Whose e-book is it anyway?


As readers of this blog know, I’ve been looking forward to next week’s return of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the very funny improvisational comedy show.
Just in time for that, Colin Mochrie — one of the show’s regular performers — has published a new e-book, “Not Quite The Classics.”

It’s not a very long book, but it’s quite funny. The premise — inspired, not surprisingly, by an old improv game — is that Mochrie takes the first and last line of some literary classic — “Moby Dick,” “1984,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Great Gatsby,” and so on — and uses them for a new, humorous short story. Sometimes, the new story references or is a parody of the original from which its first and last lines are drawn; in other cases, it goes off in an entirely different direction. Many of the stories involve some sort of genre parody — hard-boiled detective stories, too-precious fantasy novels, “Downton Abbey” and so on.

The parodies are mostly clever, although a few wander and seem like they’re going to turn out to be shaggy dog stories.

There’s one particular entry that really made me laugh, although to describe it further would almost constitute a spoiler. It ends up being a faux-serious treatment of a beloved character from another medium, although you don’t realize this at first. I e-mailed the great columnist, author and blogger James Lileks to tell him that one of the stories in Mochrie’s book reminded me of my favorite piece from Lileks’ humor collection “Fresh Lies.” I have no idea if he’ll even get the e-mail, much less read the book, and I had to be intentionally vague in order to keep from spoiling the story, so the e-mail probably sounded ridiculous.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. If you enjoy Colin on “Whose Line,” it’s absolutely worth checking out.

A question for other Kindle owners

This relates specifically to e-ink Kindle readers, not to the Kindle Fire tablet.

I put my Kindle on the charger tonight, and ever since I took it off, the Special Offers aren’t showing up. The Kindle is connected to Wi-Fi just fine – I’ve downloaded information to it, and uploaded information from it, and it’s showing that it’s connected to Wi-Fi with good signal strength. However, the places where the special offers would normally show up have an error message that says “Please connect wirelessly to receive special offers.”

I know what you’re saying – leave well enough alone. People pay good money to have the special offers turned off. But I occasionally like the special offers, especially when, every now and then, they offer Amazon gift cards at a discount price (like a $10 gift card for $5). Plus, I don’t want Amazon to think that I’ve hacked or rooted my Kindle.

Has anyone else ever had the special offers disappear like this?

UPDATE: After looking in one of the support forums, I tried a reboot (holding the power button for a full 30 seconds) and that seems to have done the trick.

All in

One of the fun things about having a Kindle and yet being on a budget is that, in your constant search for Kindle books that are temporarily free or on sale, you occasionally run into great books you might never have discovered otherwise.

Case in point: All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ, by Jerry Yang (as told to Mark Tabb). Wow, what a great and unexpected book. I got it for free from the Kindle store; as I write this, it’s back up to $4.99, but that would still be a small price to pay.

My description of the book will make it sound like an awkward hybrid; it’s anything but. The book tells two stories in parallel fashion. The first is how young Xao and his Hmong family faced Communist persecution in Laos and made a daring escape to Thailand, then hoped to be chosen to resettle as refugees in the United States. The second story is how the adult Xao, a psychologist now going by the American name of Jerry, becomes an amateur poker player, eventually outlasting a final table of fearsome opponents to win the 2007 World Series of Poker.

(This is not, by the way, the same Jerry Yang who founded Yahoo!, even though some comparable tech moguls have taken up poker as a hobby.)

Yang’s Christian faith gently informs both stories, although this book avoids the ham-fisted, tract-like approach of some such autobiographies. It may sound surprising that a story about a poker player would have a faith element – and part of the story is how Yang and his family have a dialogue about how tournament poker compares and contrasts to other types of gambling; how he can participate in a responsible way, consistent with his beliefs; and how he used his winnings to do good.

Both stories are compellingly-written and hard to put down.

As regular readers know, I’ve been on five mission trips to Kenya  and three to various places in Latin America. Just a day or two before I started reading the Yang book, I was daydreaming about one of the people I worked with on several of the Kenya trips and what his reactions might be to seeing America for the first time. You get a little bit of that in Yang’s story of arriving in America, where his family lived in Nashville and Kansas City before settling in California. The story of his Nashville minister taking him for his first hot dog – and having to explain to him that the name doesn’t describe the contents – is priceless.

The very end of the book has an appendix with some poker-playing tips and suggestions, although this book isn’t really intended or suitable as a full tutorial of the game of Texas Hold ’Em.

Highly recommended.

This is how you do it

Back in February, I gave an in-progress review of “meh” to Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians by Corey Andrew. Nothing in the remainder of the book improved my opinion of it any.

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft by Mike Sacks is better. Much, much, much better. Sacks is a far better interviewer, showcasing the comedy talent to whom he’s speaking rather than showing off and injecting himself into subject matter.

Sacks’s interview subjects run the gamut from Marshall Brickman, Larry Gelbart and Dick Cavett to Bob Odenkirk, David Sedaris and Robert Smigel. He has a great interview with Dave Barry – which leaves me jealous, because the one time I got to interview Dave, for the late and lamented Wittenburg Door, I was starstruck, and too timid to push a couple of topics essential to the point of the interview. I embarrassed myself and produced a pretty pathetic interview, one of the great regrets of my writing career.

In between the formal interviews, Sacks puts in quotes, anecdotes or lists of writing tips.

Sacks’s book makes me want to start writing something – and I’m trying to figure out a good place to start.

‘How God Became King’

I have preached, on more than one occasion, about the dual nature of Biblical references to God’s kingdom – some of which seem to place it in the future tense, others in the present tense.

I checked out How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels through a digital library loan. I’ve heard a lot about N.T. Wright, and read bits and pieces of things he’s written, but this is the first of his actual books I’ve gotten the chance to read. It’s a terrific book, well worth my time, and I believe it would be worth yours. Wright emphasizes the present nature of the kingdom in the light of the gospel story.

Most Christians understand, or believe they understand, the theological significance of the Incarnation and Jesus’ birth. They also understand, or believe they understand, the theological significance of his death and resurrection, and like to think of it as pointing towards their eternal reward. (A college roommate of mine, Darrell Grizzle, once complained about the music he had to play at a southern gospel radio station by inventing the satirical song title, “When Jesus Comes Back and Sends All The Communists To Hell, Won’t It Be Wonderful Up There?”) The material that comes between the birth and the resurrection is the stuff of sermons, but we don’t really incorporate it into our understanding of theology, or (as Wright notes) into our creeds. The Apostles’ Creed jumps right from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

But Wright makes a solid case that the scope of Jesus’ life is vitally important to our understanding of his nature as the Messiah, bringing about God’s promised kingdom. Like the disciples of Jesus’ day, who expected the Messiah to be a military-political revolutionary, we throughout church history have overlooked and misunderstood the true nature of God’s kingdom, the way in which Jesus made it a reality, and our own responsibility for to behave as if we’re subjects of that kingdom in the here and now. Wright breaks down various New Testament passages and the Old Testament prophecies to which they relate, showing the nature of Jesus and his messianic kingdom.

The book is a little imposing at the outset, but once you get into it it’s quite readable and compelling. I had, frankly, forgotten that it was a library book; I’ve plowed through so many Kindle books recently that sometimes I lose track of what was free, what was super-cheap and what was borrowed. I was a little sad when I realized the book was going to have to delete itself from my Kindle, and I may have to take a look at picking it up some time in the future.

Strongly recommended.

Stranger than fiction

In the late 1800s, a professor named James Murray led the team which was preparing what would become one of the world’s greatest and most-renowned reference books: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Murray put out a call for volunteers to help in the arduous process of scanning centuries worth of books looking for the first appearances of words in print, or for citations which demonstrate that the meaning of a word has shifted.

Many such volunteers responded to the call, but one of the most surprising was a physician, W.C. Minor. Minor’s contributions were voluminous and impeccably-organized. The address given by Minor was a short train ride away from Oxford, and Murray eventually wanted to meet his generous and able collaborator in person. But Minor refused invitations to visit Murray or to attend a great banquet held to celebrate the dictionary project. Murray then resolved that he would, instead, visit Minor.

A widely-reprinted story has it that Murray didn’t find out the truth until he arrived at Minor’s address. The actual reveal was a little less dramatic in how it took place, but the information would have been jaw-dropping no matter how it was revealed. W.C. Minor, a former U.S. Army surgeon and a veteran of the Civil War, was a killer, found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, and consigned by a British court to life at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I first read a version of this story many years ago, in one of the book compilations of Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story” radio series. So when I saw Simon Winchester’s  The Professor and the Madman available for Kindle loan through my local library, I eagerly put myself on the waiting list. I had the day off work today, and – apart from cleaning my oven and going to a Nashville Symphony concert planning meeting – I’ve spent much of it with my nose in Winchester’s well-researched, well-told tale.

Winchester lays out the basics of the relationship between Murray and Minor right at the outset, but then he goes back and gives you all the nuance and pathos, including a rather gruesome detail, a little more than two-thirds of the way through the book, which I had not been expecting. It’s an amazing story – on the one hand, the book covers the great achievement of the OED, which took 70 years to complete and which has such deep importance to language, learning and England. On the other hand, the book tells a heartbreaking story about a tortured soul, a Civil War surgeon whose paranoia may have been made worse by what he witnessed in battlefield hospitals, or by the role he was forced to take in punishing a deserter. And yet, in his more lucid moments, this mental patient and American expatriate was able to play a key role in one of the crowning glories of the British empire.

Winchester covers every aspect of the tale, including the sad story of Minor’s victim and the family he left behind. It’s the type of tale that, if created by a novelist, would be called outlandish and unbelievable.

Strongly recommended.

Ye gods

Okay, here’s the deal. As previously mentioned, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the public-domain source material for the recent movie John Carter. It was great fun, and as it ended in a sort of cliff-hanger I could not wait to pick up the story with The Gods of Mars.

“The Gods of Mars” continues the thrill-a-minute pace of its predecessor; you can see the influence that Burroughs and his contemporaries in pulp fiction had on Golden Age movie serials, which in turn were the inspiration for both “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones. (George Lucas originally wanted to make a movie adaptation of “Flash Gordon,” but couldn’t get the rights, and so he wrote “Star Wars” instead.)

But I didn’t enjoy “The Gods of Mars” as completely as I enjoyed “A Princess of Mars,” and I may share the blame for this with Burroughs.

“The Gods of Mars,” as one might surmise from its title, gets into religious belief and superstition on the planet known to its residents as Barsoom. But the narrative seemed unflinchingly and heavy-handedly anti-religious, presenting religion exclusively as a falsehood used by some to enslave others.

I don’t have an objection to negative treatment of religion; quite the opposite. I share with this novel the awareness that much evil has been propagated in the name of religion, that many believe in the wrong things and/or for the wrong reasons. The terrible things we do in the name of various deities or creeds can make a powerful foundation for a story. But you can usually sense whether what’s being criticized is the abuse of religion or whether what’s being criticized is the very idea of faith in a higher power. This seemed like the latter, so much so that I Googled Burroughs’ religious beliefs – a stupid thing to do while in the middle of a story. The story should stand or fall on its own, and questions of how it came about, or what in real life might have inspired it, should be left for later analysis. But I was so curious I couldn’t help but look. Burroughs was an atheist, although amiable enough, and occasionally made playful references to God (the same way you might playfully refer to good or bad luck, even if you aren’t particularly superstitious) which some apparently mistakenly took as evidence of belief.

Those people must not have read “The Gods of Mars.”

Anyway, I do have some literary criticisms of the book, but it’s possible that those criticisms are really just the result of my annoyance at Burroughs’ heavy-handed approach to his theme. I thought the book had more purple prose than “A Princess of Mars.” The book is written in the first person, and so Carter’s comments about his own prowess, and the respect and admiration paid to him by others, increasingly sound like boasting, which is out of kilter with the character as we were first introduced to him. (Carter’s praise of himself is as annoyingly expository as the praise of another Civil War veteran-turned-sci-fi-hero, Cyrus Harding, which I complained about in Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island.”)

“The Gods of Mars,” too, ends on a cliffhanger. I’ll continue the story, but I may jump into another book first as a palate-cleanser.

A Princess of Mars

As I posted on Facebook the other day, I’d been looking for some cheap Kindle reading material and decided to download some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about Barsoom, the source material for the current movie “John Carter.” The movie has become notorious as a flop – it was hugely expensive and would have had to become a huge hit in order to be considered successful, and it hasn’t been. But at least one of my friends commented on the Facebook post that she and her daughter enjoyed the movie (“Not our fave, but fun.”).

It’s been a crazy weekend – my father was in a wreck on Saturday; he’s bruised, has a gash on his arm, but otherwise OK. But I’ve gotten to make some progress tonight on A Princess of Mars, the origin story and primary source for “John Carter.” The story was first published in 1912. So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s definitely better than The Mysterious Island, another proto-science fiction classic and the last Kindle public domain classic literature freebie I blogged about.

Burroughs, of course, was much better known for creating Tarzan, but some have said his Barsoom books have actually been more influential, establishing characters and situations which would be reused and expanded upon by later generations of fantasy writers.

The movie is still showing in Tullahoma, but I don’t want to see it until I’ve finished the book, and maybe not until I’ve finished all three or four of the Barsoom books I’ve downloaded. So I may just have to wait and watch it on DVD. I don’t want to spend the extra money on 3D anyway.

I like the fact that Amazon offers free public domain classic literature for the Kindle. I’m still waiting for a can’t miss deal on a non-fiction book, or a couple of books for which I’m on the waiting list at the library’s e-book site. But for now, John Carter and his adventures are childish fun.

‘The Hitman’s Guide To Housecleaning’

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrimur Helgason, is one of those books I’d never have bought had it not been for my Kindle. It was on a deep, deep sale, it looked sort of interesting, and I was looking for some fiction after a number of (quite good) non-fiction books.

I can be sort of hard to please with fiction – which is why I tend to read more non-fiction — and this doesn’t seem like the type of book I’d normally choose. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s a gritty and darkly-humorous thriller. Tomaslav Boksic, nicknamed “Toxic,” is a Bosnian War veteran and a ruthlessly-efficient assasain for the Croatian Mafia. His normal policy is to assume what he calls LPP – the Lowest Possible Profile – but when his latest victim turns out to have been an undercover FBI agent, he’s suddenly on the most-wanted list. He prepares to skip the country under one assumed identity but then has to find another – and so he murders and takes the passport, airline tickets and clerical collar of Rev. David Friendly, a minor televangelist on his way to visit some supporters who run a tiny religious TV station in Iceland. Helgason ends up having to maintain Friendly’s identity for a few days. He discovers that Iceland has no handguns, and finds himself attracted to the rebellious and partially-estranged daughter of his strait-laced Christian broadcaster hosts.

Helgason is an established novelist in Iceland but I believe this is the first time he’s actually written a novel directly in English. You’d never be able to tell (although the novel is in first person, and by a non-native English speaking character, so Helgason covered his bases). The novel’s gritty but wry tone is nice because it doesn’t give away the ending; I had no idea where we were headed, and the novel could have believably gone in several different directions.

When I first read some vague description of the novel’s plot, and saw the mention of televangelists, I cringed a little bit. Trust me, I’m second to no one in being suspicious of, and embarrassed by, televangelists, particularly two of the real-life televangelists mentioned in passing in the book. But televangelists have also become low-hanging fruit from both a comic and dramatic perspective, and if the book was going to be largely about lampooning TV evangelism, jumping off to attack faith in general, I was prepared to be bored by it.

Thankfully, that’s not the direction Helgason goes at all. He never exactly endorses faith, but he shows some sympathy for his religious characters and never uses televangelism as a straw man to mock religion in general. In fact, the televangelism plot in general is downplayed. And this is a book that acknowledges the possibility of redemption. I’m not sure Helgason has a deep understanding of American religious culture; Friendly is eventually revealed to be a Baptist, and I don’t know that many Baptist clergy wear clerical collars. But in any case, the author avoided cheap shots or easy targets.

All in all, a surprising book and one I found it difficult to put down. Please keep in mind that the language is somewhat … earthy. It is about a hitman, after all!

Write More Good

In the newspaper business, we use a reference called the The Associated Press Stylebook for a wide variety of questions about newspaper style – what to capitalize (and what not to), whether you have to say Federal Bureau of Investigation or can get by with saying FBI, and so on.

A few years ago, some very funny writers got together, calling themselves the Bureau Chiefs, and created a very funny twitter feed called FakeAPStylebook, giving hilariously bad answers to questions of style and usage.

The Twitter feed became popular even with people who’d never seen or picked up an actual AP Stylebook. It led to a book deal – but rather than just collate their Tweets, as some have done, the Bureau Chiefs wrote new material (although I think they worked a few of the original jokes in from time to time), crafting a faux reference book that parodies everything from the AP Stylebook to Strunk and White.

That book is Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide. Now, parodies of advice for writers are not new; the late Michael O’Donoghue, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers (he appeared opposite Belushi in the show’s very first cold open) crafted this little gem, which I have in an anthology somewhere. But “Write More Good” is just terrific. I do need to alert some of my readers that there’s Strong Language.

By the way, I’ve had my Kindle about six weeks and this is actually the first book for which I’ve paid full price – sort of. Tuesday’s Kindle “special offer” was a $10 Amazon gift card for $5. I bought the gift card and ended up using it on “Write More Good.” So as far as the publisher is concerned, I paid full price.

I’ve been in the middle of a book on the history of Irish Americans. It’s a good book, but one day when I had only a few minutes to read I thought I’d dip into “Write More Good.” I ended up reading all of “Write More Good,” and it’s only tonight that I can go back to the history book.