Saturday, January 29, 2011

Amazon Single Seeks Like-Minded Short-Attention-Span Reader. Must Love Kindle.

Yesterday, after short deliberation, I decided to give Amazon's newest money-grubbing scheme a whirl.  Kindle Singles are short-ish essays and stories, sold separately, currently being trumpeted by the world's biggest bookseller as "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length."  Well, howdy-do.

I gave up my daily "justacuppajoe" at Scenic Brew to buy two of the Singles and what did I get for just under four bucks?

Well....I was pleasantly surprised.  Based on my two picks--Long Island Shaolin by Darin Strauss and Piano Demon by Brendan Koerner--I'd say that Amazon has made an effort to publish well-researched, well-written creative non-fiction.*  Not unlike what you'd find in your average issue of The New Yorker.  But hey, Eustace Tilley can't deliver in 60 seconds or less via Whispernet, can he?

The main sticking point with the Kindle Singles is the price of admission.  As one grumbly user put it on the Amazon discussion board:
This is a great idea...but what would have made it a FANTASTIC idea is if the price was $0.99 each.  Think about this (please): I am NOT going to spend $2.99 for essentially a long magazine article but I WILL spend $0.99 each for 3 or 4 or 5 articles.  I am sure you have some outstanding marketing people at Amazon that can talk about price points and introductory pricing strategies. I humbly suggest and recommend that you talk to them and get their input.  Then talk to your financial and managerial accounting people about your target market (people like me) that will spend $0.99 times 5 a month versus $2.99 times zero a month.
I see his point and, for the most part, agree with the argument.  Without getting too sidetracked, I'd also add that the Amazonian pricing policy is starting to spoil and corrupt the way we value writing.  It's now possible for me to buy the Kindle version of The Autobiography of Mark Twain at less than half the price of the hardcover version at the local bookstore.  Similarly, I can visit the Kindle store and grab new titles for five dollars, ninety-nine cents, or--in many cases--absolutely nothing at all.  Something about the old "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" adage springs to mind.

By lowering the price all the way to the ground floor (primarily to entice and keep new Kindle users, I'm guessing), ebook retailers are getting us too comfortable with the idea of cheap words.  Far too comfortable.

When something with a higher price tag comes along, we balk--especially when the number of "locations" (Kindlespeak for "pages") is low.  Eventually, we start calculating the value of the reading experience on a price-per-word scale.  No one wins when we commercialize language to this degree.

But back to the Singles....

Sure, on a penny-value basis, it was a pretty steep price to pay.  But, all in all, I was glad I gave up my morning coffee to spend a couple of hours with good writing.

I knew I was probably in for quality literature simply by the two choices I made--I was already familiar with Strauss' work, and Koerner had written a book which I was (and still am) mighty interested in reading.  But some of the other Kindle Singles were equally tempting, including the account of "an audacious bank heist" (Lifted by Evan Ratliff), a portrait of movie director John Milius (The Real Lebowski by Rich Cohen), and a "wittily argued essay" about Octomom.  If none of those grab you by the literary gonads, then how about Singles from Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Littell, or Pete Hamill?

Sure, it's hard to shell out anywhere from one to three bucks for something that will take less than two hours to read.  But in the end, they linger longer than a latte ever did.

Long Island Shaolin by Darin Strauss
Novelist Strauss recently recounted an agonizing chapter of his young adulthood in Half a Life, which describes how, when he was 18 and driving with his high buddies to a game of miniature golf on a bright clear day, he struck and killed a girl (a fellow classmate) as she was riding her bike.  The rest of the book is a confessional memoir about his survivor's guilt and how he eventually came to uneasy terms with what happened.  Long Island Shaolin also delves into his teenage years, but offers wry laughter in place of bitter tears.  This quick-moving account of Strauss' adolescent foray into martial arts is a kinetic narrative of punches, jabs, and hard-knuckled boys.  It begins:
The toughest man I ever met, the strongest, quickest, the most immovable, was a middle-aged guy who stood five-feet-three.  His name was Chuckie Lau.  One day, a Kung-fu expert kicked Chuckie Lau in the balls and Lau didn’t react—he didn’t give a shudder, he didn’t even grimace.
Lau is the head of a strip-mall karate school in Strauss' hometown and he is so tough, he can punch holes in soup cans with his knuckles.  Strauss tells us he exacts a training regime that is "one extended heart-deep moan of agony."

The writing here is sharp, funny, and often very moving as the author shows how he grew from bullied wimp to a confident, hard-muscled teen.  It's in the details where Strauss excels; just look at this description of Lau, the Gung Fu sifu:  
He was short, unassuming; he didn’t seem explicitly muscled.  He walked with a slight limp, holding his chin very stiff, and his sparse beard looked like a few iron filings stuck to his face by magnetism.

Yeah, I'd pay $1.99 for writing like that.  I should also mention that there is a far better appreciation of Long Island Shaolin over at the Three Guys One Book blog and if you really want to be convinced of the essay's net-worth, then you should read what they have to say.

But what if I don't own a Kindle?  In addition to Half a Life, Strauss is the author of the novels More Than It Hurts You, The Real McCoy, and Chang and Eng.  Half a writing lifetime ago, I reviewed Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy.  I also had the pleasure of interviewing Strauss for January Magazine.  All of which is to say, you can purchase non-Kindle versions of his books elseweb, or in your local bookstore.

The Piano Demon by Brendan Koerner
Fats Waller....Jelly Roll Morton....Louis Armstrong....Teddy Weatherford....

Teddy who--?  That's exactly Koerner's point in this breathtaking, short biography of a nearly-forgotten pianist, a coal-miner's son from Virginia, who was at one time "Asia’s greatest jazz star."  The subtitle of Koerner's mini-book is "The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia" and he delivers a portrait of an overlooked legend that moves at the speed of a rousing Jazz Age rag.  As Koerner tells us near the beginning of The Piano Demon:
Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories.  His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet.  He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.
A child prodigy who developed international wanderlust (and, as his fame grew, an insatiable need for all the finest things money could buy), Teddy Weatherford quickly moved from tickling the ivories in Chicago clubs to playing in popular house bands in Shanghai, Bombay and Calcutta--exotic locales where segregation was less prevalent than in America.  Weatherford was a workaholic and would often bounce between three or four gigs in the same evening.  He was a big man with large hands--qualities not usually found in pianists--and he was a showman to the core, appearing on stage dressed in a distinctive white sharkskin suit.  Here's how Koerner describes him in one scene:

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts.  To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume.  Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.
As the title indicates, Weatherford did live a short life, but it was an intense one--a flaring flame of talent--and he earned a reputation as a well-loved, generous man.  When he died, Koerner writes, "40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass."  For a short film highlighting Weatherford's lingering legacy in India (and to hear a little bit of the music he recorded back in the 1930s), go to this You Tube video.

But what if I don't own a Kindle?  As I mentioned before, Koerner has a book that's on the short-list** of books I want to read: Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.  I suspect that The Piano Demon might have grown out of a footnote from that book because they both center around the trials and tribulations of black American men in Asia in the 1940s.  Based solely on the way Koerner's Kindle Single read like a gripping adventure novel, I would highly recommend Now the Hell Will Start.

*Kindle Singles also features some fiction, but for right now, non-fiction dominates their offerings.
**Which, really, is becoming quite a "long list" at this point.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Freebie: "The Janus Stone" by Elly Griffiths

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins.

This week's book giveaway is a mystery which comes to us from our chilly British friends.  The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths is the second in a series of whodunit novels featuring Ruth Galloway and, like the best of crime stories, it appears that you don't need to have read Ruth's debut in The Crossing Places to appreciate the cozy nasties of The Janus Stone.

Here's the publisher's blurb:
       When a child’s body is found buried under a Victorian mansion, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate. The police, led by Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, discover that the house used to be a Catholic children’s home. Nelson finds out that, forty years ago, two children went missing from the home. Is the body one of the missing children or does it go back to the days when the building housed an eccentric but very influential family?
       Meanwhile, Ruth is involved with the excavation of a Roman villa in the Norfolk countryside. There the archaeologists find a child’s bones buried under a doorway. They think the child may have been a ‘foundation sacrifice’, an offering to Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways. The God of endings and beginnings.
       Ruth finds herself getting close to another archaeologist on the dig but her relationship with Nelson is also becoming increasingly tense. Then strange things start happening – headless animals are found on the site and Ruth’s name appears, written in blood. Finally, an even more gruesome discovery makes Ruth realise that someone still believes in the old, savage Gods.  Someone who is prepared to kill....

If you'd like the chance to win a copy of The Janus Stone, you don't have to sacrifice any animals by the light of a full moon.  All you have to do is answer this question:
According to this character page at Griffiths' website, what archaeological excavation "changed Ruth's life forever"?
Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until the contest closes at midnight on Feb. 3--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 4.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Awards Season: NBCC Announces Its Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a voting member) announced the finalists for its 2010 book awards last weekend.  The NBCC awards are a little like the Golden Globes (except, as far as I know, without the graft and corruption).  As the name says, the group is a diverse membership of book critics, dedicated to fostering "a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature."  Over the next six weeks, the NBCC judging committees will read the books in their categories then come together as a group in March where they'll debate and discuss the finalists until they agree on a clear winner in each category.  Sometimes arm-wrestling is involved, and perhaps even arm-twisting.  The winners will be announced in a ceremony on March 10.  You can find more about the NBCC at its blog, Critical Mass, where, in the month preceding the awards ceremony, each of the finalists will be highlighted in the "30 Books in 30 Days" feature.  Galley Cat has also prepared a "literary mixtape" where you can sample excerpts from the books on the list.

This year, while the usual suspects showed up on the lists, there were also some surprises (and yes, disappointments).

Freedom was practically a given, despite the backlash of negative sniping that seems to dog Jonathan Franzen (mention his name and it's practically Pavlovian the way some folks turn to haters even though they've never read the book).  Flaws and all, Freedom turns narrative cartwheels while other novels are still struggling to do a basic somersault.

I also expected to see Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad and David Grossman's To the End of the Land--both novels which, as the year went on, gathered praise like downhill snowballs.  Skippy Dies was a happy addition and of all the books on all the lists which I haven't read (i.e. all of them except for Freedom), it's the one closest to the top of my To-Be-Read pile.

But Comedy in a Minor Key?  I've never heard of it.  I'm a little surprised that slot wasn't filled by the likes of The Lonely Polygamist, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Room, Great House, or Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

It's tough to pick a winner in the fiction category, but I'm gonna toss the dice and say it'll be To the End of the Land.  For some reason, it just smells like an NBCC winner.

In non-fiction, the big surprise in the Department of Omissions is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  I thought Rebecca Skloot's book was leading a charmed life since its publication.  I haven't read it, but from all I've heard, I thought it was a shoo-in for at least the finalist short list.  I predict The Warmth of Other Suns will take that prize.

In autobiography, it seems pretty obvious that Patti Smith should clear her schedule for March 10 and plan to be at the awards ceremony.  If Smith's not the winner, then I think the sentimental vote will go to Christopher Hitchens.

I'm disappointed to see that neither of my two favorite poetry collections--Here by Wislawa Szymborska and Master of Disguises by Charles Simic--made the cut.  On the other hand, I've been hearing very good things about Nox, and I predict that will be the winner in the poetry category.

What does that leave?  Ah, criticism and biography.  In the former category, I think The Possessed will win; and in the latter, I'm guessing How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne will wear the crown.

What about you?  Who do you think will win?  Have you even read any of these?  Debate, discuss, deliberate in the comments section.

Here are the complete lists:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
David Grossman, To The End Of The Land (translated by Jessica Cohen)
Hans Keilson, Comedy In A Minor Key (translated by Damion Searls)
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Sarah Bakewell, How To Live, Or A Life Of Montaigne
Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham: A Biography
Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story Of The Honorable Detective And His Rendezvous With American History
Thomas Powers, The Killing Of Crazy Horse
Tom Segev, Simon Wiesenthal: The Lives And Legends (translated by Ronnie Hope)

Kai Bird, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978
David Dow, The Autobiography of an Execution
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Darin Strauss, Half a Life

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings
Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West
Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance
Ander Monson, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Anne Carson, Nox
Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead
Kay Ryan, The Best of It
C.D. Wright, One with Others: [a little book of her days]