September 26th, 2012
Amazon’s latest tablets just received some great new reviews from a prestigious source.Consumer Reports magazine performed tests on 55 different tablet devices, and this week they’re finally annoucing the results. “Amazon and Samsung Models Stand Out in the Ratings,” reads the headline at their web site. “A Kindle Fire is the least-expensive tablet we’ve ever recommended.”
In fact, Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HD is described as “among the best 7-inch tablets on the market.” Out of all the 7-inch tablets they’d tested, it was the Kindle Fire HD that had the longest battery life. The magazine also had nice things to say about the cheaper $159 Kindle Fire, applauding Amazon’s second-generation version for its longer battery life — though what they really seemed to love best was its $159 price tag. But there’s a different story in the table of ratings in the print edition of Consumer Reports.
In the October issue, only the original version of the Kindle Fire appears to be listed, and at its old price of $200. (Presumably the magazine’s print edition was written before they’d tested the yet-to-be-released Kindle Fire HD.) And at that time, the magazine had only performed tests on 23 different tablets. But they’d already selected five of them for their coveted “best buy” recommendation — and Amazon’s Kindle Fire was one of them.
But the top scores had gone to Google’s Nexus 7 tablet, which they’d actually rated higher for battery life and portability. Out of all their criterion, it received a final score of 80, and even Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2 scored higher than the Kindle Fire, with a score of 77 (beating Amazon’s device in the “versatility” category.) The Blackberry Playbook scored higher too, also receiving a better “versatility” rank and achieving a final score of 71. The Kindle Fire’s final score in the October issue of Consumer Reports is listed as just 67.
It still achieved the second-highest possible score in four of the magazine’s five test categories – Ease of Use, Portability, Display, and Touch Response. But it received the middle rating for its versatility. In a way, I’m surprised the magazine even published these results at all.
They’re obsolete almost as soon as the magazine hits the newsstands.
Because within a week or two, Amazon’s going to start shipping out entirely new versions of the Kindle Fire!
January 31st, 2012
I did a funny experiment in mid-January. On Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’d searched for his name in the Kindle Store — and found nearly 140 ebooks about him! Though he’d died in 1977 at the age of 42, even 35 years later, people are still talking about “the king of rock and roll!” And now self-publishing’s making it possible to share even more fond memories – by anyone with their own story to tell.
I’ve always been fascinated by the life of Elvis Presley, so here’s my list of what look like some of the most interesting Elvis-related e-books that have turned up in Amazon’s Kindle Store.
It seems like everyone who ever knew Elvis has published a book, but this one was written by one of his personal friends. “George was with Elvis from the beginning,” Dick Clark notes in a blurb for the book, adding the book’s author “personally knows the story.” Elvis and George Klein met when they were both in the same 8th grade class, and both men later went on to have long careers in the music industry — Klein as a Memphis radio host. (The book’s subtitle is “Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley.”) Yes, Elvis also served as the best man at Klein’s wedding, but more importantly, he was an authentic fixture in the Memphis music scene. When Booklist reviewed this book, they ultimately concluded that “Klein’s paean is awfully sincere but, in its folksy naivete, oddly fetching. Maybe it’s the bio the King would have most wanted.”
This 248-page novel is actually available for free in the Kindle Store, and it’s described on Amazon as “quirky Southern fiction with a literary edge, surprising humor and an uplifting spirit.” One of the characters is a fanactical Elvis fan, and I have to wonder if the author was inspired by the real-life story of Dolores Hart, the Hollywood starlet who at the age of 22 had already done two movies with Elvis (and also starred as a spunky teenager in Where the Boys Are). In 1963, “after completing a promotional tour for Come Fly with Me…she had her limousine drop her off at The Abbey of Regina Laudis. And she became a nun.” (And 48 years later, she still is!)
So in this novel, a girl named Olivia is born in 1956 “to a nun in an old auto parts store turned convent in rural Mississippi…” — and that’s just the beginning of this strange American phantasmagoria. Olivia is ultimately raised by the nun’s sister — the Elvis fan — who’s “a renegade Southern belle, bent on self-indulgence and desperate to safeguard her multitude of sins…” According to the book’s description on Amazon, Olivia’s life story “takes the reader on a flower strewn tour of misguided love and maternal betrayal which culminates at Elvis’ funeral, where they finally discover the truth of their parentage and unravel the generations of secrets that shadowed their lives.”
Elvis’s death was ultimately ruled a heart attack. (When the local coroner was teased about the official cause of death, he’d reply “You can say what you want, but I still think that Elvis is dead.”) Some angry fans have raised questions about the role of Dr. George Nichopoulos, the personal physician to the high-living rock star, who also his source for some prescription drugs. (There’s a rumor that he was even the inspiration for the quack physician on The Simpson’s.) For the other side of the story, you can read Dr. Nick’s own biography, and at least one reviewer on Amazon writes “I was really quite stunned by many of the revelations in this book.” It’s an odd perspective on the death of a rock star, offering real-world stories about the medical and legal debates that followed. “Was an innocent man crucified by the press in order to get the scoop…” the reviewer asks, “or was he really guilty as charged?”
I read this biography when it first came out in 1998, and I loved its personal glimpses into the highs and lows of Elvis’s rocky life. (Each chapter begins with a fascinating and revealing photograph, offering a kind of visual counter-commentary.) After Elvis’s strange tour of duty in the army in Germany, he resumed his singing career (and starred in dozens of cheap movies), and this book follows him all the way to his 1977 drug overdose. Biographer Peter Guralnick spent several years interviewing nearly every significant person in Elvis’s life, and some of the stories are really touching. (Like the way Elvis sang Christmas carols with his fellow soldiers while he was stationed in Germany, and even donated money to a local orphanage).
Now it’s finally available as a Kindle ebook – and I recommend it!
June 19th, 2011
I’ve been studying a new article by Consumer Reports which just went online Friday. “In a first, a Nook beats the Kindle in our e-book reader Ratings,” they announced in a bold-print headline.
They’re talking about the new touch-screen version of the Nook (which finally went on sale last week). “The Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch Reader is more than merely a worthy competitor to the Kindle…” writes Consumer Reports reviewer, Paul Reynolds. “Now that we’ve tested the device in our labs, it actually scores a few points above the Kindle in our tests.”
Except not really. The article looks like it was changed later by a proofreader, who’s added the phrase “[corrected]” at one point further down the page. And now in brackets, in the third sentence of the article,
there’s a pretty big disclaimer. “[To clarify: The Nook scores one point above the Kindle below it in the 6-to-7-inch category. But it ranges from 4 to 5 points higher than other Kindles.]”
I’m not sure what “other” Kindles they’re talking about, since the only Kindle I know that’s isn’t six inches is the Kindle DX (which hasn’t been updated in almost a year). There’s also the cheaper “Kindle with Special Offers” and the WiFi-only Kindle — but that’s not really a fair comparison. (Obviously consumers already know what trade-offs they’ve made in order to get the lower price.) And of course, Amazon has stopped selling the Kindle 2 and the original Kindle, so there’s not much point in telling today’s consumers how those devices would’ve stacked up. It looks to me this comparison is a tie — especially since Amazon has announced later this year they’ll add the ability to borrow e-books from a library. The Nook was awarded a point for already having this capability, so it’s an advantage which is going to be short-lived.
I was also really intrigued that Consumer Reports didn’t award the Nook any extra points for the supposedly longer battery life that Barnes and Noble had been claiming they’d achieved. “Despite a power struggle between B&N and Amazon over which device runs for longer, we give both equal credit for a claimed battery life of five days or more,” their reviewer writes. In fact, for several criteria, it’s a tie (including battery life), and I’ve heard that the Kindle apparently beat the Nook when the magazine rated the devices on “Versatility”. One person who’s seen the ratings told me the Nook only scored higher for supported file types, and for the way that the Nook handles page turns.
And yet both the Kindle and the Nook received the magazine’s “Best Buy” rating. (Consumer Reports notes the latest version of the Nook “continues the steady improvement in Barnes & Noble’s e-book devices since the company rushed out a glitchy first version…during the holiday season of 2009.”) So now they’re reporting that “Simple Touch” Nook “matches or bests – albeit modestly – its Amazon competitor in almost every aspect of performance. ” This comparison ultimately shows that the Nook hasn’t landed a knock-out punch to Amazon’s Kindle project.
It’s more interesting as a general comparison, a status check on the war that’s raging between these two devices. “B&N has caught up with the Kindle in large part by emulating Amazon’s focus on reading with minimal fuss and extra features,” writes Consumer Reports, noting the new Nook eliminated the color navigation screen below the reading area (as well as the easy access to the Nook’s web browser). “As a result, it (like the Kindle) successfully “gets out of the way and disappears and lets you get on with your reading,” as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in praise of the Kindle during my interview with him last month.” But in the mean time, rumors are flying about the pending release of a new color touchscreen tablet device from Amazon. I’m half-expecting Amazon to announce a new version of the Kindle at the same time — so Consumer Reports may have to perform a new comparison soon.
To be fair, I’ll admit that there are things I like about the Nook. I was talking to my friend Len Edgerly again this week, and I acknowledged that it’s obviously easier to point at a choice on a menu than to first nudge your controller through each of the other choices above or below it! Although if you’re trying to look up a word, apparently you first get only an intermediate menu when you point at a word on the Nook’s screen, where you then have to indicate again that what you want is the word’s definition. But I also like the two-column layout of the Nook’s home page. (And yes, it does look easier to navigate the device just by touching the screen.)
But I’m still a big fan of my Kindle.
December 22nd, 2010
In February, the U.S. Army began outfitting a brigade in Texas with the latest consumer technology — including smartphones and even Kindles — to see whether it improved soldier performance in the field. Their director at the Mission Command complex told Army Times that “We’re looking at everything from iPads to Kindles to Nook readers to mini-projectors.” Some devices were for communication or data storage, but the smartphones even came with apps that can identify the location of friendly troops!
It got me thinking about the soldiers overseas at Christmas-time — and that always reminds me of Operation eBook Drop. (If you know someone in the military, let them know that there’s hundreds of authors back at home who are offering their books for free as a thank-you to the men in uniform.) And recently, my girlfriend interviewed a veteran with his own amazing story to tell. He’d ultimately realized his dream of writing his own first novel — a thriller that combines his love of the great outdoors with a very exciting story — and he’s published it as an ebook.
My girlfriend gives Sleeping Giant — by Matt Kuntz — a very enthusiastic review…
* * *
Do you know someone who is or was in the military? Who loves reading a great thriller? Loves the great outdoors, and using logic and strategy to get out of sticky situations? Likes when into lone moralists work against evil corporations for the common good? Have I got a book for you!
Sleeping Giant mixes all of this and more. Author Matt Kuntz is a veteran, a lawyer, and now Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana — and he sells riverboards on the side! In “Sleeping Giant,” Matt has written a book that’s both thrilling and thought-provoking. Drawing us into the Montana wilderness, this well-written novel explores sweeping themes that impact one specific guy in a very personal way. Racing against time, wounds bleeding while ducking hired mercenaries, he finally completes his mission. But does he survive?
Years ago, Matt read that the invention of the stirrup changed the course of civilization. One simple item had changed warfare by allowing knight with armor to ride horses and also gave rise to the middle class, allowing millions to rise out of peasantry. What would be invented today, Matt thought, that could have the same profound effect on the way the world works today? His answer: a new source of energy that’s safe, inexpensive, portable, and re-chargeable. Something that could store enough energy to power a whole town. Now what would corporations who rely on energy and re-selling energy do to prevent such a device from coming to market?
Thus, a novel is born.
Stone McCafferty is a decorated ex-military guy taking Montana tourists on fly-fishing trips, living the simple life. Frank Galeno, a local fly-fisherman, is found dead in the river of an apparent heart attack. It turns out Frank is a physicist, and he’s left Stone a binder that contains his life’s work. As Stone reads, he begins to realize the implications of this new energy storage device. But when he visits Frank’s home, he finds his workshop has been stripped bare.
Then people around him start getting murdered, one by one, and Stone barely escapes. On the run with just the clothes on his back, he heads to a mountain hideaway to assess the situation. He realizes he’s been followed, grabs as much gear as he can, and evades his trackers using his military training to escape into the Montana wilderness. It’s well-written, with a great story line and just enough science to let you understand the enormity of the invention without making you feel stupid. (I quit science after 10th grade!)
An added bonus? Knowing that you’re supporting an amazing guy. Matt began advocating for the effective treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome in returning vets after his own step-brother committed suicide after returning from Iraq. Matt’s work culminated in a Senate Bill which requires multiple face-to-face mental health screenings throughout America’s fighting force. Senator Ted Kennedy attached the bill to the Defense Authorization Act of 2010 and it was ultimately signed into law on October 8, 2009. The support system put in place under Matt’s guidance is now considered a model, and it’s being adopted by other states.
It’s not often you get a chance to enjoy a great read while supporting a true hero. Of course, you can also buy one of Matt’s riverboards but it wouldn’t fit in your Kindle!
* * *
November 24th, 2010
Thanksgiving’s almost here!
If you’re traveling for the holiday – or just have some extra time to relax — I’ve picked out a few Thanksgiving-related ebooks. With all the excitement around Amazon’s big Black Friday deal — $89 for the Kindle 2 — I’m already feeling grateful… that I own a Kindle already!
Here’s some of the best ebooks — in different categories — that I found for Thanksgiving in Amazon’s Kindle Store.
The Best Romance
“Thanksgiving” by Janet Evanovich
Best-selling author Janet Evanovich wrote several funny mystery novels — but she actually began her career writing romance novels at the age of 45. One of her first books was “Thanksgiving,” written in 1988, describing how overworked Megan Murphy meets a good-looking doctor at historic Williamsburg, Virginia. (Megan’s enjoying a cup of hot cider and two sugar cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop when she discovers the doctor’s giant pet rabbit is eating a hole through her skirt!)
According to the book’s description on Amazon, “she meant to give its careless owner a piece of her mind, but Dr. Patrick Hunter was too attractive to stay mad at for long,” and soon “the two are making Thanksgiving dinner for their families.” And 12 different Amazon’s reviewers gave it five-star reviews, including one who wrote that “If you’ve enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, you’re going to get a kick out of her stories for the Loveswept Romance imprint…”
The Best Cookbook
Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers
Perdue Farms sells over $4.6 billion worth of poultry every year, and for eight years, Rick Rodgers was their media spokesman. He traveled the country giving classes, according to Amazon’s description of the book, and delivers “everything, absolutely everything, you would want to know about buying, thawing, prepping, and roasting a turkey.
“You needn’t look any further. There’s a long question-and-answer-style section that anticipates any questions you might have. Then it’s right on to everything from Perfect Roast Turkey with Best-Ever Gravy to Holiday Meatball Lasagna.” And in addition, there’s lots of recipes for stuffings, side dishes, appetizers, and even leftovers. 29 of the book’s 34 reviewers on Amazon gave it five stars, while the other five
awarded it four. It’s a classic — Amazon’s first review of the book was written in 1998 — but even today, it’s become one of Amazon’s best-selling holiday cooking books.
The Best History Book
On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
Who better to tell the story of Thanksgiving than the pilgrims who lived through it? (My favorite chapter was the one about the very non-Puritan antics of Thomas Morton…) William Bradford began writing his history of America’s most famous pilgrims back in 1630 (according to my anthology of American literature), and he continued chronicling their life up to 1647. But the invaluable manuscript was never published in his lifetime, and after Bradford’s death, his family passed it down through the generations.
The precious unpublished memoir traveled its own complicated journey, down through Boston’s Old South Church, and eventually even back to England. Finally it was published in 1856 — a full 200 years after it was written. And now today, thanks to the Kindle, we can take peek into the lives of the very pilgrims who first started celebrating Thanksgiving.
The Best Children’s Book
Happy Thanksgiving, Curious George
Just 12 weeks ago, a new Curious George book appeared, and this one has a special surprise. Yes, you may have read other children’s books about the playful and accident-prone monkey… But this one rhymes!
George wakes up in the morning.
Something smells quite nice.
He knows for sure he wants some –
A piece, a smidge, a slice.
He rushes to the kitchen
and there he sees the man –
with yellow hat an apron,
A turkey in the pan.
The turkey’s in the oven.
It takes some time to cook.
But every now and then
George can’t help but take a look….
Uh-oh, I bet there’s going to be trouble.
Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
November 10th, 2010
There’s been some excitement in Amazon’s Kindle forum. Consumer Reports magazine just chose the Kindle as the best e-reader in an early December issue. But I discovered that there’s even more good news for Amazon. At my local bookstore, I scoured the magazine rack, and found an even more positive comparison in the Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide!
And the Kindle had already won high marks in their special “Best Products of the Year” issue in November. It was the Kindle — and not the Nook or the iPad — which was listed in a special section called “Great Gifts for $250 and Under.” Consumer Reports wrote enthusiastically that the Kindle “offers crisp text, fine performance, simple controls, and a pleasurable reading experience.” It was just a short blurb — but the Electronics Buying Guide offered a very detailed comparison.
It costs a whopping $10.99 for that special Winter issue — but watch out. There’s a funny typo in its section on digital readers. They warn readers that prices typically range from $1150 to $500. Er, I’ve never seen an e-reader that costs $1150!
The guide starts with a section for people who have never seen a digital reader before, but are considering whether to buy one. (The magazine gave low marks to the experience of browsing the web on all the digital readers, calling them “very limited” and “virtually unusable”.) And they also warn shoppers to “be wary” of a reader which can’t connect to a wireless 3G network. But their biggest negative comment about the Kindle is just about file formats. (“With Kindles…Word documents and photos in JPEG format must be sent to Amazon for conversion before than can be loaded.”)
You have to flip towards the back of the magazine to find their detailed comparison table, where the Kindle was ultimately declared the winner. Consumer Reports named the Kindle DX “Best for Reading Lots of Textbooks with Diagrams,” while the newer Kindle 3G won the other honor — “Best for Most People”. Ultimately the Kindle came up with an overall score of 63 (or 65, for the larger Kindle DX). In fact, the Nook came in #3, racking up a score of just 52. In the number two position was the Sony Reader, which scored a 60, or a 56 for the smaller version. (Also tested were the BeBook, the iRex, and the Alluratek Libre.)
Of all the readers that they compared, only the Kindle received their special endorsements. The Kindle DX was listed as “Recommended,” while the Kindle 3G was awarded a “Best Buy” check mark. The Kindle scored the best for “readability” — receiving the second-highest possible score of “very good” (while the Nook’s readability was a rank lower, rated as “good” — along with every other reader.) The testers defined “readability” as which device is the easiest on your eyes.
In fact, the only two categories where the Nook scored higher than the Kindle were in “file support” and “versatility” (defined as the number of features available).The Kindle also bested the Nook in ease of navigation, page turning, and responsiveness. The Nook’s lowest score was for responsiveness — how quickly the screen becomes functional after powering up or returning from sleep mode. The Nook received the second-lowest possible ranking there, while both versions of the Kindle scored a rank higher — a middle rating of “good.” The reviewers also noted that for some users, the Kindle’s text-to-speech features could also come in handy. (They specifically mention the sight-impaired, but if you’re taking a long car trip, the Kindle could even read to you from the passenger seat!)
It’s a big deal, because Consumer Reports has been around since 1936, and I’ve always thought of it as one of the most well-respect consumer organizations. Their annual budget for testing is $21 million, according to Wikipedia.
But ironically, you still can’t read Consumer Reports on your Kindle!
October 8th, 2010
Last week, before the crowds gathered at a bookstore to hear Linda Wanatabe McFerrin talking about her new book Dead Love, we were gabbing privately for an hour at a local bar.
She told us the next day she’d be off to Visalia in central California for an actual zombie walk. (Imagine you’re at a remote shopping mall, and a throng of zombies suddenly materializes…) Eventually you’d realize it’s a bunch of zombie enthusiasts collectively celebrating their passion in costume. But for the wild participants, it’s a cathartic mass ritual!
I’d worried she’d be one of those book authors who holds a secret grudge against the Kindle. But she seemed more committed to her love of fiction, and said agreeably that “Some people read books, some people like ebooks.” And she’d already tantalized us with the premise of her horrific new novel. I asked my girlfriend to review Linda’s new book — “a novel about Japan…and zombies.”
* * *
My friend first told me I’d love Dead Love by Linda Watanabe McFerrin. The press release says: “Dead Love is a diabolical joyride with a cast of supernatural characters…”
“Read it,” said my friend. “It’s a delightful romp.” Really? A delightful romp about zombies? There’s two things I never thought I’d see in the same sentence…
But it turns out that talking about Dead Love results in an overflow of oxymorons. It’s about a glib ghoul and a zippy zombie, plus a glacial gangster. I’ve never thought of Zombies as zippy before, but this is a zombie that retains her own will and ends up performing in a trapeze act. You’ve gotta agree — that’s pretty zippy!
Wait, a zombie in a trapeze act? Doesn’t that fall under “completely ridiculous plot twists”? You’d think so, but one of the wonderful things about this book is it has an internal logic. The story goes crazy places and it does crazy things, but everything still makes sense. Each step follows logically from the step before, drawing readers into the world of a love-sick ghoul chasing a newly-made half-zombie around the globe.
The book follows Erin Orison, the motherless, cast-off daughter of a powerful Japanese man. He summons her to Tokyo, where she’s met by a bodyguard and her father’s lawyer. She’s been drawn to Japan as a pawn in a huge game of political intrigue. It turns out that the ghoul Clement is part of the Political Intrigue, but only to the extent that he uses it to ensnare Erin, who he’s been in love with since he saw her as a child.
He decides to use this opportunity to make her a zombie, therefore binding her to him forever. But he screws up the zombie formula, leaving Erin with her own will. Big oops. (This is a very threadbare plot rendition, so as not to give away too much…)
The ghoul Clement reminds me of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. He’s cheerful, optimistic, and smelly, all love and boundless energy, glibly bouncing towards Erin (his love) who loathes him, shrinks from him when he shows up, and runs every chance she gets! Clement is aware this doesn’t exactly follow the ghoul guidelines, but he still bumbles on, happily pursuing his zombie love. He follows Erin across continents, shielding her from her father’s plan to kill her, and waiting for her to change her mind and love him back.
But this is much more than a fun story. McFerrin is an award-winning author who’s written everything from erotica and poetry to a teen novel and now this thriller about zombies. She’s a writer. Not a story teller, but someone who crafts words and bends language to their own use. She breathes life into the characters, the story, and the absurdity, making it all realistic and believable.
And you follow her because it’s wonderful and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Her descriptions are pure delight. “…I made it a point to pause, with a model’s instinct for angles and light, in a brief but expressive pose. I’ve always been bold. The cruel crowd of my school days had little tolerance for the shy or withdrawn.” That last sentence is like a punch, emotionally explaining a lot of her abandoned teenage years, and setting up her personality.
I love most when she talks about Ryu, the Japanese Yakusa gangster. Ryu almost never speaks out loud, but we hear his internal dialogue and how others react to him. And he is an especially strong character. Ryu “had in fact two favorite modes of facial expressions — this, his comic face or the down-turned tragic version where his mouth formed the shape of a horseshoe, upside down, with all the luck running out.” This sent real chills up my spine and captures his quiet menace in one sentence.
I used the Kindle’s bookmark feature to store many favorite examples of fine writing (the description of Amsterdam is a masterpiece), but I’ll move on to the surprising laughs that pop up throughout the book. I never expected to laugh out loud while reading a zombie thriller, but McFerrin creates scenes that are absurd theater. Erin wakes up after being dead for three days in a new partial-zombie status, and the scene, though horrific, is also touching and then laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve not been so appalled at laughing since the scene in Fargo where the kidnapped wife cuts a crazy path out of the bedroom and down the stairs wrapped in clear plastic. McFerrin’s vivid visuals create these unexpectedly funny images.
I loved Dead Love. The beautiful writing, the unexpected laughs, the unexpected plot, and the unusual characters. Fast-paced and surprisingly touching, the novel never disappointed me…
* * *
And yes, there is a zombie sex scene (which Linda read to us at the book-signing).
September 29th, 2010
My girlfriend was intrigued when we found out it was Amy Bloom’s short story that appears on that Kindle at the beach in Amazon’s TV ad. But that was only the beginning…
We eventually purchased an ebook version of one of Amy’s full-length novels. (I asked my girlfriend if it felt strange to finally read an ebook that wasn’t free. But she said it was nice to read a contemporary author instead of one of the classics as a free ebook — especially an author with so much grace and style!)
“I’ve been downloading modern ebooks with interesting-sounding titles only to find they’re in the romance genre. You know, ‘I’m swearing off men, oh my he’s fine, oh he could never be interested in me the way I’m interested in him…’ Even hot sex doesn’t seem to change this opinion, until the obligatory sweeping away of all obstacles, leaving our heroine in the strong arms of the ripped body of her soul mate with the smouldering eyes. Honestly, I’m beginning to think it’s illegal to print a romance book unless it spends at least two-thirds of the book with the heroine conflicted about this perfect man who will obviously fulfill all her fantasies. These stilted plots have leaked over into the soft porn as well. But I digress…”
So with all the discussion about Amy Bloom’s story in the Kindle ad, we wanted to finally find out what her writing was like, and downloaded her novel Away, which nominated for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Book critics like this book!
But for my girlfriend, the real question remained: Did Amazon pick well for their Kindle ad? Is her work really vacation-beach worthy?
* * *
The answer is: I think so. There is nothing formulaic or predictable in Amy Bloom’s Away. I had absolutely no idea how the book was going to end, even up to its last 3 pages. Bloom draws you in, keeping your hopes alive through struggles that few today have experienced or understand. The main character, Lillian, flees Russia after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes by the village constables for the unforgivable crime of being Jewish.
She hands her daughter, Sophie, out the window to run to the safety of the chicken coop – but finds her gone when the constables are done and she steps over the bloody bodies of her family. This lives in her nightmares throughout the book. With everyone gone, she goes to a cousin in New York, living a drab existence, using her good looks to get a better job, all the while feeling dead inside. A relative pops up out of nowhere, telling her that Sophie is alive, rescued by their neighbors who then decamped for Siberia.
The trip to Siberia is less bizzare than it sounds at first. The Russians set up a “Zionist Paradise” there in hopes of sequestering Russian Jews in one spot. On this scant information, and armed with hope and her wits, Lillian sets off across US to go across the Bering Strait and then to Siberia to find Sophie. It is this trip that takes over two years and the rest of the book.
Amy Bloom writes beautiful descriptions. Lillian, newly arrived in New York, crowds into lines of other immigrant girls looking for seamstress work at a Jewish theater. “The street is like her village on market day, times a million. A boy playing a harp; a man with an accordion and a terrible, patchy little animal; a woman selling straw brooms from a basket strapped to her back, making a giant fan behind her head; a colored man singing in a pink suit and black shoes with pink spats… Lillian makes herself smile… as she walks past the women; they reek of bad luck.”
A couple of things really stand out for me when I consider this book.
There is a wealth of misery. Not only Lillian, but everyone she comes in contact with has their own tragic story, full of heartache and nightmares. Every. Single. One. I read on Wikipedia that Bloom is “trained as a social worker and practiced psychotherapy.” I wondered if these experiences influenced the way she drew the characters in Away. Not that she’s using specific stories, but that every single person she meets has a tragic past. Or perhaps I’m an optimist and think that at least some of the people I meet aren’t living with some horrific tragedy in their past. The unending onslaught of misery did wear me down by the end, even though some of the individual characters re-invented themselves and triumphed over their adversity.
The way Bloom treated Lillian’s nightmares, recurring throughout the book, seemed to me to come from her understanding therapy. It’s the same nightmare, over and over, always waking up screaming, until Lillian herself is no longer frightened by them, but thinks in her dreaming state, “yes, yes, the blood, the broken tea cup…” Familiarity breeds contempt, even with horror.
There are a few things I could quibble with, or pretend that if I were the editor I would change. For example, a full 10 pages of a 225-page novel is devoted to her train trip across the U.S. locked in a broom closet completely devoid of light. I kept expecting something to happen during this time, but no. Dark broom closet, stumble out into another train station and another train, another broom closet, Seattle. A lot of pages for not much. But these are minor.
For me the magical and wonderful moments in the book for me came from a thesaurus. I’ve never seen a thesaurus used as a character in a book before, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. A Jewish tailor in New York takes Lillian under his wing and tells her that in order to learn English, her best friend will be the thesaurus. Her adventures in New York are accompanied by asides of her learning the language through this tool. For example, Bloom writes, “You cannot admire Reuben for his integrity (forthrightness, honesty, purity, honorableness), and a good man would not enjoy knowing his gift was hidden in the apartment his son pays for, but Lillian thinks that Reuben is better than honest and better than good; he is strong.”
It’s a great read and highly recommended.
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Or read my interview with Amy Bloom about the day she discovered one of her short stories appeared in Amazon’s Kindle ad.