carvel Ice Cream store to research your novel, and you secretly believe that "research" means dipping your head beneath the soft-serve ice cream dispenser and letting as much chocolate ice cream as possible pour directly into your mouth, you will be disappointed. The proprietors actually won't let you anywhere near the soft ice cream machine unsupervised... even if you are the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies.

YA Wednesday: Faeries and Falconers

Falconer250One of my favorite YA books this month is Elizabeth May's debut novel, The Falconer, the first book in a planned trilogy. A mash-up of a Victorian setting, faerie fantasy, and steampunk, I fell right into the world May created.  Her protagonist, Aileana, is a young woman straining against the rituals and requirements befitting a Victorian lady of her standing while she would much prefer crafting new inventions, many designed for her primary activity: hunting faeries and other nasty creatures surfacing from beneath the city.  There is suspense, romance (a bit of a love triangle), and Scottish lore in abundance and I can't wait for the next book. 

Best-selling author Jennifer Armentrout (her latest novel is the edge-of-your-seat thriller, Don't Look Back) interviewed Elizabeth May for Omni and got the scoop on faeries (good or bad?), living in present day Scotland, and more.

Jennifer Armentrout: Lady Aileana is a faerie killer? I thought fairies were good? Tell me more about the evil fairies!

Elizabeth May: Yesss! I love talking about faery lore! Friendly faeries are really a result of the Disneyfication of certain stories, so they’ve gotten a lot of great PR during the last century. The Falconer follows traditional Scottish lore, in which faeries are considered to be dangerous creatures that people should avoid at all costs. Some are considered “friendlier” and they help humans from time to time, but are still both temperamental and capable of a great deal of harm. The majority of faeries in Scottish lore tend to be considered evil; they slaughter on a whim, kidnap the helpless (including children and babies) and are capable of cursing people.

“Faeries” in stories were really something like a genus that consisted of a number of species, and all supernatural creatures in Scottish lore were considered fae. So there were faeries that were like vampires, werewolves, demons, spirits . . . and people wore charms to protect themselves from these creatures, and sometimes left offerings to appease them. Faeries were believed to be quick to anger, and their wrath capable of a great deal of destruction. These are the types of stories and ideas I kept in mind when I came up with The Falconer. I wanted to write about the types of faeries people felt the need to ward themselves against.

Jennifer Armentrout: You were born in the US but you live in Scotland now. How has living in Scotland influenced you as a reader and writer? What are some of the differences between Americans and Scots?

Elizabeth May: I’ve lived in Scotland for years now, so it’s definitely influenced me a great deal.  I grew up in a not-so-safe city in Southern California, amid a concrete expanse with very little green space and smoggy, brown air. When I moved to Scotland, it was completely different.  Though I still live in a city (Edinburgh), the atmosphere and the buildings have character and atmosphere that feels so much like something out of an urban fantasy novel. If you walk in the dark during late hours in Edinburgh, it feels very eerie, very haunted and sometimes even empty.

When I moved here I definitely noticed myself appreciating setting and sense of place more. The smells and seasons and changing from day into night. At first because it was all unfamiliar, and then later because it really affects the way the city and landscape looks and feels: from bright and friendly to grey and foreboding.  A lot of Scotland is like that. I start to notice when certain types of flowers bloom to cover the countryside, and how different the light is in summer and winter. Living here has given me the ability to travel all over the country – from the Highlands to the Isles – and take in the differences in landscape. There’s certainly a mood to Scottish cities and the country’s rural landscape that is inspiring for fiction.

As for differences: many, many, many. But I suppose the most immediate difference – at least for me – is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with people here. I’m a socially anxious person by nature, so I find it very difficult to meet new people, and yet I’ve had hours long conversations with strangers in pubs. No awkwardness, no contact info exchanged afterward. Just a bit of banter and a goodbye at the end.

JA:  You’ve gone from modeling for YA SciFi book covers to an author photo on the flap. How did become a cover model? I’ll bet you have good stories to share.

EM: It all started by chance. I used to have a really active and popular photography account on Deviantart, and a cover designer for Harlequin Australia saw my photos and messaged me about possibly using one for a cover. Honestly, I got so many weird messages through DA that I had no idea if she was legit. So I just forwarded her message on to the agent who handles my photos, and she followed through with buying the license for it. And that was my first cover. From there the covers just snowballed: a few more that year, then a dozen more the year after...I’ve been on almost one hundred covers internationally by now. Some of them I’ve seen and some I haven’t. I think the best part is when I end up on the repackaged covers for books I grew up reading, or on covers for authors I admire. I still get a fangirl thrill!Falconer_LJ_Smith_Cover

I read L.J. Smith as a teen, so I pretty much died when I found out I was on the cover of this one. One of my other photos (not of me) ended up on the Volume Three, as well. So exciting!

JA: Aileana and her mom are the original makers. How did you research inventing and tinkering? What’s your favorite invention in The Falconer?

EM: It was difficult to research certain inventions in the world of The Falconer, because they either don’t exist (the stitchers), or they’re still in the design stages (the lightning gun), or they’re beyond my knowledge of technical know-how (pretty much all of them, to be honest). Next to the historical information, the inventions took up a great deal of my reading time. Mainly, I started with a general idea of what I wanted and then researched accordingly.

For example, the lightning pistol Aileana uses was something I had in mind before I researched. But I wanted to have a general sense of how something like that would work (because Aileana would know exactly how it would work), so I looked into a lot of prototype ideas on the internet for lightning pistol designs. For other inventions, I merged ideas. Like with Aileana’s flying machine (which was definitely my favourite), which was a combination of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for ornithopters and steam powered vehicles of the Victorian age.

Facloner_da_vincis_ornithopter This is the original da Vinci design, which was a single person ornithopter. It was the primary inspiration for Aileana’s flying machine.

I do have to say: researching for the inventions was so fun! I’m sure I’m on a government watch list for my searches (“how to make a flame thrower”!), but I learned a lot to make the technical aspects sound authentic.

JA: How would you have fared with all of the social restrictions on a young lady in Victorian Scotland?

EM: If modern me were suddenly plunked down into Victorian-era Scotland, I’d probably find it very difficult to adapt. The restrictions put on upper class unmarried ladies are so removed from contemporary Scottish society that my habits would probably be considered really uncouth and vulgar. But if I were brought up in the 19th century, maybe I would have bucked against certain societal expectations. Plenty of women in the Victorian-era challenged traditional women’s roles, and I like to think that if I were raised then, I would have been one of them.

JA: What books were your favorites as a tween and teen? What influence did they have on your writing?

EM: I grew up reading such a wide range of books in different genres. I loved fantasy novels by Garth Nyx, Charles de Lint, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Science fiction by Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Historical romance novels by Julia Quinn and Georgette Heyer. I had a huge collection of books growing up; I went to the library every weekend and picked up new things to read. I’ve tried bits of everything, and I honestly believe that accounts for my habit of genre mashing. I had a review in Starburst Magazine that referred to The Falconer as “a Scottish-monster-hunting-steampunk-adventure-romance.” When I read that, it really struck me for the first time that instead of writing books in separate, distinct genres that I enjoy, I’ve formed a habit of spinning them together in my writing.

JA: Who would you cast in the movie version of The Falconer?

EM: I don’t really think of any actors when I write, but I loved Rose Leslie in Game of Thrones, and I think she would make a fantastic Aileana!

JA: As a debut author, what’s surprised you about the process of publishing?

EM: Definitely what an emotional journey it is. I wrote a lot of manuscripts before The Falconer that never made it to publication, so I never went through the long process of cleaning them up and watching them change for publication. The Falconer went through so many different incarnations, so it was rewarding to see how different the final, complete draft is compared to the first one I ever wrote. Being invested in a single work for that long . . . it’s a really emotional thing for me to see it finally completed for people to read.

JA: How excited were you when you saw the cover of The Falconer?

EM: So excited! I’ve been blessed with great cover work for The Falconer that really brings out Aileana’s character and the feel of the book. I literally gasped aloud when I saw the cover. It was that perfect.

JA: I’m on the edge of my seat for the next novel in The Falconer series! How much of the trilogy is planned, and how much happens as you’re writing?

EM: Thank you! :D Such a great question! The largest plot points have been planned since I started working on The Falconer. I always imagined Aileana’s story would take place over three books, so I mapped out the major events in each book, as well as the final book’s ending, so I have a general sense of where I’m going. From there, the events in each book follow a very fluid outline. I know where I want the stories to go, and even have certain scenes plotted, but how I get there and how the scenes play out are very spontaneous. Working this way gives me an equal sense of structure and seeing how the characters guide me.

 Thank you so much for the lovely interview! It’s been wonderful!

Malcolm Gladwell Thinks Like a Freak

Malcolm GladwellIn the year 2000, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference sought to explain the origins and patterns of social phenomena--fashion trends, crime rates, drug use--through the concept of ideas as viruses and epidemics, spreading through carriers and producing sometimes surprising results. (Hush Puppies as a hipster staple? I'd like to read his take on the Brooklyn Longbeard.)

The Tipping Point was a huge best seller and (along with Gladwell's subsequent books) created a new genre: a kind of popular social science of unorthodox thinking, supported by (but not buried under) data. These books trade easy and accepted assuptions for the often unituitive, unseen motivators of real-world behavior, all while entertaining readers.* Foremost among these was Freakonomics by a pair of Steves: Levitt and Dubner, which took the Gladwell method and turned it around, working backwards from raw data--through the scientific filter of an economist--to surprising and occasionally contentious hypotheses. (It, too, was hugely popular, spawning a super sequel with even more audacious ideas.) Their latest, Think Like a Freak, opens up their process, giving the rest of us a practical lesson in thinking like Freaks and applying it to everyday experience. So who better than Malcolm Gladwell to talk about the new book?

Learn about more Gladwell's latest, David and Goliath, available in paperback on May 15.

 


Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Hardcover | Kindle


David and Goliath

David and Goliath

by Malcolm Gladwell

Paperback | Kindle

Malcolm Gladwell on Think Like a Freak

In one of the many wonderful moments in Think Like a Freak, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner ask the question: Who is easier to fool—kids or adults? The obvious answer, of course, is kids. The cliché is about taking candy from a baby, not a grown man. But instead of accepting conventional wisdom as fact, the two sit down with the magician Alex Stone—someone in the business of fooling people—and ask him what he thinks. And his answer? Adults.


Stone gave the example of the staple of magic tricks, the “double lift,” where two cards are presented as one. It’s how a magician can seemingly bury a card that you have selected at random and then miraculously retrieve it. Stone has done the double lift countless times in his career, and he says it is kids—overwhelmingly—who see through it. Why? The magician’s job is to present a series of cues—to guide the attention of his audience—and adults are really good at following cues and paying attention. Kids aren’t. Their gaze wanders. Adults have a set of expectations and assumptions about the way the world works, which makes them vulnerable to a profession that tries to exploit those expectations and assumptions. Kids don’t know enough to be exploited. Kids are more curious. They don’t overthink problems; they’re more likely to understand that the basis of the trick is something really, really simple. And most of all—and this is my favorite—kids are shorter than adults, so they quite literally see the trick from a different and more revealing angle.


Think Like a Freak is not a book about how to understand magic tricks. That’s what Dubner and Levitt’s first two books—Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics—were about. It’s about the attitude we need to take towards the tricks and the problems that the world throws at us. Dubner and Levitt have a set of prescriptions about what that attitude comes down to, but at its root it comes down to putting yourself in the mind of the child, gazing upwards at the double lift: free yourself from expectations, be prepared for a really really simple explanation, and let your attention wander from time to time.


The two briefly revisit their famous argument from their first book about the link between the surge in abortions in the 1970s and the fall in violent crime twenty years later. Their point is not to reargue that particular claim. It is to point out that we shouldn’t avoid arguments like that just because they leave us a bit squeamish. They also tell the story of the Australian doctor Barry Marshall, who overturned years of received wisdom when he proved that ulcers are caused by gastric bacteria, not spicy food and stress. That idea was more than heretical at first. It was absurd. It was the kind of random idea that only a child would have. But Dubner and Levitt’s point, in their utterly captivating new book, is that following your curiosity—even to the most heretical and absurd end—makes the world a better place. It is also a lot of fun.

—Malcolm Gladwell
   

 

* I also credit The Tipping Point for helping end the era of the "business fable": Who Moved My Cheese, fish-tossing as a model for behavior in life and business, etc. If nothing else, we owe him that.

Ken Jennings: The Water Boys of the White House

JenningsUSpresidentsYou probably know Ken Jennings as the game show record breaker who won $2.52 million on Jeopardy! and then became a best-selling author.  Most recently, Jennings has turned his attention to writing books for kids--really great informative and FUN books in a series called the Junior Genius Guides.  The first two titles were Maps and Geography (a pick for Best Nonfiction Children's Books of February ) and Greek Mythology.  Embarrassing fact about myself: I stink at geography. But when I read Jennings' book, I not only learned new facts but they were interesting enough that I found myself parroting tidbits to family members, including my seven-year-old.

The latest book in the series, Ken Jennings' Junior Genius Guide to U.S. Presidents, just released and once again I find myself a fan. Did you know that President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday? I did not.  But it's a fun fact that I've now committed to memory.  In the guest post below, Jennings talks a little about why he chose Presidents and five of them that didn't quite make the cut for his book.


The third installment in my series of Junior Genius Guides for kids is out this week, and this one is about U.S. presidents. When I’m writing these books, the audience I always have in mind is me at nine years old: curious, fact-obsessed, and always on the lookout for books that didn’t talk down to me. (Kids aren’t dummies.  They can tell the difference between smart, funny books and “smart,” “funny” books.)

When I was nine years old, I was particularly obsessed with U.S. presidents. Something about the mystique of the office (the private airplane, the Easter Egg rolls, the giant statues carved into mountains) combined with the wealth of available trivia (Millard Fillmore? We had a president named “Millard”?) spoke to me. It wasn’t political.  It was just . . . American.

Let me introduce you to a few people who are not in my book . . . though they almost were. On the all-star team of Chief Executives, these are the alternates, the water boys.  They’re more obscure than Millard Fillmore, but they got even closer to the presidency than Al Gore. 

  • John Hanson. America’s first president as a newly formed nation was not George Washington. Before the Constitution was ratified, when the U.S. government was still organized under the Articles of Confederation, eight men were presidents of the Continental Congress. The first was an otherwise obscure Maryland merchant named John Hanson. Nice enough guy, but you won’t be seeing him on the dollar bill any time soon.
  • David Rice Atchison. In 1849, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, so Sabbath-observing Zachary Taylor was sworn in a day late.  (As was the style at the time.)  If James Polk’s presidency ended at midnight on Saturday, but Taylor wasn’t sworn in until Monday, then who was president all day Sunday? Next in the line of succession was theoretically Missouri senator David Rice Atchison, who had been serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Atchison spent the rest of his life boasting that he’d run the nation’s most honest administration, since he’d been asleep pretty much his entire (24-hour) term! Technically, though, his Senate term had ended at the same time Polk’s presidency did, so legal scholars agree that he was never really president.
  • Benjamin Wade. In 1868, during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was a Radical Republican from Ohio named Benjamin Wade. Wade was so sure he’d accede to the presidency that he even started assembling his cabinet. But the thought of the abrasive Wade in the presidency scared senators so badly that, though largely convinced Johnson was guilty, they failed to impeach him by one vote. Wade had to stop measuring curtains for the White House.
  • Samuel Tilden. In the 1876 election, Governor Tilden of New York won the popular vote easily, but four states had disputed electoral votes. Tilden needed just one of those states to take the White House, but a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted 8-7 to give all four disputed states to their man, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was sworn in secretly in the Red Room of the White House, for fear that a public inauguration would turn into a riot.
  • Sir Anthony Hopkins. The former Hannibal Lecter has been Oscar-nominated not once but twice for playing U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. Sadly, Hopkins was born in Wales, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency.

Amanda Vaill on Ernest Hemingway

Hotel FloridaReading a book by Amanda Vaill practically guarantees that you'll learn a lot -- about places, about history and especially about people you already thought you knew. Her Everybody Was So Young introduced us to Sara and Gerald Murphy, patrons of such then-bold-faced names as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.

Now, in her new book, Hotel Florida, she explores the lives of six people whose paths crossed on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Doesn't sound exciting? How about if one of those people was that other bold-faced name of the era, Ernest Hemingway?

Here, Vaill tells us what she learned about that other famous writer of the era, Ernest Hemingway.


Five Things I Learned About Hemingway While Writing Hotel Florida

Vaillby Amanda Vaill

1) He was a classical music maven.

Although I knew his mother had been an aspiring opera singer and had taught piano and voice in the Hemingways' Oak Park, Illinois home, I didn't realize that classical music was Hemingway's go-to soundtrack for relaxation and distraction. But when shells were whistling over the Hotel Florida in Madrid, where he and Martha Gellhorn were staying during the Spanish Civil War, what did Hemingway put on the Victrola to drown out the bombardment? Chopin's Opus 33 mazurka, number 4, and the ballade in A-flat minor, opus 47.

2) He was an agent of the KGB.

In public Hemingway had always strenuously resisted the idea of writing anything from "a Marxian viewpoint" – something he derided as "so much horseshit." But in 1937, when he was in Spain covering the Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance and writing the script for Joris Ivens's documentary film, The Spanish Earth, Ivens had tried to enlist him as a propagandist, and possibly more, for the Communist Party, which had been supporting the Spanish government against Franco's rebels. And according to internal KGB files studied by a former Soviet agent, Alexander Vassiliev, Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in 1941 and given the code-name "Argo." It was hoped he could report on Nazi activity in Cuba and the Caribbean during World War II, but he never generated any useful intelligence and his cover was terminated in 1950.

Hemingway

3) He couldn't cook paella.

In April of 1937, at a Rioja-fueled lunch party at the Madrid restaurant Botin, a spot Hemingway loved (and had celebrated in The Sun Also Rises), the writer insisted on leaving the table – where the company included the photographer Robert Capa and Capa's beautiful girlfriend and professional partner Gerda Taro –- and going into the kitchen to help prepare paella. "Less skillful in the kitchen than at the typewriter," was the tactful verdict of the restaurant's owner, Emilio Gonzales.

4) His affair with Martha Gellhorn was less than a great romance.

He might have run off with Gellhorn to Spain, beginning an affair that culminated in marriage three years later, after he divorced his second wife, Pauline; but apparently the Gellhorn-Hemingway romance could have used some couples therapy. Gellhorn later claimed her "whole memory of sex with Ernest [was] the invention of excuses and failing that, the hope that it would soon be over." Which it was, by 1944, when Gellhorn scooped her husband by getting a ride on a hospital ship to the D-Day beaches while he gazed at the coast through binoculars from the deck of an attack transport.

5) He originally began the manuscript of his most successful novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which draws on his experience in the Spanish Civil War, in the first person.

He changed his mind, choosing the detachment of a narrative in which the protagonist is "he," not "I." It was the best and most truthful decision he could have made. To understand why, of course, you have to read the book. Or books. His, and mine.

"The Poker Chips Is Filth": Colson Whitehead's Guide to Vegas

Colson Whitehead

Every year, thousands of card  players converge in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, all hauling varying levels of hope and skill with them into the southern Nevada desert. As a regular in a neighborhood game, Colson Whitehead didn’t harbor that kind of ambition—until Grantland.com staked him $10,000 for a seat at the WSOP. Whitehead goes all-in with a Rocky IV-worthy regimen, hiring a personal trainer to prepare himself for the long, grueling table hours and a tournament-hardened coach to navigate the mysteries of Texas Hold’em. When he arrives at the tournament, he navigates using a set of laws essential to any aspiring card sharp: which casino restaurants provide poker-appropriate nutrition; how to hit the bathrooms ahead of the mad rushes of the game breaks; and, of course, the necromancy of a successful Hold’em hand. With its cast of poker-universe luminaries and aspiring misfits, the tournament stuff is fun, especially to this gambling rube. But Vegas is Vegas, and between the notes of the Wheel of Fortune slot machines, one can hear the suck of entropy. Whitehead--whose previous books landed him on the short-list for the Pulitzer, as well as a MacArthur "Genius" grant--has the wry sense of humor to observe the twisted reality of the "Leisure Industrial Complex"  without mocking it; he’s the kind of writer who can see the human condition reflected in the windows of a failed Vegas market that sells only beef jerky (and other jerky-like products). The Noble Hustle: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

 The Noble Hustle is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for May 2014.

 


THE OUTSIDER'S GUIDE TO GAMBLING IN LAS VEGAS, BY ANOTHER OUTSIDER

by Colson Whitehead

Coming to Las Vegas for the first time can be intimidating. Sitting down at a poker table in a casino is even more intimidating. What if there were someone who could help you out, show you the ropes, prevent you from making a series of terrible, terrible mistakes?

That person is not me.

I can, however, share a little of what I learned while writing The Noble Hustle, conveniently grouped under four crucial subject headings.

Hygiene

As my poker coach Helen Ellis informed me, "the poker chips is filth." I'd rather lick every subway pole on a New York City rush hour train than touch a poker chip without proper precautions. Most casinos have latex gloves in wall dispensers by the entrance - use them. Sanitize thoroughly before you touch anything, and keep rubbing it in until you are ready. When the poker dealer demands, "Check or bet?", don't get flustered. Just say, "I am doing my ablutions, sir!" and let them wait.

Nutrition

The brain is the second biggest organ in the human body (this is not factually incorrect). Can you imagine how many calories the brain consumes while bluffing, laying traps, and calculating implied odds for hours on end? Quite a few. Especially during the twelve hour marathon sessions of the World Series of Poker. That's where beef jerky comes in. Dried muscle meat, spiced, cured, and distributed in easy-seal bags. Once a cowboy secret, beef jerky is now the number one meat snack of professional card players. It's low calorie, low nutrition, and nothing breaks the ice at a high stakes No Limit Game like, "What kind of jerky you got there, hoss?" Ask your local grocery store to stock some of the new flavors hitting the market, such as Thai Barbecue, Hint of Gluten, and Spicy Kale.

Strategy

There are hundreds of brilliant poker How-To's out there, covering everything from low limit  money games, to Sit 'n Go's, to next-level tournament wizardry. Don't read any of them. Instead, get some of those Google Glasses. Sunglasses have been standard poker armament for years - how is this any different? Why bother to learn pot odds or flop strategy when you can just go, "Google Glass, should I stay in or what?" and have the artificial intelligence program work that algorithm magic.

Entertainment

You can't spend all day losing money, however. The nightlife beckons. All kinds of people flock to Vegas in search of excitement. Millennials bust loose with their sock hops and "rock and roll" music, Gen Xers make the scene at NirvanaLand, the hot new grunge-themed megaclub. But there is one demographic that outnumbers and outparties all others - the aptly-named Greatest Generation. Whether you're a Sexy Septuagenarian or a Naughty Nonagenarian, there are plenty of members of your peer group to throw dice with, flirt with, and engage in a nice conversation. Especially at 2 in the afternoon before the Early Bird Special. Push away from the craps table every once in a while and don't be afraid to take a chance on love, no matter what age you are.

J.R. Moehringer on Marina Keegan

Words of Wisdom: She lived only 22 years, but her writing is timeless

Marina KeeganI never met Marina Keegan, but when I learned of her death I felt as if I'd known her well. We belonged to several of the same tribes. We were both Yalies. We were both from the Northeast. Both Irish, both writers. We walked some of the same paths, probably sat in the same chairs. So it was as if I'd lost a close cousin, or even a kid sister.

Then I read her work. In that terrible week, as media outlets posted her essays, as people around the world reposted them, I read every word with a sinking, quickening heart. The first news reports, I felt, had been wrong - this wasn't simply a promising young writer, this was a prodigy, a rare rare talent, still raw, still evolving, but shockingly mature. From the few things she'd published in her brief life I could project a remarkable career, a line of words stretching far into the future, words that would have thrilled and enlightened, words that might have changed people's lives. As I grieved for her family, her friends, her boyfriend, I also grieved for the global community of readers who would never know the pleasure and excitement of a brand new book by Marina Keegan.

All of which made me think there should be, there must be, at least one book with Marina's name on the spine. Publishers aren't eager to take chances these days, but I hoped that one would have the guts, the heart, to make a slim, posthumous collection of Marina's stories and essays and poems. I could actually see the book in my mind, stacked on the front table of a sunlit bookstore, perhaps the Yale bookstore, where I'm sure Marina dreamed about her work appearing one day.

The Opposite of LonelinessA year later, it came in the mail, the very book I'd seen in my mind, with the only possible title: The Opposite of Loneliness. I studied the striking cover photo and felt a wave of sorrow and joy. Then I sat down and read it and that sorrow-joy feeling became my constant companion over the next several days.

This is a book full of wonders. This is a book full of sentences that any writer, 21 or 101, would be proud to have authored. This is a book that will speak to young readers, because it expresses some of that inexpressible anxiety of starting out, of making life's first momentous choices, of wanting and fearing and needing and hoping and dreading everything at the same time. It will also speak to older readers, because it's an inspiring reminder of youth's brimming energy, its quivering sense of possibility.

Young people get a bad rap for thinking they're immortal, and acting accordingly, but Marina dwelled on the end. Hers, civilization's, the sun's. “And time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.” She must have heard her beloved adviser Harold Bloom expound many times on Hotspur's line, and clearly she took it to heart, personalized it. Savor every half-second, she seemed to be saying, to herself, to her readers, and her meditations on death, once charmingly precocious, now feel breathtakingly premonitory. Describing a group of fifty whales beached near her house on Cape Cod, she laments that their songs don't transmit on land, and thus they can't communicate their final thoughts. “I imagined dying slowly next to my mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay my parting message.”

Such was her fate. And yet it wasn't, not really. This book is her parting message, exquisitely relayed.

And it's not a mournful message. There's so much light and humor here. In the title essay alone I hear glimmers of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, Fran Lebowitz. For example, when Marina worries that other kids are sprinting ahead of her, embarking on fabulous careers while she's still clinging to the cocoon of Yale. “Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.”

My favorite passage might be this gorgeous burst of nostalgia, this prose poem about the bright college years. “When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it's four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can't remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.”

The hats. That tiny sentence was the first raindrop before the deluge, a tickling hint of all that was to come. How many 21-year-olds are capable of a line so sure-handed, so precisely and comically placed? The only other two-word sentence I can think of that had me laughing aloud and shaking my head was in Lolita. (Humbert summarizing his mother's demise: “Picnic, lightning. ”)

If I'd met Marina, I'd have urged her to keep these first hopeful essays handy, cherish their energy, refer to them whenever beset by despair and doubt. Instead I'll have to give that advice to her readers.

I also might have told Marina that we do have a word for the opposite of loneliness. It's called reading. Again, I'll have to tell her readers. This book reminds us: as long as there are books, we're never completely alone. Open it anywhere and Marina's voice leaps off the page, uncommonly honest, forever present. With this lovely book always at hand, we and Marina will never be completely apart.


J.R. MoehringerJ.R. Moehringer is the author of The Tender Bar and Sutton.

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