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It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.
Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”
A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”
Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.
If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer,” but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not?
I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.”
In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right.
One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t.
Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer.
I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety.
I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful.
I loved reading long before I started working at a book store, but until I started working there I was only familiar with a relatively small universe of writers whose oeuvres I would methodically work through. Back then I didn’t always have a huge “to read” list, and so I would roam used bookstores looking for something that piqued my interest. At some point I started spending a lot of time in the anthology aisles of these book stores. For an undirected reader looking for a fiction fix, you can’t really beat the anthology. A good one will provide dozens of pleasurable experiences and introduce you to new writers or reacquaint you with writers you’ve forgotten. Perhaps the best thing about them is that you can put an anthology down after a few stories and then pick it up whenever you’re in the mood for a story. If you have a few anthologies around, you always have a short story close at hand. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, if the bulging anthology section at my bookstore was any indication, the anthology is not a dying breed. Here’s a sampling of anthologies to get you started:The Insomniac ReaderThe Granta Book of the American Short StoryThe Vintage Book of Latin American StoriesThe Dictionary of Failed Relationships: 26 Tales of Love Gone Wrong
The role of media in war has long been big and complicated, but by the time Iraq rolled around the media had become both more and less powerful. TV news has been beset by falling ratings, aging viewers, and a sense that the national newscasts and their anchors are less and less relevant. At the same time, for many Americans, the network news and their cable counterparts are the only points of contact with perhaps the most important geopolitical event of a generation. Our newsmen and women are both weak and powerful.This dynamic fascinates me, which is why I’m intrigued by a newly released book by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz. Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War is a chronicle of how the network news operations have dealt with covering an unpopular war that put employees in physical danger and forced executives to toe the line between “patriotism” and dissent. The Washington Post has an excerpt from the book. It’s worth checking out for anyone interested in the topic:Two months before the 2004 election, when she was still at NBC’s “Today” show, [Katie] Couric had asked Condoleezza Rice whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney’s declaration that the country would be at greater risk for terrorist attacks if John Kerry won the White House. Rice sidestepped the question, saying that any president had to fight aggressively against terrorism.Couric interrupted and asked the question again. Would a Kerry victory put America at greater risk? Rice ducked again, saying that the issue should not be personalized.Soon afterward, Couric got an e-mail from Robert Wright, the NBC president. He was forwarding a note from an Atlanta woman who complained that Couric had been too confrontational with Rice.What was the message here? Couric felt that Wright must be telling her to back off. She wrote him a note, saying that she tried to be persistent and elicit good answers in all her interviews, regardless of the political views of her guests. If Wright had a problem with that, she would like to discuss it with him personally. Wright wrote back that such protest letters usually came in batches, but that he had passed along this one because it seemed different.See Also: Instant News: Bob Woodruff Back from the Brink
I haven’t mentioned any art or photography books on The Millions in a while, but the other day a book caught my eye that I thought was worth mentioning. New York Underground: The Anatomy Of A City by Julia Solis is a collection of photographs taken in the myriad of passageways and tunnels that make up New York’s unnamed subterranean sister city. You can have a look at some of the pictures here. If you’re still interested after looking at those, snoop around Dark Passages, where you’ll find lots more photos of New York’s creepy, forgotten places.