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About Jon Foro

A remorseless reader since age six when he ordered his first book (Hardy Boys 53: The Clue of the Hissing Serpent, with a coupon clipped from the back of a Cheerios box), Jon has spent over 20 years in the book business, and over 14 years at Amazon.com. He enjoys ancient history, literary fiction, and adventure and nature writing, especially books about bears.

Posts by Jon

The Men (and Women) Who Knew Too Much: History's Most Notorious Spies

Nobody knows spies like Ben Macintyre. With Double Cross, Agent Zigzag, and Operation Mincemeat, the London-based author established himself as the master chronicler of spooks and subterfuge, a biographer of the most eccentric personalities ever to dwell in the shadows of diplomacy. (Macintyre is also a regular dweller of our Best of the Month lists.) His latest, A Spy Among Friends, tackles the story of the man who may have been the most damaging double-agent in history: Kim Philby, Britain's top spy-hunter charged with catching Soviet moles, who all the while spilled deadly secrets to the Soviets themselves.

We couldn't think of anyone more qualified than Ben Macintyre to ask for history's most notorious double-crossers, and unsurprisingly (spoiler alert) Philby made the list.

 

A Spy Among Friends

 

History's Five Most Notorious Double-Agents

by Ben Macintyre

The FBI has coined an acronym to describe the motivations of the spy: MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. Some spies are inspired by simple greed; others by pure conviction. But the greatest spies of all are a driven by something that defies categorization: a love of espionage, an addiction to the thrill and danger of subterfuge, and a dedication to this most fickle of professions for its own sake. The most successful and notorious spies in history have all possessed this peculiar quality: they each fell in love with spying itself, and remained besotted, prepared to take the most appalling risks to remain one step ahead in the lethal espionage game. These are the most dangerous spies of all, because they cannot be controlled by money or blackmail, by appeals to their vanity or ideology. They do it for love of the game.   

Eddie Chapman
Chapman was a burglar, con man, and gangster in pre-war London, who happened to be in prison in Jersey when the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands. He struck a deal with the Germans to spy against Britain in exchange for his freedom. Trained at a spy school in occupied France, he was parachuted into Britain in 1942, and immediately defected to British intelligence. For the rest of the war, he spied for Britain, while pretending to spy for Germany. The British code-named him “Agent Zigzag,” because they could never be sure whose side he was on. The Germans never realized the game he was playing, and even awarded him the Iron Cross for services to the Third Reich. After the war, Chapman immediately returned to a professional life of crime.

Richard Sorge
Ian Fleming, the creator James Bond, considered the half-German and half-Russian Richard Sorge to have been “the most formidable spy in history.” A committed communist, Sorge spied for the Soviets in Japan at the start of the war, supplying vital military intelligence gleaned while ostensibly working as a journalist. He even informed Moscow that Japan was not planning to attack the USSR, which enabled the transfer of Soviet troops from the east to defend Moscow and changed the course of the war. Sorge was eventually betrayed, captured by the Japanese secret police, tortured into confessing, and hanged in November 1944. In 1964 he was recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union.  

Juan Pujol
Pujol was a Spanish chicken farmer, who managed to get himself recruited as a German spy at the start of the war while always intending to spy for the Allies. He is one of the very few spies in history who set out to become a double agent.  Ensconced in a safe house in London, Pujol (codenamed Garbo, on account of his acting abilities) not only supplied reams of false information to the Germans, but invented no fewer than twenty-nine additional sub-agents, all of whom were entirely fictitious, and wholly deceptive. He was one-man band, with a huge, invented orchestra. Pujol was, in a way, a spy-novelist, creating an imaginary world and then luring his German spy-masters into the illusion that it was real. He played a pivotal role in the run-up to D-Day, successfully convincing the Germans that the invasion would come at Calais, and not Normandy, thus tying up thousands of German troops. After the war, he took on a false name, and vanished into obscurity.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow
Greenhow was not technically a double agent, since she only ever spied for one side (the Confederates during the Civil War), but she was undoubtedly America’s most successful woman spy. Socialite, diplomat and secret agent, she ran an extensive spy network in Washington, DC, during 1861, helped to bring about Union defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run. Betrayed and captured, she was imprisoned for five months and then deported to Richmond. Undaunted, she then represented the Confederacy on a diplomatic mission to France and Britain, and was drowned after her ship ran aground on the return journey. Greenhow was a ferocious ideologue, but a most effective spy: “Instead of loving the old flag of the stars and stripes, I see in it only the symbol of murder, plunder, oppression, and shame,” she said.
 
Kim Philby
The notorious British spy and KGB agent was recruited to the communist cause in 1934, and went on to achieve something no other spy has managed: he got himself recruited by the enemy spy-organization, namely Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6. By 1944 he had become head of the Soviet counter-intelligence section of MI6, responsible for attacking Soviet espionage around the world, exposing Russian spies and breaking up the USSR’s spy rings. In other words, he was in charge of hunting people like himself. Tipped as the future head of MI6, he used his position to extract a multitude of secrets from his friends in British and American intelligence, and did spectacular damage by betraying everything to Moscow. Hundreds, if not thousands, died as result of Philby’s betrayals, for which he never expressed a single word of remorse.

Philby was the most remarkable example of a spy acting, in the end, out of pure love for the game of espionage. Philby was a master spy, addicted to the thrill of betrayal, whose willingness to manipulate and double-cross his friends allowed him to survive uncaught for three decades, and then escape to Moscow to spend the rest of his days. Philby is the greatest double agent in history.

American Spymaster

Meet Jack Devine. Something of a real-life George Smiley, he is a 30-year veteran of the CIA who, among a lot of things, ran Charlie Wilson's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, knew a thing or two about the Iran-Contra affair long before the rest of us did (including the president?), and tangled with some of the agency's most notorious double-agents. In Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story, Devine has written a fascinating memoir of his time overseeing the agency’s spying operations, while also critiquing its policies and direction--arguing that covert ops (i.e. actual undercover operatives on the ground) is the best, most effective use of the CIA’s talents, rather than its increasingly paramilitaristic role during a decade of war. Devine has managed an unlikely accomplishment: enhancing the aura of the agency while stripping away some of its myths, in the process producing a clear-eyed and forthright account from an intelligence insider.

 

 

Mr. Devine stopped by our offices for a candid--and lengthy!--chat about the book, his career, as well as some other notable current events. Good Hunting is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for June 2014.

 

George Hincapie: Lance's Loyal Lieutenant

George Hincape learned early on that he was made to race bikes. The Queens-born son of a cycling fanatic, he rode early, fast, and occasionally recklessly. As a teenager, he discovered a passion for racing, often testing his talent against older riders, winning frequently and rising through the ranks of competitive cycling. Eventually he crossed paths another racer of enormous ability, the young Lance Armstrong. And as a young man,  Hincapie turned pro and headed for Europe, where he built a reputation as a rider of prodigious natural talent, tactical acumen, and relentless dedication to the success of the team. While he continued to pursue individual success, he found fame when he joined Armstrong for what was (officially then, maybe unofficially now) the most successful run in the history of the sport: Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France victories. While Armstrong was the brash and arrogant team leader, "Big George" rode faithfully at his side, shepherding him through danger and doing the hard, selfless work necessary to win the most prestigious bike race in the world.

 

The Loyal Lieutenant

 

Unfortunately, the story didn't end there. 

The dirty details of doping have been discussed at length elsewhere: see Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race for a gritty/gripping insider's account of performance enhancing drugs, while Wheelmen and Cycle of Lies provide detailed histories of Armstrong's rise and long fall into disgrace. Now Hincapie has written his own account of his career, The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through the Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris (with Craig Hummer). Like Hamilton and almost every successful bike racer of that era, Hincapie was caught up in the wave of PEDs and all its paranoia. But unlike his former teammate, he doesn't necessarily offer a mea culpa for his participation. He is neither proud nor dismissive, but instead focuses on the culture of cheating and his eventual choice to race without drugs.

We talked to Hincapie at Book Expo America about his experience as a cyclist and a teammate, and his efforts to clean up the sport he so clearly loves.

 

Gumshoe 101: Your Guide to Becoming a Self-Made Detective

Deborah Halber's new book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, digs into the underground network of self-made detectives working to solve mysteries of unidentified human remains, using modern tools to put names and faces to thousands of John and Jane Does--often in unofficial competition with the police, as well as each other. Here Halber offers her guide to becoming a successful shamus for the Information Age.

Skeleton Crew

 

Essential Tools and Tips for Becoming a Successful Private Investigator

by Deborah Halber

Just to be clear, I would make a lousy PI. A reviewer noted that in my newly released narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, my writer’s voice is "inflected with the gritty timbre of a noir detective; it’s hard not to imagine her spitting the words out of the side of her mouth." I’d say in real life I’m more bumbling TV gumshoe than ace detective Philip Marlowe. More Columbo or Cloiseau than Veronica Mars.

Maybe that’s why I’m in such awe of the web sleuths. The real-life Sherlock Holmes wannabes you’ll meet in my book have the patience of a ox, the attention to detail of a neurosurgeon and the visual acuity of a shark, which, I’m told, can detect glimmers ten times weaker than anything humans can see. One self-proclaimed amateur sleuth has such a spot-on visual memory that she’s able to peruse dozens of photos of missing people and compare them in her mind’s eye to facial reconstructions of unidentified human remains. Another tirelessly combs through records of persons reported missing in the general vicinity of a discovered body, working her way outward in concentric circles through counties, cities, states.

Also key is the ability to look at grisly photos without running screaming from your computer or face-planting in a dead faint onto your keyboard. There are repositories of images--artists’ reconstructions, vivid color portraits, crude pencil sketches, cartoon-like illustrations, and distorted clay dummies sporting wigs, like something out of a beautician’s academy for the hopeless--a Facebook for the dead. There are also actual morgue photos barely Photoshopped into presentability. It takes a strong stomach--or a fascination with the macabre--to click past “may be disturbing for some viewers.”

Once you’ve narrowed your search--noting, say, this missing person from Wisconsin looks a lot like that facial reconstruction of remains discovered in Florida--you get to delve into the details. Height? Weight? Scars or tattoos? There’s a mind-numbing mountain of data to sift through--and any given data point is not necessarily accurate. A website devoted to Princess Doe--an unidentified young homicide victim found in Blairstown, New Jersey, in 1982, her face bludgeoned beyond recognition--lists almost 100 potential matches, all young women loosely fitting her description, all reported missing after 1975. The amount of work involved in sorting through these leads would be daunting for even the most seasoned detective.

 

Phoenix unidentifieds


Yet the problem is formidable and well worth the benefits of crowdsourcing: The National Institute of Justice estimates that some 40,000 unidentified remains--the population of Wilkes-Barre or North Miami Beach--are stowed in the back rooms of morgues, crematoriums or buried as Jane and John Does in potters fields. No one in the medicolegal community seems to “own” the Does, but web sleuths using sites such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the Doe Network have “adopted” well-known ones such as Princess Doe; the Lady of the Dunes in my home state of Massachusetts; and the Boy in the Box, found murdered in Philadelphia in 1957.

Many of the web sleuths are motivated by a genuine desire to help families of the missing. Dig into the attributes of the most successful and efficient web sleuths and you’ll find people whose motives are pure, whose diligence is noteworthy, and whose eyes are much sharper than mine.

The Wildest Books in America

Untamed Will Harlan’s new biography, Untamed, explores the remarkable and controversial life of Carol Ruckdeschel, a woman who eats road kill, stalks alligators, and lives in a ramshackle cabin on the wild Cumberland Island--the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island, off the Georgia coast--all in defense of sea turtles and the future of the park.

We asked Will for his perspective on environmental writing, as well as the books that inspired him to track down the story of the "wildest woman in America."

Untamed is an Amazon selection for 2014's Best Books of the Year So Far.


BEST VOICES OF ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING by Will Harlan

Nature writing can be pretty, and environmental books can be convincing, but I ultimately crave the raw emotion of fellow human beings struggling to find and protect their place in the world. The best environmental writing, I believe, is about people.

People are the problem and the solution. Good environmental writing reconnects people to nature—not through lectures, but through living, flesh-and-blood examples of courage and commitment. We feel the landscape through them.   

For years, I’ve tried to write about the tangled environmental politics of Cumberland Island. Finally, I realized that the best way to tell the island’s story was through the heartbreaking adventures of its most powerful personality. Carol’s experiences are more persuasive than any political argument.

Here are a few of my favorite environmental voices and books. Instead of preachy diatribes or flowery descriptions, they inspire me with gritty, gutsy characters—some legendary, some overlooked—who stand their ground and speak for the wild.

 

The Last American ManThe Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert


A modern-day pioneer living nearly self-sufficiently on a wild reserve in Appalachia, Eustace Conway embodies the ideals of American masculinity—ruggedness, courage, and independence. However, those hard-fought ideals have a price. Liz Gilbert shows us the tired, lonely man behind the bravado. A tough, buckskin-clad maverick hunts for the one thing missing from his mountain refuge: love.

 

 



Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Chris McCandless is either a stupid kid or self-reliant hero. As soon as he graduates college, he gives away all of his savings and wanders the wild, seeking adventure and an authentic relationship with the land—until he finds himself starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Barely able to lift a pen, he scribbles this final message, which continues to haunt and shape my own life: “Happiness only real when shared.”

 

 



Encounters with the Archdruid Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee


McPhee masterfully captures the nuances and complexities of the most influential modern environmentalist, David Brower, by shadowing him on close-combat crusades to protect America’s last wild places. But don’t expect classic confrontations with battle lines clearly drawn; Brower is far more kaleidoscopic. Like Brower himself, the book’s strength is in its subtlety, with finely drawn characters exquisitely presented in shades of gray.

 

 



Refuge Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams


Williams’ mother is dying from exposure to nearby nuclear testing, and wildlife is being wiped out by dams and development. In her unflinching memoir, Williams wrestles with life and death out in the wide-open Utah desert and seeks shelter where there is none.

 

 

 

 

Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodEcology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray


Ray’s hardscrabble upbringing in a south Georgia junkyard is an unlikely start for an environmental luminary, but the rusted scrap heaps of her childhood are chock full of raw, resourceful characters—including an authoritarian father who locks his family in a closet and a snuff-dipping coon hunter who introduces her to the wild woods. Ray weaves her own story into the razed red-clay landscape and leads a rebellion to save the South’s last longleaf pine forests.

 

 



Desert Solitaire Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey


It’s definitely the most sermonizing selection of the bunch, but Abbey’s coarse, thunderous voice crying out for the wilderness still echoes across the desert he called home. Amid his nerve-tingling adventures as a park ranger, the monkey-wrenching anarchist unleashes forceful, full-blooded pleas for the last scraps of wildlands.

 

 

 



The Lost Grizzlies The Lost Grizzlies by Rick Bass


Grizzly bears had not been seen for 15 years in southern Colorado until a small group sets out to find them. Bass seeks more than bears, though; he is tracking his own wildness and the longings of the human heart, which only are revealed in the presence of something larger.


Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far

It's that time of year.

This morning, the Amazon Books Editors (that's us) are happy to announce our choices for the Best Books of the Year So Far. Not content to wait a full year between best of the year lists, we each take stock of all the books published from January through June, convening in windowless conference rooms to advocate (argue) and compromise (weep) over our personal favorites. At the end of the day, we pack up our hurt feelings, bruised egos, and quiet resentments and prepare to do it again the next day.

As usual, there was no shortage of great books to consider. Just our top 20 features a masterful biography of a literary giant, the triumphant swan song from a three-time National Book Award winner, and a true-life tale of billionaires, art, and cannibalism. In all, we chose our favorite books across 17 categories, including kids and teens. Browse our top 10 selections below, and see them all in our Best Books of the Year So Far store.

 

Updike

1. Updike by Adam Begley: This biography of the American master goes far beyond simple chronology of this complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where his real life bled into his novels. Detailed and compulsively readable, Updike is essential for admirers, and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature.

 

The Book of Unknown Americans


2. The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henríquez: Henríquez’s powerful novel captures readers with the quiet beauty of her characters and their profoundly rendered experiences as immigrants in America. Following nine families who arrived in the States from South and Central America, Henriquez has crafted a novel that is inspiring, tragic, brave, and unforgettable.

 

Redeployment

3. Redeployment by Phil Klay: The strength of Klay’s stories, all about the Iraq War or its aftermath, lies in his unflinching, un-PC point of view, even for the soldiers he so clearly identifies with and admires. These stories are at least partly autobiographical, and yet, for all their verisimilitude, they’re also shaped by an undefinable thing called art.

 

Continue reading "Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far" »

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.

John Waters, Resident Alien

John Waters is the quintessential American.

Not everyone will agree with that statement. After all, John Waters is the director of such trangressive epics as Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Pink Flamingos, in which his star, Divine, eats dog feces. Real dog feces, people. He famously sports a pencil moustache and somehow looks 10 times more perverse than the next most unnerving sporter of the pencil moustache, Vincent Price. In fact, everything about him is a multiplier of alien mystique. Though he might live outside of what could be called "traditional American values," the self-proclaimed Pope of Trash has certainly flourished inside the actual American values of individuality and personal expression. Would he have been as successful elsewhere? Maybe France.

And now he's done the quintessentially American thing: the cross-country hitchhike. At age 66, Waters scrawled I'M SAFE! in black marker on a cardboard flap, hoisted his thumb to the heavens, and lit out on an unlikely westward journey from his Baltimore home to San Fransisco, California. Carsick chronicles his adventure and the highway angels he met along the way.

Would you give this man a ride?

Enjoy this selection of excerpts from Carsick, presented with signs from his trip. But be warned: these pieces contain mature themes and coarse language. Carsick will be available June 3, 2014.

 


Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (excerpt)

by John Waters

 

I haven’t felt this excited or scared for a long time. Maybe ever. I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever. I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?

Am I fucking nuts? Brigid Berlin, Andy Warhol’s most dangerous and glamorous sixties superstar, recently said to me, "How can I be bad at seventy?" She’s got a point. I mean, yes, I’m "between pictures," as they say in Hollywood, but long ago I realized, as a so-called cult-film director, not only did I need a Plan B that was just as important to me as moviemaking, I needed a Plan C, D, and E. But Plan H, for "hitchhike"? I’m sixty-six years old, for chrissake.

"Why would a man who has worked so hard his whole life to reach the level of comfort you have, put yourself in such an uncomfortable position?" Marianne Boesky, my New York art dealer, asked me when I told her of my "undercover travel adventure," as the publishers were calling my new book in trade announcements. A onetime actor in my early films who had a recent homeless past was even more alarmed when I hinted that I might do a hitchhiking book. "You’ll never get a ride," he warned, telling me he had tried hitchhiking himself out of necessity in Florida last year. "No one picks up hitchhikers these days," he griped with disgust. "No one!"

Even successful hipsters seemed shocked when I confided my plans. "Nice knowing you," a California photographer buddy muttered with a laugh over dinner when he realized he wouldn't see me again until after my hobo-homo journey was scheduled to be completed. God, I wondered grandiosely, would I be like JFK on those recently released secret White House tapes, where he was heard planning his first day back from Dallas before anyone knew he'd be assassinated, commenting on what a "tough day" that would be. If he only knew.

 

70-W THROUGH KANSAS I'M SAFE!

Continue reading "John Waters, Resident Alien" »

May Spotlight: "No Place to Hide" by Glenn Greenwald

In May of 2013, Edward Snowden, a young systems administrator contracting for the National Security Agency, fled the United States for Hong Kong, carrying with him thousands of classified documents outlining the staggering capabilities of the NSA’s surveillance programs--including those designed to collect information within the U.S. There Snowden arranged a meeting with Guardian contributors Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, and so began the most explosive leak of classified material since the Pentagon Papers over 40 years ago. Two new books recount the Snowden affair from the reporters' perspectives, and both are revelatory and vital.

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide
by Glenn Greenwald

Hardcover | Kindle


David and Goliath

The Snowden Files
by Luke Harding

Paperback | Kindle

No Place to Hide --Amazon's Spotlight pick for the Best Books of May--opens with the tense account of Greenwald's initial encounters with Snowden in Hong Kong. He almost missed the story: Snowden contacted him anonymously via instant messenger, requesting that Greenwald install cryptographic software before he dropped a bombshell of a story in the reporter's lap. As the regular recipient of many similar messages (and not versed in privacy software), Greenwald procrastinated. It wasn't until award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras confided in Greenwald that she was holding her own cache of sensitive material--also from Snowden--that he lit out for China with Poitras and the scoop of their lives. It's some serious cloak-and-dagger stuff: clandestine rendezvous, secret passphrases, and back-passage escapes from hotels as the media (and presumably the U.S government) closes around Snowden.

The book's core describes the NSA’s vast information-collection apparatus, including reproductions of some of the “Snowden files” themselves. Anyone who's read James Bamford's excellent books on the NSA will probably be unsurprised by their ambition (they've tapped telecoms and undersea cables for ages, well before the modern Internet), but seeing the scale of the operations--enabled through the compulsory participation of tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo!--one begins to understand that NSA director Keith Alexander's stated goal to "collect it all" might actually be achievable, if it isn't already. The alphabet soup of agencies and project code names can be confusing and alternately funny and ominous (BLACKPEARL, BLARNEY, and STORMBREW, to name three), but Greenwald succinctly explains the purpose and reach of each.(Observation: It's amusing to see that bad PowerPoint presentations--unfortunate font choices, banal jargon, scattershot logos and seals--are not limited to the corporate sphere.) Minds will, or should, be blown here.

In the third act, Greenwald tells you why it matters. Wherever you come down on the spectrum of national security vs. Constitutional freedoms, Snowden's breach has forced a reckoning, and Greenwald carries strong opinions. To those who argue that they have nothing to hide, he points out that everyone has something to hide: though you might not be cooking meth in your garden shed, you will act differently when you know you are watched than when you have a notion of privacy. This possibility of being observed--a modern application of Bentham's panopticon--creates a system of control, of behavior modification. To those who say "it's only metadata" (e.g. the information about a phone call, rather than the content of the conversation itself), Greenwald points out that it's simple to draw a picture of behavior based on who you're calling and when, and--if you had a choice--you might not be amenable to sharing that information. This might be effective in combating terrorism (there's debate about that), but "collect it all" means just what it says: everything on everybody, not just terrorists. And there is so much more: blanket government warrants rubber-stamped by secret courts, establishment media complicity. It goes on.

No Place to Hide will anger readers on both sides of the conversation--some for Snowden's transgression, some for its revelations about the government reach. A more straightforward narrative, The Snowden Files: This Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man--published in February--provides the play-by-play of the Snowden affair with a bit less opinion (Greenwald is a columnist, after all). Luke Harding, another Guardian correspondent, has amassed an incredible amount of detail and transformed it into 333 pages of gripping thriller. Harding has more perspective from the newspaper side: where Greenwald occasionally thought the Guardian resisted publishing his stories, Harding witnessed first-hand the intimidation at the hands of the Government Communications Headquarters, the NSA's British counterpart and collaborator. In one memorable scene, a pair of GCHQ agents oversee the destruction of Guardian computers as a compromise for not handing over the Snowden documents. "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." It's as if Dickens had written The Trial. Both books are excellent, possibly essential, but The Snowden Files gives more of itself to the history of NSA and GCHQ surveillance, Snowden's backstory and possible future, and the intricacies of intelligence-sharing among the "Five Eyes" allies, who together cast a world-wide surveillance net.

This is far from over. Greenwald recently told GQ that he's been saving the biggest stories for last. Whether you consider Snowden a whistleblower crying foul on government overreach, or a self-aggrandizing traitor who put national security at risk, both books are taut and enlightening, marking a bellwether moment in a crucial debate.

 

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.

Those Under 2,000 Years Old Need Not Apply

The Oldest Living Things in the WorldFor the last ten years, Rachel Sussman has traveled the globe in a search for oldest, continuously living organisms on the planet. "Old" in Sussman's estimation is 2,000 years, and there are more living things that fit the bill than you might expect. Some hide in plain sight: a stand of birches--actually a genetically homogeneous individual sharing a single root system--over 80,000 years old. Some are weird: the Llareta, which looks like an alien, mossy blob, but is actually an evergreen with thousands of tiny, densely packed branches. And some stretch the definition of "living": stromatolites, rock-like accretions formed of sediments bound together by bacterial excretions, whose history dates to the earliest days of life on Earth.

The result of her determination, obsession, and occasionally perilous travels is The Oldest Living Things in the World, a spectacular and stupefying record of organisms with indivudal life spans that often predate civilization, but whose near-term survival is threatened by the twin threats of climate change and wanton human destruction. This book serves a paradoxical tribute to the natural world: a testament to both its adaptivity and resilience, as well as its fragility.

To learn more, browse a selection of images from the book, and watch Sussman's TED Talk.

"Stromatolites #1211 - 0512 (2,000 - 3,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia)"

"Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707 - 22411 (2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia)"

"Posidonia Oceanica Sea Grass #0910 - 0753 (100,000 years old; Balearic Islands, Spain)"

"Llareta #0308 - 2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile)"

"Dead Huon Pine adjacent to living population segment #1211 - 3609 (10,500 years old; Mount Read, Tasmania)"

"Bristlecone Pine, detail #0906 - 3030 (White Mountains, California)"

"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.

Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

As a writer for a blog that is somewhat preoccupied with literary fiction and popular nonfiction, it's not often that I have the opportunity (or reason) to go off-topic and talk about a fitness book.

Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, by Steve House and Scott Johnston, is no ordinary fitness book. House is a world-renowned climber and an advocate of the "alpine-style": A fast-and-light, carry-all-your-gear approach that eschews the siege-style encampments and support typical in commercial mountaineering, especially in places such as Mt. Everest. In order to do that ("that" meaning scaling vertical ice walls thousands of feet high with a 20-pound pack on your back), one must be extraordinarily fit. Along with his climbing partner, Vince Anderson, House won the 2005 Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in the western Himalayas, and his previous book, Beyond the Mountain, won the 2009 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Johnston, also a climber, has skied at the international level and coaches several top cross-country skiers.

If you're serious, or semi-serious, about climbing, this is your book. House and Johnston have put together regimens of varying difficulties that are both comprehensive and intense, while also addressing nutrition, mental fitness, and goal-setting. Though the exercises are nominally climbing-specific, they're appropriate for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or anyone looking to shake up their routine.

But even if you don't know a Prusik from a piton, there's a lot here to love. The book contains dozens of full-color high-altitude climbing photographs, as well as 27 essays by accomplished climbers, including Ueli Steck, Mark Twight, and Peter Habeler. To illustrate the unique nature of this book, House and Johnston (along with Patagonia Books) have provided several images, along with two excerpts:

  • "The Alpinist as Athlete": A summary of House and Johnson's philosophy of training's central role in the success of any climber
  • "The North Face of the North Twin": A short essay by House about a time something went sideways at altitude (the full story is included in Beyond the Mountain)

 Training for the New Alpinism is a book Fred Beckey would love.

 Images from the book (click for larger photographs):

Marko Prezelj climbing the short traversing pitch to the ice in the exit cracks of the headwall. North face of the North Twin, Alberta

Justin Merle chucks a lap near Ouray, Colorado

Continue reading "Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism" »

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

Gabriel Marquez Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian-born author known for his stories that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality--as well as the lines between tragedy and comedy--has died following a bout with pneumonia. As the author of novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, "Gabo" was instrumental in introducing Latin American literature to a worldwide audience, and was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts." García Márquez was 87.

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.

 


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley

 

1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

Pürr for Me: Hardcore Cats and Their Softhearted Keepers

Forget wolves, witches, and Ouija boards. Forget demons and devils. Forget bats, beasts, and black sabbaths. Within the dark hearts of metalheads everywhere live... kitties.

For Metal Cats, Alexandra Crockett entered the homes of these morbid angels--musicians, fans, and promoters--to expose the fluffy underbelly of the metal scene, and the result is a kind of heartwarming. And they're not all black cats, either. Not all of them.

A portion of the proceeds from Metal Cats and a series of benefit shows held along the West Coast will go towards one no-kill shelter in each of the four main cities visited.

 

Metal Cats
Metal Cats

Continue reading "Pürr for Me: Hardcore Cats and Their Softhearted Keepers" »

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.

 



What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.


Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  

Savage-Harvest-Family

The Quadruple Threat: B.J. Novak

One More Thing"Imagine if George Saunders weren't a genius."

Writer-Producer-Actor-Comedian B.J. Novak stops by the Amazon.com offices to talk about writing, the influence of The Office on his work, and the authors that made the largest impact on his life. Also, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, his debut collection of funny, absurd, and sometimes gloriously strange short stories and vignettes.

Watch to the end of the video to see Novak read Discussion Questions from the book.

 

 

The Best Books About Getting Eaten

Claire CameronClaire Cameron's new novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness. The novel, written in the honest and unfiltered voice of the young girl, is a compact, tense survival story (and as wilderness instructor for Outward Bound and Algonquin Park in Ontario, Cameron knows her stuff); but it's also a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves that propels us through. But the bear. The bear looms large.

You know what they say: Write what you know. As it turns out, Cameron is a connoiseur of man vs. beast books. Here she presents her top titles about the ultimate struggle--and,occasionally the ultimate taboo. (And because I am also something of specialist, I couldn't resist adding a few of my own.)


Before I put together this list, I had no idea how many of my favorite books involved getting eaten. As I write about survival and am interested in fundamental questions of human nature, I suppose it makes sense. Hunger is a great motivator.

Hunger also strips you down to the basics. What you are willing to eat is relative to your position in life. It also changes given your situation. I will never forget, after losing my food while in the mountains, how I saw the meaty calves of my companion in a new light.

While the books on this list are varied, some new, some old, many fiction and others full of facts, all deal with one of the most fundamental questions of life: Who gets to eat and who gets eaten?

--Claire Cameron

 

The Grizzly Maze The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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The story of a father and son who struggle to survive as they walk across a scorched America. Food is scarce and none can grow. Eating, scavenging and the lengths others will go to secure a meal is McCarthy’s way of showing us inside the mouth of desperation.

 

 

 

 The Edible WomanThe Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Print

Atwood’s first novel is about Marian McAlpin who can’t eat, but also becomes convinced that she is being eaten. It is a glimpse of the great author’s earlier work and an interesting snap shot of feminism in 1969 (depressingly modern). You won’t look at cake the same way again.

 

 

The Lord of the Flies Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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A plane does down and leaves a group of English schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. From the pigs perspective things are eaten, but I sometimes wonder if what was actually consumed by this book is our ability to see little boys as anything but brutal.

 

 

 

 

 Jaws Jaws by Peter Benchley

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When this was first published in 1974, it was generally accepted that great white sharks ate people by choice. Now we know better, but in the book the shark is the most terrifying thing to humans—a beast that reminds us that we may not be at the top of the food chain after all.

 

 

 

The Orenda The Orenda by Joseph Boyden (released May 2014)

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Boyden’s ambitious novel, about the tangled relationship between the Iroquois, Huron and Jesuits in the mid-1600s, challenges our assumptions with fully realized characters on all sides. This comes with an unflinching look at violence. Power struggles are called into question through consumption: What if one human eating another was not evil, but rather the ultimate act of reverence? 

 

Moby Dick Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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In the age where we commit to doorstops like The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate Moby Dick as ‘just the right length’? This is the story of the Nantucket whale hunt when it was booming. While the whalers often worried about cannibals, it’s the sperm whale that becomes hell bent on limbs for lunch.

 

 

In the Heart of the SeaIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

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After re-reading Moby Dick, I was hungry for tales about whaling. One of the best is Philbrick’s book that tells the true story of a whaling ship. The Essex from Nantucket was rammed and sunk by a bull sperm whale in 1820. The story of the surviving men inspired Moby Dick. Cannibalism included.

 

  A Modest ProposalA Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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A classic work of satire published in 1729, the writer proposes that the poor Irish should address their economic troubles by selling their children as food for the wealthy. Told in a straight and exacting tone, the modern reader can’t help but feel a connection to the 99 percent.

 

 

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic ExpeditionThe Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

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This is the best recount of Shackleton’s journey. After being stranded, Shackleton knows that securing food is the only way to survive. The sled dogs go quickly. While the author found no concrete evidence that the eating of upright mammals took place, the thought lay in the minds and the humor of the men.  

 

White FangWhite Fang by Jack London

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This novel starts in the Yukon with two men and their sled team who are stalked by a pack of starving wolves. Told from the improbable point of view of a wolf-dog, it’s a story about fate, struggle and respect. It will leave you wondering about all the things your dog could be thinking, when only one is certain: She gets hungry. 

 

 

Alive Alive by Piers Paul Read

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Many have seen the film adaptation of this novel about a rugby team from Uruguay that survive a plane crash, only to be stranded in the Andes Mountains of Chile. After some of the group start to die, this book becomes about making hard choices about what they will eat. When outside the reaches of civilization, how far will they stray from it to live?

 

 

Life of Pi Life of Pi by Yan Martel

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A Japanese cargo ship, carrying an immigrating family and zoo animals, sinks in a storm. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. In case you haven’t read it I won’t say more, but this novel shows how we tell stories about food and how we get it. These are fundamental to how we justify our sometimes brutal actions.

Read the Book

The Bear

The Bear by Claire Cameron

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Five More Real-Life Man-Eaters

The Grizzly Maze

The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans

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The Tiger

The Tiger by John Vaillant

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The Bear

The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey

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The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson

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Savage Harvest

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

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Badluck Way: Wolves and Wide Open Spaces

BadluckJacket“Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills....”

Born in Seattle, Bryce Andrews went to Montana's Sun Ranch, at the edge of Yellowstone, looking for wild country, hard work, and the space to figure out what's next. He found the first two, quickly mastering the difficult and occasionally monotonous work of a ranch hand. Things got interesting, however, when a pack of wolves harrows the herd, picking off heads of cattle, and Andrews is compelled to explore the intersection of his conservation-minded ideals and the economic realities of those who make their living from--and inhabit--the land.

Andrews's memoir, Badluck Way, is a timely, artistic accomplishment. His considered-yet-unforced prose evinces the vastness of this piece of the American West, as well as the pace of a rancher's daily existence, where time seems to settle across the open landscape. He aims high for the traditon of writers such as Stegner and Kittredge, and if he doesn't quite achieve those heights with this book, he may very well with another down the line. And it comes at a time when the debate over delisting wolves as an endangered species (and the ensuing "population management") has stirred the interests and emotons of conservationists and land use advocates alike. Andrews understands the tension and its complexity.

Andrews answers our questions about his experience on the ranch and the new book, an Amazon Editors' pick for January in Biographies & Memoirs.

What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to write this book? Was it a larger (or more difficult) project than you imagined?

I started Badluck Way while wintering alone in a small log house on the Sun Ranch. Back then I didn’t think of it as a book. Pushed indoors by the deep, unyielding cold and long nights, I wrote to make sense of my first year as a ranch hand—particularly the difficult bit with the wolves.

Getting the book done and published took six additional years. Yes, it was absolutely a larger and more difficult project than I expected.

One of the central conflicts in the book revolves around the reintroduction of wolves and the toll they take on the ranch and livestock. How would you justify the intentional presence of predators to a cattleman, whose animals and income are at stake? Or would you at all?

I wouldn’t try to talk a traditional rancher into loving wolves. Life’s too short to spend time barking up that tree. No matter how you slice it, ranchers have been forced to shoulder an inequitable share of the burden of reintroduction, while reaping very few benefits. For that reason, I’d also balk at trying to sell him or her on the essential role that wolves play in a wild ecosystem.

Instead, I’d try to show him how much wolves and other wild creatures mean to millions of people living within and beyond the high and rugged valleys of Southwest Montana. These people—some of them, at least—are the ones who buy his or her beef in supermarkets. Just as importantly, they are the ones who fund and direct the work of conservation groups across the West.

I’d hope that even the most stubborn rancher could dredge up some respect for people who oppose irresponsible development and the wholesale depletion of the West’s resources. Such people—I’d say to our dubious rancher—care as deeply for wolves, bears, and other wild creatures as you do for your herds. And here’s the most important part: these recreationists, hunters, and environmentalists are a rancher’s most stalwart allies in preserving the open landscapes essential to wild animals and livestock.

HayMeadow

Even during your one year at Sun Ranch, you could see development encroaching at the borders and even inside the land. How should preservation and development be balanced, if at all? What is the future of wild lands, and why should we care?

I’m certain of very few things these days, but ranching on the ragged edge of man’s range has taught me this: though a farmer or rancher may make poor choices in his or her stewardship of the land, the consequences of such decisions pale in comparison to the threat of development.

For far too long, our recipe for occupying the West has read as follows: Find a wide-skied paradise and fall in love with it. Chop that beautiful, intact, arid landscape into twenty-acre parcels. Fence these, then pimple the hills and benches with modular homes, trailers, and cookie-cutter starter mansions. Pull wire, lay pipe and cut roads as necessary, until the wild expanses we love are trussed up in a net of utilities. When all is said and done, stand on the front porch after twilight, grouse about the yard lights of the neighbors, and remember better days.

This much seems clear to me: Wolves and cattle can, and do, coexist in many our last remote and wild landscapes. It’s not a bloodless peace, and it likely never will be, but it works. The ranchers press on, the wolves keep breeding, and every new spring offers us a chance to avoid the pitfalls of the past. The fragmentation of a landscape, by development or any other means, brings this process of experimentation to a screeching, final halt.

Places like Montana’s Upper Madison are few and far between. Agriculture, when practiced responsibly, can exist in such valleys without destroying the surrounding wilderness. The same cannot be said of dense human inhabitation. So long as the land stays open and sparsely peopled, we reserve the right to pursue a brighter future.

Levi’s or Wranglers? Explain.

Wranglers are good for work, especially work on horseback, because of the placement of the seams and the tough weave of the denim. Wranglers last twice as long as other jeans. Unfortunately, a solid half of that lifespan is required to break them in and dull their weird, ultramarine hue.

In short: Wranglers for work, Levi’s for everything else.


MovingAHerd

What other gear is essential?

FencingPliersFor the most part, a ranch hand requires a small and relatively simple toolkit. Pliers and a wire stretcher are essential, as are a good shovel and a rock bar. My chainsaw sees considerable use, too. A horse is necessary—a good, calm horse with sound conformation and hooves that offer little trouble. The horse’s color doesn’t matter, but I’ve had good luck with bays. Saddle and rope are essential, too, though the rope comes into play less often than one might imagine. At least once or twice a year, a simple, durable rifle proves indispensible.  

There are other, larger things, too—backhoes, tractors, trucks, ATV’s, trailers and the like—but they generally belong to the ranch, rather than to the ranch hand.

What are the books (or writers) that made you want to become a writer yourself?

From its outset, my desire to write has been nurtured by great teachers, particularly Don Snow of Whitman College and Phil Condon of the University of Montana.

That said, I admire many writers. Here are some, but not all of them, in no particular order. Aldo Leopold, Mark Twain, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Paul Theroux, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Paul Shepard, Richard Hugo, Bruce Chatwin, Loren Eiseley, and Maurice Sendak.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope that they take from the book something similar to what I took from the Sun Ranch—a deep appreciation for the work of ranching and an equivalent sympathy for wild animals like the wolf.

What was your scariest wilderness experience?

While crossing alone through a deep and claustrophobic bog, my horse plunged headlong into a sinkhole full of mud, deadfall and standing water. One moment I was riding without a care in the world, and then we were in the mire. The horse thrashed madly to get free, threatening to crush me or lay himself open in the process.

The worst of it was getting out. I had to go ahead of the horse, leaping from one little patch of solid ground to the next, and then tugging at the reins to bring him along. The horse was terrified, and therefore dangerous. As he jumped wide-eyed from hummock to hummock, hurdling downed trees and landing close behind me, we played a high-stakes game of follow the leader.

At best, I stayed half a step in front of him. Once, when I hesitated for a beat too long before bounding out of the way, his hooves clipped down along my heel, missing flesh by fractions of an inch and slicing a wide half-circle of rubber from the back of my boot.

What advice would you give to an aspiring ranch hand?

Work hard. Preserve a gentleness of spirit. Cultivate the quality of gumption. Notice when the light falls beautifully across the land.

SunRanchNorthEnd

 photos courtesy Bryce Andrews

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