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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

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.

 

 

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