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Black holes, dark matter, Amazon, and other mysteries of the universe

Ardent Amazon critic, Sherman Alexie, has books on display. Ironic photo by the Seattle Times.It's weird. It's mysterious. And it’s official. Amazon has opened an actual, honest-to-betsy, retail location in Seattle—a physical bookstore—the very thing that was anathema to all things Amazon for the last decade.

And no one knows quite what to make of it. 

When looking at photos of the new bookstore my first thought was of the Final Fantasy movies. The producers used the latest, greatest, state-of-the-artiest technology to create what was then deemed to be the most “life-like” animation ever. But the characters on screen, while beautiful and gorgeously rendered, lacked a certain spark. Their souls were missing. One reviewer called them “cadaverous.”

That’s how Amazon’s bookstore feels to me. It appears to be a data driven replicant of a bookstore experience. A facsimile—like Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, the sheer audacity and genius is amazing to behold. But on the other hand, you’re left wondering when this creation will break loose and start eating villagers.

And yes, I am colored by my personal experiences with Amazon.

That is to say, I sell a ton of books via the giant online retailer. (So...yay!)

But I also once created a tiny promotion aimed at supporting Indie Bookstores and was told that by doing so I had jeopardized my chances of being one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. (!)

And a year later I was curious about all things Amazon, so I flew to Seattle to meet with their head of publishing, who was quite wonderful and told me how much she loved working there. And then she quit a month later.  (So...huh?)

I guess that's a fancy way of saying that I have more questions than answers. Like you, I'm left wondering...why a bookstore?

  • Is it to test drive/sell more Kindles?
  • Is it like sending in the infantry to mop up the retail battlefield that’s been crushed by Amazon's online cavalry charge? 
  • Is it just a PR stunt to further augment stock price?
  • Of has Amazon renewed its vows and actually fallen in love with printed books?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. And maybe Amazon doesn't even know. But either way, I’ll be making popcorn and watching curiously from the sidelines.

What’s your theory, wiseguy?


State of the Book Address

Found some graffiti that God would approve of atop the dome of Sacre Coeur.Hey, kids. Been a longish time since I've posted. Which means that I've either been writing, or traveling. Or in this particular passport-stamping instance, a bit of both.

I sent an early draft of the new book to my illustrious editrix long before the recent blood moon and she had tremendously wonderful feedback, which also requires tremendously strenuous rewriting. (Think Mt. Rushmore, but adding a different face and shorting the chin of Abe Lincoln and giving George Washington braces). The new book will undoubtedly be better for it, but these things take time. 

Speaking of time, I took a little time off to visit Paris. And while I hung out with authors Janet Skeslien Charles, James Grady, and the incredibly talented Aliette de Bodard (we went to Literary Boot Camp together back in 2006) I was really there for a mental palate cleansing before I dive back into my Seattle based book which has a new working title: WITH MY MEMORIES, I LIT THE FIRE. 

Oddly enough that title comes from a translation of a song in the 50s by French singer Edith Piaf. And sure enough, all over Paris we're hearing this broken-hearted ballad. So in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, "No matter where you go, there you are."

Okay, back to my Batman pajamas and that whole writing thing. 

Au revoir. 


Go Set A Watchman should never have been published. Also, there is no Santa Claus. Sorry kids

Truth sometimes hurts, like a cinder block dropped on your head. But, sometimes it's needed. So here's the flat of it my friends--this book should never, NEVER, have been published. I'm not talking about changing the storyline, or the new and unimproved racist Atticus. I'm talking about trampling the wishes of an 89 year old woman.

Yes, this book is from Harper Lee and that's head turning for sure. And it's cool for fans and a windfall for booksellers. YAY, you! And for Harper Collins (no relation) it's like flying a fleet of B-52s over their NYC office and carpet bombing them with gold bullion.

But *rubbing forehead* that doesn't make it right. 

Here's what we know:

  • Up until she was 88, Harper Lee never wanted to publish another book. And fans BEGGED her for more. Publishers threw mountains of money at her. But she still said, no thanks. Her sister, Alice, was her attorney and gatekeeper, and in Lee's nursing home years, she saw that those wishes were honored. 
  • In 2011, Lee's agent Sam Pinkus, a representative from Sotheby's, Justin Caldwell, and an attorney, Tonja Carter, visited Lee's safe deposit box and discovered a rejected manuscript called GO SET A WATCHMAN. That book would later be rewritten and renamed TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

(Side-bar: All authors have early trunk novels. We can't part with these books because we've invested so much time in them, but NO AUTHOR IN HIS OR HER RIGHT MIND WANTS THIS STUFF PUBLISHED. Leesha, if you're reading this, if I should fall off a cliff and die, please give that early manuscript a nice Viking funeral. Thanks!)

  • January 2012, Tonja Carter becomes durable power of attorney for Harper Lee. 
  • Jump to 2014, three months before Lee's sister Alice dies, Tonja Carter "discovers" this manuscript. Harper Collins rocks the world by announcing they will publish this long lost book about an older Scout, insinuating that this is some kind of sequel. They know it's not, but hey, marketing. 
  • Today GO SET A WATCHMAN is released. Sales of the initial 2 million copy print run are projected to generate $40 million. The profits will go into a foundation run by (insert ominous Darth Vader music) Tonja Carter.

If you watch the PBS special by Mary McDonagh Murphy, we see a very old Harper Lee being presented with her "new" book. Curiously, they only show stills, not actual video. We also hear audio of Ms. Lee being asked, "Did you ever think you would see this published?" She answers, "Of course I did, don't be silly." 

In a recent interview on CNN, Mary McDonagh Murphy was asked, "Did you believe her?" Murphy couldn't really answer that question. And neither can the rest of us. We can only go by what Ms. Lee desired until she was 88, until her sister died, until a new attorney thought otherwise. 

GO SET A WATCHMAN is a priceless artifact. It's an amazing study in how an early, rejected draft can become a timeless classic. But I can't bring myself to read it. Sometimes when you pass a train wreck, you should just look away.


Hey, let's all talk about race. Wait, where are you going?

With Mat Johnson and Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Amazing how many halves can make us whole.I was at Mixed Remixed in LA this past weekend, a festival celebrating the mixed race experience in film, literature, music, and art. While at the same time the general public was reacting to the whole Rachel Dolezal thing. Yowza. What a cultural confluence. 

I'm going to err on the side of positivity here and say that Mixed Remixed was, and I believe I'm using the scientific term here: UTTERLY AMAZEBALLS. 

As a kid who grew up never feeling Chinese enough (because I didn't speak Cantonese like my dad) and never feeling white enough (because I ate stuff like chicken feet and dried cuttlefish that freaked out my Caucasian friends), Mixed Remixed was like Camelot. It was magical. Everyone had gone through their own weird, bi-racial journey. It was a giant, collective, beautiful validation. When author Mat Johnson said, "I am a racial optical illusion," we all said YES. When Fresno's Poet Laureate, James Tyner said, "I would walk with my people if I could find them," many of us shed tears.

I won the 2015 Storytellers Prize for Literature. The Daily Show's Al Madrigal won for Film & Television.But then circling the whole thing like a fanboy at a Star Trek convention was the spectre of Rachel Dolezal. The white/black elephant in the room.

I just feel sorry for her. I don't sense malice in her actions. Just a desperate (albeit deceptive) clawing for a comfortable place in the world. I understand that.

And I get the outrage. But Internet outrage is all pitchforks and pumped shotguns. It's like locking someone in an old stockade and letting villagers pelt them with rotten fruit. The act itself is ugly and tragic and is the opposite of healing.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a big-hearted take on the matter. And attendees at Mixed Remixed definitely weighed in. Meanwhile I'm still looking at this spray-tanned train-wreck and looking for the love. What do you think?