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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

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Jacket Design

Peter Mendelsund, over a long and influential career as a book jacket designer, has added his deft touch to many volumes--many of which would be recognizable to any book lover. Martin Amis, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jo Nesbø, and James Gleick are just a few of the authors to benefit from his work, and his striking jacket for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly contributed to its success. Forget the cliché; a well designed jacket can boost attention for a book of modest expectations, and transform a good book into a phenomenon.

Mendelsund is now the author of two books of his own, both of which consider the visual--and vital--power of literature, but in different ways. What We See When We Read is an examination of the gestalt of reading: How words on the page enter our brains and are internalized, becoming pictures, sensations, and emotions. There are many titles about books and reading, but What We See goes far beyond simple enthusiasm in its search for meaning.

Cover presents some of Mendelsund's most iconic work, illustrating his creative process through early sketches, interior art, and many, many rejected drafts. He has shared some of that insight here, offering examples of his unrealized inspirations, commentary on why they didn't work, and the final results (the drafts are presented first, followed by the finished jacket).

 


The Fallen

by Peter Mendelsund

 

My cover ideas get killed. (Pretty frequently, actually.) Whether killed by dint of a client's caprice (or good sense) or culled by my own hand, a lot of my ideas never make it to the printing press. Here are a few of those which never saw the light of day....

 Plato’s Republic

The obvious thing here was to attempt some version of the allegory of the cave. This, the image below, seemed like a more modern version of same (The "shadows on the wall" that Plato’s cave-dwellers watch is a television—natch). Perhaps, in retrospect, this one was a tad too cool and knowing. It resembles nothing so much as a Vampire Weekend LP. (Though: Is that really so wrong?)

Plato's Republic comp   Plato's Republic final

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka


My initial idea for a cover for Kafka's The Castle was this impossible chess game below. Kafka's books always seem to me like games in which the protagonists are not privy to the rules.

The Castle comp  

The Castle final

 

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

I love the drama inherent in a book jacket covering up a book. Lift the jacket—something is revealed. This, the comp below, would have had a three-quarter-sized jacket, which, when slid up, revealed the case beneath. The idea here was to play off Millhauser's title, and somehow represent the same tension between the pleasurable and the hazardous. I also wanted to accomplish this in a cartoon vernacular (one of the great stories of this collections is "Cat 'n Mouse," a kind of existentialist Tom and Jerry). I illustrated this one myself.

Dangerous Laughter comp 1   Dangerous Laughter comp 2
"Dangerous

 

Peace, by Richard Bausch

A gripping, penetrating, little single act drama. The moral quandaries faced by a squadron of US soldiers trudging through Italy in the winter of 1944. The idea here was to make a landscape which, itself, comprises camouflage; as if the war and the world itself had merged. The style here is very mid-century—almost as if Hemingway had written a WWII novel.

Peace comp   Peace final

 

By Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read   Cover

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

"Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy

There is something going on.

Four years ago, we selected Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy as a Best Book of the Month for March 2010. I quote myself: "[Still Life] will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield 'the calipers and the brain spoons'--that Milgrom's after." She had found that something, and (at least) three new books document it, whatever it is.

First, the historical perspective. Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy depicts what a diorama project might have looked like in Dr. Moreau's classroom: the collected Victorian scenes of an inexpert-yet-dedicated squirrel stuffer, whose children and parlor sitters have been replaced by kittens, rodents, and lambs, many sporting additional heads and appendages. It's a quaint horrorshow.

For aspiring post-mortem engineers, the forthcoming Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself inspires with profiles of visionaries at the cutting edge of biological mash-ups, and instructs with a tutorial on the basics of skinning, degreasing, and mounting. According to professional deviant John Waters, Taxidermy Art is “so appalling, funny, grotesque, weirdly charming, and highly informative that even I was creeped out.” This is getting dark.

But if you're looking for something on the lighter side, Crap Taxidermy celebrates the weirdest of this weird pursuit with the best specimens from "the Internet's largest image depository of crappy and awesome taxidermy": a menagerie of googly-eyed roadkill, cherished pets, and other animals of unknown provenance that's funny in the way that Eraserhead was funny.

Enjoy these selections from Crap Taxidermy (including the titular "Crusty Pandy"), and if you make it all the way through the gallery, be sure to watch the instructional video at the end. It made me eat my words above about the gender dynamics of carcass stuffing.

Happy Friday!

 

Secret Life of Opossums

"Secret Life of Opossums" (pg. 27); Photo by Paul Lim (Flickr: Fudj)

Fox with Eye Transplant

"Fox with Eye Transplant" (pg. 10); Photo by Andrew Murray (Flickr: MrAndrewMurray)

Curtain-Twitching Opossum

"Curtain-Twitching Opossum" (pg. 80); Photo by Kate Perris (Flickr: Dansette)

Continue reading ""Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy" »

The Richard M. Nixon Ex-Presidential Library

On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon, drowning in scandal and facing almost certain impeachment, announced his resignation as President of the United States. Though he vacated office the following day, Nixon still casts a long, victory-sign-waggling shadow--not just politically, but in the publishing world, as well. Though we'll have to wait another decade for the 50th anniversary and the flood of books sure to come, the Ruby Anniversary offers some interesting new perspectives on the affair, including some from principals of the administration. Here's a look at a few of the most prominent titles.

[Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon Customer Reviews are provided for each title. He said all of these things, but obviously in different contexts.]

 

The Nixon Defense

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean

As White House Counsel for Nixon from 1970 to 1973, Dean was instrumental in both the Watergate burglaries and their cover-up. He was also the first to turn, plea-bargaining for a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony. In his latest effort, Dean has drawn on his own extensive archive of conversations and documents to answer the titular question.

 

One StarI am not a crook.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal.

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Richard Perlstein

Though technically a Reagan biography, the follow-up to Nixonland recounts the tumultuous events of the 70s, starting with the resignation. Perlstein contends that rather than leading to a humbler style of politics--which many predicted--they set the stage for Reagan's ascension to the pinnacle of power, as well as his doctrine of American exceptionalism that influences policy to this day. [Note: This book is currently the subject of its own scandal.]

 

 Three StarsBureaucrats.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.

The Greatest Comeback

The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by The Patrick J. Buchanan

Nixon's trusted advisor (and eternal loyalist) Buchanan documents Nixon's remarkable revival following his twin disasters of the 1960 presidential and 1962 Californial gubenatorial elections.

 

Five StarsSock it to me?

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Defeat doesn't finish a man. Quit does. A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

The Nixon Tapes

The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter

Acutely aware of his position as an important historical figure, Nixon (in)famously outfitted his White House with voice-activated tape recorders. What could go wrong? Luke Nichter's Herculean effort to digitize and transcribe much of the material finally offers a glimpse not only into the events of Nixon's presidency (SALT I, the opening of China, and the landslide re-election), but also the mind of the man in the eye of the storm.

 

Three Stars[REDACTED]

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
[REDACTED]

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes

Bob Woodward calls Ken Hughes "one of America's foremost experts on secret presidential recordings, especially those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon." In Chasing Shadows, Hughes, drawing on his own extensive research of thousands of hours of declassified recordings, illustrates how events and behavior starting with the 1968 election led to the paranoid strategies that ultimately brought Nixon down.

 

One StarWell...

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
I screwed it up real good, didn't I?

All the President's Men

 More on Richard Nixon

August Debut Spotlight: "Painted Horses" by Malcolm Brooks

It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H, a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?

But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks's prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.

Painted Horses is the Debut Spotlight selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for August 2014. Watch our interview with Malcom Brooks at Book Expo America below.

 

Painted Horses

New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

PilgrimsWildernessThough this article was originally published July 16, 2013, we're taking the paperback publication of Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness as an opportunity to revisit one of our favorite books of last year.

 

When the "Pilgrim" family rolled into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were a sight to behold: Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children--an old-fashioned, piously Christian family from another time, packed into two ramshackle campers. Looking for the space and freedom to live out their lives as they pleased, they were welcomed as kindred souls by the ghost town's few residents. A tad eccentric, they quickly ingratiated themselves into the tiny frontier community through Papa's charisma, their apparent dedication to self-reliance, and occasional family performances of their unique blend of gospel and bluegrass, music that seemed to soar on the conviction of their beliefs. And when they purchased an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with plans to permanently settle there (dubbing it “Hillbilly Heaven”), it seemed the Pilgrim family had come home to the last existing place in America that suited them.

But Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a National Park inholder, and he quickly adopted an adversarial stance with the NPS, refusing to communicate with or even acknowledge its rangers. Everything went sideways when he bulldozed a road to town across national park lands, stopping just short of McCarthy in an attempt to avoid scrutiny. It didn't work. When the road was discovered by backpackers, NPS agents were fast on the scene and all over the Pilgrims' activities, and suddenly the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in McCarthy, Alaska, and far beyond.

That's where Tom Kizzia entered the story. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, he wrote a series of lengthy articles on the family's struggle with the federal government, and he soon discovered that Papa's past belied the tales he told about himself and his clan. This simple man of faith carried a long, strange, and troubled history: the violent death of his first wife, whom he married when she was 16, and who also happened to be the daughter of Texas governor John Connally; his hippie phase (when he went by the name "Sunstar"), filled with drug-fueled epiphanies and raging outbursts; a contentious relationship with his neighbors in the New Mexico wilderness, who accused Hale of casual disregard for laws that didn't suit his interests (especially the ones related to "Thou shalt not steal"); and worst of all, a dominion over his children that hinted at the most vile forms of abuse. As the situation with the NPS degraded and grew more tense, Hale's behavior became more erratic, driving himself and the entire town toward a denouement worthy of the creepiest Robert Mitchum movies.

With Pilgrim's Wilderness, Kizzia has expanded on his original reporting and written a spellbinding tale of narcissism and religious mania's concussive effects on Hale's family and adopted town, a book that's likely to end up on many year-end Best Of lists. Kizzia answered our questions about Hale, McCarthy, and the town's relationship with the National Park Service.

 

Hale-TwinsHow did you first come to the story of Robert Hale and his family?

This started with a renegade bulldozer in a national park. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, it seemed like a good news story. I’d heard from friends out in McCarthy that this guy, Papa Pilgrim, was stirring up the ghost town. I wanted to go out to his wilderness homestead to meet him and his family of 15 kids. When he heard I had a cabin nearby, he said yes, and suddenly I was tumbling down the rabbit hole.
 
“Papa Pilgrim” was a mess of contradictions: he idolized his FBI father and took advantage of benefits such as food stamps and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and yet he vigorously agitated and undermined the federal government, particularly the National Park Service. Were his anti-government convictions honest (if confused), or self-serving and opportunistic?

Mostly the latter. He needed enemies to hold his family together. But he was reflexively anti-establishment. Which makes the FBI dad a rich twist. As for being anti-government while accepting government handouts, Alaskans by and large don’t spend too much time worrying about that contradiction.

Continue reading "New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia" »

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.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

August 2014

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