The Presidents and the Kindle

November 15, 2010

President Abraham Lincoln reading a book
I remember the day when I almost met President Clinton. He was helping a school in my town install the cables for internet access in 1996 — along with Al Gore — and I was covering the event for a local alternative newsweekly. Some of the volunteers that day wore t-shirts that said “I connected our kids to the future.” And in the teacher’s lounge, I’d found the left-behind remains of sandwich from a local deli, with the word “president” written on a plastic cover. (It was left behind under a sign which read “Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself!”)

It was a weird moment, when I realized that when there’s a new technology, we’re all “pioneering” our way towards it together. And 14 years later, when that future finally arrived, I feel like we’d ended up doing it again, moving together as an invisible group, this time towards a new reading technology. Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, CNN reported that former President Bush had returned to Texas, where he was “meeting the neighbors, making trips to the hardware store, and catching up on some reading via a Kindle.” That same month, former vice president Dick Cheney revealed he also had a Kindle, and a few weeks ago, even Laura Bush told an interviewer that she has one too.

But it’s not just that the Kindle is being used by a handful of White House occupants. After receiving a $7 million advance, former president Bush released his new autobiography on Tuesday. By the end of its first day — counting pre-orders — he’d sold 220,000 copies and delivered nearly $4 million in book sales. But the former president also discovered that nearly 23% of his readers were buying it as an ebook!

A new world may be emerging — an accidental community of early adopters — since the publisher’s spokesman said the figures demonstrate the “rapid growth” of the ebook market. (I calculate that that’s over half a million dollars worth of ebooks sold in a single day!) The publisher also revealed that it was their highest one-day sales in six years — since they’d published the autobiography of former president Bill Clinton. But there’s also something significant about the fact that even Clinton’s biography is now available as a Kindle ebook, along with several by Ronald Reagan, and seven books by Jimmy Carter…

And tomorrow even president Obama is releasing a new book — and has also decided to make it available on the Kindle. It’s a children’s book called Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, and it’s got its own perspective on the way America has changed. It looks back to past presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but also ordinary citizens who made a difference, likeMartin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackie Robinson. It’s fun to think that this will be the first generation of children who may be reading these classic stories of American history on a Kindle!

The world keeps on changing, both in big ways and in small. (One political blog reported that President Bush now seems more interested in his iPad than his Kindle, and according to his wife Laura, he’s “constantly” playing the Scrabble app.) But 10 years ago, The Washington Post once reported, there was an even bigger challenge confronting ebook author Barack Obama: obscurity! “In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd.”

It all goes to show that a lot can change in 10 years — both for politicians, as well as the rest of us!

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The Dark Tower book cover by Stephen King
Today the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating interview with Stephen King, asking him how he feels about the Kindle. “I think it changes the reading experience,” the best-selling author told the Journal, saying that reading on the Kindle is “a little more ephemeral.” But of course, there’s also advantages to a technologically-enhanced reader, as King discovered when he’d downloaded a 700-page book onto his Kindle for research. “It didn’t have an index, but I was able to search by key words. And that’s something no physical book can do…”

He also sees other advantages in reading ebooks. 63-year-old King recently purchased a printed edition of Faceless Killers — a 1997 mystery by Henning Mankell — only to discover that its type was too small for him to read! But he’s still one of those people who loves a physical book, and even after buying an ebook of a new historical fiction novel, he also bought a hard copy just to display it on his shelf. “I want books as objects,” he admits. “It’s crazy, but there are people who collect stamps, too.”

His love of books is understandable, since he’s sold more than 500 million books himself, according to Wikipedia, writing more than 49 different novels. And a week from Tuesday, King will publish a new collection of four stories called “Full Dark, No Stars” (where at least one story is based on a real-life murder case — the story of a woman who discovers she’s married to a serial killer!) It will be available on the Kindle for just $14.99, but King also holds the distinction of having released the first mass-market ebook, over 10 years ago. And recently, he wrote a short story with its own strange twist which was actually about a Kindle-like reading device. “It took three days, and I’ve made about $80,000.”

Click here to download that short story — UR — to your Kindle.

Stephen King is the same age as James Patterson — who just sold his one millionth ebook in Amazon’s Kindle store on Tuesday — but apparently, King’s not a fan. In December of 2008 he’d called Patterson a “terrible writer,” and once described Patterson’s work as “dopey thrillers,” according to Wikipedia — though his remarks had a larger context. King heard J. K. Rowling read his books when she was young, and asked whether that had an influence. He names two authors he’d read himself as a young man — one whose writing had a much bigger impact on his style. But then he gets detoured into discussing which successful authors he would consider to be good authors — comparing J.K. Rowling to Stephenie Meyer, and eventually weighing in on Jodi Picoult, Dean Koontz, and even Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner.

So when King finally got to James Patterson, he was basically talking in bullet points, saying Patterson “is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful. People are attracted by the stories, by the pace…” And this July, Time magazine got to ask Patterson for his response to “critics like author Stephen King, who say you’re not a great prose stylist.” His answer? “I am not a great prose stylist. I’m a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don’t like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do…”

But the literary world continues to evolve and in Friday’s interview, King reveals that now almost half of his reading time is spent on ebooks. But he still adds that it’s hard to predict the future. “People like myself who grew up with books have a prejudice towards them,” he says, suggesting that maybe there’s room for both formats. “I think a lot of critics would argue that the Kindle is the right place for a lot of books that are disposable, books that are read on the plane.

“That might include my own books, if not all, then some.”

Author James Patterson
Wednesday Amazon announced that a second author had finally sold more than one million ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. (By Tuesday, 63-year-old James Patterson had racked up exactly 1,005,803 in ebook sales.) “[W]e look forward to celebrating the 2 million mark in the future,” Amazon announced in a statement, noting that Amazon’s customers “have been James Patterson fans far longer than ‘Kindle’ was a word in our vernacular.” But it’s not surprising that Patterson became the second author to reach this ebook milestone…

According to Wikipedia, Patterson has already written 56 different books which were best-sellers — which got him listed in the Guinness Book of World Records — so he could conceivably reach the million-book milestone simply by selling 20,000 copies of 50 different books. Sure enough, none of his books are on Amazon’s list of the top 20 best-selling ebooks right now, and in fact, there’s only one in the top 30 — “Don’t Blink” — even though it was released less than a month ago. Looking further, only one other Patterson book made the top 100 — “The Postcard Killers,” which he co-authored with Liza Marklund — even though it was released in mid-August. It’s safe to say that there’s still no single ebook that’s ever sold more than 1,000,000 copies.

But this only confirms the fact that Patterson is one of the most successful writers alive today. Last year Forbes magazine reported he’d sold the rights to his next 17 novels for an estimated $150 million. In less than three years, he’d then write (“or co-write”) eleven books for adults and six for young adults. Although there’s a minor controversy around that statistic — and a very funny story.

The author’s lawyer once told an audience that as soon as that figure was reported, he’d received a phone call from James Patterson, demanding “Where’s my $150 million?” USA Today reported the anecdote, then contacted Patterson themselves to get the real truth. The author replied that the $150 million number “isn’t close” to his actual deal. So was that figure too high, or was it too low? “I’m not saying,” Patterson replied!

It’s important to remember that Patterson’s obviously sold more than one million ebooks, since Amazon is only counting the sales in their own Kindle store. Presumably Barnes and Noble also sold a few Patterson ebooks to their Nook customers. (And in addition, Amazon probably sold some ebooks which were read on the iPad or the Blackberry — instead of on a Kindle.) The one million figure also doesn’t count any additional free editions that may have been given away as a promotion. Amazon specified in their press release that the sales figure “refers to paid Kindle book sales.”

What’s his secret? Exciting stories. The best way to celebrate an author is probably to take a look at their work. So here’s Amazon’s product description for his newest thriller, “Don’t Blink”.

“New York’s Lombardo’s Steak House is famous for three reasons — the menu, the clientele, and now, the gruesome murder of an infamous mob lawyer. Effortlessly, the assassin slips through the police’s fingers, and his absence sparks a blaze of accusations about who ordered the hit… Seated at a nearby table, reporter Nick Daniels is conducting a once-in-a-lifetime interview with a legendary baseball bad-boy. In the chaos, he accidentally captures a key piece of evidence that lands him in the middle of an all-out war between Italian and Russian mafia forces. NYPD captains, district attorneys, mayoral candidates, media kingpins, and one shockingly beautiful magazine editor are all pushing their own agendas — on both sides of the law…”

More Sequels to Tom Sawyer?

October 27, 2010

Mark Twain, author

Recently I wrote about Mark Twain’s unfinished sequel to his great novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I forgot to mention that he also wrote and published two more novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — and they’re both available in Amazon’s Kindle store as free ebooks!

When Mark Twain was 61 years old, he picked up his pen again to write Tom Sawyer, Detective. The year was 1896, and detective novels had become immensely popular in America, but Twain offered a new twist. Not only was his detective the mischievous Tom Sawyer, but the book’s narrator was the humble and uneducated Huckleberry Finn.

“The frost was working out of the ground, and out of the air, too, and it was getting closer and closer onto barefoot time every day; and next it would be marble time, and next mumbletypeg, and next tops and hoops, and next kites, and then right away it would be summer and going in a-swimming. It just makes a boy homesick to look ahead like that and see how far off summer is…”

It’s fun to see Mark Twain revisiting his famous characters. (He’d originally dreamed up Tom Sawyer using his own childhood memories, combining three boys he’d remembered, and basing Huckleberry Finn on a fourth.) “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred,” Twain wrote in the original preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And he’d show the same sentimental attachment to his characters in his detective story.

But this time its plot came from a real-world crime. “Strange as the incidents of this story are,” Twain writes in the introduction, “they are not inventions, but facts — even to the public confession of the accused. I take them from an old-time Swedish criminal trial, change the actors, and transfer the scenes to America. I have added some details, but only a couple of them are important ones…”

Surprisingly, Twain himself was also fond of detective stories. Twenty years earlier, he and Bret Harte co-authored a play together with a story which included “a supposed murder, a false accusation and a general clearing-up of mystery,” according to this excerpt from Twain’s official biography (which is also available as a free ebook). But he was also fond of parodies. At the age of 59 Twain wrote another story about the daring young boys called Tom Sawyer, Abroad — which, according to Wikipedia, is a parody of Jules Verne’s stories.

Tom and Huck (this time, accompanied by Jim the former slave) take a wild expedition around the world in a balloon, with Huckleberry Finn doing the narrating. (“Do you reckon Tom Sawyer was satisfied after all them adventures… No, he wasn’t.”) It’s an interesting hodgepodge of Twain’s favorite themes, since his first famous book was a humorous report on his travels through Europe, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.

But I recommend a different book if you’re looking for a deeper peek into the heart of Mark Twain. In 2002 the University of California published his unfinished sequel to Huckleberry Finn. But since it was only nine chapters long, they’d expanded the book to include his very poignant nonfiction memories of the people he’d grown up with. For example, he’d written, but never published, a remembrance of his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens. And the book also includes Twain’s personal recollections of all the people he remembered from the village where he spent his childhood between 1840 and 1843.

“Captain Robards. Flour mill. Called rich… Disappointed, wandered out into the world, and not heard of again for certain. Floating rumors at long intervals that he had been seen in South America (Lima) and other far places. Family apparently not disturbed by his absence…”

And amazingly, this book also includes fragments from two more unfinished sequels to Tom Sawyer — Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy (which at least has a finished plot), and a remarkable story called Schoolhouse Hill in which Tom, Huck and Jim actually meet the devil! Mark Twain is probably one of America’s best-loved authors. But because of that, book lovers have carefully preserved some of his most interesting lost works!



Click here to buy “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories” by Mark Twain.

Elif Batuman

“The Kindle is wonderful for drunk people…” argues author Elif Batuman. “Before I first acquired a Kindle, exactly one year ago, I didn’t usually buy books while under the influence of alcohol…”

I laughed out loud at her funny stories about the life of a Kindle owner, which was published Saturday in a British newspaper. (Though according to Wikipedia, she teaches in America at Stanford University in California, where she spent seven years studying linguistics and comparative literature.) A little wine lowers her inhibitions, and soon she’s slumming with the Agatha Christie novels she’d loved as a child. “…although the detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, were twinkly, grandparental types, nevertheless, everywhere these gentle souls went, someone was killed in hatred.”

“Because I am a writer, people sometimes ask me how ebooks have changed the literary landscape. The short answer, for me, is that I have developed a compulsion to drunk-dial Agatha Christie several times a week.”

This article inspired me to investigate Amazon’s Kindle store, where I discovered they’re currently offering a complete Agatha Christie mystery novel as a free ebook. Thanks to Kindle blogger Mike Cane, who discovered this article (adding “This is absolutely hilarious! Don’t drink and eBook, kids!”) Her funny observations were the perfect way to start Monday morning, and I think I’ll always remember Elif’s advice — that the Hercule Poirot mysteries are “perfect for a drunk reader with a decreased attention span.” And she hints at how easy it is to splurge on the purchases of ebooks — especially since, unlike a real-life book-buying binge, there’s “no physical book to reproach me the morning after!”

But for all the jokes, I think she really appreciates the joy of being able to curl up and read with a good ebook. “…at the end of the day, when I uncorked a $7 bottle of Viognier and turned on the Kindle, a wave of well-being washed over me.”

It’s funny, because in April this Kindle-loving author had also published a long book about studying the great Russian novelists. (She’d named her book after a Dostoyevsky novel — The Possessed — giving it the subtitle “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”) I’d thought that was going to be a more scholarly work, but it turns out it’s a book filled with more terrific personal anecdotes, which also gradually explain how she came to love Russian novels. One reviewer called her “A Comedian in the Academy,” asking “Who knew studying Russian literature could be so funny?”

It’s a wonderful book — and yes, it’s also available on the Kindle. Though Elif Batuman is 23, she uses her smarts to weaves together her life experiences with all the things that she’s learned in her studies. She remembers the unpredictable Russian violin teacher she’d had as a teenager, and riffs on the “multitude of sad adventures” that’s cryptically promised to a character in “Eugene Onegin” (in a strange manual of dream intrepretation). She remembers being a freshman loving a senior (who’d once lived behind the Iron Curtain) — which somehow leads her to a summer job teaching English in Hungary. And then there’s a surreal experience at a children’s summer camp, when all the gym teachers suddenly approach her.


“The American girl will judge the leg contest!” they announced. I was still hoping that I had misunderstood them, even as German techno music was turned on and all the boys in the camp, ages eight to fourteen, were paraded out behind a screen that hid their bodies from the waist up; identifying numbers had been pinned to their shorts. I was given a clipboard with a form on which to rate their legs on a scale from one to ten. Gripped by panic, I stared at the clipboard. Nothing in either my life experience or my studies had prepared me to judge an adolescent boys’ leg contest…”


NPR published a small excerpt from this section, though it’s also available in the book’s free sample on the Kindle.

But click here if you’d rather try reading a free Agatha Christie mystery novel ebook while drunk!

William Gibson vs. the Kindle

September 28, 2010

Author William Gibson
Science fiction fans have a special affection for William Gibson. The 62-year-old author coined the term “cyberspace” nearly 30 years ago, and, according to Wikipedia, later popularized the idea in his 1984 breakthrough cyberpunk novel, “Neuromancer.” In 2007 he finally reached the mainstream best-seller lists with a science fiction novel called “Spook Country.” That novel was continuing a contemporary, post-9/11 storyline which finally culminated in the book “Zero History” — a brand new novel that Gibson released just a few weeks ago.

It’s currently the Kindle’s #1 best-selling science fiction ebook — though there’s no evidence that Gibson himself has ever used an e-reader. But something very strange happened last week at a book signing in Washington…

At the headquarters of Microsoft’s campus at Redmond, Gibson was asked how he felt about signing printed books in what may be a new age of virtual books and tablet-sized digital reading devices. Gibson told the audience he could always etch his signature into the back of a device, by using an industrial-strength carbide tip. (The man who asked the question, Dave Ohara, described the historic event on his blog.) Gibson later discovered that his questioner was also the second person in line for a book-signing. And instead of bringing a book, they’d downloaded an ebook of the latest Gibson novel — and now wanted the author to sign the back of their Kindle!

Gibson acknowledged it was the first time he’d ever signed a Kindle, and then, using a black magic marker, autographed it in big, curvy letters. Later, Gibson’s fans discovered he’d commemorated the moment on Twitter. He’d “tweeted” a status update which announced, “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft. Actually, *touched* very first Kindle. Appealing unit, IMO.”

“Is this a trend yet…?” joked another blog. “It certainly offers an interesting work around to the inability to get author signatures in the front covers of eBooks.” In fact, last year in Manhattan someone requested an autograph on their Kindle from humor writer David Sedaris. “In mock horror,” The New York Times reported, Sedaris signed their Kindle with the perfect epitaph.

“This bespells doom.”

But I think it’s even more interesting when the device is presented to the visionary science fiction author who first popularized the “cyberspace” concept. Gibson’s original story defined cyberspace as “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Now we’re living in a world where there’s a second invisible ether that’s also always around us, and always being accessed for its virtual repository of 700,000 ebooks.

Stephen King Kindle horror story ebook - UR
Stephen King lived his own amazing story. He travelled back in time to the year 2000 in order to write the first massively successful ebook. Or something like that. I just discovered Stephen King actually released the first mass-market ebook over 10 years ago, and within 24 hours he’d achieved an amazing 400,000 downloads!

In the story, a young man has a strange adventure while hitchhiking to the hospital bed of his sick mother. (Fans may remember the novella, which was called Riding the Bullet, and is still available as a Kindle ebook.) Stephen King’s profits may not have set a record, since according to Business Week more than 90% of those readers downloaded that book for free. But Stephen King still remained a pioneer in ebooks, and nearly three years ago, he finally read his first book using the Kindle.


“The advance publicity says it looks like a paperback book, but it really doesn’t. It’s a panel of white plastic with a screen in the middle and one of those annoying teeny-tiny keyboards most suited to the fingers of Keebler elves. Full disclosure: I have not yet used the teeny-tiny keyboard, and really see no need for it. Keyboards are for writing. The Kindle is for reading…”


I really like the way Stephen King described WhisperNet as “the electronic ether, where even now a million books are flying overhead, like paper angels without the paper, if you know what I mean.” And soon King had decided to write his own spooky story that was about the Kindle itself! After writing the article Amazon had asked his agent if King wanted to write an original story for the release of the Kindle 2. “I decided I would like to write a story for the Kindle, but only if I could do one about the Kindle. Gadgets fascinate me, particularly if I can think of a way they might get weird.”

That story is called Ur (and you can still download it to your Kindle for just $3.19.) “At the time the Amazon request came in, I’d been playing with an idea about a guy who starts getting e-mails from the dead,” King wrote in Entertainment Weekly. “The story I wrote, Ur, was about an e-reader that can access books and newspapers from alternate worlds.

“I realized I might get trashed in some of the literary blogs, where I would be accused of shilling for Jeff Bezos & Co., but that didn’t bother me much; in my career, I have been trashed by experts, and I’m still standing.”



Click here to download UR

And if you want to travel back in time to 2000, Riding the Bullet also appeared in a King collection called “Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.”

Kindle beach ebook ad - I reached across the table but he shrugged
I had to know. What exactly is the story that the woman’s reading in Amazon’s Kindle ad? It appears briefly on the screen before the camera pulls back to reveal the beach. But now I’m almost sorry that I asked…

Last week I interviewed the author who wrote the book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. And in preparation, I’d read the story itself. It’s “Sleepwalking,” the first in a four-story cycle by Amy Bloom, and the story is actually about a 19-year-old boy who has a sexual encounter with his stepmother. It’s the day after his father’s funeral, and it’s told from the perspective of the grief-stricken widow, Julia. She cries while singing to her younger son, and then staggers through the hours in a daze.


After the funeral was over and the cold turkey and the glazed ham were demolished and some very good jazz was played and some very good musicians went home drunk on bourbon poured in my husband’s honor, it was just me, my mother-in-law, Ruth, and our two boys, Lionel junior from Lionel’s second marriage, and our little boy, Buster.


It’s an incredibly sad story, but it’s also extremely well-written. (Bloom has written stories for The New Yorker, and was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.) According to Wikipedia, Bloom also worked as a psychotherapist and created a series on The Lifetime Network about psychiatrists called “State of Mind”. Like a clinical psychologist, Bloom writes a story which provides an honest answer to the question of how this could happen, and her story doesn’t flinch from its painful aftermath. “I was already sorrier than I’d ever been in my whole life, sorry enough for this life and the next…”

It’s the stepmother’s story, as she struggles to find a way to make things right — but first she must confront the fact that her son wants to continue the relationship.



“No, honey.”

I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…


And that’s the sentence which appears at the top of the Kindle’s screen in Amazon’s ad. That’s what she’s reading at the beach…


I sat for a long time, sipping, watching the sunlight move around the kitchen. When it was almost five, I took the keys from [her husband] Lionel’s side of the dresser and drove his van to soccer camp. [Her other, younger son] Buster felt like being quiet, so we just held hands and listened to the radio. I offered to take him to Burger King, hoping the automated monkeys and video games would be a good substitute for a fully present and competent mother. He was happy and we killed an hour and a half there. Three hours to bedtime.

We watched some TV, sitting on the couch, his feet in my lap. Every few minutes, I’d look at the clock on the mantel and then promise myself I wouldn’t look until the next commercial. Every time I started to move, I’d get tears in my eyes, so I concentrated on sitting very still, waiting for time to pass. Finally, I got Buster through his…


Amy Bloom actually wrote that short story in 1993, when she was 40 years old. Over the years she wrote two more stories about the family — with the son returning for the family Thanksgiving dinner with a girlfriend 10 years later. It’s told first from the son’s perspective, and then from the mother’s — but last year, Bloom produced a final story which reveals how things finally ended up. She’d published the two Thanksgiving stories in a 2000 collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. But it’s in her newest collection, published in January, where readers get the final word about Lionel and Julia.

I asked Amy Bloom if she would ever write another story about the characters — if there would ever be more stories about the family. “There might be,” she replied. “I’m not sure. Not at this point. I’m done with these characters now. I’m on to this novel, and I’m sure that it’s — if the next generation makes themselves known to me, I’ll probably go back and write a few more stories.” I also asked what she thought of Amazon’s choice of the story for their Kindle ad. “I wasn’t embarrassed,” she replied circumspectly (repeating “I didn’t think this was embarrassing,” when it came up again later).

And then I remembered the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer, who was once asked if he’d had a favorite of his stories. He’d said it was like being asked if he had a favorite among his children. I decided maybe it wasn’t the right question to ask the story’s author. But 17 years after the original story was written, a page from it still flickers across millions of TV screens. And each day dozens of people then feel compelled to go into Google and type in this mysterious sentence.

“I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…”


                        *                       *                       *

Click here to buy Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

Amy Bloom book in the Kindle beach ad

I just got off the phone with Amy Bloom. She’s the author whose book actually appears on the Kindle’s screen during the beginning of that ad at the beach. Amy has published short stories in The New Yorker, and was nominated for the National Book Award — and even that woman in the Kindle ad is now reading her most recent book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. I was very excited, because I was finally going to get to ask her: how does it feel to find your book featured in an ad for the Kindle?

I tracked down her contact information, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions. We spoke for 15 minutes on Wednesday — after I’d spent the previous week reading all of her books!

Q: When was the first time you realized it was a page from your book that was featured in the Kindle ad?

AMY BLOOM: A day or two ago. The day that you emailed me. I had a nice note from an agent…

Q: And have you watched the ad?

AMY: Somebody sent me a link.

Q: So what was your reaction?

AMY: I thought, “Oh. How nice.”

I have to say, I can’t imagine that most people looking at the ad — the thing that stays with them is just that fleeting moment of print. But you never know. I suppose somebody… I’m afraid this is my nature. What I felt was, “Oh, that’s so nice. Thank you, Kindle people.”

Q: And then you went on about your day?

AMY: I did. I had a deadline. I was working on something, and I went back to work.

Q: Did you get any other reactions from people you know?

AMY: Another friend of mine said, “Hey, guess what…”

You know? “I fleetingly saw your page in a Kindle ad!” And that was nice. You know, I’m the dullest person in the world. I say, “Oh, that’s so nice.” And they go, “Yep.”

Q: I guess I was expecting you’d have a bigger reaction to the ads.

AMY: I am notorious for this in my family. I’m pleased by them. I’m flattered by them, but I don’t — they’re not — they’re great. I’m really appreciative and I think its very kind of the Kindle people. I feel very grateful for whoever it was who said, “Hey, how about a page from an Amy Bloom story.” I feel very grateful for whoever that person is.

Q: Will this increase sales of your book?

AMY: You never know. It probably won’t do me any harm.

On the other hand, the other way to look at it is, who cares? I’ve done my job as a writer. I’ve written the best work I know how. And I’m appreciative of the people who read it and care about the work — and that’s pretty much the end of that. Anything else that happens is sometimes nice, and sometimes not so nice, but not really directly relevant.

Q: Still, for more than two months they’ve been broadcasting a page from your book into millions of homes, and over and over again.

AMY: It’s very nice. But on the other hand, I’m sure there are far more people who are like Snooki and The Situation, than have gone, “Ooh, look. An Amy Bloom short story.” Again, I think it’s — I am really appreciative, and it’s also sort of in the category of ephemera.

Q: But is there a larger significance?

AMY: If there is a larger significance, it’s going to be someone else who figures out what it is, not me.

Q: Are you one of those authors of print books who has a secret distrust of ebooks and digital readers?

AMY: I don’t have anything against them sort of, qua objects. I think, from people who find them more comfortable or more useful — you know, it doesn’t matter to me whether people read wax tablets or printed books or handmade books or ebooks. I’m happy that they read.

And I have to say, I don’t really have a sense as to how the presence of Kindles and ebooks is going to change two of the things I like most in the world — which are bookstores and libraries. It’s already clear that the tiny independent bookstores are not going to be proliferating. On the other hand, somebody told me that three had opened in New York City. So there you go. And so I think it’ll be like my dad used to say. “May you live in interesting times.” We’ll see what happens next.

Q: Do you use a Kindle, or another digital reader?

AMY: I don’t. But I’m sure when I’m a little old lady, I’m going to be very grateful to have a — some lightweight thing that contains a lot of books and has big fonts.

Q: Do you have any friends who are using a Kindle or one of the other digital readers?

AMY: I do know a couple of people who use them. They seem to like them quite a bit…

Q: I guess I’m comparing you to the woman in the Kindle ad. Do you at least read books at the beach?

AMY: I do read at the beach, although not — you know, usually not the “technologically advanced” versions.

Q: And you’re not reading Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

AMY: Well no, because I was familiar with the book.

Q: A few people who’ve watched the ad have said, “Man, that couple must hate each other.”

AMY: Well, or it’s comfortable silences. Other people’s marriages are hard to judge.

Q: And for that matter, the other comment is that the two of them are at that gorgeous beach — with their noses stuck in a book.

AMY: Well, there is that…

Q: I’ve been trying to figure out how your book was chosen for the ad. Maybe the ad was filmed when the hardcover version was first released?

AMY: I think it had nothing to do with updates. It had to do with whoever designed this particular ad — and God bless them.

Q: Do you anticipate pages from your book starring in other ads?

AMY: I don’t see my work — or my person — starring in any commercials any time soon.

Q: So where will we see you next?

AMY: I’m working on a novel. I’m working on a couple of TV projects, and mostly that’s what I do.

Mostly I keep my head down!


Click here to buy your own Kindle ebook version of
Where the God of Love Hangs Out
.

Amazon Kindle beach ad - screenshot screengrab of the ebook
She’s reading an ebook on her Kindle, and then the camera pans back to reveal she’s reading it at the beach. (“Silver moons and paper chains,” the background music sings. “Faded maps and shiny things…)” The camera pulls back before you can read the whole page, as though Amazon’s trying to tease you. But one day, I decided I finally had to find out: exactly what ebook is that?

Google provided me with the answer — and a link to a web page with the complete text of the page she’s reading! (“I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door….”) I should’ve noticed that the woman’s Kindle was displaying its title at the top of the page — “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” It’s a collection of short stories by Amy Bloom, and Amazon will even send you one complete story as a free sample if you go to the book’s Amazon web page. (It’s a funny, sexy story called “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages” — about committing adultery while watching CNN!)

UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that I’m now Google’s #1 match for the phrase, “I reached across the table but he shrugged me off.” But who exactly is Amy Bloom? She once worked as a psychotherapist, according to Wikipedia, but now lectures on creative writing at Yale University’s English department. She wrote the TV show “State of Mind” for the Lifetime Network, but was also nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. And it turns out that a sample of her short story isn’t the only thing that Amazon’s giving away for free…

I’d begun investigating the next logical question: Okay, who’s singing that song that’s playing in the background? The singer’s name is Annie Little, and Amazon is giving away one of her songs for free in their “mp3 downloads” store. It’s the song that appeared in Amazon’s second Kindle ad — a duet that Annie recorded with her fiance, Marcus Ashley, called “Stole My Heart.”

“Once upon a time, I saw you
walk along a moonbeam. What a
lovely girl. I followed you around the world.
Uh-uh oh, I love you. Don’t you see?
You stole my heart in one, two, three.
I love you. Yes it’s true.
You stole my heart, and I’m gonna steal yours too.”

I remembered Annie’s story. Amazon held a contest for the best home-made ad for the Kindle, and Annie’s song appeared in the winning entry — a cool stop-motion animation video suggesting all the stories you could read on your Kindle. (While in the background, Annie sang “Fly Me Away.”) You can also download “Fly Me Away” — the song which plays in the background of Amazon’s Kindle commercials — but they’re now charging 99 cents for it. And in addition, the couple has recorded two more songs, and they’re selling all four together as an EP for just $2.97.

1. Stole My Heart
2. Telegrams to Mars
3. Fly Me Away
4. Still Missing You

With a little more research, I discovered a few more secrets. The complete versions of the songs are longer than what’s aired in the commercial, so click here if you want to read all of the lyrics for “Stole My Heart” or “Fly Me Away”. (They’ve been transcribed on the couple’s web site.) I guess the last thing I discovered is that it’s hard to resist the couple’s charm — and their endearing message that true love…is a little bit like reading your Kindle.

“You’re my favorite one-man show,
a million different ways to go.

Will you fly me away?
Take me away with you, my love.”

My Favorite Trashy eBook

August 24, 2010

Jessica Cutler, the Washingtonienne sex blogger whose novel became an ebook

It’s one of my all-time favorite trashy novels — and it’s based on a true story.

In 2004, 26-year-old Jessica Cutler worked for Republican Senator Mike Dewine. But at night she’d drink and get romantic with the men of Washington D.C. — and, unfortunately, kept an online blog about it (which she’d meant to share only with her friends). Inevitably, a political gossip site discovered the blog and Cutler was immediately fired — though she was also offered a lot of money to pose for Playboy, and to write a sexy “fictionalized” memoir. It’s an exciting read, and an exciting life — with a real-world epilogue that makes it even more interesting.

The photograph above was reportedly taken on the same day Jessica was fired — and I actually played a tiny role in the subsequent press coverage. The Washington Post hadn’t checked their facts — Cutler was claiming to be just 24 years old, and that she’d already earned a degree in International Relations. On my blog I’d set the record straight — and ended up linked by the same trashy gossip site that had linked to Jessica. And then the internet buzzed with the most tantalizing question of all. Was Jessica’s whole blog also an elaborate work of fiction?

The question was settled by a lawsuit in 2006 — by the one of the men Jessica had written about. A real case was filed in federal court, arguing that he’d suffered “humiliation and anguish beyond that which any reasonable person should be expected to bear in a decent and civilized society.” He’d been counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, but found Jessica was blogging about their sexy dates. (“I told my coworkers about the spanking over lunch… Not sure I should have told them.”) When asked about those wild nights a year later, Jessica told USA Today breezily that “I don’t even remember doing that stuff. I don’t even remember what those guys looked like.”

Some of the men had given her money, according to Jessica’s own blog, and she turned up in news headlines again in 2008. Prosecutors busted a Manhattan call-girl ring whose clients included New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. But Jessica Cutler had been spotted on one of the sex worker’s web pages (a site advertising sexy models), according to the New York Post. When the paper asked if she was now working as an escort, the author replied: “I can’t talk about that.”

Cutler had already filed for bankruptcy, at the age of 29 — but her story actually has a happy ending. Twenty months ago, Cutler got married — to a 29-year-old bankruptcy lawyer named Charles Rubio (of the New York firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy). According to the New York Observer, “They met last March at an East Midtown bar called, appropriately, Redemption.” And one year ago, Jessica Cutler gave birth to their first child — Jessica-Louise.

If anything, the erratic backstory makes her 2005 book even more interesting. She writes about wanting to form a serious love relationship with a man named Marcus — in real life, the man who eventually sued her. The romance provides the book’s underlying dramatic question of whether Jessica could walk away from her life of late-night good times, but the book is also just a startlingly honest account of the ups and downs when you’re very young and very out of control. It’s “one of the most realistic depictions of casual sex,” according to a female friend of mine who read it. “It was amazingly honest.” And if you’re enjoying the “guilty pleasure” of reading Jessica’s story, you’ll know that some of the chaos continued after the end of the book.

I thought Cutler’s writing style was lively and fun, and the book may also offer a glimpse at next year’s smash TV show. Cutler told the New York Observer that HBO had already filmed a pilot for a new series based on her novel for the 2011 season. You can also savor this irony: during Cutler’s short-lived Washington career, her job had been opening and answering the letters sent to a U.S. Senator. She always seems to accidentally find her way to the center of the public eye, and on the day she was married, Brooke Shields even emerged from the same hotel where Cutler’s wedding party had been celebrating. Shields accidentally wandered into Cutler’s wedding party, according to the New York Observer, so as the couple emerged, they confronted a full battalion of paparazzi.

It seems like everyone laughed as they watched Jessica’s notoriety finally passing by, and the newspaper playfully reported one more crucial detail about her new husband. (“Yes, he’s read her book.”) Now you can finally read Jessica’s fictionalized 2005 memoir on the Kindle — but even her ebook suffered one last funny accident.

A glitch in Amazon’s database changed the publication date for the ebook, so now Amazon reports that the book was published 110 years ago — on January 1, 1900!

Picture of Stieg Larsson - ebook author of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

He’s written Amazon’s #1 best-selling ebook — and its #2 and #3 best-selling ebooks! In fact, he became one of the best-selling authors in the world — two years after his death — and he wrote the first ebook ever to sell one million copies. Yet apparently there’s another strange twist to his story.

There’s now two biographies about author Stieg Larsson — one very good, and one very bad. At least that’s the fierce opinion of one Amazon reviewer who downloaded STIEG LARSSON BIOGRAPHY: The Man Behind Lisbeth Salander. “I am disappointed that Amazon would offer this as a ‘book’ selection,” the reviewer wrote…


“I loved the Millennium series and wanted to know more about the wonderful author who penned them, so I was happy to see a biography offered. However, it is nothing more than what could be gleaned from the Internet in a short Google search. It consists of Kindle locations 1 – 94 which takes about three minutes to read. Certainly not worth the $3.99 charged for less than 6 pages of very generalized text.”


He condensed his position in his review’s title — “Caution: NOT a book” — and advises readers to “Save your money since there is more information in Wikipedia…”

But there’s also more information in a new 294-page hardcover biography about the life of Stieg Larsson, which was just published a few weeks ago. As an expert on crime fiction, Barry Forshaw looks deeper into the author’s whole career, according to Amazon’s description, and he concludes that Larsson’s life “would be remembered as truly extraordinary even had his trilogy never been published. Larrson was a workaholic: a political activist, photographer, graphic designer, a respected journalist, and the editor of numerous science fiction magazines.

“At night, to relax, he wrote crime novels…”

Larsson died at the age of 50, prompting Forshaw to title his biography “The Man Who Left Too Soon.” (Larsson died a full six years before his book became the first ebook ever to sell more than one million copies.)
While it’s ironic that after his death, Larsson drew so much attention from the publishing world, at least he’ll always be remembered for achieving that historic milestone. But it’s even more ironic that the first biography of his life isn’t yet available in the ebook format!

In September a young man named Kurdo Baksi will also publish another biography of Larsson’s life — titled “Stieg Larsson, My Friend.” (Though apparently it’s also available only in the hardcover format.) Still, it’s nice to see that in the middle of the book-publishing feeding frenzy, the author himself is receiving some genuine appreciation from the people who knew and remembered him. And now his loyal fans are discovering that Stieg Larsson has also led them into some new unexpected experiences.

I checked out the sample chapter of the short ebook biography, and was startled by the low quality of the writing. (“Starting in the late 1970’s, he combined his work as a graphic designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism for the Scotland Yard.”) The sample seems to end in mid-sentence, and it was written by somebody named “SpaceLoops.” (Though it’s currently ranked #7,707 on Amazon’s list of paid ebooks — and #12 on Amazon’s list of journalist biographies, behind the autobiography of Barbara Walters.) But ultimately, at least the skimpy book led one reader to a good experience with Amazon’s customer service.

“Right after I posted the review above, I emailed Amazon customer service about my displeasure that this is offered as a legitimate Kindle selection and requested a refund which they promptly processed. Great service, Amazon!”

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte
Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”


In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (Kindle ebook)

Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”


“Dickens in Camp” as a free Kindle ebook
The Outcasts of Poker Flat as a Kindle ebook
The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)


So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

XKCD cartoonist talks about his comic strip on Amazon's Kindle

I’m a fan of the comic strip XKCD. So I was delighted when the cartoonist did a special edition that was all about the Kindle.

“Even if I spend months broke and drunk in a strange city, I’ll still be able to use Wikipedia and Wikitravel to learn about anything I need…”

Ironically, it’s very hard to read that comic on your Kindle (though its dialogue is almost legible if you surf straight to the image.) But, to give away the punchline, the female character decides there’s something suspiciously familiar about the idea of being able to learn anything anywhere. And when she examines the Kindle more closely, she makes a startling discovery: it’s actually The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, it describes a near-magical, all-knowing guidebook that would be crucial if, say, your home planet Earth was destroyed, and you had to navigate through all the other strange alien civilizations. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Kindle’s unlimited (and free) internet access, though I first read that cartoon before I’d even purchased my Kindle. But I still remember it every time I switch to Wikipedia to look up crucial context for the classic books I’m reading. (“Was this book popular in its time? How old was its author…?”)

I even added this capability to yesterday’s list of my favorite Kindle tips and tricks. (It’s possible to instantly search Wikipedia for any topic just by typing @wiki after hitting the Search button.) But the cartoonist’s joke has a special resonance for me, because I’d interviewed Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, just a few weeks before his death in 2001. He’d lived long enough to see a wonderful sight — his six-year-old daughter, pushing her doll’s baby stroller while mimicking the voice of the GPS system in her daddy’s car. And I sometimes wonder what he would’ve thought of the Kindle. “Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things,” Adams had joked, while introducing, of course, a contradicting corollary. “Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is considered ordinary and normal.”

I’ve always assumed that Adams would eventually come around to the idea of using a digital reader. But regardless of Adams’ opinion, the magic of the internet at least lets us peek into the thoughts of the cartoonist who draws XKCD. If you hold your mouse over his cartoons, you’ll discover that the cartoonist leaves behind an extra personal statement for every cartoon. (For example, “Now that the Apple Store is getting rid of DRM, Cory Doctorow will get rid of his Steve Jobs voodoo doll…”) So what was his message for his Kindle cartoon?

“I’m happy with my Kindle 2 so far, but if they cut off the free Wikipedia browsing, I plan to show up drunk on Jeff Bezos’s lawn and refuse to leave!”

Visit Amazon’s Page of Douglas Adams Kindle books.

Or check out the Kindle version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver

Lately my most popular post is the one about William Saroyan — the 1940s novelist who actually turned down a Pulitzer Prize for literature. I’d called him “The Author You Can’t Read on your Kindle,” and while it’s still true, there’s something that’s almost as good. There’s a fascinating biography about Saroyan’s wild life — and the ebook’s two modern-day authors include one of my favorites.

Barry Gifford wrote Wild at Heart, a story about two passionate but unlucky drifters living together on the road. David Lynch adapted it into a movie starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, and when I saw Gifford speak in the early 90s, he was also working on a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Gifford was hosting a film noir festival, arguing there was a unspeakable truth in the best of the B-movies. Gifford seemed comfortable with the grittier side of literature, and tonight I discovered he’d co-authored this detailed biography of William Saroyan.

“Along with Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan…was the most well-known American writer of the 1930s and 1940s,” according to Amazon’s description of the book, and the two authors “heard Saroyan’s story first-hand from Carol Matthau, the wife he rejected; the son and daughter he alternately smothered and pushed away; and colleagues like Artie Shaw, Celeste Holm, and Lillian Gish.” (The Boston Herald called it a “beautifully balanced account” of the “triumphs and agonies” in the author’s life.) I think Barry Gifford understands the zest and exuberance that Saroyan brought to his work — and to his life.

And coincidentally, you also can’t read Gifford’s Wild at Heart on the Kindle either. (Though you can buy one of its sequels, The Imagination of the Heart, which Gifford published just last year at the age of 63…)

I’m excited about this book because Saroyan lived a fascinating life. As a young boy he’d lived in an Oakland orphanage, and later served in the army during World War II at the peak of his writing career. (It was just two years after he’d declined the Pulitzer Prize, and two years before his Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.) According to Wikipedia he “worked rapidly, hardly editing his text, and drinking and gambling away much of his earnings.” And if that weren’t enough, he “narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson was seen as advocating pacifism!”

In February, I’d worried that “he’ll be one of those authors who won’t transition into the next generation of media. In our shiny future, we’ll have expensive ‘readers’ with fancy new features — but with a couple of last-century authors who somehow just didn’t make the cut.” So I always get a warm feeling when the digital world finds its way to a little bit of Saroyan. Maybe instead of talking about the man, or his biography, or his biographer, I should just share his advice to young writers of the future.

“Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.”

Picture of Nelson Algren in Chicago
Ernest Hemingway called him “one of the two best authors in America” — and yet his greatest novel isn’t available on the Kindle. Nelson Algren wrote The Man With the Golden Arm, an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes, in 1950, and it won a National Book Award. But apparently, there’s more to the story — according to The Chicago Reader.


“Her name was Margo. She was a 22-year-old addict hooking for her heroin, and when Nelson Algren met her, in the mid-40s in Chicago, while he was working on The Man With the Golden Arm, he violated the immortal principles he’d set down in A Walk on the Wild Side: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Algren took Margo in, putting her up in his Wicker Park digs, and eventually got her clean. Years later, when she wrote him a note letting him know she was engaged to a guy she wanted him to meet, he was devastated. His feelings for her had become so strong and complicated that when he tried to put her into the center of a novel he couldn’t finish it.

“About 300 pages wound up in the Algren archives at Ohio State University, and in edited form they make their first public appearance as “Entrapment,” from Entrapment and Other Writings, a new collection of previously unpublished work by Algren edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon for Seven Stories Press.”

But there’s more than just an excerpt from the lost novel, according to the book’s introduction. “Some of Algren’s very best writing never appeared anywhere and was left finished but completely unpublished.”
Other stories appeared only once, in long-ago magazines, until they were finally gathered for this special collection on what would’ve been Algren’s 100th birthday. The hardcover edition was nearly 300 pages long, and “Every piece in Entrapment and Other Writings is irreplaceable.” If you order the sample from Amazon, you’ll get the editor’s introduction, but no actual text by Algren himself. But fortunately, The Chicago Reader has put a stunning excerpt online.

My personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career, which he’d published in 1973. At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself — and towards the end, near the paperback’s 500th page, he’d slyly included an excerpt from this unfinished novel, Entrapment. There was also a funny story about his affair with Simone de Beauvoir, a sympathetic examination of the baseball players in the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, and his perspective on watching his great novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, being turned into a Hollywood melodrama that starred Frank Sinatra.

Unfortunately The Last Carousel also isn’t available on the Kindle. But last December I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how they’d tried to swindle their customers.

Nelson Algren always remembered the forgotten people — from jockeys and boxers to drifters and gamblers. And now this new book lets us remember Nelson Algren…

Yesterday I mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and how that free edition had become #61 on Kindle’s list of best-selling (free) ebooks. So here’s another tip about free ebooks for Rudyard Kipling fans.

There’s only three stories about Mowgli the jungle boy in The Jungle Book. The other four stories are about other animals. (When I read this book at the age of 13, I was surprised to see the fourth story was “The White Seal” — which is obviously not about a jungle animal at all!) But Kipling included five more stories about Mowgli in an often-overlooked sequel called The Second Jungle Book..

And yet surprisingly, on Amazon’s list of best-selling free ebooks, Kipling’s sequel is only ranked #1,325.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Here’s another author we would make a great Kindle screensaver: Rudyard Kipling.

But watch out if you try to read a Kipling work on your Kindle…

My girlfriend’s been contemplating a trip to India, so I tried downloading some of Kipling’s classic India stories to my Kindle. But soon I discovered comments on Amazon warning me that for some of the free editions, the formatting was absolutely terrible.


No italics. Straight quotes. Dashes are hyphens. No paragraph re-wrapping at all – the original book’s line endings (or perhaps every 80 characters) are just hard-coded,

Loads of typos/ocr/spellcheck errors – e.g. “Thou Knobbiest” for “Thou Knowest”.

Avoid. It’s terrible.

That’s for Kipling’s story Kim, about the young orphan of a British soldier stationed in India. And another reviewer seemed to be mimicking the bad formatting you’d experience if you tried to read the ebook, by adding lots of unnecessary extra line breaks!


This one’s not properly formatted
for the Kindle
Don’t bother!
It will drive you nuts

What’s sad is that sometimes the editorial problems are more serious. One Amazon reviewer noticed that a very crucial part of the text was left out of one ebook version of “Just So Stories” — the poems!


Being a free Kindle edition, I was expecting that the drawings and their attached descriptions would be missing. What I was not expecting was for the little poems often found in the stories to also be missing. Things like the Sloka the Parsee sings after the Rhinoceros eats his cake, that are usually block-quoted and italicized in published versions, are not included. The stories can certainly be followed without them, but as the text that IS there specifically says a little poem or song is going to be related to the reader, the gaps are quite obvious.

I’m sure this will all get sorted out over time, as more editions become available for great works of classic literature. In fact, the free edition of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is already in the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling free ebooks.

But readers still have some complaints…

As to formatting of this kindle edition: there are blocks of Kipling’s poetry in between the stories, some of which was difficult to read as the formatting had not carried over well to this Kindle edition. Not a critical issue, but Kipling’s poetry is excellent and the formatting errors were annoying.

I’ve found the answer!

Last week someone went into Google and typed:

who are the authors on the kindle screen

And Google sent them to me. (Like I know everything about the Kindle?) Fortunately, with a little research, I found a great discussion on a web site called “Mobile Read.” And apparently someone there has compiled a definitive list!

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Edgar Allen poe
Mark Twain
John Steinbeck
the one with the 17th century astronomer & his wife w/ giant sextant
the Hercules constellation
the Audubon finches-in-a-tree
Kindle definition with falling letters
Agatha Christie
Man at table with lion in foreground
Charlotte Bronte
James Joyce
Virginia Woolf
Alexandre Dumas
Jules Verne
Kindle feedback request w/ some sort of coding machine
Durer
Oscar Wilde
Woman with book
John Milton
Lewis Carroll
Medieval illumination page
“Albertus” page
Emily Dickinson
Jane Austen
Cathedral floorplan

Er, but I’ve got to be honest – I can’t bring myself to actually read through the list. I really love being surprised! I’ve written about screensaver serendipity. (I blogged that when that ghostly picture of Oscar Wilde came up, “I just assumed that my Kindle was haunted…”) This is also why I don’t want change or replace my Kindle screensaver images.

So I was more interested in a different part of the discussion on that forum. Someone suggested that when it’s at rest, your Kindle’s screensaver should display the cover of the book that you’re reading. But then a poster named SirBruce had the ultimate response.

I thought of that idea as well, but then I reconsidered: Do I really want folks seeing the cover of Naughty Nurses 3: Nude at Night?

UPDATE: Some people have been arriving to this page after searching Google for the phrase “kindle definition with falling letters.” I’m not sure exactly what they’re looking for, but there’s at least one Kindle screensaver that provides a definition…of the word “kindle”.



kindle
\ kǐn´ dl \

v : light or sent on fire; arouse or inspire (an emotion or feeling)

By reading to me at bedtime when I was a child, my parents kindled my life-long love for reading.



But of course, there’s another “definition” screensaver where Amazon reminds you that their Kindle “is a whole new class of device.

“Thank you for being an early adopter.”

UPDATE 2: Five hours later, I’d figured it out. They’d meant the Kindle definition that appears on the box in which the Kindle was shipped! For some reason, that definition is a little different.

kindle (kǐn´ dəl)
 v.t. 1. set on fire. 2. inspire, stir up.
-v.i. 1. catch fire. 2. become animated.

It turns out I’m not the only one excited about Beatrix Potter’s stories on the Kindle. Four different children’s stories by Beatrix Potter have turned up in the top 20 of Amazon’s list of best-selling (free) children’s books!

And I’m also not the only one who noticed that the free editions didn’t include Potter’s original illustrations…


“Sure, it’s free, but what’s the point, if the images are missing in a children’s book…”

“Instead of including the illustrations (which the Kindle can handle beautifully), there’s text, and then it’ll say [illustration] [illustration]. Really awful. No wonder it’s free….


So here’s my helpful tip for the day. You can purchase fully illustrated Kindle versions of Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales in a collection that costs just $1.00. If you ask for the sample, they’ll even send you a free, illustrated version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Just remember to stay out of Mr. McGregor’s garden…

Last Christmas, I couldn’t find Winnie-the-Pooh books for the Kindle. The only A.A. Milne story I’d found was an obscure comic mystery he’d written in 1922. But by spring, it looks like Pooh bear had magically crept out of the Hundred Acre Wood, and squeezed his way onto the Kindle, since you can now buy Kindle editions of both
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

And it’s not just the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. A. A. Milne also published two books of children’s poetry – When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Many of the poems mention Christopher Robin, and there’s also a few that are specifically about Winnie-the-Pooh, as Milne explains in the book’s introduction.

Pooh wants us to say that he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.

Best of all, they include all of the memorable original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Since the illustrations were already in black and white, they look great on the Kindle. And there’s something really precious about seeing those old-fashioned children’s book images on the screen of my 21st-century reading machine.

By the way, am I the only person who thinks A. A. Milne should be one of the authors included among the Kindle’s screensaver images?

Yesterday I wrote that Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales are now available on the Kindle — including her spectacular watercolor illustrations. And I’d like to think that Beatrix Potter would approve. In 1906 she’d actually tried a new format for delivering her famous fairy tales — and it didn’t involve a book!


Intended for babies and tots, the story was originally published on a strip of paper that was folded into a wallet, closed with a flap, and tied with a ribbon.

The format was unpopular with booksellers and within a few years of the book’s release it was reprinted in the standard small book format of the Peter Rabbit library…


Click here to see a picture of the book’s original format!

Only two of Potter’s shorter stories were published in the “panorama” format — The Story of Miss Moppet and The Story of a Fierce, Bad Rabbit. (Yes, that really was its title…)

It just seems especially appropriate that they’ve escaped the book format once again, and 100 years later…you can buy them on your Kindle.

(UPDATE: And ironically, if you Google “fairy tales for kindle,” this blog post is now one of your top results!)

I’ve found all the original Beatrix Potter stories for the Kindle — and with all of their illustrations in tact!

This is a real triumph, because you can also purchase all of the stories for free — if you’re willing to forgo the illustrations. (Because many of them were published more than a century ago, I’m guessing the copyright on the texts have expired.) Surprisingly, there are illustrations in at least one of the free editions of Beatrix Potter’s books — Project Gutenberg’s free version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit — but they’re by an entirely different illustrator named Virginia Albert. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find any illustrated versions of Potter’s books that could be read on the Kindle.

Fortunately, one of the Amazon reviewers reported that, yes, the pictures do come through on the Kindle — in black and white. “This brings me back to the time I learned to love reading,” they added, and I think it is a kind of a milestone. For many people, I’m sure that among their first memories of reading are those lavishly-illustrated fairy tales by Beatrix Potter.

And now you can read them on your Kindle!


(Here’s a list of the stories included in this illustrated edition….)

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tailor of Gloucester
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
The Tale of Two Bad Mice
The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
The Pie and the Patty-Pan
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit
The Story of Miss Moppet
The Tale of Tom Kitten
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Roly-Poly Pudding
The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes
The Tale of Mr. Tod
The Tale of Pigling Bland
Ginger and Pickles
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse
Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes

Good Men in a Bad World

April 27, 2010

I think this is poignant. Someone came to Google and typed in…

Everyman is a good man in a bad world

Were they looking for solace? Someone to understand? Whoever they were, they found their words echoed back, in the first line of a long-ago novel written by William Saroyan.


Every man is a good man in a bad world… Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows…

That’s from the 1952 novel Rock Wagram, and I’d blogged about Saroyan as “The Novelist You Can’t Read on Your Kindle.” I just worry that he’ll be one of those authors who won’t transition into the next generation of media. In our shiny future, we’ll have expensive “readers” with fancy new features – but with a couple of last-century authors who somehow just didn’t make the cut.

Which makes its feel that much more poignant that here on my blog, at least, I was able to match up this long-ago author with one more anonymous reader from the 21st century.

One more anonymous good man who’s lost in a bad world…

The Day the Kindle Died

April 19, 2010

I’d been reading a free Charles Dickens novel — Hard Times — and realized I was more interested in learning some details about Charles Dickens’ life. Charles Dickens died in 1870. My Kindle died on April 18, 2010…

I’d pressed the search button on my Kindle, and then used my favorite shortcut — typing @wiki to begin a search on Wikipedia. And soon I was reading another page of trivia about Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop straight from Wikipedia.


Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in Britain), “Is Little Nell alive?”

In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I hit the back button, but my wireless connection had blipped out. The Kindle wasn’t even able to reload the page about Charles Dickens (which I’d already been reading). Frustrated, I pressed the Back key, and the Home key, but nothing happened. I even tried pressing Alt-P — to at least see if I could make it play music!

“She’s not answering my helm,” I told my girlfriend — doing my best impersonation of either Captain Kirk or an old British sailing captain. I turned my Kindle off, but even that didn’t affect its screen. It continued displaying the blank beginning of the Wikipedia page which it hadn’t been able to download.

My beloved Kindle…was dead.

Come back tomorrow to find out what happened next!


(Oh boy. My first blog post with a cliff-hanger ending…)

By the way, there’s a fascinating bit of trivia about the “Author You Can’t Read on Your Kindle.”

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver

William Saroyan was a first-generation Armenian-American, who have a custom of “inviting over relatives and friends, and providing them with a generously overflowing table of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other foods” (according to Wikipedia). There’s even a scene in a movie that Saroyan later helped to write — “The Human Comedy” — in which an Armenian woman offers the same courtesy to young Mickey Rooney when he comes to her house to deliver a telegram. I think she even says, “I give-a you candy.”

If you recognize that line, it’s because it’s also used in a famous song by Rosemary Clooney — which was based on the same Armenian-American custom.

Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you…candy.
Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you everything.

Coincidence? Hardly. William Saroyan co-wrote the lyrics in 1939 (though it didn’t become a hit until Rosemary Clooney recorded it nearly 12 years later in 1951.) And his co-author on the song was his cousin, a man named Ross Bagdadsarian, who 19 years later…created Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Interestingly, 1939 was the year that William Saroyan declined a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he and his cousin were writing these lyrics.

Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house I’m gonna give a you
Peach and pear and I love your hair ah
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you Easta-egg

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver
Ever read an old novel, and realize how different its style is?

Maybe it’s a romantic novel from the 1800s, or a rambling post-modern narrative from Ernest Hemingway. But around the 1940s, you get what I think of as “The Great American Novelists”. That is, people who were consciously setting out to write glorious, high-stakes pageants about life itself.

I was a big fan of Thomas Wolfe, and finally got around to the watching a breathtaking production of a Thornton Wilder play. But this all brings me back to the man I now think of as “the lost novelist”.

Because you can’t buy his books for the Kindle.

William Saroyan grew up in Central California, and later depicted all the joys and dramas of small-town life in “The Human Comedy,” a devastating, bittersweet look at one family during World War II. He was always creating rich settings for touching stories about simple people facing an extraordinary crisis. The jacket of one book calls him “one of the permanently significant names in modern American fiction.”

Today I went to a public library about three hours from where Saroyan grew up, and I pulled one of his books off the shelf. It was published in 1951, and I’d never heard of it. (It’s called Rock Wagram – the story of a Fresno bartender who later in life struggles with the unexpected pitfalls of success.) As I held the book in my hand, I thought: this is something you can’t do on a Kindle.

You can’t read this.

Every man is a good man in a bad world. No man changes the world. Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows. All his life a man fights death, and then at last loses the fight, always having known he would. Loneliness is every man’s portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore.

But there is meaning to a man. There is meaning to the life every man lives.

Saroyan goes on to say it’s “a secret meaning.”

And then the novel begins…

William Saroyan won a Pulitzer Prize — which he refused to accept. And the author wrote a wonderful scene about books at a public library in his novel “The Human Comedy.”

But the scene is different if you watch the movie. Saroyan quarrelled bitterly with the film’s producers, and actually wrote a novel-version of the movie, after-the- fact, to try to make the story more hard-hitting. In the movie, the librarian tells two little boys that she’s been reading books for more than 70 years.

“And it still isn’t enough time.”

Tonight I looked up the same scene in Saroyan’s book version. The two boys still visit the librarian, and she gives the same speech. But in the book, she only insists that she’s been in the world reading books for sixty years.

“And it hasn’t made one bit of difference!”

It’s a interesting counterpoint to the life of William Saroyan. His popularity declined, and he eventually funded a foundation to publish his works — possibly just to shore us his legacy. So it’s interesting what happens when you look for Saroyan ebooks for the Kindle.

You don’t find any.

But you do find a biography about his bittersweet life…