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Biography and Memoir

Paul Alexander: Why we are still fascinated with James Dean

51b+QQmS5oL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Celebrated biographer and journalist Paul Alexander talks about the short life of James Dean and how his death immortalized him as a cultural icon. Paul’s new biography, Being James Dean, is now available.

September 30, 1955. It’s a date that has become so infamous that for years now movie fans mark it with tributes. What happened on this day? At 5:59 p.m., on a stretch of two-lane highway in Northern California, James Dean died in a car crash. Driving his silver Porsche Spyder 550 convertible, Dean, an amateur sports car driver, was on his way from Los Angeles to Salinas to compete in a race the next day. He was driving too fast. He had not turned on his headlights. As a result, his speeding silver car blended into the coming twilight so completely Donald Turnipseed, a college student in a Ford sedan, did not see Dean and made a left-hand turn in front of him. Dean tried to swerve but it was too late. The violent collision sounded like a small explosion. Dean died on impact. He was pronounced dead on arrival when he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. He was twenty-four years old.

At the time, he had made three pictures, but only East of Eden, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, had been released. A student of Stanislavski and a member of the Actors Studio, Dean portrayed the troubled Cal Trask with such power, displaying such raw emotion, that he invited comparisons to Marlon Brando. Then, within days of Dean’s death, Rebel Without a Cause came out. Audiences were stunned by Dean’s unnerving portrayal of Jim Stark, the disillusioned teenager who rebels against his family, authority figures, and, finally, society in general. With this picture, Dean became the teenage Everyman who spoke for a generation repressed by the conservatism of the fifties. Soon a myth began to form around Dean that was only enhanced when Giant was released in 1956. In his final picture, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel about the Texas rich, Dean’s Jett Rink, who ages from a youthful, evocative cowboy to a hunched-over, alcoholic oil baron, was a tour de force.

Over the years, the Dean myth grew, and a generation of actors — Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino — emerged shaped by the emotive, highly personal style Dean perfected. Calling him “the inspiration,” Pacino has said, “The person I related to was James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me.” But Dean was an influence beyond acting. In the sixties, he was a symbol of rebellion to a youth discontent with the status quo. In the seventies, he would come to represent the very ideal of individual freedom. “It is quite possible that the James Dean mystique,” The New York Times notes, “which persists to the present day, might not have been as intense had he lived longer, but like so many others untimely ripped from our midst — Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon — James Dean has transcended mere idol status and entered the hallowed halls of Legend.”

As an early biographer of James Dean, I have continued to document his life and impact. On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of his death, my new portrait, Being James Dean, explains why as the decades go by our fascination grows.

Guest Post by Peter Arnett, Author of "Saigon Has Fallen"

91S6W8q8KUL._SL1500_Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett reflects on his role covering the controversial Vietnam War for The Associated Press from 1962 to its end on April 30, 1975 in his new memoir Saigon Has Fallen, an intimate and exclusive remembrance on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Saigon Has Fallen is about my coming of age as a journalist during my thirteen years covering the Vietnam War. It is also about the failed dreams of those who launched the war, and the sacrifice of the many that died in it. My Vietnam assignment was at times a baptism of fire, as I shared the dangers of the battlefield with American and Allied soldiers, and reported stories and wrote analyses for the families back home, who were increasingly skeptical about the war and its objectives.

It was also a struggle for my professional credibility because this was America’s last uncensored war, and the administrations of three presidents endeavored to present a wholly optimistic picture of events. We journalists chose the truth, sharing with our newspaper and television audiences the bitter realities of an unwinnable war that for the American and South Vietnamese soldiers who fought it came to an unbearable, heartrending end with the communist victory forty years ago.

To some degree, the United States is still nursing its wounds from the war that remains a benchmark for misguided foreign conflicts. In Saigon Has Fallen, I present a personal view of those years, including the struggles of my Associated Press and other news colleagues to provide the unvarnished truth about the war even as local officials physically blocked our coverage, violently at times, and as senior officials in Washington tried to undermine our reputations.

I mention my journalistic relationships with some of the better-known figures of that era, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and Ambassador Graham Martin, and recall my long-term acquaintanceship with General William Westmoreland, the American military commander for much of the war who in retirement came to terms with the failure. It was in Vietnam that I first wrote about Captain Norman Schwarzkopf, then a military adviser but later the successful commander of coalition forces in the first Gulf War.

And I remember my friendship with the legendary John Paul Vann, the maverick Texan who was retired by the military for his critical views of the war in its early stages, and died in action late in the war believing that victory might still be possible.

Most importantly to me, I write about the American infantrymen and their officers that I met when they first began arriving in force in 1965, firmly believing in their mission. As the war progressed I was welcomed on their combat operations and was privileged to report on their victories and defeats. My detailed battle reports for the Associated Press were criticized as being too revealing by the military high command, but the soldiers themselves and America’s newspapers welcomed them.

This memoir comes forty years after the Vietnam War ended, but my memories remain crystal clear, as do the memories of many of the soldiers who served there. I know that history has moved on, but the military and political mistakes made during that conflict are important to remember today as America seeks to define its role in an uneasy world.

Saigon Has Fallen also includes twenty-one dramatic photographs from the AP Archive and the personal collection of Peter Arnett.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett reflects on his role covering the controversial Vietnam War for The Associated Press from 1962 to its end on April 30, 1975 in his new memoir Saigon Has Fallen, an intimate and exclusive remembrance on the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

Exclusive Q&A with Lucy Knisley

In an exclusive Q&A with Kindle, Lucy Knisley talks to us about her critically-acclaimed graphic novel "Relish," her upcoming book, "An Age of License," and what makes comics such a diverse creative medium. 51iwQdfsOZL

Charlie Chang: For readers who haven’t checked it out yet, why don’t we start with “Relish,” what can you tell us about how you got started and the inspiration behind that book?

Lucy Knisley: Sure! I was raised in this world of cooks and chefs and bakers and every memory of my life is tied to this idea of this sense memory. Of something I remember cooking or smelling and when I set out to tell some stories from my child I realized they were all couched in this connection to food and that it really made sense for me to tell these stories from the perspective of someone who really loves food because that’s what’s really important to me. So I also think it’s really wonderful to bring food and comics together. There’s this great visual aspect to it. Comics are this great melding of the visual and story and to add food to that adds another sensory layer to the experience so I was really excited to bring those two together.

CC: Very cool! Now in creating "Relish," how much did you have to actually make some of the food while you were writing the book?

LK: A lot of the recipes were ones that I had made so many times over the years that I just sort of automatically knew them but it was funny because they sort of tested me. My publishers were like “you have to make sure you have all the measurements correct.” So I had to really make sure that I was measuring everything and that I could go through the recipes step by step because they were all recipes that I really just knew by heart since I was thirteen.

CC: That’s so funny because I would like to be a good cook…but I’m not. People tell me all the time that you don’t have to follow the recipes exactly but I freak out if I feel like I’m straying from the directions.


LK: Yeah, my fiancée is exactly the same. He worries about going out of order and I have to tell him “it’s fine!”

*More Laughter*

CC: You brought up senses and comics, are there things in life completely unrelated to comics and graphic novels that always remind you of comics and graphic novels?

LK: Well, cookbooks are a little connected. There’s a balance between the visual and the written word. I read a lot of cookbooks and always have but even more so since "Relish" came out. So cookbooks a little bit. I do a lot of travel and I make a lot of travelogues so traveling has always lent itself well to comics. It’s interesting, in relation to the cookbook thing, I find very text heavy recipes difficult to follow because I’m a visual learner. So I always learned from watching my mother and being taught how to do it directly. Comics are this great way to bridge the divide between the long column of text with confusing terminology and watching someone doing it because you get to see the hands perform the task. With recipes it’s like comics because there are these steps along the way and each panel is a new part of the story.

CC: That’s so true! So moving along, what are you working on right now?

LK: Well I have four books in the pipeline right now. Two from Fantagraphics, they’re both travelogues, one of them is coming out in September and it is a story about going to a Norwegian comics festival and traveling around that area called "An Age of License." Then the second one coming out a little further into the winter and it’s going to be about going on an elderly person’s cruise with my 95 and 96 year old grandparents. *laughter* So those are kind of interesting as two sides of the same coin about young adulthood and experimenting and adventure and fun and romance and then the other side of things like mortality, maturity, and responsibility. Then I’ve got two book contracts with First Second, I’m getting married soon and I’m making a book about nerd, feminist, tomboy wedding planning. So that’s really fun and what’s going on with me and the wedding and everything. Then there’s a longer term project about high school and the importance of arts education and how I was rescued as a young person by arts educators, librarians, and teacher who really recognized the artist in me which isn’t always something teachers tend to see in students.

CC: That’s so cool and all those projects are so different but really proves why comics is such a diverse medium for storytelling.

LK: It really is so great and so versatile.

CC: What are you reading right now?

LK: Let’s see, I loved "This One Summer" so much that it depressed me for a week after I read it because I doubted why I was even trying to write a graphic novel. That book is so good and I loved it so much. I read the new Gabrielle Bell book, "Truth is Fragmentary," it makes my own autobiographical comic books seem less fraught. I love her, I think her work is really great. I’m sort of the other happier side of the storytelling.


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Jo Piazza: How Hanging Out with Nuns Made Me a Happier Person

If Nuns Ruled the WorldJournalist Jo Piazza is not religious, but spending time with a group of nuns for her new book made her a happier person—here’s why. 

We love to talk about happiness. You know the kind of talk that I’m referring to. It always starts with someone saying something like, “I’m working on me.” And from there, they proceed to tell you about all of the things they are doing to make themselves happier. It always seems to involve spin classes at studios that charge $40 for instructors to tell you you’re awesome.

The book The Happiness Project was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Pharrell song “Happy” is the most played song of 2014. Someone sent me a link to a website the other day called Happify—a company that promises to train your brain to be happy. Among other things, the site features inspirational quotes and videos of cats.

Happiness has become something we need to practice. It’s a science. It’s something we need professional coaches for.

It has to be easier than all of that.

I’ve recently discovered a very happy group of individuals: Catholic nuns. You’re skeptical. I can tell. They aren’t paying for expensive spin classes or buying happiness manuals or downloading happiness-inducing apps. Over the past three years, I have hung out with more than 300 American nuns while working on my book If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission.

“Nuns? Really?” you want to know. “Aren’t they stuffy? Uptight? Angry? Wielding rulers above the hands of small children?”

Not the ones I know.

The women I met are funny, engaging, brilliant, independent, and fierce. They are doers. They don’t talk about being happy or being content. They just wake up every morning and do the things they believe will make the world a better place. Some of them fight for the poor. Some of them work with women in prisons. One of them broke into a nuclear weapons facility to protest nuclear war. She is now in prison. But I know she’s content, and she’s probably even happy there. Before she went away she told me very simply: “If I go in, I will observe the goodness of the women. I could minister to the women and them to me.” She said it with a smile on her face.

The nuns I’ve met are focused on the present. They live for the here and now. They lead authentic lives. They do good things; things that matter. They don’t ask for anything in return. They don’t brag. They don’t gossip.

They tell amazing jokes. When they laugh, you’ll laugh, too. In fact, just being around nuns made me a happier person.

You’re probably cocking your head right now and raising your eyebrows. “How could hanging around with nuns make anyone happier? Happiness is $40 spin classes and videos of cats trying to climb into boxes!”

Consider this: Maybe happiness is just being around people who do what they truly love. Sara Marks is one of the few nuns I spent time with who is close to my age. When Sara was deciding whether or not she wanted to become a nun, she was also going out on dates with men. One day she realized that spending time in a community of happy women who were dedicating their lives to helping others just made her happier. So that is the life she chose.

Joy is contagious. I felt it whenever I was with the nuns and I felt it afterward. They made me want to do things instead of just talking about doing them. They made me want to smile instead of just thinking about how great it would be to smile more.

Nuns are happy because they do what they love. They practice gratitude. They have meaning and purpose in their lives, and these particular women have helped me to find some in mine. And they also love a good cat video.

Comics, Wrestling and Telling the Story of Andre the Giant

Box Brown, the author of the new Andre the Giant graphic novel talks about the similarities between the art of comics and professional wrestling and his admiration for the subject of his new book. AndretheGiant

Comics and wrestling seem like a natural fit to me.  When, as an adult, you tell someone you’re interested in comics you have to be prepared to defend that.  I think there can be a lot of misconceptions about what comics are and what comics can be, like that they’re only for kids or perhaps a generation of older men still living in their parents’ basements.  As a comic artist (and reader) I know this just is not the case.  Comics is a medium capable of an infinite range of expressions—an art form.  I believe that pro-wrestling is an art form too.

Surely then, if pro-wrestling is an art form, it has had no greater master than Andre the Giant.  Andre had a condition known as acromegaly, which caused him to grow too large for his own good.  When he was told he wouldn’t live past the age of forty, he decided to live the life he had to the fullest.  Andre had a leg up in the pro-wrestling business, because he was a huge man who was naturally foreboding. But he didn’t rest on that.  He knew how to work a crowd the way great comedians and MCs do.  He knew how to play both a “babyface” (good guy) and “heel” (bad guy) to perfection.  He also worked constantly for many many years to develop his craft. 

In pro-wrestling when two wrestlers are developing a match they say they are telling a story in the ring.  So, in addition to all the storylines that go into a pro-wrestling television show, the two athletes in the ring are telling a story.  It’s a sequential story that has the qualities we look for in the greatest works of literature.  The hero sets out on a quest and is tested and beaten down and eventually he rises to the occasion to defeat and overcome his detractors.  Each story is different and can be a drama, tragedy or comedy.  Each wrestler has his own unique style and way to depict his character.  Is it that different from using a brush and ink (and Photoshop) to tell this type of story on the comic page? 

I think of Andre’s story as a tragic one.  He was disabled for a large part of his life and he died at only forty six years old.  He was mostly portrayed on TV and spoken of as a kind man with gentle heart.  But Andre was only human.  He had all the flaws and personal idiosyncrasies that we all have.  He was imperfect at times.  He spent a lot of time in pain.  I think he felt disconnected to this world that he didn’t quite fit in.  Every aspect of his life had to be special fitted for him, from his clothes to his cutlery to his cars.

Towards the end of Andre’s career he was in a lot of pain. People said he probably should have retired and he could have, financially, but instead he persevered.  I think this is what I admire most about him.  I think those moments when he was in the ring creating stories were extremely important to him and really made him happy.  I hope one day when I’m nearing the end I continue to persevere and create the way Andre did. 


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The Trials of “Van-Dwelling”

WaldenBroke and desperate but determined, 26-year-old Ken Ilgunas decided to buy a cheap van and secretly live in it in a Duke University parking lot to afford grad school. Walden on Wheels, his self-deprecating travel memoir, is a frank, funny, and brutally honest portrait of life in a van.

Though living in a van on a college campus was, in many ways, as ordinary as living in a dorm (albeit a cheaper, tighter, and somewhat smellier dorm), there were instances when the peculiar hardships of “van-dwelling” made me question whether living cheap was worth it. It turned out to be totally worth it—I graduated debt-free—but for your entertainment, I present some of the stranger, unexpected, and more unpleasant aspects of two years in a home on wheels. 

A mouse lived in the van's ceiling for three days. During this period, I got little sleep as I obsessively watched the imprint of its tiny paw prints scurry across the upholstery.

Once a family had a picnic next to my van. For four hours! Living in there was a secret, so I couldn’t make a sound, let alone open the door. For those four hours, I remained fixed in the same sprawled position on my bed for fear it would squeak and I'd be discovered.

During my first rainstorm in the van, I discovered there was a leak in the roof. It dripped down onto the bed and left a pancake-size circle of wetness, making it look like I'd had a terrible accident.

I was so excited and nervous about going on a date with a girl (a rare occurrence, I assure you), I accidentally crashed the van into a concrete cylinder, leaving permanent scars that would ultimately make it unsellable.  

Ants, thousands of ants, invaded my storage container one fall afternoon and carried off my food.

Without the luxury of refrigeration, I scoffed at the supposed need to keep some food items “fresh,” not bothering to chill my month-old bottle of squirtable butter. This resulted in a nightlong food-poisoning extravaganza that culminated in my throat discharging the entirety of my stomach’s contents into my wastebasket in one impressive burst.

When my secret was finally discovered, a student in the adjacent apartment complex told campus administration that my van made her feel “uncomfortable.” I was given a new parking spot next to the campus police station—and a law was created that more or less bans students from living in their vehicles.

Ken Ilgunas

Hillbilly Heart: A Q&A with Billy Ray Cyrus

CyrusAward-winning country musician Billy Ray Cyrus's candid and poignant new memoir, Hillbilly Heart, was published this week.

Q: You've shared many of your life stories in your lyrics. What inspired you to take it to the next level with a book, and how was writing Hillbilly Heart different from writing a song?

Billy Ray Cyrus: You know, for me, writing a book was a whole lot like the songs that I write. It ain’t always pretty, but it was the truth. I sing and write what I am living, and I live singing and writing. And this book is like the little thing the Book of Psalms says in the beginning: His truth shall be your shield and buckler. That’s why I wrote the book—to tell the truth.

Like anyone, I am looking for purpose, trying to find things that matter. It can’t be a coincidence that a kid from Flatwoods, Kentucky, thought he was going to be a baseball player and ended up buying a guitar and starting a band and going on this crazy journey. This is the summation of my life—Billy Ray Cyrus, Hillbilly Heart.

Q: Beyond diehard fans, what kinds of readers are you hoping to reach? What would you like them to take away from the highs and lows of your life?

BRC: If someone can learn from my mistakes and save themselves from making the same mistakes, then there is purpose writing the book. When I set a goal, I write it down and clarify it and visualize it, then take steps toward it. "To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." And when people "have no vision, they shall perish." "What a man can conceive and believe, he can achieve." It’s about visualization and persistence.

I wrote a chapter on my buddy Robbie Tooley, who committed suicide. I end Robbie’s story with the 1-800 number and website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in hopes that all these years later, he could help some kid out there. If this book saves one life, then there is the reason I wrote the book.

Q: You write a lot about your determination to make it as a musician. What fueled your persistence, even when Nashville was nonresponsive and your goals seemed like they were a million miles away? How can your audience capture that spirit and apply it to their own lives?

BRC: I think this goes back to purpose. I had a dream and a burning desire that the music and my life could make a difference, make something positive. Something that represented God’s light and God’s love. That somebody could take something away from it and in some way bring about a positive change, whether in their life or to the world.

Q: What's the best advice you've received about music or life? What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

BRC: If I could have read this book and gone back to being a 20-year-old, trust me, I would have skipped everything that hurt. It would have been nothing but yes and bliss and happiness. All the things that hurt or were painful, I would have just skipped those parts. I would eliminate so many mistakes, because I failed way more times than I succeeded. But then, you know, failure is the most important ingredient for success. Every time you fail, you eliminate one way that won’t work, therefore getting one step closer to a way that will.

Bob Knight and "The Power of Negative Thinking"

KnightIn The Power of Negative Thinking, legendary coach Bob Knight explains why his unconventional approach will produce more positive results in sports and daily life. Drawing on a long and dynamic career as one of the winningest basketball coaches of all time, Coach Knight challenges conventional theory by offering an antidote to thoughtless optimism and wishful thinking. Here are 10 essential insights from the coach's new guide to getting results.

1. Look at this restaurant! No cars! Easy parking, and we’ll get served right away!
Ever notice how often restaurants with bad food do have lots of room to park?

2. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Translation: Make those free throws, dammit.

3. One more beer can’t hurt.
Unless you’re driving.

4. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Or victories before they’re won.

5. Good things come to he who waits.
If he works like hell while waiting.

6. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Tell me that’s not perfect negative thinking.

7. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
When you have one, it’s time to substitute.

8. Hindsight is 20/20.
And foresight is even better.

9. It’s always darkest before the dawn.
I thought that once or twice...and then woke up.

10. Everything’s coming up roses.
Nice—unless you planted grapes.

Edward P. Jones on “Notes of a Native Son”

BlogImage_ForNov21For the first time, audiences can now read the classic Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin on Kindle. Now available as a digital book, we’re excited to share excerpts from the Introduction, written by Edward P. Jones:

I did not know James Baldwin the essayist before my first year of college. I knew only the James Baldwin of novels and short stories and plays, a trusted man who gave me, with his Harlem and his Harlem people, the kind of world I knew so well from growing up in my Washington, D.C. They were all one family, the people in Harlem and the people in Washington, Baldwin told me in that way of all grand and eloquent writers who speak the eternal and universal by telling us, word by hard-won word, of the minutia of the everyday: The church ladies who put heart and soul into every church service as if to let their god know how worthy they were to step through the door into his heaven. The dust of poor folks’ apartments that forever hangs in the air as though to remind the people of their station in life. The streets of a city where the buildings Negroes live in never stand straight up but lean in mourning every which way.


Traveling with Baldwin through NOTES’ “The Harlem Ghetto,” “Journey to Atlanta,” and “Notes of A Native Son,” I was given a grander portrait of the man I had known only through fiction. His fiction certainly had an unprecedented and absolute life of its own, and I might have tried to imagine the man I was dealing with, but those essays afforded me something beyond the postage stamp-sized pictures of him and the few sentences of biography that came with my paperback editions of, say, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN or ANOTHER COUNTRY. He would have been Baldwin had I never read those essays, but he would not have been real enough to deign to share a moment or two with me.  The fiction offered a person of enormous humanity. The essays offered a man, a neighbor or, yes, an older brother.


One of the wonders of coming back to NOTES after such a long time is how “current” Baldwin is. That might sound like a cliché but in so many instances in our lives we learn that some clichés are built on things solid and familiar and timeless. “Journey to Atlanta” is but one of a hundred examples in NOTES. What also comes across, again, is how optimistic James Baldwin was about himself, his world, black people. Even when he describes the awfulness of being black in American, he presents us with an optimism that is sometimes like subtle background music, and sometimes like an insistent drumbeat. But through it  all, with each word– perhaps as evidence of a man certain of his message – he never shouts.

Browse the James Baldwin store or view "Notes of a Native Son" on Kindle.

October's Kindle Books for $3.99 or Less

For great books at a low price, browse this month's 100 Kindle books for $3.99 or less, a diverse offering available all month. These deals expire on October 31, 2012. Here's a selection of our favorites from October's great collection:


Literature & Fiction 

When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald, $3.99

When It Happens to You--A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald

General Nonfiction 

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, $2.99

  All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

Kids & Teens 

The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick, $1.99

  The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick

Mysteries & Thrillers

77 Days in September by Ray Gorham, $1.99

  77 Days in September by Ray Gorham


Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland, $1.99

  Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland

Science Fiction & Fantasy 

American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman, $3.99

American Gods--The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman

Biography & Memoir 

The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez, $0.99

The Master of Disguise--My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez