Category Archives: Book reviews

lighting a financial candle rather than cursing the financial darkness

Now and then, I have to give credit to a complete idiot.

Dirty laundry: I sometimes have trouble coming up with good topics to maintain a twice-monthly blog posting schedule. In this case, a friend’s friend said something so blithering that I had to contradict. Not harshly, of course. You never know when it’s someone’s wonderful Aunt Edna who, while dumber than a bag of wet nickels, has devoted her whole life to helping her nephew and about two hundred other kids from broken homes. I’d rather not find out the hard way. But the facts, at least, needed a saying.

This brought me to the realization that I have a substantial financial reading list, if I would but share it, to help people self-educate. Self-education is good. Why take my word for this stuff? Better to read people who know more about it than I do. And another of my beliefs is the old saying about lighting candles and cursing darkness. If I don’t feel good, I try to make myself do things that will make me feel more positive.

Before I go into the reading list, I ought to disclose my basic investing outlook and methods. I am not a fan of corporate America. I begin with the presumption that it is impossible to find a publicly traded American company not operated by criminals, at least as I define the term. The harder a company puts on the PR to tell me how wonderful it is, the more I assume the reality is opposite.

I am more an income investor than a growth investor. I don’t like CEO promises and predictions; my basic outlook is “Fuck you; pay up.” I like income because they can’t take it back. I own very few separate issue stocks. I go mostly for index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and closed-end bond funds (CEFs). I can wring 2-5% payouts from the bond index ETFs, 12-15% from the CEFs (with capital loss potential), and results from the stock ETFs vary but are more volatile than most of the market (this works to my advantage). My primary objective, naturally, is to make money. The secondary objective, which leads to the primary but has to come first, is to keep emotion out of my investing.

It follows, therefore, that I don’t much believe in ethical investing. If you want to get all ethical, buy Satan Inc.’s stock (DEVL), donate the dividends to their enemies, and vote against all management’s recommendations. That is the action on your part that they fear most–but don’t confuse it with investing for gain.

I do believe that financial innumeracy is one of the leading causes of youth poverty in this country. The schools and parents didn’t teach them. The young made the naive assumption that opportunities would be the same for them as they were for their parents, a myth their parents knew was bullshit, but did not puncture. The parents should have.

With that, I offer you a list of excellent reads about money management, investing behaviors, strategies, and suchlike. I hope it will help you beat the rigged game that is our market, even if your method doesn’t even involve buying any stocks.

  • Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere; Don’t Be One of Them, by Jason Kelly. You’ll be seeing his name a couple more times, for good reason: Jason combines a very readable style with an iconoclastic, no-bullshit approach. We’re friends, but I was a fan of his writing years before we became personally acquainted. If adulting classes existed, this could be the textbook. If you’re in your twenties and you have debt and/or no savings, start here. It’s the icewater bath you need.
  • Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, and Why You Should, Too, by Louann Lofton. It turns out that women have investing tendencies that work to their advantage, and Lofton has taken time to observe and quantify these. It’s an excellent read, and likely to promote confidence on the part of women navigating what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Bottom line: if you’re beating their numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you do it through newsletter picks, tarot, Sacred Vagina Meditations, research, or free association. It means you’re better.
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide, by David & Tom Gardner. While I’m out of the business of researching and picking separate issue securities (that would include common stocks), others might not be. Either way, this is a fun read full of helpful education.
  • Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), by William Poundstone. Poundstone is the guy you have never read that you should be reading: author of the Secrets books, who then turned to studies of human psychology. Distilled essence: marketers use our instincts to lead us to decisions that work to their advantage and against ours. Understanding this is worth your while.
  • The 3% Signal: The Investing Technique that will Change Your Life, by Jason Kelly. Jason publishes The Kelly Letter, an outstanding investment newsletter. He used to pick stocks. He stopped, and his life got better. This book tells what he does now, and how anyone with an investment account can do the same. Five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
  • Your Money & Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, by Jason Zweig. Another good entry in the field of investing and money psychology. I don’t believe you can go too far wrong applying critical thinking to an understanding of how our minds work.
  • The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, by Jason Kelly. There is some overlap here between more recent versions of this book and The 3% Signal. That said, if you want to go stock hunting, I’d take this book in addition to the Gardners’ treatise.

Because I feel in a sharing mode, I’m going to make a number of statements that I wish more people could absorb:

  • Any stock index report that goes by points rather than percentage change just makes you dumber.
  • Any person reporting a stock index result that reports points rather than percentage is either too uneducated to know how dumb this is, or is deliberately using the big number to draw attention.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds are usually a bad deal. They’re great investments for 1975, if you’re currently living then.
  • About 90-95% of investors should just buy and accumulate index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
  • Financial media suck. You get stupider every time you watch or read them.
  • Bonds don’t automatically mean you get your money back. Bond funds especially don’t mean this.
  • If investing a very small amount, you can afford to shoot high. Only when you pile up a big heap o’ money do you have to think about holding onto it.
  • Emotion is your investing enemy.
  • You don’t know who you are as an investor until you see a crash. Who you are is what you do during and after that crash. A fern could make money in a bull market.
  • The Dow is worse than useless; it is distortive. Any time someone cites it as meaningful, my opinion of that person’s investing savvy drops.
  • It follows, from the above and previous commentary, that any time anyone says “Dow drops 300 [or whatever number],” without including the percentage change, I conclude that the individual doesn’t understand the markets at all. I may heart them big time, but they said a dumb thing.
  • Most people throw away about half their lifetime returns just by playing with themselves all through their twenties, only getting serious come their thirties.
  • If you buy an investment you don’t understand, you do a stupid thing.
  • Any time someone starts by saying “If you had bought XX back in X month, year Y,” this person is sharing irrelevancy. Why? Because you didn’t. You wouldn’t. Next time, you won’t either. If only that defensive end had gotten to the passer on that third down play in the first quarter, the whole game would have been different–but he did not.
  • Always buy the stocks my wife says to buy. Unless, of course, I helped pick them, in which case they’ll tank.
  • The choice of a traditional vs. Roth IRA comes down to the tax benefit. If you don’t make enough money to need the writeoff, the Roth is probably more advantageous. However, the Roth means trusting the government to honor a promise years in the future. I never have. Your call.
  • Rich traders get to cheat in ways you and I do not.
  • For IPOs, if they’re worth getting into, you probably aren’t getting in unless you’re with a big full-commission brokerage. That’s one advantage for full-commission brokers, set against an ocean of disadvantages.

An interview with time travel fiction author Shawn Inmon

Today I have an interview with Shawn Inmon, one of a very small percentage of authors who earn a living at this, and one of what might be a smaller percentage of fiction authors who handle time travel well. With his most recent release now out, he was able to spare us some time to answer a few questions about this dark art.

JK: So, Shawn, first please tell us how you got into writing in the first place.

SI: I won a writing contest when I was fifteen years old and was named one of Washington’s Most Promising Young Writers. I was sure fame, fortune, and Pulitzers were right behind that.

As it turned out, I didn’t actually publish my first book for forty-seven more years.

That first book was a memoir–an easy entry for many a first time writer. In my case, life had handed me a pretty terrific story–falling in love as a teenager, having that romance forcibly ended and rekindling it thirty years later.

It made for a can’t-miss kind of story that was easy to write. The hardest part, as Bob Seger memorably said, was “What to leave in, what to leave out.”

And it was one hell of a tale. What inspired you to transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I honestly thought that first book might be it for me. Then, when it surprised me and started to sell well, I decided there might be a career there after all. However, I only had one love story to write about, so I knew I needed to segue into making up stories. That proved to be the right move. Fiction is limitless, whereas if I tried to continue to mine my own life for stories, that could wear thin pretty quickly.

Yeah, and any life would eventually run dry. Not much interest in The Rock I Tripped over When I Was Three. Who was your greatest fiction influence, and how/why?

I think I’m probably more influenced by Ray Bradbury than anyone else. I loved his natural style of storytelling. It never felt like he was trying too hard, but rather that he just sat down at his typewriter every day and magic flowed from his fingertips. I’m sure he worked and sweated as much as any of us, but it never showed.

Also, he was so workmanlike. I suppose that could be insulting to an “artiste,” but that doesn’t include me. I’ve always tried to bring my lunch pail every day and just get my words down.

Plus, I think Ray Bradbury was a good human being and I so often agreed with the themes he put forth in his books.

When I was a teen, Robert Heinlein was my guy. He swung his opinions like a weapon of war. I was attracted to that when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older myself, I find myself returning to Bradbury much more often than I do Heinlein. All these years later, I’m envious of what he accomplished so consistently and with such apparent ease.

So did you seek to emulate those strengths when you took to fiction writing, beyond the very obvious one that the lunchpail approach is one that gets the job done?

No, I can’t say that I did. I never consciously emulate anyone, though I’m sure all the reading I did seeped into my pores through osmosis. I’m more likely to take an idea from a book I read–a trope, or a situation–and file it away for future use. I have dozens of situations stored in my brain and hope that my subconscious will hand me the right one at the right moment.

For instance, in my most recent book, my protagonist met an antagonist. The antagonist took an instant dislike to our hero. That was the extent of my plan for that character. Then, they got thrown in together and grudgingly grew to respect each other and of course ultimately became like brothers. That’s a situation I had loved in a previous book that fell into place here. My situation ended up looking nothing like the source material (which is a good thing!) but grew from it.

My overall favorite author is Stephen King, and although I never attempt to emulate him, I know his habits have worked their way into my writing. I so admire his ability to connect me to a character in just a few words. Unlike some readers, I love his little side trips off the main plot. The difference is, his side trips are often ten thousand words. I try to limit mine to just a few hundred!

How long have you been writing time travel stories?

I started my first time travel book in 2015. I initially published it as six separate episodes, then bundled it all together into a single book in July of 2016. That was intended to be a standalone novel. About halfway through writing it, my first reader said, “This is going to be a great series!” I had no plans for a series, but that planted the seed.

When I finished that first book, Lord help me, I added a single line at the very end: “Coming Soon, The Redemption of Michael Hollister.” I had no idea what that story was or what it looked like, but I suddenly had a series.

I published the twelfth book in that series last September. I’m taking a little break from it at the moment, but I am planning to write the thirteenth book in October of this year. Essentially, that series–The Middle Falls Time Travel Series–took up all of my creative life for about three years.

And it has been an enormous success, with compelling characters in conflict–the essence of good fiction. What drew you to the genre?

To me, it’s just so much fun. There are so many ways you can go about it.

The first book I ever started (and never finished) was a time travel book. I just didn’t know enough about how to structure a story yet.

Time travel lets us visit different eras, which is fun. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again and feeling like I had actually been in New York before the turn of the twentieth century. When Stephen King wrote 11/22/63, my favorite part of the book wasn’t about Kennedy, but just what life was like in America in the late 1950s.

Then, there’s the fish out of water element. What happens when we take modern man (or woman–I’ve written three books with a female protag) and drop them into a completely foreign time zone? Whenever I start reading someone else’s time travel novel or start writing one of my own, I am still in awe at the possibilities.

What were some early struggles or issues you had to confront about time travel fiction?

So many! To me, it’s so easy to go astray writing time travel. So many hidden traps that we can fall into.

I remember when I first told you I wanted to write a time travel novel, you told me what you often didn’t like about the genre–that events continue to play out the same, over and over. Whereas, we know that in reality, just because a person does or says something in one version of reality, there’s no guarantee they would do or say the same in another go-round.

I took that to heart. So, when my characters wake up back at an early point in their life, things are initially–the first few minutes or hours–very similar. The farther they move away from that reset point, the more things change, though.

That can be used for dramatic effect, of course. What if a character is counting on something to happen because it did happen in their first life, but does not happen in their second, because they’ve done things differently and changed the world.

Of course, there’s the whole issue with “What if I traveled back and killed my father before he conceived me?” Blech. I have avoided those issues by creating a multiverse in my series. Each time a character is “restarted” at an earlier point in their life, it creates a new dimension, so there can’t be any conflicts like that. Essentially, I took the coward’s way out.

In my new series, I am using a portal for time travel, a la The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That also does away with that kind of conundrum. Someday, I suppose I should write the more prevalent type of time travel–get in a machine, or step through a wormhole, or something along those lines.

What would you say has been the single biggest struggle or issue?

For me, it’s been how to keep a series fresh over twelve books. My series are all standalone novels, so there isn’t one overarching plot line. That means I have to essentially reinvent the wheel every book.

The central conceit–someone dies with unfinished business on their soul and wakes up at an earlier point to set it right–is unchanged from book to book. My challenge has been, ‘How can I write stories that adhere to that conceit, without getting repetitive?’ I’ve done so by mixing up sub-genres within the main time travel genre.

For instance, the first book centers on stopping a serial killer from killing. It’s a cat and mouse game. The second book, which features the antagonist from the first book as the main character is simply a redemptive arc for him, if such a thing is possible.

Meanwhile, the third book focused on a romance–how many lives would you live to get back to the one you love? The tenth book was a murder mystery combined with time travel, which is definitely an aid in solving a murder. With the twelfth book, I set a special challenge: create a main character on the autism spectrum, then give him only thirty days to live, and require him to change.

With that twelfth book, I found that all my ideas were riffs on books I’d already written. That’s when I took a break to write the portal fiction trilogy. Now that I have, a great idea for a thirteenth book has arrived: What if someone doesn’t want redemption? I’m looking forward to writing that one.

I think quite a few people will be looking forward to reading it. Happily, you are prolific. Would you call time travel its own genre, or a subgenre of others (such as SF, fantasy, romance, etc.)?

I suppose it’s a sub-genre, although it could be located under either Science Fiction (if it is science based time travel) or Fantasy (if it is portal fiction). To be completely honest, although I call my Middle Falls books Sci Fi, they’re really not. There isn’t a bit of science in any of them. They would more accurately be labeled as Metaphysical Time Travel, or even Reincarnation, but Amazon doesn’t have categories for that.

The truth is, I just write the stories I want, then figure out how to market them later.

Who else is excellent at writing time travel, and what makes that author’s work excellent?

Probably my all-time favorite time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sadly, he passed away shortly after it was published, so the follow up he was working on was never published. Word is that his estate has been looking for someone to finish the book, but so far, no one has come knocking on my door.

In contemporary fiction, my friend Nathan Van Coops does an excellent series called In Times Like These. His books are filled with humor, adventure, and he does a great job at making the reader feels like he’s there.

That’s what I feel great time travel writers do: they bring you into a time with just a few short stabs of details. Some writers will do a bunch of research and then beat you over the head with it. Clever writers slip those details in as part of the story, instead of long info dumps. I love those writers.

There’s a big difference between storytelling and showing off, and plenty of writers seem not to realize that, I think.

Speaking of which: You’ve surely seen a lot of bad time travel writing. Not going to ask you to name names, but what are some of the tells that signal a badly done time travel story?

Thank you for not asking me to throw other writers under the bus!

The first sign to me is what I just mentioned–the info dump. If I start a book and the writer spends the first three pages setting the scene, I’m outta there. Too many books waiting on my Kindle.

With my new book, I have my hero discover the mysterious door in his basement in the first few thousand words. By the second chapter, he’s being dive-bombed by pterodactyl-like creatures. If it’s an adventure story, let’s have an adventure.

Of course, plot holes are easier to create in time travel than just about any other genre. I’m more forgiving of those, though, as I might slip into that pothole myself from time to time.

More than anything, though, I think the sign of a bad time travel book is when it’s more of a situation, rather than a story. I can throw a guy two thousand years into the past, but if I don’t do something interesting with him once I get there, it’s all for naught. All the elements of a good story–tension, conflict, goals and goals blocked–need to be just as present in a time travel book as anywhere else. So often, I find a writer will create a cool scenario, then not have any real idea what to do with it from there.

We all know that reviews can be ignorant, cruel, or quite frequently both. What’s the most unjustified type of review comment you see on time travel books?

I never mind bad reviews, really. If you go to Thomas Weaver on Amazon, the Top Review lists all the reasons people shouldn’t buy my book. (The book has 300 reviews, but that one stays at the top!) The thing is, I love having it there. The things she complains about (although she exaggerates somewhat) are things that other people will look at and say, “Hey, that’s for me!”

Occasionally, a reviewer will say something that flat out isn’t true – an element of the book that just isn’t there – but I feel like I’ve just got to move more copies of the book, which will result in more reviews, which will drown out the white noise of those few negative reviews.

I came to grips with the idea that not everyone is going to love what I write, no matter how hard I try. That was pretty freeing. Now, when those bad reviews crop up, they don’t hold any sting. The other thing is, if I’m just getting positive reviews, that probably means I haven’t done a great job of reaching a wide enough audience.

Initially, I try to swim where the water is warm and get the book to my readers that I know are prone to like it. Eventually, though, I’ve gotta toss it out there where there be sharks.

Which is a good outlook. But can you give an example, without singling anyone out, of a type of review comment you have seen often on a time travel book (yours or someone else’s) and thought, “That’s just ignorant.”? For example, when I see the snippy “obviously she should fire her editor,” that’s one of my own triggers. It says to me: “This reviewer doesn’t know how books are assembled.” Any category of comments like that, with respect to time travel?

Overall, I find that people confuse editing and proofreading. I think that’s because editing is mostly invisible. If an editor saved me from wandering down the wrong path, it just never shows up in a book. However, if a stray typo survives, that’s noticeable to anyone.

I think the kindest thing I can say is that there are different levels of readers out there. Many readers just want to skim along the surface and if they don’t pay attention and bump their noses against something because they weren’t paying attention, they may complain loudly about it.

I occasionally hear from readers who have put a lot of time into thinking about the concepts and themes of my books. Every writer loves that, of course, and I’ve had some enlightening conversations with people that helped me see things I didn’t even know I had put in the books.

Speaking of reviews, I have written an entire book because of a fairly negative review. It was on the third book in my series and the reviewer complained that my protag was too single-minded in the pursuit of his goal. I wasn’t put off by that comment, because that was a feature, not a bug, of the book. I wanted him to be single-minded to the exclusion of all else.

However, that review set my mind off on another path and I eventually wrote the fifth book in the series as an answer to it. Essentially saying, ‘Okay, you want a non-tunnel vision character? Here she is!’ I mentioned that in my Author’s Note for the book and the reviewer eventually got in touch with me. (He must have liked the series well enough to read at least two more books.) We had a good laugh over it.

Talk about abiding by the lemons and lemonade parable. I no longer need to ask you the question about “where do you get your ideas?” Because we know how authors love that one.

Ha! They do come from the oddest places!

The tenth book in the series came from listening to a sportscaster one morning. He said, “So picture this–eighteen year old kid is suddenly given fame and millions of dollars. You can imagine what happens next.” He was right–I could. It turned out to be a pretty good story, I think.

Of course the first book in the series drew from my own life. One of my cousins killed his older brother in a car accident, and I used that as the inciting incident in that first book. The serial killer came from my imagination, though. If I know any serial killers, I’m not aware of it.

And we’re going to keep it that way.

Since I’m close to the SF community, I talk to plentiful writers about time travel story concepts. What guidance would you offer a fiction writer new to time travel?

I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.

It’s always about the characters and the story. Do we care about them? If we don’t care about the characters, we sure don’t care about the book. We need someone to root for and maybe root against.

I just finished Blake Crouch’s Incursion. What an intricately plotted story! I felt my mind bending into a pretzel trying to keep up. It was exciting and full of twists. And yet, I forgot about it right after I finished it, because, for whatever reason, the characters didn’t resonate with me.

There’s a tendency I need to fight against, as well, and that’s creating “too” characters. Characters that are “too” good. Too competent, “too” whatever. I constantly try to remember yin/yang, and that there is a little of each in the other.

Yep. I see that all the time, the character where the author pounded me in the face with “this is the bad guy/gal.” Okay, I get it, now stop belting me with that.

You’ve got a new book out, one that looks to begin a new series. Can you please supply a purchase link, and tell us how your past work has influenced this new release?

Here’s the new book: A Door Into Time.

This book is essentially opposite of The Middle Falls series. That series is all about contemplation, introspection, redemption. This one throws a modern Special Forces member into essentially a prehistoric world, strips him of all his weapons, and challenges him to survive.

My favorite books as a young teen were John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mysterious Island. The problem is, those books were written 100+ years ago, so they are stilted in style and delivery by today’s standards. This book attempts to update that sub-genre of throwing a normal guy into an impossible situation.

I had such a great time writing it, and I hope that shows in the final product.

I am sure it will. Shawn, thanks so much for taking time out of your post-release schedule to answer these questions in such detail. Best of continued success in your work.

Thanks, J.K.!

=====

Please see the numerous links in the interview body for more about Shawn and his work. Others:

Shawn’s Facebook page

Shawn’s Goodreads page

Shawn’s page on Audible (most of his books are also available as audiobooks; he’s way ahead of the world on that)

What Jackie Bouvier Kennedy said about the Cuban Missile Crisis

I recently finished a book by ex-Secret Service agent Clint Hill, talking about his years protecting Jackie Kennedy as First Lady and afterward: Mrs. Kennedy and Me. On balance, I liked it. The First Lady as presented is faultlessly polite to those who help her, requires her children to behave likewise, has a powerful multilingual appeal that charms people and peoples wherever she goes, and tries desperately to avoid excessive media intrusion into family life while seeking to raise two unspoiled children.

One could without much difficulty point to more recent governing examples of the exact opposite in every particular.

Hill reports one statement by Mrs. Kennedy profound enough that I first questioned whether I believed his account. (This is not special nor exempt from critical thinking, unless one subscribes to the notion that government cops would not just lie to us. It is a historical memoir from a source logically prone to natural bias, based on eyewitness memory which can be malleable and flexible with time.) On reflection, I believe Hill because the event is consistent with the overall portrait, which in turn is supported by most independent evidence. It is the utterance that most influenced my perception of her, and I’m here to share it because most of you may not know of it.

For the record, I’m not the least bit nationalistic. This is the very last place to come for your dose of rah-rah Murrica f***-yeah. I consider nationalism to verge on mental illness in many cases. I’m also not a First Lady heroine worshipper, nor a Kennedy fanboy. No part of me headed into this book expecting to post on the blog about it. I still don’t even consider Jackie Kennedy among the United States’ three most important First Ladies (though I acknowledge that she was one of the most popular, and a truly admirable person who reflected great credit on the role). Ask yourself whether, had she resembled Eleanor Roosevelt, she’d have been as popular. The answer is unfair to everyone involved, because neither ought to have been judged on her looks, and thus were perceptions skewed.

The passage is on p.193 of my edition. They are in Hill’s White House office near the private residence. The Cuban Missile Crisis is reaching peak danger, and Hill was reviewing with Mrs. Kennedy the plans for the nightmare scenario of imminent nuclear warfare. He has told her what to expect: if there is not enough time to get her and the children out of town, he will conduct them to the bomb shelter underneath the White House.

Mrs. Kennedy is about to interrupt him.

…Before I could explain any further, she pulled away from me, in what can only be described as defiance, and said, “Mr. Hill, if the situation develops that requires the children and me to go to the shelter, let me tell you what you can expect.”

She was looking me straight in the eyes. She lowered her voice, into a deep whisper, and with complete and utter conviction said, “If the situation develops,” she repeated, “I will take Caroline and John, and we will walk hand in hand out onto the south grounds. We will stand there like brave soldiers, and face the fate of every other American.”

Recent read: Disaster at Bari, by Glenn B. Infield

This book, published in 1971, may have been the first to address in detail the calamity that occurred at the port of Bari, southeastern Italy, on 2 December 1943.

Since few but WWII and chemical warfare buffs know what happened, here’s how it went. When the Allies invaded Italy, port capacity was a limiter because it reduced the Allies’ greatest advantage, namely logistical wealth. Anglo-American industry was gushing forth weapons and their supplies, but this wealth had to reach the points of need. Freighters don’t unload themselves, and a port can unload only so many at once. When there are too many, the result is a harbor full of ships waiting to dock, carrying everything from blood plasma to artillery shells to the chaplain’s portable organ. (Stop that. You know who you are.)

The Allies assumed that there was no way the Luftwaffe would dare try to hit Bari. For that reason, the Allies declined to equip it with effective air defenses. No one bothered to inform the Germans that an air raid on Bari’s port was impossible; moreover, the Germans understood Italian port capacity and the importance of logistics. They considered it worth risking 150 of their remaining bombers, plus the necessary avgas, to fly to Bari and raise hell.

Like most of the Allied personnel at Bari, the Germans did not know that one of the Liberty freighters was waiting to unload a cargo of air-droppable mustard bombs (military code HS, I believe for sulfur mustard; another term for this compound was Levinstein-I mustard). While the Germans had not yet resorted to chemical weapons and evidently had no intention of doing so, the Allies could not know that and needed to be in a position to retaliate.

Mustard is evil stuff, as many WWI soldiers learned in the hardest possible way. Not technically a gas, mustard is a skin irritant and respiratory agent. To make matters worse, the symptoms take hours or days to manifest and can get worse before/if they get better. Like any munition, it can’t tell a civilian from a combatant. It raises heavy blistering, damages the airway, causes major swelling (especially in the genital area), and causes temporary or permanent vision loss.

If I believed in a devil, Levinstein mustard would be my idea of his air freshener.

The Luftwaffe bombers caught Bari defenseless, ships full of explosives and other supplies tied up like fattened steers. The raid sank seventeen, including the ship carrying the HS bombs. The explosions, fires, leaked petroleum products, and spread the ruptured HS contents about the harbor and town. Those caught in the water suffered greatly, especially those covered with fuel oil in which HS had partly dissolved. So did those brave and diligent enough to attempt rescue operations in small craft, inhaling HS vapor with every breath. The Italian civilian population was far down the priority list for suddenly overwhelmed medical facilities that contained not a single doctor who had ever treated a mustard casualty. Baffled, the doctors did their heroic best, but diagnosis is key to beneficial treatment. Until they knew what had happened, they had no idea they were doing more wrong things than right.

By the time they did know, it was too late for many of the victims. As for Bari’s port, it was out of action for multiple reasons (starting with the ship hulks clogging the docks and harbor). This situation turned out to affect the course of the war, slowing the Allied advance up the peninsula. It embarrassed the Allies, whose failure to defend against air attack can hardly escape the descriptor of “overconfident stupidity.” The air raid killed over a thousand military, naval, and merchant marine personnel; it took a similar toll on the civilian populace.

What is not well known is that the next step could have escalated the war into full-blown chemical weapons use. Once the Allies figured out that the agent was mustard–which only very few people knew had been sitting in Bari harbor–they might have concluded that the Germans had used chemical weapons first. Happily for untold numbers of people, the Allies did not jump to conclusions. As the truth emerged, so did the only sane conclusion: the M47A1 chemical bombs aboard one of the freighters had ruptured, not surprisingly, when the carrying ship exploded. This gruesome chemical wound, while proximately caused by the Germans, was not their design. In fact, had they known they might blow up a shipload of mustard, they might not have launched the raid lest they hit that particular ship and cause the Allies to draw a very different inference.

The book succeeds in the task of documenting the events, which one must concede is the most important work. I found three major troubles with it: wordiness, imprecision of terminology, and an attempt to present the events as a dramatic story by a writer without the necessary skills. Skillful editing could probably trim the word count by 15% without loss of meaning and with improved clarity. When one talks about unit titles, one should use precise terms: for example, it was not the New Zealand Division, but the 2nd New Zealand Division. Those parts read as though written by a journalist (and in historical writing, coming from me, that is rarely a compliment). You’d think a former Air Force officer would handle military nomenclature better. And while I approve of the idea to tell history through a storytelling format, one still needs to be good at the latter. The author was not, offering the same cliffhanger over and over before the raid. Many of the individual stories were never completed for us: what happened to that guy, anyway?

This is too bad, because Infield seems to have interviewed many survivors, from Italian civilians to Navy veterans and even German aircrew. As with Craig’s Enemy at the Gates, the story takes on different meaning when seen through surviving eyes. This creditable research and preservation deserved first-class storytelling, did not get that, and as a result does not satisfy as it could have.

Series hypnosis

Not sure how common this is, but it has certainly happened to me. From the way reviews go, I doubt I am alone. Here’s how it goes, using a fictitious and somewhat composite example:

Let’s imagine a writer going by the pen name of Gertruda Lynn. (Real full name Geertruida Lynn Plutz; she thought that just using her first two names would be a truly unique, edgy pen name, something never done before.) Gertruda publishes a new young adult (as in, kids) urban paranormal (as in, elfy/vampy/wolfy/dragony) series called The Trials of Countess Flatula. Inspired by Twilight, Flatula’s twist is that she has gas. This throws a gritty, original wrench into the social dynamics of subsisting on the blood of the living. Of course, when you look like a fifteen-year-old girl but are 150 years of age and have the strength of a mountain gorilla, you only somewhat have to put up with cracks about your ‘problem.’ Her saving grace is her comical self-reflection, an odd mix of drama teen and maturity: “I wish I was dead! Oh, that’s right…” In her spare time, she volunteers for the Red Cross.

Flatula is a big seller, and soon thirtysomethings are cosplaying her at cons, with healthy assistance from heavy morning meals of hummus. Flatula merchandise (including her own branded hummus and a Beano knockoff) sells. Publishers have not quite hit a Rowling gusher, but it’s a Grisham gusher. The protag finds danger, adventure, love, and embarrassment. The stories begin to push the adult part of “young adult” as Flatula begins to experiment with her inner desires. Five books in, Flatula is a commercial force that feeds upon many debit card purchases.

And then Flatula’s tropes begin to repeat. Lynn’s fetishism becomes progressively obvious and irritating. Not only do the flaws in her writing not improve, she seems to double down on them as a flipped bird to critics. Reviews drop from the 4.5* to 4* to 3.5*, and the critical reviewers wonder what happened to their beloved series. They beg the author to come back. They hint that she is acting out all of her repressed pervs. Dark hints arise about farming-out to ‘lancers. This is less fun for Gertruda Lynn.

In fact, Lynn is out of ideas and sick of Flatula, but the cash cow is still giving buckets of money and she’s chained to the oars. Plus, deep down, a part of her is even sick of writing. This is not how she envisioned it, especially the publisher stuff. She feels she has fallen down some storyline rabbit holes she cannot escape; at the time they were like quick hits of plot cocaine, but she did not think through all the story doors they would slam shut, nor those that they would wedge and weld open. Her reviewers no longer shower her with universal adoration. ‘Lancers don’t seem like such a bad idea. She would like to start a new YA series, Count Dogulus (about a vampiric elven werewolf with a miniature transgender dragon), but she’s signed on for three more Flatula novels.

And Flatula’s carrying the mail. Seven books in, the stars have settled at 3*. Forty percent of the reviews fire salvo after salvo of quippy irritation: “Can’t Flatula take some Beano?” “Someone open Lynn’s windows, and quickly.” “Gertruda, why can’t you be what you once were to me? How can such a wonderful writer put out such garbage?” They sound as if Lynn stood them up on a date. Sixty percent still gush over the newest, Prepare to be Flatulated, which definitely departs PG for an R rating. The publisher does not give two damns about the reviews, because every Flatula book is a guaranteed endcap “bestseller”–a self-fulfilling distinction, being that they buy said endcap space.

Gertruda doesn’t even have to write, and increasingly, she does not. She prepares chapter outlines and story overviews, with supporting material, and lets the publisher hire ‘lancers. It’s a good gig, and the NDA assures that the ‘lancers keep their yaps shut. Reliable ‘lancers will receive return invitations. Flakes will not. Gertruda is now mostly the editor, and this is a problem, because she’s not competent to edit. She never once in her life had to tell a single paying client what was wrong with his/her writing. No editor has ever done so for her, so she’s never seen it done. (When the publisher bought her first book, it got minimal attention. When it became a cash cow, the publisher would do nothing to interrupt the continued lactation.)

In the meantime, Gertruda cannot forbear glancing at the increasingly nasty tone of reviews. At one point, she launches an angry blog post that becomes a trope. When she gets depressed, she reflects that at least she doesn’t have to work part-time at Michael’s any more. Flatula is still giving the money milk, even though the protag has become a tragic, ethically imprisoned figure whose dimensions have deteriorated rather than expanded.

Why do people keep buying this junk? Every day, dozens of new competing novels hit print. About one in ten should have been published, but we live in the era of self-publishing, where you can define yourself as a writer and make that definition appear true. The market does not, however, solemnize that perception; what it does is ratify the value of marketing. Good, bad, or atrocious, the writers who market will sell books. The self-published writers who do not market will sell few or none.

The publisher keeps endcapping Flatula, and she is a lock for X number of copies that will gross $Y and net $Z. The reviews change nothing. Lynn can keep writing (farming out/editing) Flatula forever if she wants, because that hard core will keep buying them and writing favorable reviews. And here is what’s crazy: Some of those reviewers sound educated, discerning, even bright. Why on earth? Shouldn’t the literary ourangoutangs be the last remaining members of the fan club?

 

Indeed, why? I call this phenomenon “series hypnosis.” Back in the olden days, schools had driver’s education classes. (Children, this is when schools actually made efforts to prepare you for life, rather than for stupid-ass standardized tests; if you don’t believe me, ask your grandparents.) Among other subjects such as the value of the turn signal, they taught us to watch for highway hypnosis. This was the dangerous tendency to just keep staring ahead over the miles, no longer alert to potential issues: speed trap setups, brake lights, people wanting to pass, deer, semis’ blind spots, and potholes. It happens when one cruises at a consistent speed for long periods of the time, which is dull. I still watch for it, because my instructor was right about it.

In series hypnosis, we get attached to something or somethings: specific characters, plotlines, authentic writing talent, whatever. We keep reading as this develops. New characters add some interest and twistiness. The edginess factor grows as the author steps up the shock value. This lulls us into a sort of multi-book hypnosis in which we are no longer judging the series by objective standards. “If this were the first Gertruda Lynn book I read, it would also be the last,” say some of the reviewers as they begin to awaken, as 4* subside 3*ward.

It’s not that the remaining discerning readers have somehow become morons. It’s that the series has become a habit, like chew or porn. The loyal readership has suspended its critical thinking. Those hypnotized by the series will just keep buying and approving. They have series hypnosis. It’s a form of literary nose-blindness.

I’m interested. How many series have you kept reading out of habit, well past their sell-by dates, until one day the accumulated dose of awful finally drove you away?

In my case, the answer is: more than I care to admit.

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

New release: Out of Their Depth, by M.R. Cook

This new fantasy novel is now available in print and e-book. I was developmental and substantive editor.

I had known Mike very long ago, but we had not been in touch for most of our adult lives. We reconnected through a mutual friend from those old days who had also sought writing guidance. They had been part of a long-running fantasy role-playing game (akin to D&D) and were both writing stories based upon their gaming adventures.

Before you judge, know this: the unfolding of any RPG campaign is in essence a story writing itself. It always begins with characters in conflict; always with external forces, and sometimes with each other. Some of it is slapstick, for it is a proven impossibility to form any RPG gaming group without at least including one total gonzo. I was in one group where a player played a necromancer (magician who communicates with and animates the dead). His day job? Funeral director.

There are, of course, IP issues with using mutually generated creative content in a for-profit book. Mike has handled it the way I would do were I to write one: by sharing royalties through written agreements. Just in case you were also thinking of writing stories about your RPG campaign, yes, that is a valid method. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is essential legal protection. Don’t accept “Oh, I don’t mind, just go ahead.” Explain to them that fair is fair and you appreciate their contribution. One can also explain that this will give them a reason to promote the book, if one desires.

Out of Their Depth began life as a novella and evolved into a ms about double the basic novel length. That’s not to say that it is too long; my assessment is that the original story was too much to contain within novella or basic novel length constraints. Its evolution involved great strides in character development, for a typical RPG adventure story can have several protagonists depending on how the author chooses to emphasize and POV them. Mike has gone with a method in which I’d estimate 40% of the book is from the main character’s perspective, but his four comrades divided up the remainder of the time. He has done so very effectively.

As a writer, Mike’s greatest natural talent is descriptive verbiage. Where I didn’t persuade him to dial it back–thus, where I felt it paid its way–this talent goes on full display in the novel. His wartime experiences add a grittiness and realism to scenes and discussion of combat. One talent–or more correctly, one acquired knowledge set that adds great flavor–is Mike’s plentiful vocabulary of now-obsolete medieval terms. I am not, shall we say, accustomed to having to look up many English words unless I’m reading something very technical. (One of my sidelines is technical editing. That doesn’t appear on my credit list for multiple reasons, beginning with NDAs.) By the time the novella morphed into a novel, I’d headed for the dictionary a dozen times. I now can define terms like ‘culet,’ ‘oculus,’ ‘assart,’ and many more.

Since a temple is very prominent in the novel, I wonder how Mike managed to avoid the term ‘narthex.’ He may take that as a challenge. It’s the front sort of reception area of a Lutheran church, as I should know, having been marched to Lutheran churches at parental insistence until I finally realized that I was an exhibit rather than a youngster, and if I exhibited embarrassing behavior, I would no longer be subjected to attendance.

Another aspect Mike has handled well is gender. Most novice writers do not portray the opposite gender well. Though many try, it’s not an easy thing. I hammer on it especially with male clients, because in case they do not know this, they had better learn it: women tend to do more reading than men, and most will readily notice non-credible or derogatory female portrayals. They’re perfectly fine with a variety of female roles, attitudes, and ethical levels, but they will groan and tire when faced with characters and reactions that ring false. On the upside, when women like what they see, they vote for it with loyal pocketbooks. If a male fiction writer wants to succeed, he needs to learn to see and paint the world through her eyes. The story contains several strong yet diverse women, all with important roles to play; in fact, the toughest fighter in the protagonist’s party is a scarred, well-armored (no chainmail bikinis here), blocky ex-sergeant who provides most of their combat leadership. I feel confident that readers will conclude that Mike gets it on gender.

In fact, Mike Cook might be one of the most coachable writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Ever want to know how I size up a client’s potential? About half of it is by coachability. The other half is by the quality of questions asked. Mike was always a bright, articulate guy, and he hasn’t wasted the past three decades. A good client challenges me with great questions. Mike wanted to understand the logic behind my guidance, and where I did not volunteer it (I normally try), he sought it point blank.

This is very healthy, because I ought to have reasons for everything I advise, and it’s well within a client’s rights to want to understand the reasoning. An editor who cannot stand to be challenged in this way does not plan to teach. An editor who does not plan to teach is more or less hoarding knowledge. I do not believe knowledge workers benefit from hoarding knowledge. If your work is to share your knowledge, then its generous sharing will not only give good value but also signals that you aren’t in danger of running short on knowledges.

(Side note: early in my editing days, I had a client named Shannon D. Jackson who asked the best questions. Even better than Mike’s, because any time questions came up, she would ask me: “What questions should I be asking?” When asked that, it opens the floodgates for me to volunteer everything useful I can think of. She ended up with an outstanding parenting book.)

Mike placed quality and reader experience above all. He engaged artists. He hired a proofreader whose results proved very disappointing; so disappointing that I took the unprecedented step of doing it myself. I can’t ever take money to proofread my own edited work, but I can volunteer to do it simply to assure that justice is done. If there are still any typos, this time I am to blame. Even at the end, he was addressing potential loose ends in the storyline. The overall result of the process is a satisfying story by an author with great writing ability, a refreshing sense for physics and realism, and who progressed as much during the project as anyone I’ve known.

Writing as M.R. Cook, Mike has applied himself with as much diligence as any author with whom I have worked.

So, after a great deal of effort and time invested, it is with pleasure I announce his first novel.

Excellent books you may not even know exist

Other day, I was sitting out with a cigar and a book about how to avoid speeding tickets. It was insightful and well worth the re-read. It occurred to me that I had read a number of such books, profited from what I’d learned, yet never shared these hidden gems with you all.

That’s no way to treat all the nice people who take the time to read my blog.

What these all have in common: they all conveyed to me some form of important understanding, be it practical, geopolitical, financial, historical, whatever. After reading them, I felt more like a motorboat and less like an inner tube on the choppy waters of life.

Eagan, James: A Speeder’s Guide to Avoiding Tickets. It’s not that I habitually speed, because I do not. It’s that if by chance the police are thinking about stopping me, I hope they won’t, and if they do, I hope they won’t give me a ticket. Some of the technological tips may be dated, but I doubt that the insights into police mentality and habits are obsolete. This twenty-year veteran of the New York State Police got his most helpful possible endorsement when some police-connected official condemned the book. If the police do not want you to read it, obviously, it’s the first thing you should be reading.

Poundstone, William: Big Secrets. Poundstone, an investigative reporter and student of the human mind, dug into many subjects such as Freemasonry initiations, Colonel Sanders’s recipe, and all those supposed backward messages in records. (For those, he rented a studio and split the tracks, playing them both forward and backward.) It is a bit dated, but very interesting and mostly remains relevant. There are two sequels, with no decline in interest level or quality.

Kelly, Jason: The 3% Signal. Most of you who invest are still either picking your own stocks or paying expensive professionals (to underperform more often than not) through conventional mutual funds. The evidence is in, and it says most of you are doing this wrong. Kelly is a very interesting fellow, a Colorado Buff English major who lives in Japan and writes a financial newsletter. Not only does he write well, his market insight is spot on and his investing plan is so simple that even a self-declared financial boob could probably handle it. I’ve been using it for three years and it has made me feel much better about my investing methods.

Anderson, Kurt: How to Back up a Trailer…and 101 Other Things Every Real Guy Should Know. Anderson is that guy we all need to know. He’s like my father, who could have taught me all this stuff had I shown the slightest bit of interest, had I not been practicing the development method of “ignore adulthood and hope it will never arrive.” Unlike many who are gifted in the area of life’s physics, Anderson can write and never comes off as a horse’s ass about it all. The irony, of course, is that the people who should rush out to buy this book are majority female. Girls and women aren’t taught enough of this in life, especially growing up in cities (whereas your average farm girl could have written this book), and capability equals independence. Anderson’s book is their liberator.

Cahill, Tim: A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg. A world in which Bill Bryson sells more books than Tim Cahill is a world with lousy taste, a world that lets people with vested financial interests tell it what to like. The travel genre has many subsets, and one of my favorites is adventure travel. Cahill, a Sconnie now living in Montana, has a laconic descriptive method that knows how to let the humor speak for itself. Unlike some travel writers, he also seems like a man who could safely go back to most of his adventuresome haunts. One of the nicest things my bro John ever did was give me a copy of this book, which opened the way to the other seven-odd Cahill travel books.

Loewen, James W.: Sundown Towns. Prof. Loewen’s name is better known for his studies of mendacious monuments, but I consider this his most important work because it answers a question about how African Americans came to be concentrated in cities. It explains the difference between Southern and Northern post-Civil War racisms. As someone who used to live in a former sundown town (Kennewick, WA, which has never come to terms with this racist past and has instead chosen to avoid the conversation as the eyewitnesses die off), this book supplied a crucial lack in my understanding of American history. If we are ever to repair this ongoing rent in the national fabric, we must arrive at that understanding.

Horwitz, Tony: Baghdad Without a Map. It’s hard to pick a favorite book with authors who always do it right. In cases like these, I choose the one that first drew me in. Horwitz may be best known for Confederates in the Attic, his study of Civil War re-enactor culture, but a Jew traveling all over the greater Middle Eastern region shows me serious chutzpah. Like Cahill, Horwitz knows how to let the reader find the humor. All his books are good, including his historical take on John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry seizure, Midnight Rising. I find him an exception to the rule that journalists should be kicked in the groin if they start making moves toward writing history books. (“But I checked three sources! I can write it!”)

Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. When you look at a globe, you may not see the strings by which the United States manipulates the world. Perkins explains how we weave them, how we reeve them, and how we yank them to make less fortunate countries do our bidding. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how drug dealers work hard to develop new addicts because addicts are customers and can be controlled through their addictions, this book will show you how effective (if heartless) that business model can be on a larger scale.

Eskeldson, Mark: What Car Dealers Don’t Want You to Know. The fine art of screwing the auto-purchasing public is an evolutionary game, so books will tend to become dated. So is this one, but much of its content is still relevant. The essential lesson is that the process of buying a car is a three-card monte game with the dealer making a cameo. An updated version for the Internet buying era would be especially helpful, but no matter the timeframe, the fundamental mentality does not change; when it proclaims itself kinder, honest, and forthright, that is when it is the sleaziest. Car dealers hate when you are not forthright with them because deceit is supposed to be their playground. Definitely a good guide to how they think.

Sullivan, Bob: Stop Getting Ripped Off. I’d like to give a copy to every young person graduating from high school. Thanks to the time value of money combined with ignorance and naïveté, the first twenty years of independence are when the mistakes are likeliest to be costly when all is calculated with eyes wide open. One must learn to be one’s own advocate, and that advocacy must evolve, because what worked for your mom and stepdad may no longer be feasible for you. While the title is a bit misleading, at least in the body of the book Sullivan admits that there are areas where you are going to be ripped off and cannot stop the process. My view: at least if you know what the ripoff is and who does it, you’ll know who to hate.

Molloy, John T.: Molloy’s Live for Success. Okay, so you want to get ahead in the office/corporate world, but you don’t have the right connections, the right personality, the right clothes, the right vibe. You keep wondering why lazy, stupid assholes get promoted and you do not, in spite of your competent diligence. This resentment builds on itself, because you are an honest hard worker who tries hard to get along with others and go the extra mile, thus worsening the gap between you and success. That resentment hits close to my home, because the dawning of reality shortened my naïve, selectively brilliant, industrious father’s life. It would have shortened mine too, except that I decided I didn’t want that type of career. But if I had–if I’d been willing to subordinate my basic identity to a perfectly manufactured persona that kissed the right butts, appeared at the right places, and otherwise gave off the vibe of being a club member–at least I would have had the right textbook. I read it in my early twenties and it helped me to decide that I wasn’t the type to reach the executive suite. It helped me to understand the warm, affectionate, grandfatherly smile of the Sears executive whom I am certain vetoed their hire of me (a great kindness, now that I understand the world better). But if you are that type, the only things that have changed are the technologies and clothes. Even if you are not, if you work for a hierarchy, reading this will help you understand how that hierarchy got where it is (and why, at the rate you’re going, you aren’t getting a slot in it unless you are already slotted by genetics and upbringing to join it). Molloy is much better known for his Dress for Success books, but this is the book that will enumerate the rest of the entry fee.

Happy reading.

New release: Blue Ice, White Powder, by Jack Moscrop

This free travel story, in which the author summits Mont Blanc with his friends, is a recent release. I was developmental editor.

Jack, an English adventurer with a personality that radiates goodwill, came my way via Shawn Inmon. Shawn is one of the rising stars in self-published fiction, a field in which the reader has to kiss a lot of toads. (Believe me, because I’m the guy who gets the job of test-smooching.) Shawn seems to meet a significant number of people who are like him in that they have sincere desires to improve their writing work, and I’m honored when he suggests me as someone who could help them.

It was especially great seeing Jack walk through the shop doors because I’m a travel writing enthusiast. Not that I have to enjoy the subject matter to do my job, of course, but it’s nice when I do. Jack had me work on a couple of shorter pieces, and upon evaluating the first one I dropped a large bomb: I wanted him to change the verb tense of his presentation. In many cases, such a dramatic recommendation results in an answer like: “Or I could change editors, in hope of finding one who will tell me more what I want to hear.” Not Jack. Presented with the reasoning, he buckled down and did as I suggested. Now his voice was clear, and we could get somewhere.

What Jack didn’t and doesn’t need is help with describing the natural world. Early on it became obvious: he was the hands-down champion of descriptive language. Not even most well-known travel authors do it as well. All right, Mr. Editor, what do you do now? I asked myself. How do you give guidance to improve a talent that well exceeds your own? That’s why I like my work. It has the potential to present me with situations that will require me to elevate my own game if I hope to be relevant. I could not assist my client much in shaping his best weapon, but I could help him decide when and how to wield it.

I came to understand that Jack had expected a harsher experience from editing, because at one point in the first story he in essence asked if I’d pulled any punches. This is the sort of question to which one has at least some grounds to take umbrage, but I don’t believe that one should. Especially in the early stages of the relationship: if what the author gets is not the pummeling he or she expected, what is there but for him or her to ask the question? I answered in the firm negative. In the first place, I explained, this would be a gross dereliction of my duty, my profession’s equivalent of treason. Jack is a British accountant in real life, so it was easy to supply the stigmatic analogue to embezzlement. In the second, I’d just told him to do a complete recast of his first story before I could even render an opinion. Didn’t “go rewrite the entire thing before I can even begin to help” convey sufficient pain?

My reassurances pierced the fog of uncertainty, but it’s a useful thing to know about editing. Some writers are not expecting much in the way of kind words from us, and may not know how to take them. While I’m prepared to be waspish where I think it will help, I’m not here to crush someone’s soul. I’m here to help someone improve. In some cases, that is best done with wry humor, such as: “Now may we all rejoice. Your characters have learned the secret of teleportation.” The moral is to do it for effect, for camaraderie, for a desire to help–but don’t do it just to be mean, nor to look all properly grumpily editorial. ‘Needless jerk’ does not qualify as a professional philosophy. Just because the world has a stereotype of editors as the bean counters of literary products doesn’t mean that we must prove this true. Some doctors are like Charles Emerson Winchester, some are like Hawkeye Pierce, and some are like B.J. Hunnicutt–all of which M*A*S*H characters only resembled the medical stereotype to some degree. Yet on the show they were all superb doctors. Thus with editing: one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. If one believes that the author’s initial paragraph guarantees that the story will fail, one must so state. If one believes that the author has just written a loathsome sentence, one does not need the word ‘loathsome’; one might use one’s own writing talent to say, “This sentence simply must be rethought afresh, and this time lacking in flaws X and Y.”

In any case, Jack now believes that I’ll throw a tomato when he needs it, and that’s all to the good, because he also believes any praise he receives.

One great challenge facing the author of any narrative, fiction or non, is the decision of descriptive depth. How much detail does the reader want and need? Not everything needs exhaustive detail, or is worth the investment of crafting prose that conveys subtle shadings from rose to periwinkle or magenta. A primary character needs enough defining detail that the reader may fill in the rest of the picture. The traveled landscape needs enough that the reader camera can imagine a place on the trail where something of note occurred. A special sight, one the reader’s mind would not concoct, needs the kind of description that is in Jack’s power when he takes off the governors and lets rip.

In the case of Blue Ice, my first look focused on the areas where there wasn’t enough detail. This is why it’s hard: the author remembers the scene as it was, the story as it occurred. Now he or she must reconstruct it for someone who begins with no visual, no sense of dimensions, nothing. How does one place one’s mind back into the mindset of knowing nothing, then filling in the features as the author mentions them? It is very easy to underdescribe, to forget what the reader does not know. It is another pitfall to overdescribe, to take away all mystery and reach the Plane of Pointless Blather. That’s where I come in, because I’m also a reader. If I can’t figure out what the author means, I go back and re-read it. If I still cannot, I suspect the reader also could not, and I note that for my client. Often it helps to note the picture that my mind did paint, which may be erroneous, but that mails the missing piece that my client needs to supply.

The second look focused a bit more more on details of people, and there was some need to re-stitch some of the seams of continuity that now became apparent, but Jack had brought the tale a long way. I knew this was going to be good, and we moved toward publication. We still didn’t agree on the title, but if the reception continues to be good, this may not have been a detractor. Outcomes speak for themselves, of course. About the biggest thing I had to get out of him was a full-on description of what it looked like at a breathtakingly climactic spot in the narrative where, for some reason, he had chosen that spot to keep his marvelous descriptive facilities in the psychological camera case. After a polite version of “What the hell were you thinking? Of course they want to see this!”, he remedied it exactly as one hopes when one tells a real artist: “No limits. No guidelines. Create. Let’s see what you can do without restrictions. Own this.” Oh, he did–and he makes it look easy.

If you like adventure travel, I am confident you will wish to keep an eye on Jack’s work. Bill Bryson doesn’t even come close; Jack’s unpretentious humility and signal good nature leave Bryson choking on clouds of powder snow. It’s a different style from Tim Cahill’s or Tim Severin’s, thus fresh and interesting for its own sake.

This one is free, and can be had in numerous formats. Enjoy, for I think it quite likely you’ll say: I would have paid real money for this.

It’s time to start telling them the brutal truth

In the past, this blog has described the steady incoming stream of Amazon review requests. Most are easy to dismiss with a reason that is not the only reason, but is a truthful reason:

  • “I don’t review e-books.”
  • “It’s outside my area of interest.”
  • “I cannot spare the time to devote to such a large volume.”

I’m just being gentle.

I’m not helping them by doing so.

Truth: every time, if I thought the book would be interesting, I’d take a review copy and read and review it. Further truth: my work involves reading a great deal of horrible writing and being nice to its authors, and when I am not being paid real money, I have less mental energy to dance around the truth of “this writing is no good.” I have to save more detailed and tactful replies for paying clients. They are entitled to tactful constructive critique in detail, and review-seekers are not.

So we’re getting to:

  • “The review would very likely be negative, which I’m sure was not your objective.”
  • “You have interesting subject matter, but I cannot get past the choppy writing.”
  • “The writing does not reflect competent editing and proofreading services. These are not optional.”
  • “If the Amazon Look Inside feature is at all reflective of the published work, the typesetting is borderline unreadable.”
  • “The writing does not even reach the fundamental baseline for adequacy in print, sorry to say.”

Or, in some odd cases:

  • “I am not sure what about my body of work caused you to think a children’s book would interest me, but it does not.”
  • “This is the second time you have contacted me to volunteer my time as your marketer. When you receive no reply to your first inquiry, a second is probably going to get you the type of attention you would not want. No, thank you; and let that please be the end of this, all right?”

Do I enjoy this? No. Do I wish people didn’t publish crappy writing? With all my heart. Is it my duty to tell them so? No, but if it will avert further solicitations, that’s all right with me. Do I get a kick out of disappointing writers? If I did, I would not be in the business of helping them succeed.

We’re just going to have to lay it out there.