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Secret codes, the Trystero: A mysterious Thomas Pynchon hunt

Trysterosticker
Turns out when you show people the tattoo on your wrist and ask if they've seen any stickers nearby with it and a mysterious URL, they might not respond particularly warmly. They might just shake their heads in bafflement, ask halting questions, then look at you as if you're in some sort of a strange cult.

Maybe I am. I have a tattoo of the Trystero symbol from Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" on my wrist. In the book, the symbol -- a muted post horn -- is the sign for an underground mail system known as w.a.s.t.e. And the mysterious symbol might have greater, or lesser, meaning.

Now that symbol adorns 200 stickers planted around the country and can be found in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles. Each sticker has a url, but you have to find a sticker to see where it leads.

The Google map of the sticker locations took me to my local Trader Joe's -- convenient, because I had some grocery shopping to do -- but nary a sticker was to be found. I searched all the sticker places I know, around the parking lot and light poles, places inside where a sticker might be stuck. Finally, I asked my cashier, who showed no spark of recognition at the words "Pynchon," "geocaching" or even "game." As she was edging away, a fellow staffer who could double as a bouncer at any rock club looked over his massive shoulder at me suspiciously. OK, time to go.

A similar scene occurred at a local coffee shop that I frequent; today its staff seemed to think I was some kind of imposter dressed as a journalist (it happens). I explained what I was looking for -- Pynchon, sticker, wrist. The barrista huffed, "I don't know what you're talking about," and went back to his business. And ... no sticker.

Apparently, while a Pynchon fan in England has picked up on the idea by creating and posting his own versions of the Trystero symbol and the secret codes, Pynchon stickers in the U.S. are going missing. Could it be the result of simple sticker cleaning? Are Pynchon fans scooping them up? Or are they being torn down because of some conspiracy?

But eventually I found one, in the photo above. It's still in a good spot above the coffee lids at Demitasse, a high-end coffee shop in downtown L.A. I wasn't the first one to discover it -- that honor goes, appropriately, to Trystero Coffee, a micro-roaster that sells its beans to the shop.

So where does the url trystero.me/12pgg take you? To a passage that begins, "Everybody in 24fps had their own ideas about light, and about all they shared was the obsession." That's from Pynchon's novel "Vineland," set in Northern California, which I discovered using the exhaustive and essential fan-run Pynchon Wiki website.

At the bottom of each webpage is a button marked "w.a.s.t.e" Click it and a box pops up in which you can type a message. Where will w.a.s.t.e. deliver it? It’s a mystery -– which will lead some to concerns about privacy, while opening up the freedom of the anonymous Internet to others. There was no Internet in 1966, when “The Crying of Lot 49” was published; then Pynchon imagined real-life post-office boxes set up to move secret messages.

This Pynchon project -- the Google map, the sticker hunt, the URLs, websites and message system -- was cooked up by Pynchon's publisher, Penguin Press. The Press announced last week that Pynchon's entire catalog of books -- eight novels and a collection of short fiction -- will be released for the first time as e-books. In a likelihood, this project has something to do with that.

There must be more to learn about what the Pynchon project points to. For now, it's a very Pynchon mystery.

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Photo: The Trystero sticker at Demitasse Coffee in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

 

Book news: Carlos Fuentes, Gastronomica, L.A. Kings and more

Carlosfuentes_2010
Though the publishing business slows down on Fridays, interesting book news does not.

Guernica has a previously unpublished interview with Carlos Fuentes, who died May 15 at age 83, conducted in 2008. "I am a writer," he says. "I spend all my day sitting before a notebook with a pen in hand, writing and writing and writing and reading and reading and reading. This is my life. From time to time I need a break. Giving lectures, traveling, going to the universities is a way of coming out of the solitude of writing, which I enjoy, I like, but I have to break it from time to time, and it is getting to know new people and young people, without consequences. So, it’s not bad. It’s simply my spring break."

Food and culture journal Gastronomica has relaunched its website. To kick things off with special Web-only content, the magazine asked food writer Ruth Reichl, novelist Francine Prose, writer Elizabeth Graver and poets Ellen Doré Watson and Patty Crane to reflect on a 1936 Walker Evans photograph, "Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead." It's a better-than-average way to connect writing, art and food. Annual subscriptions to the print quarterly are $50.

The Huffington Post is launching a magazine for the tablet called Huffington. "At HuffPost, we now have nearly 500 editors and reporters who produce between 70 and 80 original reported stories each day," Arianna Huffington writes. "Think of Huffington as HuffPost's more stylish offspring. Same DNA, different presentation." The app is free, but individual downloads of the magazine cost 99 cents to $1.99. Huffington notes that the tablet magazine will be "far away from the maddening crowds of banner ads, pop-ups, and drop-downs." What she doesn't say is that's exactly what the Huffington Post website delivers.

Twenty-one books by Patricia Highsmith are available as e-books for the first time, including "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and its sequels. With a catalog that large, publisher W.W. Norton has built the Highsmith recommendation engine, which guides readers to the Highsmith book that's best for them with such questions as, "Would you rather read about a strangulation, a shooting, or would you rather avoid a murder all together?"

Hachette Book Group announced Redhook, a new imprint within its science fiction and fantasy-focused Orbit publishing division. The emphasis will be on "commercial fiction," and the lead title is a historical epic, which is kind of confusing. "I have read the press release about Orbit's new commercial fiction imprint Redhook five times now, and I still have no idea what it's about," tweeted publishing observer Sarah Weinman.

After L.A. Kings' Stanley Cup victory, The Times has published "Crowning Glory: The Los Angeles Kings' Incredible Run" as an 128-page paperback and an e-book.

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Photo: Carlos Fuentes at a 2010 graduation ceremony. Credit: Andres Leighton / Associated Press

 

Thomas Pynchon's novels will finally be released as e-books

Pynchonebookscoming

For the first time, Thomas Pynchon's back catalog will be available as e-books starting Wednesday. Pynchon was a major writer whose absence from the e-book canon was notable -- particularly since his most avid readers tend to be intellectually curious, the kind of people who are often technology's early adopters.

Many of Pynchon's books deal with technology in one form or another, from the bombings of "Gravity's Rainbow" to the fringes of the aerospace industry of "The Crying of Lot 49" and the oddities of the 1893 World's Fair in "Against the Day." As e-books have emerged, Pynchon has let the technology pass by; not anymore.

“There has been a great desire to have all of Tom’s books in digital format now, for many years. He didn’t want to not be part of that,” Ann Goodoff, president of his publisher, Penguin Press, told the New York Times. “I think he wants to have more readers,” she said. “Every writer wants to have as many readers as they can possibly get. But I don’t think this will change his public profile, in terms of him being out there in public. In fact, I know it won’t.”

Pynchon, 75, is a notoriously private author who has declined to speak to the media for decades. Although it's not easy to be a recluse in the Internet age, Pynchon has largely avoided being photographed and has otherwise stayed out of the public literary sphere. Apparently, his books being available electronically will not change that.

Seven Pynchon novels and his short story collection "Slow Learner" go on sale Wednesday as e-books. Chronologically they are "V" (1963), "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966), "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973), "Vineland" (1990), "Mason & Dixon" (1997), "Against the Day" (2006), and "Inherent Vice" (2009). They will be priced from $9.99 to $12.99.

One technology that Pynchon has welcomed is the fax machine. His old friend, Phyllis Gebauer, when announcing a donation of a (very rare) complete set of signed first editions of Pynchon's books, talked about communicating with Pynchon via fax. "I was planning to skydive into the middle of these proceedings," Pynchon joked in a fax to her. Gebauer donated her Pynchon collection to the UCLA Extension writers program, where she had taught for many years. "Thank you for your teaching," Pynchon's fax continued. "Good work and good vibes to everybody there."

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Harry Potter 'Book of Spells' by J.K. Rowling launches Wonderbook

Harrypotterbookofspells

As the publishing business is gathered in New York's Javits Center for Book Expo America, some of the most exciting book news of the week was being announced 3,000 miles away. It was at the E3 electronics conference in Los Angeles, and the company with the news was Sony.

The Harry Potter universe just got bigger, and more interactive, with an impressive new game-slash-ebook for Playstation. The tool is called the Wonderbook; its first book is "Book of Spells," written by JK Rowling herself.

Rowling has been trying to forge a unique path for bringing her Harry Potter books to life. Of course, there was the movie series. Then in 2011, she launched Pottermore, an interactive website designed to allow fans to do their own Harry Potter-inspired storytelling. If that was a bit of a disappointment to some, "Book of Spells" may pick up the slack. It does seem to be a leap forward.

"Book of Spells" for Wonderbook lets readers -- or is it players? -- use a wand and an interactive book to make things happen on the screen. In the demonstration Monday, players released a video dragon, which lighted  the book on fire, and players patted  the book with their hands and put the fire out. Apparently, after reading more of the book, a player could learn spells to put the fire out.

The demonstration is pretty impressive. And it's interesing that as e-books continue to evolve, the place to find the most innovative new books may not be in the hands of publishers, but the industries that put the "e" in "e-books."

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Photo: Two players demonstrate "Book of Spells" and the Wonderbook. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images.

See a video of the demonstration after the jump.

Continue reading »

Amazon awarded patent for electronic gift-giving

Amazonegift

When you get an email announcing you've got a gift you can download -- an e-book, a movie or music -- think of Amazon. It doesn't matter where your gift was purchased: Amazon has patented e-gifting, Geekwire reports, asking, "Did Amazon.com just patent Christmas?"

That's because the electronic gift-giving process described in Amazon's patent sounds like something that is widely used. From the patent description:

Electronic transfer has become a prominent method for distributing media content and other electronically transferrable items. Electronically transferrable items may include, for example, electronically accessible services or digital media content such as songs, ringtones, movies, magazines, books, and other content. The electronically transferrable items can be accessed on computers, as well as on portable media players or home audiovisual systems using set top boxes or other devices. In downloading or streaming the electronically transferrable items from a network, such as the Internet, consumers can select and access desired electronically transferrable items in minutes or seconds. Thus, consumers can enjoy the electronically transferrable items without leaving their homes to purchase or rent physical media storing the electronically transferrable items and without waiting for delivery of physical media, such as via the mail.

The prospect of electronically transferrable items offers an alternative to conventional methods of giving gifts that might include music, movies, television programs, games, or books. For example, instead of giving a gift certificate for a retail store that would allow a recipient to select a gift of the recipient's own choosing, one can give a gift certificate for electronically transferrable items. Using the gift certificate, the recipient can conveniently access the desired electronically transferrable items.

Amazon's patent includes charging the giver only when the electronic gift certificate has been redeemed. Geekwire writes, "Broad patents like these have become a lightning rod in the tech industry, helping to fuel criticism of the U.S. patent system."

Don't be surprised if some post-patent action follows. Speculating that this conflicts with a recent Facebook acquisition, Business Insider writes, "Amazon has aggressively enforced its patent on one-click checkout — even Apple agreed to license it."

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Image: Screen shot of Amazon.com gift certificate page. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

Judge paves way for authors to sue Google over scanning, e-books

Authors vs. Google

The judge in the long-running Google Books case paved the way Thursday for authors to sue Google as a class. Judge Denny Chin has granted class certification to authors challenging Google over its massive book digitization project.

"The ruling is a setback for Google," writes Jeff John Roberts at Paid Content, "which asked Judge Denny Chin earlier this month to remove the Authors Guild and a photographers’ group  from the lawsuit." He continues:

Google had also argued that a class action was not appropriate because many authors were in favor of having their works appear in the company’s search results.

Chin’s ruling means the stage is now set for a trial on whether Google’s decision to scan millions of books amounted to fair use under copyright law. This fair use question has triggered passionate debate among lawyers and scholars, and reflects Google’s position at the time it was sued by the Authors Guild and a consortium of publishers in 2005.

While lawyers for Google did not respond to the Associated Press' request for comment, the Authors Guild swiftly distributed a news release. In it, executive director Paul Aiken said, “This is a key ruling for all U.S. authors whose literary works have been appropriated by Google.” The release continues:

The class of authors includes all U.S. authors and their heirs with a copyright interest in books scanned by Google as part of its Library Project. Google has scanned 12 million books in that project, the majority of which are believed to be protected by copyright. Books from all over the world were copied, but U.S. works predominate.

Google's liability for copyright infringement has not yet been determined by the court.  Google's primary defense to infringement is that its actions are protected by fair use.

The Google Books project has been in legal limbo, which now is likely to be extended further. The Google Books settlement had proposed solutions for orphan works -- books whose copyright status is unclear -- that had been particularly objectionable to some author representatives. The Authors Guild notes, "If Google is found liable for infringement, copyright law prescribes statutory damages for willful infringement at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work."

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Photo: Screenshot of the Google logo. Credit: Karen Bleier /AFP/Getty Images

Waterstones makes deal to sell the Amazon Kindle, dismaying many

Kindle_bestbuy
British bookstore chain Waterstones announced Monday that it would soon sell Amazon's Kindles in its stores. The news was met with dismay from almost all quarters of the publishing industry.

That's partly because Waterstones' chief executive, James Daunt, had been a vocal critic of Amazon and its tactics. In December, Daunt called the company "a ruthless, money-making devil." In the announcement, he said, "It is a truly exciting prospect to harness also the respective strengths of Waterstones and Amazon to provide a dramatically better digital reading experience for our customers. The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop." That's quite a turnaround.

Reactions were swift and strong. At the Guardian, Richard Lea wrote that what Daunt had done was "welcome a ravening tiger into his living room." "[T]his shot at the e-book market seems to be aimed directly at Waterstone's own foot," wrote Martha Gill at the New Statesman. The Bookseller's Philip Downer pointed out that "the opportunity to create an independent online business, benefitting from HMV firepower and leading one day to an ebook solution, was lost." The headline at the English Gizmodo site read, "Waterstones Surrenders to the Amazon Ebook Behemoth and Agrees to Stock Kindles."

Many American observers, including GigaOm's Laura Hazard Owen, recalled a hauntingly similar deal between Amazon and Borders. Back in 2001, when Borders was a major brick-and-mortar bookseller on par with Barnes & Noble (remember that?), it cut a deal with Amazon, letting Jeff Bezos' company handle Borders' online book sales. That six-year deal left Borders tragically behind when it came to the Internet, and was part of the bookseller's decline and eventual bankruptcy.

Although most see Waterstone's choice to sell Amazon's Kindle as a bad idea, a few think it may have some merit. "Some commentators have likened the deal to Neville Chamberlain's infamous pact with Nazi Germany," writes Philip Jones at Futurebook, "but it feels more like Dunkirk. A strategic retreat: allowing the business to refocus its efforts on those fronts where it can continue to fight on."

At the Verge, Tim Carmody takes a moment to look at the deal from Amazon's point of view: "For Amazon, the long-term strategy is much clearer. This is about eliminating real and potential e-book competitors by sucking out all the oxygen in the room." And that, for those who would like Amazon to have a little e-book competition, is the rub.

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Photo: An American shopper tries out a Kindle at Best Buy. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

Esquire, adding fiction ebooks, goes back to the future

Bedsideesquire
On Monday, Esquire announced that it will launch a new line of fiction ebooks with the help of e-publisher Open Road Media. The ebook series will be titled, plainly, "Fiction for Men." Editor-in-Chief David Granger tells the New York Times that men's fiction is "plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another."

That definition elicited groans on Twitter. "Oh good. Because lady readers & lady writers HATE exciting fiction when 'one thing happens after another,'" tweeted editor Reagan Arthur, who has her own imprint at Little, Brown. "Someone needs to tell Ian McKewan he's been writing women's fiction," wrote author Nichole Bernier. "Finally, men's fiction is getting its due. FINALLY," Maura Johnston, an editor at the Village Voice, tweeted. "So glad to see this neglected niche recognized,"  wrote Jennifer Weiner, whose work is often characterized as women's fiction.

Despite the ire, it makes sense that Esquire, a men's magazine, might try to go for fiction that men might like, reaching out to its reader base. In fact, it's done it before. In 1933, it first published an anthology of some of its best fiction, "The Bedside Esquire" (that title, too, was problematic; one publisher thought being in 'a bedside anything' was unbecoming a writer of stature). "The Bedside Esquire" included all kinds of writing from its magazine -- the controversial essay "Latins Are Lousy Lovers," a primer from famed attorney Clarence Darrow on how to choose a jury -- but was predominantly fiction.

Some of the authors found in a 1940 edition of "The Bedside Esquire" are legendary: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Ben Hecht, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Langston Hughes, Irwin Shaw and John Dos Passos. Others like Parke Cummings and Donal Hough, both of whom appear twice, prove to be less lasting. At 702 pages, however, there is a lot of fiction here to choose from.

With that history, what's interesting is that Esquire stopped thinking of fiction as something to be proud of. "Fiction begins to feel a little bit of a luxury," Granger told the New York Times. So the ebook offering is a kind of solution.

It is, unfortunately, sort of a muddled one. The first issue of its fiction ebook series will have stories by Luis Alberto Urrea, Aaron Gwyn and Jess Walter. It's being released in conjunction with the June/July issue of the magazine, which contains three different stories -- by Colum McCann, Lee Child, and the father/son team of Stephen King and Joe Hill. So Esquire readers who want fiction will get one set of stories in print, and an entirely different set of stories in the ebook. Let's hope they're good at figuring out which product to buy for which content.

Esquire's first "Fiction for Men" will be published June 12.

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Photo: "The Bedside Esquire" anthology, 1940 edition. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

Stay e-gold, Ponyboy: 'The Outsiders' becomes an e-book

Cast from the 1983 film version of "The Outsiders."

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton's book "The Outsiders." To celebrate, Penguin is releasing the story of the boys from the wrong side of the tracks for the first time as an e-book.

Hinton began writing the book while she was still a high school student in Tulsa, Okla."It was the year I was 16 and a junior in high school that I did the majority of the work (that was the year I made a D in creative writing)," she said in an interview on a website dedicated to "The Outsiders" book and film. "One day, a friend of mine was walking home from school and these 'nice' kids jumped out of a car and beat him up because they didn't like him being a greaser. This made me mad and I just went home and started pounding out a story about this boy who was beaten up while he was walking home from the movies — the beginning of 'The Outsiders.'" The novel was published by Viking when she was a freshman at the University of Tulsa, in 1967. She later published "That Was Then, This is Now," "Rumblefish" and "Tex," among other novels.

The book "The Outsiders" was adapted for the screen in 1983. Director Francis Ford Coppola cast a stellar group of mostly up-and-coming young actors that included Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise. Ralph Macchio played the ill-fated Jonny and C. Thomas Howell his friend, the narrator Ponyboy.

In its press release about the e-book edition of "The Outsiders," Penguin notes that there are more than 14 million copies of the book in print, making it the bestselling young-adult novel of all time. Its e-book edition is available for $9.99.

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Photo:  From the 1983 film "The Outsiders"; from left, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise. Credit: Associated Press

Harry Potter e-books to join Amazon's Kindle lending library

J.K. Rowling's bestselling Harry Potter series will be available as free e-books to Kindle owners through Amazon's members-only lending library beginning June 19
Amazon's Kindle lending library, the program in which Kindle owners who have access to the library can borrow e-books for free, announced Thursday that the Harry Potter books will be among its offerings. To access the lending library, readers must be members of the Amazon Prime program, which has a $79 annual fee.

Potter fans had a long wait for the young wizard's stories to appear in e-book form; they have been available for sale from the official Pottermore website since late March. When the e-books finally arrived, they were made very welcome. In Britain, $1.6 million worth of Harry Potter e-books were sold in just three days; the first month's total was more than $4.8 million.

Amazon has not announced the terms of the deal with author J.K. Rowling to add the books to its lending library, but its news release notes that the company has "purchased" a license from Rowling's Pottermore site.

Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne was a little more forthcoming. "The way the deal is structured means that any lost sales are more than made up for," Redmayne told the website PaidContent. "Yes, some people will borrow from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library and therefore not buy, but Amazon is paying us a large amount of money for that right, and I believe it's a commercial deal that makes sense."

Although Amazon is now prominently displaying the Harry Potter series in the Kindle imaging on the site, and offering a free 30-day Amazon Prime trial, that won't quite get free e-book editions of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and its sequels into readers' hands. The series won't be available to Kindle owners until June 19.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: A screenshot of Amazon.com showing Harry Potter books on the Kindle. Credit: Amazon.com

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