A Christmas Carol original book cover illustration
Some of the greatest authors in history have written Christmas stories — and they’re all available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store!


The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen

A Charlie Brown Christmas was partly inspired by this fairy tale. Lee Mendelson, who was asked to help write a script for the TV show, remembered the previous Christmas when he’d read this story to his children. It’s the story of Christmas from the tree’s perspective — a little fir tree that “was not happy, it wished so much to be tall like its companions…

“Sometimes the children would bring a large basket of raspberries or strawberries, wreathed on a straw, and seat themselves near the fir-tree, and say, ‘Is it not a pretty little tree?’…”

It’s fun to peek in on a Christmas in 1844 — even as the tree anticipates a long journey from the woods into a celebrating home. Like many fairy tales, there’s a bittersweet ending — but it’s a story you’ll never forget.


Old Christmas by Washington Irving

He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!

And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, and according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.


A Christmas Carol by Charlies Dickens

It’s not just a story about Christmas. It’s partly responsible for the way that way celebrate it. The story by 31-year-old Charles Dickens “was one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England,” according to Wikipedia, which notes it was published just as new customs were established like tree-decorating and Christmas cards. The book helped to popularize these traditions, though ironically, the story was immediately pirated after Dickens published it, and he realized almost no profits from the story himself!

I’ve enjoyed the way Charles Dickens writes, with simple yet very moving stories — and I’m not the only one. On Amazon’s list of the best-selling free ebooks, A Christmas Carol is currently #11. And interestingly, it turns out that Charles Dickens followed this up with even more Christmas stories — including The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

All there stories are available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store.


A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore

Here’s something fun to download: the original text of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (One historian called it “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” according to Wikipedia.) But you can only find the free ebook if you search on its original title — “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. If you search for its first line — “Twas the Night Before Christmas” — Amazon’s Kindle Store will only show paid versions

There’s some interesting trivia about this story. In its first printing in 1823, Santa’s reindeer were named “Dunder” and “Blixem,” which are the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning.” But over the years their names changed into the more familiar-sounding “Donner” and “Blitzen”!


Christmas Eve by Robert Browning

He’s one of the most famous poets of the 19th century — and he in 1850 wrote a stark but thoughtful poem about visiting St. Peter’s church in Rome. It ultimately turns into a discussion about the nature of faith, but it was the first poem he published after his marriage, according to Wikipedia, and gives rare hints about the famous poet’s own religious views. One reviewer on Amazon described it as “A strange flighty trek in and out of trances and chapels to see rainbows and versions of God.” But another reader complained that they’d found it difficult to even read the poem, because the ebook wasn’t formatted properly.

“Who in their right mind eliminates line breaks and thinks they can get away with it?”

Kindles in the Comics

December 1, 2010

Newspaper comic strip characters Frank and Ernest react to the Amazon Kindle

In October, the Kindle actually appeared in a newspaper comic strip — the one-panel classic “Ziggy”. (A bewildered Ziggy complains that his Kindle is now receiving spam advertisements — from the public library.) It was a milestone — of sorts. But it turns out that the Kindle has also appeared in several other newspaper comic strips.

In fact, just four weeks ago, the Kindle turned up in “Frank and Ernest”. The pair is watching Hawaii Five-O, but since it’s the new version, detective McGarrett’s trademark line has been changed from “Book ’em, Danno,” to… “Kindle ’em, Danno.”

And the Kindle actually appeared for a whole week in the comic strip “Crankshaft.” (At first the curmudgeonly bus driver misunderstands the name Kindle, and says “You shouldn’t have wasted your money… I still haven’t burned all the pine cones yet.”) But in touching a moment, his girlfriend explains that he can finally read all the Tarzan books that he never got to read as a kid. And apparently his Kindle has a magical feature that’s apparently available only in the comic book universe. His girlfriend explains that “If you press here while you’re reading your Tarzan books, it emits a musty book smell.”

There is one mistake in the comic strip. The series end with Crankshaft announcing later that he’s downloading 60 years worth of Reader’s Digest. Then he says “Don’t wait up” — and heads into the bathroom.
In real life, it’s not possible to download back issues of Reader’s Digest, as far as I can tell (though it is possible to subscribe to the magazine). But one part of the comic strip is gloriously true. Not only can you read the original Tarzan books on your Kindle — every single one of them is absolutely free.

Tarzan of the Apes
Return of Tarzan
`Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan the Terrible
Son of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
Jungle Tales of Tarzan

Bloggers were impressed that even the cranky bus driver was enjoying his Kindle. “It’s mainstream now for sure,” wrote a blogger at BookChase — though he immediately received a follow-up comment that wondered whether the bus driver had really overcome his technophobia.

“And then he discovers that the battery occasionally needs to be recharged, and that’ll be the end of that.”

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.

Cover of the free ebook Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon
I’ve found a great source for free ebooks. For the last year, one publisher has been quietly handing out a new free ebook each month. Last month, it was “The Best of Roger Ebert,” a fascinating collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. Called Awake in the Dark, it included his reviews of the best films for 38 different years, plus essays on film-related topics (like the way Star Wars changed Hollywood). This month that book is retailing for $9.99, but for at least part of last month — they were giving it away for free!

So what’s this month’s novel? It won the prestigious literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (when it was first published in 1987). It’s called Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon, and its description on Amazon sounds pretty amazing. “Imagine E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime rewritten by a mellower, comically more benevolent Thomas Pynchon,” writes the Library Journal, “and you might have a novel something like this one. Real people — Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst — are involved in imagined events, and historical facts counterpoint fictional themes…” It sounds a bit like steampunk hackers — the book’s cover describes it as “hilarious” and “wonderful” — but the author himself actually moonlighted as a Professor of Applied Mechanics and Biology at Harvard University. You may have heard of Thomas McMahon, since he was also the author of McKay’s Bees, which appeared in a long segment this summer on public radio’s “All Things Considered”. (“Moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and a group of German carpenters, Gordon McKay is dead set on making his fortune raising bees – undaunted by Missouri border ruffians, newly-minted Darwinism, or the unsettled politics of a country on the brink of civil war.”)

And remember, that’s the free ebook for the month of October — which means there’s another free ebook coming up soon in November. You can get updates by following their Twitter feed (which, surprisingly, has less than 3,300 followers) — or through their page on Facebook. (Or, for that matter, by just re-visiting the web page where they’re listing this month’s free ebook!) That’s the funniest part about these special offers. Amazon is still listing this month’s free ebook as selling for $9.99, even though it’s free if you visit the publisher’s web site!

They’ve been doing this for over a year — their first free ebook was claimed by 800 people, according to Publisher’s Weekly. (It was an obscure book by a 3rd-century Greek writer named Censorinus…)
And in February the free ebook was actually about free ebooks — sort of. It was a Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by a Chicago professor named Adrian Johns, and they handed out 2,400 free copies before the print edition even hit the shelves! (“We enjoyed the ‘steal this book’ irony of giving away a book about piracy,” they explained to Publisher’s Weekly.)

Ironically, that ebook now sells for $19.95…

They’re transmitting more copies of their books — by several magnitudes — than the first book they ever published in 1891, which, according to Wikipedia, sold just five copies! (Apparently there was very little demand for Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum.) I’m talking about the University of Chicago Press, which Wikipedia identifies as the largest university press in America, and also one of the oldest. They’re famous as the publishers of “The Chicago Manual of Style”, a writing guide which helps set the standards for the entire publishing industry.

It’s just celebrated its 104th anniversary, and in September, they handed out a free ebook version to 7,408 readers — of the first edition published in 1906! It’s nice to think that as the Generations come and go, its publisher has survived into the dawn of the ebook. They’re still out there, delivering high-quality reading material, supported by the resources of a major university.

And sometimes, they’re even sharing those books for free!

Mark Twain, author
“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” said Huckleberry Finn, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.”

It’s one of the most memorable lines from the last chapter of Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (The young boy and a runaway slave named Jim had drifted down the Mississippi river, catching random glimpses of the people on shore — and Huck decides he didn’t like what he saw.) But as soon as Mark Twain published the book, he’d also started writing a sequel about dangerous new adventures in the great American wilderness. It was never published during Twain’s lifetime, but its first nine chapters were finally released just 10 years ago in a scholarly print edition from the University of California.

So what happened to Huckleberry after he finally left sivilization behind? The book opens with Huck and Jim having “Plenty to eat and nothing to do,” and feeling contented just staying at home. (“[A]s for me, betwixt lazying around and pie, I hadn’t no choice, and wouldn’t know which to take…”) But inevitably, Huck receives a visit from his know-it-all pal, Tom Sawyer, with another of one his wild schemes: they should head out west. The boys tag along with a party of covered wagons, meeting friendly “Injuns” – and then a more hostile tribe, in a violent encounter which strands the boys in the middle of the unexplored wilderness in 1848.

They meet up with a lone frontier scout named Brace — and that’s where Twain’s story ends. But recently author Lee Nelson heard about the unfinished book, and finally wrote an ending for it in 2002! “By this time I had published a dozen historical novels with settings on the American frontier, and realized I was probably as qualified as any other living author to finish the work begun by Twain. A little research on the web led me to those who controlled the copyright – The Mark Twain Foundation and the University of California Press. Contact was made, approval was granted, a contract was drawn up, and the following story is the result.”

“I have no idea how Twain intended to finish the story, and I reason that he didn’t know either, or he would have done it. I just hope that wherever he is, he enjoys my conclusion as much as I enjoyed his beginning.”

Unfortunately, you can’t read his sequel to Huckleberry Finn on the Kindle — yet — but you can always read Mark Twain’s original Huckleberry Finn novel.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “All modern American literature comes from” Twain’s original novel, and Hemingway hailed it as “the best book we’ve had.”

Portrait of Christopher Columbus

Today is a holiday in the United States — Columbus Day. But fortunately, there’s lots of ways to celebrate with your Kindle!

I was fascinated to learn exactly what happened when Columbus approached Queen Isabella’s court. I’ve been taught for years that the scholars insisted the world was flat, while brave Columbus argued that no, the planet was round. It turns out that’s a horrific myth, and “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars…” according to Stephen Jay Gould (in a book cited by Wikipedia). And I’d discovered another startling truth while browsing Wikipedia with my Kindle. That Columbus story has a surprising connection to a
very famous American author from the 1800s.

He wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as well as Rip Van Winkle, and Washington Irving was one of the first American authors to gain literary recognition in Europe. He also perpetrated one of the great literary hoaxes, placing fake newspaper ads seeking Irving’s fictitious Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, and threatening to publish his left-behind manuscript to cover unpaid bills! Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was even interested in him romantically, according to Wikipedia. But after an early spark of youthful success, the critics began panning Irving’s books, and by the age of 41, Irving was facing financial difficulties.

Yet his past literary success earned him an appointment in 1826 as an American diplomatic attache in Spain — and it was there that he gained access to historical manuscripts about Columbus that had only recently been made available to the public. Irving used them to write The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a work of historical fiction which became wildly popular in both the United States and Europe. By the end of the century, the book would be published in over 175 editions.

Yes, it’s available as a free ebook for the Kindle, though for some reason only Volume 2 is available. (“…a new scene of trouble and anxiety opened upon him, destined to impede the prosecution of his enterprises, and to affect all his future fortunes.”) But the important thing to remember is it was written as an imaginative work of historical fiction. “Irving based them on extensive research in the Spanish archives,” notes Wikipedia, but Columbus “also added imaginative elements, aimed at sharpening the story.”

Another 19th-century American also assembled his own exhaustive biography about the life of Columbus. Edward Everett Hale is most famous for the patriotic short story, The Man Without a Country. But he also created a scholarly work called The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time. You can download it for free from Amazon’s Kindle store, and savor the historic moment when Columbus first makes contact with the New World. “It was on Friday, the twelfth of October, that they saw this island… When they were ashore they saw very green trees and much water, and fruits of different kinds.”

There’s also a historical book called Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery that was published in 1906. It’s scattered as free ebooks throughout Amazon’s Kindle store, though it’s Volume 2 where Columbus first makes landfall. (“…it was a different matter on Friday morning, October 12, 1492, when, all having been made snug on board the Santa Maria, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas put on his armour and his scarlet cloak over it and prepared to go ashore.”)

This text was prepared by Project Gutenberg, and this particular paragraph comes with a disillusioning footnote. Columbus may have recorded the date of his landfall as October 12, but “This date is reckoned in the old style. The true astronomical date would be October 21st, which is the modern anniversary of the discovery.” Columbus may be one of those historical figures who’s become so familiar, that we actually don’t know him at all!

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Free ebooks about Columbus:

Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,

The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time.

Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery

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!

My Favorite Free eBooks

September 21, 2010

Monopoly Community Chest card Amazon Kindle Free ebook parody


I asked my girlfriend which free ebooks were her favorite. She gave me a list of over 20, and revealed a special truth about Amazon’s 100 best-selling free eBooks.

It’s not just a list, it’s an experience…

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It’s a great amalgam of the entire book world, a shifting, shimmering set of 100 choices for blissful escape. Unlike the Kindle Top 100, which is a list of the current best sellers, Amazon’s list of Top 100 Free ebooks ranges all over time.

Right now, the science fiction choices seem to have mostly dropped off. Several of the free Star Wars books had been on the list for several months, but now they’ve been replaced, mostly by classics. I LOVE this! These books are being read again because of the Kindle! I would never have purchased a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, but when I found it on the list of free books, boom! I’m transported to France in 1825.

There are excellent reasons why these books are classics, and why we’re required to read them when we’re in high school. Yet I’m also really enjoying reading them as an adult. My grown-up perspective brings intricacies of the books up to the surface, though they were lost when I was 15. (And not just the intriguing lesbian lover subplot in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I’m finding may other nuances which increase my reading pleasure.)

So much is on the list. There’s classics that turn out to be anything but boring, like Dracula, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and several Jane Austen titles. They’re mixed in with some historic books, like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and sometimes even tempoarily-free self help titles like “So What? How to Communicate What Really Matters to Your Audience” and How to Speak and Write Correctly. (Bless you, Joseph Devlin for putting this up for free!).

Tucked in are some surprisingly current free books, like Cybill Shephard’s autobiography (“Cybill Disobedience”) and recently, the Deepak Chopra book Buddah: With Bonus Materials. (And there’s also the ever-present porn with suggestive titles like Compromising Positions, Slow Hands, and Irresistible Forces.) I’m encouraged to see Through The Looking Glass, Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know, and Aesop’s Fables, which gives me hope that even in the age of the Kindle, parents are still reading to their children. And, most inexplicably, Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Poetical Works. I’m a poetry lover, but it surprises me that this book has been on the Kindle Top 100 Free consistently all year.

Maybe the goth, vampire and zombie contingents are into E.A. Poe’s poetry?

United States President Barack Obama and George Washington
There’s a new children’s book author in town, and his name is Barack Obama.

Today the President of the United States announced he’ll be publishing “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.” The book won’t be released until November 16, but Amazon is already selling pre-orders of the book at a 45% discount. The book won’t be available on the Kindle, so Amazon urges shoppers to “Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle…” But poking around Amazon, I discovered another Barack Obama text that’s already available, for free, and another one written by his predecessor, George Bush.

For Barack Obama, it’s the presidential inaugural address, and whether you love or hate the President, it’s interesting to look back on the day that his presidency started, and remember just how different the world was in January of 2009. You can also download a free version of George Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, or Ronald Reagan’s from 1982, so your Kindle is giving equal time to both political parties. But by exploring Amazon a little further, I discovered an even more fascinating historical document. It’s actually possible to download every inaugural address given by every previous U.S. President, all collected together into a single ebook!

There’s President Nixon, President Ford, President Clinton, and President Reagan, of course. But you can also point your time machine back towards the 1700s, reading the inaugural addresses of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in 1789 and 1801, respectively. President Harrison, the 9th President of the United States, insisted on reading his entire two-hour inauguration speech — the longest in U.S. history — during a cold and rainy day in Washington D.C. He refused to wear a hat or coat, possibly trying to remind the audience that he was still the tough military general that had served in the War of 1812, but ironically, he died three weeks later after catching pneumonia.

Wikipedia insists that long speech was unrelated to Harrison’s death, but it’s still fun to sneak a peek at the hopes he held for the four years he never got to see. Every famous president from American history has their own inauguration speech — President Kennedy, President Truman, and one especially poetic address by Abraham Lincoln. And it was during his inaugural speech that Franklin Roosevelt made one of his most famous statements.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It was just 28 years later that President Kennedy was inaugurated, and that speech is also in the collection, featuring an optimistic call to duty. (“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”) I’m looking forward to reading all the speeches, and it’ll be fun to flit around from century to century.

I just wonder if we’ll ever have a President who actually enjoys reading on the Kindle…

The Count of Monte Cristo original illustration
It’s been an exciting week. A division of Readers Digest linked to a blog post by my girlfriend about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (She’d reported it was Amazon’s most popular free mystery ebook).

And then another blogger noted that she’d also shown up the head of Barnes and Noble. Len Riggio, who actually founded Barnes and Noble, waved around a print edition of The Count of Monte Cristo while seeming to imply that customers wanted to own the book itself. It become a controversial symbol — especially since my girlfriend had just finished reading the same 1,300-page book on my Kindle!

In fact, she’d decided that the book is “the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love.” The Kindle had brought the ebook to a new generation of 21st-century readers. So what did she feel after reading it on my Kindle?

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The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1884, is a justly famous novel. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master at the craft. The book moved along briskly, keeping me intrigued at every step. A young man with a bright future is taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient) to plot revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment.

The Count of Monte Cristo was published in serialized form, like serveral other old novels I’ve recently read on the Kindle (including The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). I like the idea of reading these stories in installments over weeks or months, getting to know the characters, savoring the language and masterful descriptions of time and place. This story is very compelling and hard to put down. I found myself reading faster just to find out what could possibly happen next.

This is a novel very much of its day. Its plot draws on France’s chaotic political landscape during the early 1800’s, with the Royalists and Bonaparte-ists being in favor and then out of favor over a couple of decades. Out of favor meant easily imprisoned, and that is indeed how Dante gets to prison: by being wrongly accused of connections to Bonaparte, and because a power-hungry magistrate ignored facts in order to further his career.

Dumas had experienced this personally. His father, himself the son of a nobleman, had been a general in Napoleon’s army who fell out of favor and left his family impoverished at the time of his death in 1806 (when Dumas was an infant). I learned about the fluid nature of French politics in the early 1800s in history class, but I’d never thought about what it meant for the average citizen. This poverty followed Alexander Dumas and his family, even after the return of Napoleon, and fed his imagination.

Dumas faced other challenges as a result of his mixed-race heritage, even as he became a famous writer. His grandfather had married a native Haitian woman, a fact that surprised me because no one mentioned it when I was growing up. Wikipedia says that this heritage affected Alexander Dumas all his life, despite being famous. Once after being insulted he retorted, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.” (Note to self: never insult a writer.) This prejudice certainly contributed to his knowledge of what it means to live as an outsider, which is a theme of this novel.

He also traveled widely, and indeed wrote The Count of Monte Cristo while living in Italy. In fact, he visited the island of Monte Criso, a real place, while he was living in Florence in 1841. The novel itself travels widely, taking the reader from Marseilles to the dungeon at Chateau d’If, to the high seas with pirates, and then to Rome — including the catacombs and illegal gangs robbing Roman citizens — plus a short stopover in Turkey, then to Paris, and the French country-side. It’s quite a ride, and all the more remarkable because traveling in the mid-1800s was rare and restricted to the noble classes.

Also rare was the use of the telegraph system in France. The telegraph was a new technology and still a bit mysterious when Dumas made it a small but crucial plot point in the story. At that time, telegraph towers were built on hills 30 miles from each other so that messages could be quickly relayed all around the country. Edmund Dantes (the Count himself!) visits a telegraph tower, interviews its employee, and then pays him a sum to allow him to retire comfortably in order to delay a message. This delay will result in the firing of the operator, and will destroy one of Dante’s enemies.

What about the lesbian plot line? It turns out that Eugenie (the daughter of one of the Count’s enemies) is engaged to the son of another one of the Count’s enemies.The son is lukewarm about the engagement, acknowledging that she is good-looking, but not enticing. As the novel progresses, the only time Eugenie is happy is when she is playing at the piano with her piano teacher and vocal coach, a winsome young lass named Louise. Hmmmm.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, I thought. I’m too sensitive to insinuation because of my years as a young single woman in San Francisco. But no! The hints become more obvious until at last, when her father is ruined and exposed, Eugenie packs her dowry, her jewels, her winsome piano teacher, and a passport with a masculine name. Then she changes into men’s clothes and runs away from Paris with her love.

Meanwhile, her betrothed, also disgraced, has run away from Paris as well. In a delightful plot twist, he ends up arriving at the same hotel as Eugenie and Lousie several hours later and much worse for the wear. The telegraph comes into play again, having sent the message all around France to be on the lookout for this young man. The gendarmes are watching, but he escapes to the roof. He drops down a chimney hoping to hide — but falls directly into the room of Eugenie and Lousie, who, despite having being booked into a room as brother and sister with two twin beds, are naked and sharing the same bed. (Gasp!) Louise wakes up and finds a man in the room, and starts screaming, which brings the gendarmes along with capture for the young man and shame for the two women. The book is made up of story after story with these delightful plot twists and exciting scenes.

Dumas is above all an excellent story teller, and sets each scene beautifully and with care. His descriptions of Carnival in Rome, where Dantes first meets the young men who will introduce him to Paris society, are masterpieces of writing. “The air seems darkened with the falling of confetti and the flying flowers. In the streets the lively crowd is dressed in the most fantastic costumes — gigantic cabbages walk gravely about, buffaloes’ heads bellow from men’s shoulders, dogs walk on their hind legs; in the midst of all this a mask is lifted, and … a lovely face is exhibited, which we would fain follow, but from which we are separated by troops of fiends. This will give a fair idea of the Carnival at Rome.”

This is a wonderful novel, the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love. The last line in the book is beautiful and poignant, and an exquisite and uplifting ending to a marathon reading experience. Oh — no quote. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

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Click here to get The Count of Monte Cristo as a free Kindle ebook!

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.”

The Count of Monte Cristo original illustration
My girlfriend just finished reading a massive novel on the Kindle, and wanted to share what she’d learned from the experience.

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So a couple of weeks ago I mentioned reading The Count of Monte Cristo at a tender young age, and then there, before my eyes, in the Kindle Top 100 Free section, is the book itself! I remembered the basic plot line. A young man with a bright future gets taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering. He plots his revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient).

I wondered if I would have a richer reading experience now that I’m a adult. Boy! The things I missed the first time around.

And the things I learned reading this book on the Kindle…

This is a two-part post; this week I’ll talk about the things I learned using the Kindle. Later, I’ll talk about the book itself and the surprise lesbian storyline. (She’s the daughter of one of the bad guys…. But I digress).

The first thing I learned is that The Count of Monte Cristo is llllloooooonnnnnnggggg. Like a-real-novel-that-you-check-out-of-the-library long. The end came at location 24681. (The Malacca Conspiracy, the free action thriller I reviewed here previously, is 6554 locations and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is 4274 locations by comparison). Obviously back in 1844, when the book was written there was no TV, no radio, no electric lights, and no Wii — so there was lots of time to read a good book. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master of the craft. The book moved along briskly, and kept me intrigued at every step.

I found the “Locations” tracking at the bottom of our original Kindle’s screen, in the dark gray area, to the left of the Menu button and the battery life and signal strength indicators. (As you probably already know, the numbers change as you read, allowing you to track where you are in the book.) But the trick is playing with the line directly above that gray bar — the one with all the dots. If you move your cursor one click above the Menu button, it’s placed directly across from this line of dots. When you press the scroll button, the bar highlights and you see little boxes with numbers. These are almost like the chapters in a printed book, and allow you to move through the book without using the “Go To Location” function on the Menu screen.

The next thing I learned is that I’m completely addicted to the Lookup Function! I yearned for this capability while I was growing up, reading voraciously. (You can even use Lookup if you don’t know what “voraciously” means — sooooo easy!). I knew that when I ran across a word I didn’t know, I should get up, go get the dictionary to find its meaning, and fully understand the novelist’s intention. Did I do this? Hardly ever. Yet, now, at my fingertips, I have that ability — and I rejoice!

However, there are two important caveats. The first caveat is that the Kindle doesn’t always provide definitions for foreign phrases or words. For example, “rouleau” was defined, but several other words of French origin were not. Being as Dumas wrote in French, this was a slight drawback for me with this specific novel. Still, it was a fun gamble using the Look Up feature during reading The Count of Monte Cristo. My other caveat is the Lookup Function provides you with every single word in the sentence. Every. Single. Word. I want to Look Up “rouleau” and get the definitions for “eye,” “hundred,” “hand,” and “rose” as well.

The third thing is I became adept as using the Highlight feature (just below LookUp on the menu that pops up when you scroll to a specific row. And you can use the same technique to add a note to yourself just by picking “Add Note” instead of “Add Highlight.”) Magic, indeed, to a reader who spent years thumbing through books looking for favorite passages!

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We love my Kindle, and she loved The Count of Monte Cristo. Click here to read it as a free ebook!

The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown cover

My girlfriend just finished reading The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown, a former U.S. Navy lawyer. And she’s also uncovered some important information about his true identity…

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That’s DON Brown, not Dan Brown, as I originally thought. (I’d been excited about reading another book on the Kindle to follow DAN Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.) I even read the description before I downloaded the book from the top of the Kindle 100 Free section. (Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that I spend a lot of time in the Kindle Top 100 Free section. My boyfriend lets me download anything on his Kindle as long as it’s free. If you want me to start reviewing stuff not in the free section, take it up with him!)

First, the positive. It is a good-sized novel, meaning it took me longer than half an hour to read it. (This is a step up from several titles I’ve downloaded recently.) Next, I learned a lot about the area around Singapore and Indonesia, with bonus points for several maps included with the text. Also, Don paints a great portrait of the Navy SEALS. Er, that’s about it.

The plot involves a power-hungry Indonesian general who wants to turn Indonesia into an Islamic superpower — the new Evil Empire (Islam) against the Christian USA. And yes, I mean Christian — specifically Republican Christian. The president in this novel quotes bible verses to himself at every turn and glows with Republican fervor. He mentions Ronald Reagan ad nauseam. He talks about the man, plus the people who fly in and out of Ronald Reagan airport in Washington D.C., and even named one of the critical air craft carriers in the plot after Reagan.

Don glows about fine Republican presidents of the past (although, strangely, neither of the Bushes are mentioned). His Republican president is strong, refusing to quit Washington D.C. because that would be bowing to terrorists. (Was that a reference to the fact that President G.W. Bush was in the air one hour after 9/11, and didn’t come down for hours, then went to an undisclosed location?)

But his president is also a bit whiney, asking God why HE has to deal with this terrorist attack; none of his predecessors had to contend with a nuclear attack on American soil. Why did it have to fall to him? Of course, whining is not weakness, as it leads to quoting bible verses and prayer. Let me be clear that in general I don’t mind people turning to God in times of great need. Also, it takes a strong man to turn to his God for help. However, it seems contrived in this story line as a way of quoting the bible. Kind of like when Charlie’s Angels contrives situations to show the girls in bikinis. (Yes, it’s in the plot line that they all of a sudden have to get on a boat, but it’s a stretch!)

Personally, I’m a bit tired of the “Evil Empire vs. godfearing Americans” plot lines. The new model has both sides talking to God (o.k., one side talking to God, the other to Allah). This is a step up from the godless communists but the intent is still the same.

OMG! Will the terrorists strike fear in the hearts of all Americans? Will the Islamic Indonesian Superpower rule the world ?!? Will they succeed in blowing up San Francisco, and then Washington, D.C.!?! How will it end?!? No spoiler alert here. You can guess the ending yourself.

Don wrote four other novels, this one published in June of this year, making me wonder why it was offered for free. Then I found that the Wikipedia page for Don Brown is flagged for removal because he’s a non-notable author who has no press coverage. Ouch. That explains why this book is in the free section — to get some press coverage! And I’m happy to oblige.

I would recommend giving this novel a skip, even if it is free.

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But if you’d like to give it a try, click here for a free copy of The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown!

An original Sherlock Holmes illustration
Amazon’s most popular free mystery ebook — currently #5 on their best-seller list — is also one that my girlfriend read as part of a very strange Christmas — and a secret crime all her own…

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The year I was 12, my brother received The Complete Sherlock Holmes for Christmas — and I received a bunch of Camp Fire Girls stuff and a copy of the Bobbsey Twins mysteries. Ick! Luckily for me, my brother didn’t really like Sherlock Holmes, any more than I wanted to read the Bobbsy Twins. (O.k., I liked them when I was 7 or 8, but really. By then my reading level had advanced to the point where I was reading real novels like The Count of Monte Cristo…)

But my brother wouldn’t give up control of his book. He hid it in his room which was, of course, completely off limits to his little sister. I am now able to confess this crime — I went into the forbidden room,
found the concealed Sherlock Holmes collection — and pilfered it! Luckily for me, he didn’t want the book, just control over it, so I read through the entire collection without him knowing it was gone. What joy!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a great writer and crafter of stories. Intricate, detailed situations with flawed characters, gripping plot lines and very surprising endings. And Doyle himself led a very intriguing life. He studied medicine at the University of Edinborough, then signed on as a ship’s doctor on a boat traveling to the West African coast.
Upon his return, he opened a doctor’s office in a small English town, but building a practice in a strange town takes time.
So while he waited for his patients, he wrote his first mysteries.

The first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Mr. Holmes was modeled after one of Doyle’s university professors. The likeness was so good that Wikipedia says Robert Louis Stevenson (another Scotsman, then living in Samoa) recognized the professor and mentioned it in his letter of congratulations to Sir Doyle.
I’ve since become a great fan of mystery novels, soaking them up like water after a surgery and long convelescense several years ago.

But Sherlock Holmes set the standard by which I’ve judged all others. I used to think I wasn’t smart enough to solve the mysteries and just read them for the pure entertainment value. Then I started reading other mystery novels and found I could solve them as I read along. Then I rediscovered Sherlock Holmes on my Kindle!

I was originally worried that maybe my joy of reading the Sherlock Holmes stories is thus overlayed with the guilty pleasure of forbidden reading — the same joy I’d get by reading by flashlight under my covers when I was supposed to be asleep. But there they all were — The Hound of the Baskervilles (MUCH better than the movie), The Red Headed League, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Five Orange Pips, and so many more. (There are over 50 Holmes stories). There was the wonderful writing, the fascinating plots, the twisting and turning, and such a wonderful read every time. And his friend Dr. Watson was always sharing my cluelessness.

I found that I remembered the stories, but often not the ending and as I read. I recognized things as clues but still couldn’t solve the crimes by the end. (How frustrating!) I had been excited to approach these stories with my new adult mystery-solving abilites. Then I realized there is no way to solve a Sherlock Holmes crime! I’d read carefully, finding clues, making guesses, working hard at figuring out the crime, then Bam! Mr. Holmes comes up with some puzzle piece so completely out of left field that could never have figured it out.

It was the specific type of cigar ash, Watson. Surely you’ve read my monograph on different types of tobacco from all over the world and the ash each one produces. Oh, oops, silly me for forgetting the monograph!
(Which, by the way, was never available to us non-fictitious mortals….) Note to Sir A. Conon Doyle: Write the damn monograph or quit using it as the only way to solve the mystery!

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Don’t worry, my girlfriend says she still loves all of the Sherlock Holmes books. Click here if you’d like to read a free Sherlock Holmes mystery for yourself!

The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer - original book cover

My girlfriend shares her report about a very exciting free ebook…

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After watching the movie Charlie Chan on Treasure Island, I’d decided to read the original mystery novels where the detective solves crimes in his calm yet brilliant way. And I’d found all of the original novels available on the Kindle! Score!

Behind That Curtain
Charlie Chan Carries On
Keeper of the Keys

But wait, there’s more… While doing research on the Chan books and their author, Earl Derr Biggers, I discovered that Charlie Chan was created as a deliberate alternative to Chinese supervillains like Dr. Fu-Manchu. I’ve heard about Fu Manchu all my life, but had no real understanding of the character. I knew what his mustache looks like, but that’s about it.

Figuring that my public library wouldn’t have any of the Fu-Manchu books — being as they are not, shall we say, politically correct — I took my search to the Kindle. Lots of Fu-Manchu! So I started with the first book in the series: “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.”

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (writing under the much more sexy name of Sax Rohmer) created the character of the evil Dr. Fu-Manchu. Sax belonged to the Golden Dawn, a real-life mystical society that combined Masonic rituals with ancient Egyptian Rosacrucion mysticism, along with other ancient mystical writings. Their first temple, which had opened in London in 1888, drew in the young writer and influenced his choice of a pen name — and the first Fu-Manchu stories, which almost drip with mysterious dangers from the Orient. Sax describes Fu-Manchu as “a person tall, lean and feline… a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green, invest him with all the cruel cunning of the entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect.”

This fast-paced action novel goes from one dangerous scene to another across London. In general, I enjoy reading novels from different eras, as they immerse you in another time and place, with barely time to rest or take repast — er, eat. But honestly, it was hard to get past the rampant racism of this guy. Sax Rohmer makes sure to mention the danger to the entire white race (italics not mine) with phrases like “the complete destruction of the White Race” and “Yellow Peril.” (You can almost hear the creepy music and dramatic pauses as you read.)

I wondered about the repetitive use of these shocking phrases over and over again, until I found out the story was published in installments from 1912-1913. From one month to the next, Sax wanted to make sure his audience didn’t forget the evil dangers posed by the great Fu Manchu. I was glad to read on Wikipedia that Sax was often attacked, even shortly after the first stories were published, for creating such a blatantly racist character, though he posed as “bemused” at the furor. Instead he defended his novels by saying that the portrait was “fundamentally truthful” because “criminality was often rampant among the Chinese,” especially in the Chinese ghetto of the time.

It’s easy to be bemused when the money is rolling in…

Sax was very prolific. Wikipedia lists over 50 books and short story compilations, and many of the stories were made into movies. As an interesting aside, Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who played Charlie Chan in the movies until his death in 1938, also played Fu-Manchu in the first three movies.

Ironically, after a lifetime of noxious stories about the mysterious dangers of the Orient, Sax Rohmer died…of the Asian flu.

UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that Sax Rohmer has another book that’s already in Amazon’s Top 50 classic ebooks: Brood of the Witch-Queen!

One Amazon reviewer called it the scariest and eeriest books they had ever read in their life….

Or click here to buy the original Charlie Chan novels as ebooks

Behind That Curtain
Charlie Chan Carries On
Keeper of the Keys

I can’t believe I wrote about free ebooks for the 4th of July — and forgot to mention the Declaration of Independence!

It’s a surprisingly detailed snapshot of life in America in 1776 — but what’s really interesting is that it’s impossible to buy a free copy directly from Amazon’s Kindle store! There’s over 117 different ebooks about the Declaration of Independence for sale in the store — but they’ll all cost you at least 99 cents.

So how can you read a free copy of the Declaration of Independence? Just click on this link. Nearly 40 years ago, a student at the University of Illinois launched a mission to make the great works of literature available for free to the general public. Remembering the man who’d revolutionized the world of reading by inventing the first mechanical printing press, he named his collection “Project Gutenberg”. By 2009, they’d created over 30,000 free e-texts, according to Wikipedia. And it’s a cause that’s near and dear to the hearts of a lot of geeks online.

But here’s my favorite part of the story. He’d launched this lifelong campaign back in 1971, anticipating all the great literature that he’d be sharing with the entire world, and even making available for new generations to come. So on that first day, 39 years ago, which great work of literature did he choose as the very first one?

The Declaration of Independence.

The only small complaint that I have is that before you get to the text that Thomas Jefferson worked on, there’s an explanatory text about the history of the 1971 e-file — but if you’re a geek, that’s kind of itneresting too. “The title was stored in an emailed instruction set which required a tape or diskpack be hand mounted for retrieval. The diskpack was the size of a large cake in a cake carrier, cost $1500, and contained 5 megabytes, of which this file took 1-2%…

“The 10,000 files we hope to have online by the end of 2001 should take about 1-2% of a comparably priced drive in 2001.”

But of course, seven years later the world of book storage was revolutionized again. By the Kindle!

Thomas Jefferson

I found a fun way to celebrate the 4th of July with my Kindle. I navigated my way to Wikipedia’s web page with a fascinating history of the Declaration of Independence. Just seven months before it was signed, author Thomas Jefferson had written “there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.

“But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America…”

Wikipedia walks you through all the events that led up to July 4, 1776 — but you don’t have to content yourself with a historical analysis for your American history fix. When he was 65 years old, Benjamin Franklin began writing a fascinating autobiography of his own life which is available on the Kindle as a free ebook. Franklin continued working on it over the next 20 years, until his death in 1790, noting wryly that “the Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption…”

It’s especially poignant that he begins the biography in 1770 as a loving letter to his son. But Franklin’s son sided with the British druing the American Revolution, and Wikipedia notes that they were hopelessly estranged by the time Benjamin Franklin sat down to write part two in 1784. Now he was 78, and laying down his thoughts on the idea of…a public library. And in part three — written in 1788 at the age of 82 — Franklin also remembers inventing his famous Franklin stove…and then declining a patent because it was for “the good of the people.”

It’s currently one of Amazon’s top 20 free ebooks, so I’m obviously not the only person who’s reading it this weekend. It’s a great way to answer the question: What kind of men launched the American Revolution?

With a little research, the Kindle can give you an almost magical glimpse into the real past of America…

I was surprised when Google sent a visitor to my blog who was looking for “fairy tales for Kindle”. It turns out Google was sending them to my old blog post, “Why Beatrix Potter would Love the Kindle.” (It’s now possible to buy an illustrated edition of Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.) But if you’re looking for fairy tales, don’t overlook this forgotten treasure chest: the dark and quirky original stories by the Brothers Grimm.

The Brothers GrimmHousehold Tales by the Brothers Grimm is a free ebook that collects over 200 gnarly pieces of authentic folklore that the two brothers had carefully collected over their lifetime. The table of contents even supplies the original German titles for the stories (though the collection is written in English), so the tale “Little Snow-White” is also identified as “Sneewittchen.” (And “The Bremen Town Musicians” was originally called “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten”.)

I’m not kidding about the stories being dark, quirky, and gnarly. One of them is titled “The Girl Without Hands,” and there’s some absolutely horrifying plot twists in “Our Lady’s Child” (“Marienkind”). A mute queen’s three children are kidnapped by the Virgin Mary, and the queen is then burned at the stake because the king’s councilors believe that the queen killed and ate it herself. (Surprisingly, there is a happy ending, but the twists along the way are pretty hair-raising…)

And early in the book is another tale called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” A man on the road points him to the tree “where seven men have married the ropemaker’s daughter, and are now learning how to fly.”

“Sit down below it, and wait till night comes, and you will soon learn how to shudder…”

But instead, the youth worries about whether they’re cold, as “the wind knocked the hanged men against each other.” So he sets them around his campfire, but “they sat there and did not stir, and the fire caught their clothes…” Soon has fearlessness has led him to take a king’s challenge of spending three nights in a haunted castle, where he’s assaulted by black cats and dogs “from every hole and corner,” all carrying red hot chains. He kills them with his cutting knife, crying “Away with ye, vermin,” and then lies down to sleep in the haunted bed…

The story-telling is very simple, but it’s still a wild and unpredictable experience that I’m sure I’ll never forget. Just remember that while these are authentic fairy tales, they’re not necessarily the cute and colorful legends you might be expecting! If you’re looking for a “cute and cuddly” free fairy tale book, there’s also a free edition of the Tale Peter Rabbit, but as one reader complained, “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….”

But you can get a fully illustrated version of Peter Rabbit, for free, as part of the “sample chapter” for the illustrated Beatrix Potter.

A Very Funny Typo?

June 28, 2010

I love the poem at the beginning of “The Jungle Book.” But there appeared to be a dreadful (and funny) typo in the best-selling free Kindle edition. See if you can find it…


          NIGHT-SONG OF THE JUNGLE

Now Rann the Kite brings home the night
     That Mang the Bat sets free —
The herds are shut in byre and hut
     For loosed till dawn are we.

This is the hour of pride and power,
     Talon and tush and claw.
Oh, hear the call! — Good hunting all
     That keep the Jungle Law!


See what looks like an out-of-place word? If not, let me help you out. Here’s how the site Urban Dictionary defines the word “tush”.

1. Rear-end, butt, behind
She had a nice tush.

2. what ZZ Top looks for downtown


I didn’t think the animals in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle were hunting with their tushes…

It seems obvious from the context that the word is “tusk.” (And that’s the word that appears in some online editions of the book.)

This is the hour of pride and power,
     Talon and tusk and claw…


But what’s even more interesting is the “tush” version now appears 2,500 times in a Google search – while the “tusk” version appears just 266 times. (That is, almost 90% of the online editions are using the word “tush”.) Even the Encyclopedia Britannica site republished Kipling’s poem with the word “tush”, along with several universities. In fact, according to Google thousands of people are now fondly quoting that version of the poem, including Ask.com, San Diego State University, The Wild India Guide, and a site called The Poetry Lovers Page. My favorite was a medical facility that performs “world-class research in Alzheimer’s disease”. A misguided human resources document quoted the “tush” version of the poem – then added it “could very well be a guide in defining and understanding organizations.” (Tush-friendly organizations are described by the HR document as places that include “unwritten codes and culture,” and adhering to them “determines one’s chances of survival…”)

What’s going on? My friend Andy Baio pointed me to the Oxford English Dictionary, explaining that tush “is another name for the elephant’s early tusk.” And then I felt like kind of a jackass (no pun intended), because as Amazon points out, the free etext was created by “a community of volunteers”, and here I was trying to second-guess their work.

But I’d already noticed some valid complaints about some free Kindle editions of Kipling. And I was a little miffed when I downloaded a free collection of Kipling poetry, and discovered that every single poem appeared without any linebreaks (including classic Kipling poems like “Gunga Din” and “Mandolay”).

But I’d argue that what’s really going on is a quiet triumph for the Kindle – and for the community of volunteers preparing the free texts. Their free version of The Jungle Book is now one of the top 100 best-selling free books in the Kindle store. That’s how I found it, which added me to the pool of people watching for typos.

We can then notify the community of volunteers to make fixes, in a kind of “spontaneous collaboration” to preserve stories that were written more than 100 years ago. It ultimately shows that they’ve already succeeded tremendously in popularizing classic literature to a new world of digital readers — and that those readers, in turn, can help improve the quality of future digital editions.

Yes, it is possible to play games on your Kindle. Click here for my updated list of the 10 best games for your Kindle.

But when I first got my Kindle 1, it wasn’t nearly this easy to play games. Here’s my original post – written about my Kindle 1 – so you can see how much better things have gotten!

                        *                        *                        *

It turns out you can play Sudoku on your Kindle – and some other games too!

I was feeling a little jealous because Barnes and Noble had upgraded the Nook so it offered users the ability to play Sudoku. And then I discovered that it’s also possible to play Sudoku on your Kindle! That link leads to several interactive Sudoku puzzle books that you can download, and they’re played using the Kindle’s wireless web connection. Use your menu to select the row where you’ll enter a number, and then choose the appropriate square within that row.

I ordered a sample from several of these Sudoku books, and ended up with a nice collection of free Sudoku puzzles for my Kindle. Having said that, it was still a horribly clunky way to play Sudoku. (It takes almost 10 seconds to enter every number.) And on my original edition Kindle, the squares were simply labeled “Input Field”. I had to count each separate “Input Field” until I’d figured out which square I was looking for!

It’s also possible to play Tic Tac Toe on your Kindle — if you order the appropriate “book” from the Kindle Store. Tic Tac Toe (Kindle Edition) uses the same format, letting you select the row for your move with the menu — and then selecting the appropriate square. It was also a little clunky. On my original Kindle, the menu would still say “Zoom Image” if a square already had an X or O in it — while the empty squares were labeled “Follow Link” in the menu. Yes, it’s possible to play a game of Tic Tac Toe using this book. But what’s hardest about winning the game is simply navigating the menus!

And finally, it’s also possible to play Minesweeper on the Kindle. This is a free game that I’d just assumed was a hidden “Easter Egg” — a secret feature that was pre-installed, just to make users feel special when they discovered it. Hold down the Alt key and the shift key directly above it while also typing M at the same time, and a grey 8 by 10 grid appears on the screen. You use the keys on the keyboard to navigate to the square for your next guess, and the space key reveals whether that square contains a number or an exploding mine! Like the other games, it’s a little clunky.

And to tell you the truth, I’d rather use my Kindle for reading!

UPDATE: Ironically, I just discovered this blog post has become one of Google’s top matches for the phrase: “Can I play Sudoku on a Kindle!” But it turns out there’s an even more famous game that you can play on the Kindle: Jumble puzzles!

I’m sure you’ve seen these “scrambled word” puzzles in your daily newspaper. (Circles in the squares mark all the letters which appear in the final set of scrambled words — which is usually the punchline to a question asked in the cartoon.) I’ve always loved doing Jumble puzzles (which I’ve also seen called “the Junior Jumble”).

And now you can play them on your Kindle!


So I’d searched the Kindle store for a free version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – and I couldn’t find one. Amazon showed me six pages of search results, all offering different versions of Jules Verne’s classic adventure story – with each one costing at least 95 cents. But since the book was published in 1869, why couldn’t I find a free version?

And then I figured it out. I’d typed in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” — using a comma in the number 20,000. Strangely, if you type Verne’s title without the comma, you pull up an entirely different set of results. (There’s 36 versions if you spell the title with the comma, but you’ll get what appear to be 35 more versions if you spell the title without the comma.) And yes, I finally located the free version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It’s currently #66 on Amazon’s list of the the top 100 free eBooks, so obviously there are lots of people who are finding it. But in my case, I’d had to drag myself out of my beloved armchair, and use a desktop PC to access the Kindle store, so I could sort those results by price.

But then it felt like I’d finally located Captain Nemo’s elusive submarine…

So I was the first guy in line to see “Jonah Hex” this afternoon. (Mainly because nobody was in line to see “Jonah Hex” this afternoon, except a trio of high school girls…) But I’d already read a bunch of the violent western comic books — and it got me to wondering if I could find any Jonah Hex content on my Kindle.

Turns out the answer was both yes and no. It was “No” in that searching the Kindle store returned the discouraging message that “Your search ‘jonah hex’ did not match any products…” But it was “Yes” in that as I curled up in my armchair and began wirelessly browsing the web, I eventually stumbled across a four-page preview of the newest Jonah Hex graphic novel.

And even though it was just released 10 days ago, there I was reading it on my Kindle, in all its hyper-violent western glory.


So it IS you! Folks say yore the fastest gun…

BLAMMM!


I’ve often thought about the lack of good illustrated material on the Kindle. (If you Google the Kindle store for Spider-Man, you’ll find the book adaptation of Spider-Man 3, but not, say, a comic book adaptation!) And granted, I was looking at color illustrations on a black-and-white display, and it was only four pages. (And yes, on the tiny screen of my Kindle 1, I couldn’t read the small text in that first balloon of narration.) But I still felt I’d achieved some kind of milestone.

I’d sat down to search on the Kindle for a specific comic book character. And eventually, I’d found it!

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.

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?

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

Here’s one of the things I love about my Kindle. Not only am I successfully juggling 10 different books at one time. They’re all free!

I live near San Francisco, so it’s especially fun to read what’s essentially a blog post about the city…written in 1836.


Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin…




That’s from Two Years Before the Mast, a young Harvard grad’s journal of his years working as a common ship’s hand — as they work their way up the Mexican territory on the Pacific Coast which, just 13 years later, would enter America as the state of California.

It’s one of the first moments where I’ve felt such an intimate connection to someone who lived nearly two centuries ago. But while young Richard Henry Dana was traveling in what was then a foreign land, he seems lonely but intrigued, which gave him a special willingness to share his sincere human reactions with a concise humility.

My girlfriend told me Dana was a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard, and Dana’s father was a poet. But in his own honest way, I think Dana stumbled into the grandness of literature itself.

Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain.

The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous…