Irish Inspiration

 

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“Life assumes meaning and purpose when we accompany others in the ordinary events of life.” [Tom Whelan]

I’ve been in Ireland these past days – visiting friends known since we were teenagers. One mentioned how fortunate we were as children – free to wander and do as we liked. One benefit is that we could take a bus or a quick drive to the countryside to take walks. I took these photos below this past Saturday and Sunday during cold, clear, winter afternoons with low light in the Wicklow Hills. This was the outdoor playground where we rambled as kids. This is the wonder we still explore as adults.

At a local retailer in County Wicklow – The Village Bookshop – I found the book titled Saol – Thoughts from Ireland on Life and Living, edited by Catherine Conlon. Saol means ‘life’ in the Gaelic language. This book includes quotes from seventy individuals – Irish, or living in Ireland. Snippets from a few are included below. These may be appropriate as we make the transition from 2014 to 2015, with free hours, to consider the ‘bigger picture’ of life. The book was published in 2014 by The Collins Press in Wilton, Cork. All quotes are partial, taken from fully copyrighted works by the authors mentioned in this post.

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“I had always believed all art to be just that – storytelling.” [Noelle Campbell-Sharp]

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“Over the years, I have come to see the importance of ‘living’ a life, rather than ‘postponing’ a life…The fact is that if you want to make changes to your life, or to do something you’re passionate about, you have to seize the moment and do it now.” [Eleanor McEvoy]

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“When I was younger I never thought much about chance. Now I do, constantly.” [Carlo Gébler]

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“As I’ve gotten older I have learnt to stop, to enjoy silence and to reflect a lot more, enjoy nature, sharing time, to be more spiritual in essence.” [Fidelma Healy-Eames]

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“Coincidence is God’s way of prompting while remaining anonymous…when something does happen three times I take it as a gentle hint that I am to do something about it.” [Mark Patrick Hederman]

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“Whenever such support comes our way, it is invaluable: a bonus to be cherished. For our own part, if we make a habit of granting goodwill, it will spread like rings on water.” [Ann Henning Jocelyn]

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“Four billion years of life on earth, just so we can answer emails? I hope not.” [Arminta Wallace]

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“…as I grow older the mystery of life and death deepens rather than becomes clearer…part of the mystery is discovering that what appears to be tragedy can often turn out to contain within it a great blessing, a new growth, a new direction, maybe a new understanding.” [Tony Flannery]

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“Grammar is one of the great evolutionary wonders of the world. People have a profound need to communicate. We should chat with each other. It is a comfort.” [Colm Keena]

 

Stockholm’s Adapting Book Scene

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Serpent Begone

 

Norse myth tells how Thor went fishing for the Midgard Serpent, using an ox-head as bait. He caught the serpcnt, but pulled the fishing rod so hard that his heels punctured the boat deck and dug into the sea bottom. Thor gripped his hammer, poised to smash the serpent, when the boat captain – Hymir the Giant – cut the fishing line to avoid catastrophe.

I read this story after flipping to a random page in a book about Sweden’s capital – Stockholm – in the Papper Bookstore (“Uncommon Guide Books”). Outside, in Mariatorget Square, I found a statue depicting this story.

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Niche marketing

The small bookstore includes an intriguing mix of titles by various authors – Beatrix Potter, Gerald Durrell, and Edgar Allan Poe (in English) to Marcel Proust in Swedish. The shop front includes Parisian maps to help celebrate the story of the 2014 French Nobel Literature laureate Partrick Modiano.

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Books for kids, cappuccinos for parents

Across the square (on the other side of Thor hacking the slimy beast) is a bookstore / cafe combination – for children’s books (and yummy lattes for Mom and Pop).

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Where better to market train books than at a station

 

 

Not too far away at a Christmas Market in the train station is a bookstore dedicated to trains. Really. And customers flock to fork over their cash.

While walking around Stockholm, you see metal signs about the “Literature Trail” telling about authors associated with the city. Not exactly being hip in speaking Swedish, I lost the trail. But it’s key for highlighting local pride in celebrating writers and writing.

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Along the Literature Route

 

The printed word is still huge in Sweden. Small bookstores keep alive by focusing on niche marketing that addresses the needs of target audiences interested in specific subjects – travel, children’s stories, trains. And locals are hungry for it. This year was also the first ever Stockholm Art Book Fair.

Sure – ebooks are catching on and growing in popularity – but printed titles still rage in Sweden. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the Millennium Trilogy) was tech savvy and computer literate, but also a devotee of traditional print journalism. In an age when electronic media flourishes, it’s refreshing to see – in a country that aggressively embraces internet technology – that there’s a healthy regard for the value of the printed word.

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City for Nobel Laureates

Mystery in the Wicklow Hills

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Glendalough – which is Gaelic for ‘Glen of the Two Lakes’

 

I recently received an email from author Thomas Rice, who was born in Carlow in Ireland and moved to the US decades ago. After studying at Columbia University and teaching at Georgetown, he now spends his free time writing.

He wrote:

“…as a fellow Wicklow and Powerscourt Falls lover. During a sabbatical year in Ireland (1978), I lived in a cottage up on Carrigoona Commons and did many a tour of Roundwood on my way down to Glendalough. Still a mystical place, sacred for me in a way I find hard to explain…somehow the spirituality of that whole Sugarloaf region around Enniskerry and the Dargle is unique on this planet. I’ve never been happier than the time I spent there.”

Thomas recently wrote Far From the Land, and one of his short stories is included in the book The Best American Mystery Stories – 2012.

The story is captivating. An Irish boy wonders why his mother has such respect in the community, and the answer is not what he expected.

For those who know the Wicklow Hills and appreciate rapid changes to local weather, the descriptions of landscape and climate will be familiar:

The turf fire was still smoldering in the grate and a moaning wind swept down from the Sugarloaf, rattling the ancient doors and windowpanes.

…a somber, rain-soaked dawn was breaking over Enniskerry as Myles pedaled his Raleigh across the Dargal bridge…

They looked like a couple right out of Failte magazine, out for a stroll in the lush Wicklow countryside.

 

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Forest pathway next to Roundwood Reservoir in the Wicklow Hills

 

Thomas appreciates how to set up suspense in a story, and portrays well the cloudy magic of the Wicklow Hills. It’s wonderful to hear from another author who respects the rare power and beauty of this eastern Irish landscape.

To learn more about Thomas and his writing, check out:  thomasjrice.com

Bar Fight, and a Renegade from Battle – First Chapters from River of Dreams

Here are the first two chapters from the book River of Dreams. The book tells about three characters in a young man’s dreams who help identify a murderer. The story is set in the university town of Durham, in northeast England, as well as in Paris.

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Durham Cathedral – almost one thousand years old

 

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Fight

Graham Keane did not appreciate winning the bar fight.

At eleven minutes past eight o’clock on a cool September evening, Graham pulled his blue Range Rover Evoque off the Newcastle Road. He parked in the lot of the Duke of Wellington restaurant and pub at the edge of the small, ancient city of Durham in northeast England. Autumn enveloped the land, and darkness had fallen.

Graham turned off the ignition, unfastened his seat belt, and let out a deep sigh. He knew other staff members at the University of Durham had noticed his recent dark moods. Seated alone for a moment, he felt the peace of solitude, of having to make no effort to mask his depression. For after twenty-six years of what he considered to be a glorious marriage, Professor Keane arrived home three weeks earlier to hear his wife Margaret confess to deceit, betrayal, and – worst of all – enrapture with a lover.

Graham opened the vehicle door and stepped into crisp evening air. He combed four fingers through mahogany colored hair and adjusted the dark collar of his oxford shirt. He tilted his head forward and looked down to inspect the symmetry of his black leather shoe laces, then raised his shoulders and marched into the Duke. Once inside, he relaxed and smiled. He relished the warm glow of orange lamps in the public house, the bright gas fire, the softness of thick carpet, and the hum of social banter. He paced with measured confidence to the bar and ordered a pint of Black Sheep bitter from a hefty bartender with a Union Jack tattooed across his left wrist. It was Thursday evening. The laughter of postgraduate students and the mumble of professionals and local families numbed Graham’s shaken spirits. He listened to dips and lulls of cackles and stories, comforted by the buzz of conversation that enveloped him in a cocoon of anonymity.

The bartender placed his pint on a green beer mat. Graham moved his right hand forward to take the drink. At that moment, another man slammed an angled shoulder into Graham’s back.

Graham winced at the sharp thud. Within seconds he realized that this muscled thrust was not delivered by accident and was not attached to any apology. Someone had inflicted pain for a purpose.

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“S’cuse, guv!” the assailant said in a gruff, mocking voice. Graham wheeled around. He looked into the cold eyes of a bald man who looked prematurely aged. This man pulled back and lunged again, slamming his upper arm into Graham’s right shoulder. Graham recoiled. He squinted at the half toothless smile of a sneering stranger, a gloating bully who appeared to delight in harassing someone he did not know.

The stranger wore a collarless black shirt and a brown leather jacket. A silver chain with links the size of thumbnails hung around his neck. He reeked of whisky, tobacco, and petrol. Graham realized that the man fit into this family restaurant scene about as much as a football hooligan would fit in with a London opera audience.

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Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island

 

Graham retreated. He took his drink and stepped away from the bar. Immediately, the stranger stepped into his path, knocking the pint out of Graham’s hand. It fell with a thud onto the carpet.

The stranger laughed. Graham realized the truth: this sadist had found his prey and would likely continue his taunts.

“Awww, sorry guv! Spilt yer pint did yeh?”

Graham wanted to retreat. Instead, he obeyed the inner voice of a man who had taken enough.

“Fuck you,” said Graham.

He reached into his pocket, then deposited three one pound coins onto the cotton bar mat. He nodded to the barman to pull another beer.

The stranger reached forward. He clasped a calloused, oily hand onto Graham’s right shoulder.

“Speakin’ to me toff? I’ll fuckin’ brain yeh.”

The brute squeezed Graham’s shoulder. Hard. Graham turned his body toward the man, wrenching away from his grip. He realized how determined this imbecile was to cause trouble. Graham’s thoughts also alerted him to a second, more important truth: the thug was no bigger than he was.

The assailant lost his grip on Graham, but smirked and rubbed his hands together. Seconds passed. Neither man moved. Graham glanced at the bar, then clasped his fingers around a fresh pint, this time a Worthington Creamflow. He gripped it, faced his enemy, and inverted the glass, pouring a stream of amber ale onto the jeans and mud caked boots of the oaf intent on ruining his evening.

“So sorry,” said Graham. He rubbed a hand through his hair and smiled at the bully.

“Yeh’ll hurt for that,” said the bald assailant. He coiled a fist and shot it, knuckles clenched, into the side of Graham’s head. He then darted his left hand forward and began choking his victim’s throat. Graham’s eyes bulged. The light atmosphere that reigned throughout the pub only minutes earlier turned dark and silent. The barman reached for a phone to summon the police. Customers fanned back from the dueling pair.

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Durham Castle

 

Jake McGiles, thirty-four years old, felt sudden glory as he began squeezing the life out of the worm who dared dribble ale on his clothing. Jake bared his teeth, absent of dental care, and spoke in a throaty rasp.

“Yeh Durham bastard.”

Jake planned his next moves. He would knee his prey in the crotch and send him to the floor. He would then walk outside and ride his motorcycle northward, arriving at his aunt’s home in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne in time for a late dinner.

Jake squeezed harder. The barman yelled. Forty-seven year old Graham started to slump. A customer shouted. Jake bared more of his rotten teeth as a gesture of defiance to those before him, a crowd he perceived to be academic wankers and snooty families.

He squeezed harder. His smile turned to a grimace. He was ready for his prey to buckle.

“Fuckin’ wanker!” he called aloud.

A mother screamed. The bartender shouted again. Customers pulled out cell phones to dial the police. Then, from where no one expected, Graham landed a single kidney punch that made Jake wince and loosen his grip. Graham recoiled, gasped, and sent another punch upward to Jake’s head. And another.

And one more.

His final well aimed punch sent the assailant to the carpet.

Jake McGiles never breathed again.

 

Apparition

IMG_1621The soldier huddled behind the trunk of a stout oak tree. He heard at least two horses. No more than four. They moved too fast for riders out hunting for deer or renegade Scottish troops. After the sound had passed, the soldier stood. He squared his broad shoulders, then stepped to the edge of the thick wood. Wet leaves clung to his wool socks and bare calves. The riders must have been farmers, he concluded – likely riding to the market in Durham.

The tall, black bearded soldier was about to retreat into the woods again when his right eye caught a glint. He looked ahead. A sudden blast of white light filled the space before him, radiating from a single point within the soggy green field. Brightness filled his eyes, like a tavern lantern swung too close. The soldier lifted his calloused left hand to shield the view. He was surprised that his senses, which snapped even at the sound of mice rustling through leaves during recent days, reacted with neither fear nor alarm. He considered this truth as unusual. After all, he had spent every moment of each recent day alert and poised for danger.

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Lindisfarne Priory

In less than a minute the fiery white glow tapered off and vanished. In the silence that followed this hardened young soldier named Angus felt a sense of serenity.

A cold wind hushed. Angus stared ahead to the open meadow beyond trees. A man now stood where the light had shone, staring at him from less than twenty paces away. Angus saw that this stranger’s body was that of a timid youth. His chin was free of stubble, like the head of a bald elder. He wore smooth, untarnished clothing and his face lacked guile. The adult appeared tamer than even a shepherd boy. Angus realized that he could see through the stranger’s clothing into the field beyond, as though the garments were fashioned from mist.

Seconds later, this apparition vanished.

Angus dropped to one knee on the damp soil.

“Spirit,” he said aloud. “You’re not of my time or world. Forgive my sins, God, and keep me unharmed,” he whispered.

The wind picked up and rustled upper boughs of nearby oak trees. Bruised clouds scudded in from the northwest, while goose bumps erupted across the soldier’s bare arms.

Angus exhaled, slowly. He knew the presence was not an enemy. The vision was unearthly – a lad who evaporated before his eyes. Yet he felt no awe or reverence, and doubted he had witnessed the presence of anything Almighty. The youth who materialized for a moment did not appear to be a god, saint, or angel. Angus shook his head at the ludicrous truth about the situation: the stranger had appeared to be lost.

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River Wear

 

Angus knew that the bizarre apparition imparted no lessons, bestowed no wisdom, and wielded no justice in his savage world. He reached down. He clutched a handful of soggy brown leaves and rubbed them on his forehead to be certain he was awake. He then recalled the eyes he had seen. He had glimpsed into a troubled face. Intuitively, Angus suspected this ghoul of bright light was like himself – a traveler, a lost soul seeking a pathway home.

Angus stood. He walked out of the woods, this time unafraid.

“You’ll return,” he said to the empty, verdant countryside.

He laughed, hard and loud, and shook his long black hair. For the first time in weeks, he felt magnificent. Angus gripped his sword, rubbing his right thumb along the straight guard before plunging it back into its black, leather scabbard.

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The editor at work

Why Read or Write an Eco-Thriller?

The book Trailing Tara is an eco-thriller. It’s about a greedy few trying to steal technology that can deliver clean, affordable drinking water to those who are without – the majority of the world’s population. A young couple try to halt this theft so that the technology can be spun out for free. This breezy read oscillates between continents, beginning in the forests of British Columbia, skipping to Pepperdine University in California, then moving to Africa and back.

 

The above video highlights two locations from the book: California’s coastal city of Malibu (including Zuma Beach and Pepperdine University), as well as Catron County in the American state of New Mexico. Why these locations? As writers, it’s easy to write about what we know (or what interests us). A brother now lives in Malibu, while I also spent time living there in easygoing Paradise Cove while working on a previous book.

Peaceful Malibu - opening scene to a tumultuous book

Peaceful Malibu – from where our heroine flees

 

The helicopter/plane/car chase in New Mexico takes our two heroes to the sky. The scene is set close to property I own in New Mexico, and close to where my sister and her previous partner once owned a cabin and small airplane.

I’ve also lived at some other locations from this book – including Africa’s Namibia, as well as Switzerland. One joy of visiting Switzerland comes from riding a train through the Alps. That’s why a (brief) Swiss train scene is included in the story. The story also includes places I’ve never seen, including coastal British Columbia, and the city of Lagos. Part of the fun of writing fiction comes from knowing it can help others learn about a country, or teach us about a location we’ve never visited.

 

Night time in Switzerland….an unlikely scene for a thriller

 

The scenes from Malawi are set near the Sekwa River, at a remote location visited frequently during three years I spent living and working there as a Peace Corps volunteer. In reality (as in the book’s story) the arrival of drinking water pipelines to that location truly thrilled the local residents.

The above explains why someone might write about specific geographical places.

But what is an eco-thriller? Below are definitions.

From Bookcountry:

Environmental thriller, also called “eco-thriller,” is a fiction genre with plots reliant upon stopping or surviving a pending environmental or biological disaster. The disaster is often man-made and globally significant. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain is often cited as the first popular environmental thriller.

Ryan Elias even lists Moby Dick as an early eco-thriller, while Robin McKie from The Guardian’s Observer Magazine says an eco-thriller can be a simple “straightforward end-of-the-world novel.” One blogger reminds us how Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt is often involved in eco-thriller action.

There’s more to the genre than pretty countryside scenes

 

Is every eco-thriller about wresting power away from those determined to harm the planet? Hardly. Truth is, there’s plenty of latitude for inclusion within this genre. Decades ago I read a book that still towers in sales – about an angry man determined to seek revenge for the loss of life caused by an oil tanker. The Ship Killer is a classic. Considering that oil is the antithesis of green fuels, and the protagonist is trying to prevent wrongs caused by tankers, this is an eco-thriller – even though the fate of the world is not at stake.

This genre also merges with others. Is Watership Down a children’s story or an eco-thriller? Perhaps both. If you’re still unclear about this genre, plant yourself down and read the bad-ass classic of environmental/eco thrillerdom – The Monkey Wrench Gang. Do this – and never again will you look at a dam or a billboard in the same way. Promise.

 

Desert of Southwest US…fertile territory for an eco-thriller

 

Eco-thrillers should push us to view the world in a different way: to change our accepted Standard Operating Procedures. To make us hunger to strive towards a world that is improved.

The crux of Trailing Tara revolves around levitation technology. If abundant, this could propel water through pipelines to supply it cheaply throughout the world. The underlying message is that investigating cutting-edge technologies could reduce the number of people on this planet who lack access to clean drinking water. Beside the chase scenes and simple story, the book is intended to push us to think in fresh, innovative ways to solve an ancient problem. That’s a challenge. That’s the underlying message of this fiction, and the message of the entire eco-thriller genre: how seeing the world from a more integrated, and less narrow-minded, perspective might incite us to improve it.

Then again, the book is also just a summer page-turner. I hope you enjoy.

Bookstores in the Heart of Italy

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The written word appears to be appreciated in Modena

 

I spent two and a half days wandering around the city of Modena, Italy – visiting wine bars, eating provincial food, checking out the Friday morning market, watching bicyclists careen across Piazza Grande, and visiting a Balsamic vinegar production operation that has been run from a home for decades.

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Music…

 

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Architecture…

 

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History…

 

I also had a chance to visit bookstores.

 

 

 

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Browse for books at the post office

 

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Outside the city post office

Surprisingly, the first ‘bookstore’ visited was a post office. While waiting to send a letter, I eyed two separate racks filled with new books for sale. One included fictional books (many about some apparently heroic woman named Tiffany), while another rack located mid-lobby sold books on weight loss, as well as Italian ‘Dummies’ guides on internet use and finance.

In an age when much of the book world is moving online, it was refreshing to see a post office running a viable enough book sales business to earn sideline operational cash.

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The bookstore with San Francisco in the heart

 

The second store was medium-sized and sold magazines and books. The bearded owner told me in English how he spent time living in San Francisco in the 1970s. ‘Crazy times,’ he said. There, I bought an Italian book about Lambrusco wine, as well as a map of Modena city.

 

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‘In this book the charms, dreams, and disillusionment of this generation’

 

The third bookstore was a larger chain store. Once inside, I asked a sales clerk, “Avete libri in Inglese?”  to which she responded, “Si, di che tipo? Letteratura?” I told her yes and she walked me to the English Book section – with ‘literature’ that included Tom Clancy novels and books by Mitch Albom.

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Nevertheless, impressed by a bookstore in Modena catering to English readers as well as Italians, I perused the shelves, then examined other sections, finally finding a cook book section. Here I purchased a book on Emilia cooking (the city of Modena is in the Emilia-Romagna province), which included recipes in Italian and their English translations.

IMG_1613My favorite parts of this book? One included a recipe for Zampone, or Stuffed Pig’s Trotter – requiring one kilogram of a pig’s trotter (preferably purchased in Modena) – pierced with a fork several times, wrapped in a towel, then soaked in cold water overnight.  The next day it is cooked in the same water – simmering for three hours before being served with lentils, sauerkraut, beans, and potato mash – as well as a chilled glass of Lambrusco di Sorbara sparkling red wine.

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The Flavors of Emilia (province)

The book I purchased earlier about Lambrusco wine boasted of the rich food culture of Emilia-Romagna in Italian, translated as: “…perhaps the cuisine is the only one, among twenty Italian provinces, capable of undisputed success with supplying a complete banquet, from appetizers to desserts, with different and appropriate wines to accompany each dish. From puff pastry to soup, meat derived from slaughtering pigs, to the delicious eclectic flavors of balsamic vinegar – all softened by the crowning of the greedy concert with Lambrusco wine.”

Not only food and wine, but poetry.

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Censorship in China

Evan Osnos recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled China’s Censored World.

His article relates to his recently written book, titled Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

After reading the piece, I found Evan’s email and wrote to say that reading his article made my day. Truly.

He promptly replied, thanking me for the note.

How much of your news is censored?

 

Why is his piece important?

For Evan’s United States published book also to be published in China, editors for the Chinese publishing company required him to modify the text. He would have to remove the statement that China ‘is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.’ He would also have to reduce the quantity of his addressing the contribution of the peers of Den Xiaoping to the economic success of China (apparently such praise would dilute what the editors thought Deng should wholly receive). He would also have to make several other minor, though significant, changes.

Evan’s article then elaborates on China’s history of censorship, and the current national and governmental mindset toward censorship. By the end of the article he reveals that he decided not to have his title published in China. He wrote:  “To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present. As a writer, my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.”

Imagine a government that decides what you are allowed to read

 

Rather than justify or rationalize a decision to publish in China in order to reap more potential profits, Evan chose a path of greater integrity – to stick with the truth.

In my email to Evan I wrote:

Congratulations on your bravery and your conveying the truth – in print – that you do not believe it right to alter or distort reality in order to pander to a potentially greater source of financial profit. We live in an age when it often appears convenient for businesses to look aside, close one eye, or simply ignore the truth that although China verges on a superpower in financial (and potentially soon enough, military) terms, their roguish attitude toward repression of freedoms is diametrically opposed to the founding principles of what made the United States a great power.

You did not make excuses, you spoke the truth: their censorship practices are a hindrance, not a propellant, toward any national growth that will maintain and convey a sense of dignity for the Chinese population.

Well done. Your article made my day. Thanks.

I notice what appears to be a ‘halo effect’ regarding the rise of China’s power in the world. Because they verge on becoming an economic (and in the not too distant future, perhaps a military) superpower, I constantly hear broadcasters speak with almost untarnished praise and awe toward China – despite the fact that censorship is rampant, stealing trademarked and protected military and industrial secrets from foreign governments is a state sponsored activity, and activists such as the Dalai Lama are excoriated by the Chinese government simply for speaking the truth about atrocities the Chinese perpetrate in Tibet.

Decades ago I lived in Malawi in Africa, where I traveled throughout the country for work (described in my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi). There I discovered the Economist Magazine, and was surprised that it was more about world news than economics, and respected the clarity of the writing. I bought a copy at the news agent whenever possible (and when my meager volunteer salary would allow). Any time that an article was critical of Malawi, the deft and scissored hands of some state employed censors snipped out the piece, or the entire page, from each issue sold in the country. I now live in an Asian nation, where we can watch major network news on television – BBC, Sky, CNN, Fox. Whenever a station is overtly critical of this nation’s policies or governance, the channel suddenly becomes unavailable for weeks or months – replaced with a notice informing viewers (as I saw recently for the Fox News channel): This Channel is Unavailable.

Ultimately, censorship, like racism, is boring. It leads (or tries to lead) people toward predictability, inclusion within prescribed limits, control, and constraint. It is based on the assumption that a few people grasping hold of power know what is best for the majority. It is the belief that the earth is Flat, resources are limited, and that the world of today should remain the same tomorrow. Years ago I visited Cuba and realized that Fidel Castro wanted, ultimately, to freeze time. He wanted a country locked in the 1950s, with the same cars, the same pathetic struggling economic model, and keeping him – the same long-winded leader – at its helm. Censorship was rampant. Why? Because of fear. Fear that knowledge and enlightenment and progress and critical thinking and analysis might topple some of the wrongly placed powerful from their ill-gained positions.

Congratulations to Evan, for realizing the importance of a principle we regard essential to civilized living: freedom of speech and press.

Want to know more about writers exiled because of their opinions and word? Check out PEN International.

 

New Format to Roundwood Press Web Log Coming Soon…

The new format of this web log (published every two weeks) will always include at least one of the following sections:

The Circular View – Video

Worn Sandals, Leather Notebook – Travel, Writing

Invisible Authors – Banned Books, Exiled Writers, Censored Words

The Siege Tower – Controversial Viewpoints

Contours and Chronometers – Geography and History

Illuminating Manuscripts – Book Reviews

The Satchel Peg – Bookstores

Currents of Thought – Quotes from Roundwood Press

Thanks for staying tuned in!

Great writing about….End of the World

A recent Wall Street Journal article about natural resources is both brazen and controversial.

Natural resources, we are told, are not running out.

Titled The Scarcity Fallacy, the piece drew my attention. I read the short overview (“…we have broken though such limits again and again…innovation improves the environment…”) before scanning the byline at page bottom to learn about the author. It read: Mr. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist and a member of the British House of Lords.

Published author? Member of the House of Lords? These credentials hooked me. I wanted to read his article.

 

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Will these critters emerge if the human world ends?

 

The article sucked me in, not only because of the message, but because of the clarity and precision of the writing.

The basic gist of the piece is that doom and gloom prophets have historically and repeatedly predicted shortfalls and imminent scarcity of material resources (and energy), only to have their warnings neutralized by unforseen or unexpected adoption of fresh alternatives that avert catastrophe. For example, in 1972 the think-tank group The Club of Rome published a book titled Limits to Growth, predicting shortages of metals, minerals, and fuels. What happened instead is efficiency improved in the use of materials.

“Why did it not happen? In a word, technology: better mining techniques, more frugal use of materials, and if scarcity causes price increases, substitution by cheaper material. We use 100 times thinner gold plating on computer connectors than we did 40 years ago. The steel content of cars and buildings keeps falling.”

Video: Where I want to be if the world is about to end

Author credentials and a bold headline hooked me into reading the piece (he enhances credentials by explaining his work both as an economist and an ecologist). While reading, I was reassured by Ridley’s use of specifics, and his dedication to precision. He avoids insinuation, rumor, or generalities to bolster his argument, and adds relevant facts. Statements such as:

“Haiti is 98% deforested…”

“…the land required to grow a given quantity of food has fallen by 65% over the past 50 years…”

“…calculated that no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest…”

This is basic journalism: provide facts that support your story. However, Ridley’s use of facts is judicious. He doesn’t drown us in statistics or bore us with repetition. Like walnuts in a salad, his facts add substance and improve his story’s flavor.

Ridley’s position and previous publication hooked me into reading his article; his clarity and precision strengthened his message – and made it hit home. This is the type of writing to strive for – powerful and persuading.

 

Other – 

In the last post I mentioned Vine Videos – six second videos now rampant on the internet. I created my own vine video (the first, perhaps the last) to market the fiction book River of Dreams. It’s intended to provide atmosphere – weather, sound, images – that underscore the book’s tone. It’s six seconds long, but took quite a lot longer to produce. Unfortunately, after uploading it to YouTube, it is labeled as having a length of seven seconds. Well, I’m not returning to shave off that final fraction of a second…..not yet anyhow.

 

 

Vine Videos – and Books

A recent article told of multiple college professors complaining that many students now lack the concentration to read books considered ‘classics.’

Is that surprising? So many distractions and communications and forms of entertainment bombard our lives daily that finding time for reveling in a book for hours at a time can be a challenge. Taking hours or days to enjoy a single book becomes a luxury, as well as an exercise in patience, when attention spans have been accordioned via programs and apps that favor brevity – including Twitter (only 140 characters allowed per Tweet – that’s characters, not words).

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Medieval architects knew their stuff – this site would impress anyone in fewer than six seconds

 

My friends, the Hongolas in Ventura, informed me that Twitter now hosts Vine Videos. Each video can be six seconds long.

Six seconds.

I’d like to criticize this communication/entertainment/art form, but after watching a few, I find some impressive. Yet I doubt many books or articles will be compressed into video vines.

Here are a few vines related to books, reading and marketing:

Aloha, Maui

Cool ways libraries can use Vine

Vine Best Practices for Journalists

7 Ways to Promote Your Book with Vine

Like it or not, vines are spreading. Are they here to stay? It’s too early to say. Don’t be surprised if you’re soon ambushed by book marketing vines.

Vines can grab our attention....but so can a decent vista

Nature also knows how to grab our attention in less than six seconds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thousand Years Since Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf

This month marks the one year anniversary of the birth of Roundwood Press online bookstore, and of this website.

Irish Sea shoreline – scene of this ancient battle

 

This month (Easter, specifically) also marks the thousand year anniversary of Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf, a fierce encounter along the shoreline of the Irish Sea.

The battle remains epic for two reasons. First, Chief Brian Boru united Ireland’s most powerful tribes for the fight. Second, Boru’s forces delivered victory by smashing the power of Viking invaders on the island.

Vikings plundered Irish monasteries and chapels, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise

 

Events during this year’s anniversary will celebrate the grim gray day when longboats from as far away as Iceland beached the shoreline north of Dublin city, filled with warriors gripping battle axes and spears. A Hawaiian art collector will return a painting that depicts this fight to Ireland, while a concert tour through the island will celebrate the event.  Yes, the movie is being made, and even the Danes – Vikings of past eras – are keen to participate in these events.

What of the great chief whose reign instilled and sparked this mighty battle – Brian Boru? Ireland’s tourism board is promoting his story. I also include a chapter about Boru’s life, from childhood to Clontarf, in my book River of Ireland. And my book Leadership Lessons from an Irish Warrior is based on the life of Boru – an obscure leader whose bizarre and challenging vision for his era helped shape the fortunes of the Irish people.

 

 

 

Echo-Bravo Spells – Ebola

An unfortunate outbreak of Ebola, a type of hemorrhagic fever, is now attacking medical personnel as fast as it is decimating civilians in Guinea, west Africa.

This dire event plays out in a region already ravaged by economic woe.

How dire?

Over a decade ago, our team of medical and engineering staff were quarantined in a town in northern Angola after a student died from hemorrhagic fever. This episode is recounted in a chapter in my book titled Water After War – Seasons in Angola.

The event began when one of our staff invited medical personnel to the town where we lived so they could be trained as vaccinators.

The local post office – a bombed out and derelict casualty of war

 

“Using UN vehicles that traveled in the region, Ana Maria sent out letters to health officials throughout Uige province. She requested that they each send one delegate to attend a vaccination course she would hold in Maquela. All fourteen invited health delegates appeared days before the course began. One walked two hundred kilometers in four days. Several others had walked more than one hundred kilometers each.

“One of these students grew ill in Maquela. His headache and fever gave way to vomiting blood and he entered Maquela’s hospital unconscious. There was blood in his urine. He bled from his nose. In the poorly lit and primitive conditions of Maquela’s hospital, where reed mats were used as beds rather than mattresses, Dr. Karen and nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) filled this patient with intravenous solutions, then provided him with a blood transfusion.”

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From left – Dr. Karen, nurse Ana Maria, Dr. Samson

Before the widespread use of cell phones, we used a radio in our vehicle to communicate the symptoms to our headquarters in the city of Luanda, Angola’s capital. Staff then transmitted this information to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US. Our French friends sent the same information to the renowned Pasteur Institute in France.

“On a dirt road in rural Maquela, four of us sat inside the vehicle with our ears tilted toward the crackling, high frequency static. Dr. Karen spoke to a nurse from our organization with years of emergency room hospital experience. Karen requested that we switch to speak on a lesser used radio frequency, and afterwards spoke again.

“What did you say?” asked the nurse, named Paula. “I didn’t copy. Something bola?”

“That’s Echo Bravo,” Karen said, prompting her with phonetic cues. “Echo Bravo Oscar Lima Alpha.” Paula traced the letters for E-B-O-L-A on a writing pad before her voice turned stern.

“Give me the details.”

And so the waiting began.

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Visiting a rural clinic outside the town of Maquela

“The virus we dreaded was discovered in 1976 in the area of the Ebola River in northern Zaire. There had been few major outbreaks since then, although we knew that one occurred in Zaire earlier that year. Alarmed, we read what we could about the sickness from the sparse medical texts in Maquela (we had no access to the internet then). First, we knew there was a two to twenty-one day incubation period before an infected person grew ill. This was followed by symptoms that included headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and fever. These worsened to a condition of vomiting, diarrhea, and massive bleeding from all body orifices. There was no effective treatment or preventive vaccine for the sickness. Ninety percent of those who contracted Ebola died.”

We were instructed not to leave the dilapidated town where we worked, and United Nations supply planes halted their visits. We were cautioned not to leave our base.

“When we informed MSF of a possible outbreak of Ebola, they cordoned this patient off with a rope. They also posted a special guard before the hospital entryway who wore rubber boots and a white face mask. They next dismissed all non-emergency patients. Six local nurses, alerted by the word Ebola, fled into the hills.”

After the student died, our French friends passed on news from the Pasteur Institute.

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A derelict health post set in the beautiful rolling hills of Uige Province

 

“The antibodies had been for hemorrhagic fever in general, but not specifically for Ebola. Because there were several types of such fever, the results did not necessarily indicate a highly lethal strain. Once again, our sense of alert diminished. Ebola was no longer a concern.

“That evening Dr. Karen and I sat on our front porch. I asked her about the four other types of hemorrhagic fever.

How many are found in this part of Africa?”

“All,” she replied.

We never encountered another case of hemorrhagic fever. But the memory of how the symptons were described, how the nurses fled, how the town was locked down, and cohorts and colleagues maintained physical distance from one another, still provides a grim reminder of the importance that nations maintain the capability to diagnose, track, and contain viral outbreaks.

Sympathies to all of those impacted by this nasty outbreak in West Africa.

What’s the Value of Writing?

 

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Ah, the inherent and ageless need to scribble

 

The facts regarding how much money writers earn when they self-publish, as opposed to getting their books brought to print (or placed online) through a traditional publisher, are in.  The report titled What Advantage Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors: A Comparison of Traditional and Indie Publishing from the Authors’ Perspective includes potentially dismal news that twenty percent of both traditional and self-published authors make no money. None. About 55 percent of self-published, and 35 percent of traditionally published, authors earn up to $1,000 of writing income per year. A lot of work and a lot of writing earns very little. Only five percent of self-published authors earned more than $20,000 per year from their books, whereas 20 percent of traditionally published authors earned alike. Which leads to a basic question:

What’s the point of writing?

If we’re not earning a decent enough slice of the financial pie to keep us financially afloat – why write?

Here are a few reasons – based on my own decades of spending dozens of hours per month (sometimes per week) writing:

1. Writers can’t stop writing. Honestly. They love it. We love it. The desire to transmit information and stories is in our genetic code. We do it because we love words, chapters, and stories. We love paper and pens, or tapping keyboards. It’s expression, art, exposition, catharsis, communication.

2. Writing helps organize our thoughts. It helps provide our own minds with clear, distinct images we can later recall to tell an animated story or describe a clear process – whether we’re in a bar, restaurant, home, or hiking on a mountain trail. Our verbal stories, shaped first by writing, gain focus.

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Late night bookstores satisfy Icelanders’ appetite for the printed word (literacy rate is 99 % )

 

3. Being published provides credibility. I published a book about rivers and was paid as a guest speaker in several different parts of the U.S., interviewed by dozens of radio stations, and hired as an eco-cruise ship onboard ‘historian.’ Self-publishing is now well respected, and a well-finished product demonstrates both an individual’s initiative as well as their ability to achieve the multitude of tasks needed to publish a book.

4. Writing expands our world. I spent vacations exploring Ireland, Italy, France, and over a dozen countries to research new books to write. There’s also plenty to explore in your own town or state or country. The process of gathering and organizing information alters your life. It also puts you in contact with people you would not have met otherwise.

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There is  a story down every pathway

 

5. Assembling a book instructs us about our world and people. Assembling a book about wine introduced me to dozens of characters in locations I’d never heard of before. Their stories shared a common theme: overcoming unusual forms of adversity to realize a dream. From these episodes I learned about humility and dedication, as well as how every individual is valuable.

6. Writing teaches us the rewards of dedication, and how concentration can result in quality. In college I once spent a summer working the night shift in a furniture factory, belt sanding tables. I learned how focused effort transformed rough slabs of wood into smooth and elegant table tops. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that all writing is basically carpentry. When I later began writing books, I recalled those nights with a belt sander, and once spent hours revising one paragraph. It was worth it. To this day, the sound of that paragraph is music. It takes effort and dedication to provide a product that satisfies an audience – whether they are buying furniture, clothing, or stories.

7. Writing changes how we organize thoughts, hence our lives. Even sporadically writing a journal helps clarify thinking. Studies show that when jobless individuals write about their job- hunting frustrations, they end up getting jobs more quickly. Perhaps the process of mentally clarifying obstacles helps these individuals to better decide how to tackle them.

That’s powerful.

And – now and then – when a reader compliments a piece we write, it somehow all becomes worth it.

 

The Cookbook that Shaped Italy’s Language

During years past, I’ve collected cookbooks from several countries visited. I try cooking at least a recipe from each.

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Cambodia

 

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Iceland

 

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Thailand

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most books are well laid out, attractive, thoughtfully organized, and include excellent recipes. Yet years ago I learned about one cookbook powerful enough to help shape Italy’s language.

A chapter from my book River of Tuscany tells a fictional episode based on the true character who wrote this book.

Pelligrino Artusi was a silk merchant who lived from 1820 to 1911. He traveled throughout Italy for business, mostly to Tuscan cities such as Siena.

While traveling and staying as a guest in many homes, he realized that rural women needed a cookbook which consolidated their range of recipes. He began collecting recipes from all over Italy, and women mailed him their personal lists of ingredients and methods for concocting dishes.

Unable to find a publisher, Artusi published the book himself under the title La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene, or – Science in the Kitchen, and the Art of Eating Well.

After several years and near financial failure with the book, Artusi eventually hit success when a publisher took his title on. Within years, Artusi’s book became a hit throughout the land, the veritable Joy of Cooking for Italy. His blend of anecdotes, shards of history, and personal comments made the book approachable to women throughout Italy’s kitchens. It also spread a certain version of Italy’s written language around the country. This did for the Italian language much the same as what the book the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) did centuries earlier. Written by the poet Dante Alighieri in the local vernacular – the language of the people – Alighieri helped replace the use of Latin (the language of ancient Rome) with the more common tongue spoken throughout the land.

Pelligrino Book Cover

Artusi appealed to people’s respect that food is as important to life as sex, and his book ingratiated his name into Italy’s culinary consciousness. Pelligrino’s book is practical, humorous, and raw. He writes:

“Life has two principal functions: nourishment and the propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity. They may therefore be allowed to hope that, while humanity may not appreciate their efforts, it will at least show them generous and benevolent indulgence.”

For self-publishers, Artusi’s book is a reminder of the rewards of perseverance and patience.

In May of this year my nephew will marry his Italian fiance close to Venice. I also look forward to enjoying good food and wine and company, and will also practice speaking the basics of the vernacular, the language Artusi’s cookbook helped disseminate throughout Italy.

Buon appetito.

Other Snippets –

While reading Publishers Weekly today during a plane flight to Karachi, I was happily surprised to see that it listed a cover image and description of my latest fictional book – River of Dreams.

Kathleen Gamble, an author who attended the same high school as I did in Europe, recently published her cookbook Fifty-two Food Fridays, which includes recipes from throughout the world. Congrats, Kathleen!

Orla’s Code – How a London Author is Reinventing Herself

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A more captivating book title than ‘The I.T. Girl.’

 

Fiona Pearse moved from Dublin to London to immerse herself in the Information Technology working world. She spent weekends and evenings crafting a mystery that her publisher, against Fiona’s desire, named The I.T. Girl. Craving greater control over the fictional work, Fiona terminated her publishing contract. She returned her original title, hired a splendid cover designer, and published the work herself as Orla’s Code –  evoking personality and mystery.

The book is a lively, enjoyable read that follows the day to day foibles and frustrations within an IT office in London. A young programmer finds her day riddled with back stabbing, bickering, romance, and a mystery. The code? Computer code. The mystery? Read the book. Captivated and hooked, I finished it in one sitting. Fiona tunes into daily details most of us can relate to – sandpapering furniture, feeling squeamish after joining a running group, bickering with workmates. She also immerses us in a world where IT code that shaves off milliseconds of process time keeps the financial world vibrant.

There is a bigger story behind this story: how this young woman found a publisher, then ditched them to wrest greater control over her work. With self-publishing on the rise, Fiona took the reins to better deliver her story to a targeted audience.

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Fiona’s ‘selfie’

 

I asked Fiona questions about change, challenges, and how she juggles her day job with writing and publishing.

Many aspire to be accepted for publication. After accomplishing this, you decide to go your own way, terminate the publishing contract, and self publish. What gave you this incentive / courage?

I was actually accepted by an independent publisher, rather than one of the major houses. It was still an intense relief to get the contract – a feeling of all the hard work being worthwhile! But over the six months that we worked together we had different ideas on marketing. I actually liked what they did with The I.T. Girl, as they called it, but I didn’t feel like it was reaching the right readership and I realized I really wanted to control the image and marketing myself. That is why we parted and as soon as we did I started to enjoy the self-publishing process. I probably would not have left a major publishing house because their distribution reach just cannot be competed with. Although it is different if you are already an established author; E.g. Polly Courtney who left HarperCollins to self-publish, when she already had three successful novels.

You too are an Irish woman working in IT in London and undoubtedly parts of this book contains slivers of autobiography. Are there other key aspects about living and working in London which you wish you could have included, but which did not fit the story?

I think you always have to simplify reality when you want to fit it into a self-contained story. One of the things I love about London is its diversity but I wasn’t writing about the city itself, I was writing about corporate politics and I think keeping the scope of a story to its essentials is important.

As you say, the book contains slivers of autobiography. Like Orla, I also joined a running club when I came here first and when I bought my apartment I spent a lot of time painting and doing DIY. So it was fun writing about those things – write what you know!

You juggle full time work, writing, self-publishing, marketing, and enjoying life. What insights have you learned about staying balanced, but still focused?

The hardest thing I find is balancing writing with marketing. I often sit down on a Saturday morning to get some writing done and then find myself online. I try to blog, do guest posts and interviews regularly. I also write poems and interview other writers. All these things are great for bringing traffic to my website but take away from new writing! There is one advantage in not having a contract with a major publisher – there is no pressure on me to produce my next book. So I don’t actually force the pace. I think one of the most important things in writing is not writing – I often take a break for a few weeks so that I can get a fresh perspective.

Can you provide any insight into your next work?

I have just finished the first draft of my new book, Beverly, and I’m really enjoying working on it – I’ve got the bug! It is a story about two female flatmates in London who are also best friends. One needs a favour from the other and is asked to give up something in return. The exchange changes the dynamics of their friendship and one of the questions dealt with in the story is: are friendships supposed to last forever?

I look forward to reading the book and finding an answer.

Goodreads are giving away free copies of Orla’s Code for the month of February. Enter to win your copy: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/80149-orla-s-code

You can learn more about Fiona and her writing here on Google Plus.

Best of fortune with your venture, Fiona!

 

Books about the Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan

The country of Bhutan issues stickers showing an orange dragon, with the words – Land of the Peaceful Dragon. Truth is, Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The problem is that a ‘thunder dragon’ is sometimes construed as male reproductive hardware, and that the renowned historical, perhaps apocryphal, hero known as The Divine Mad Man used his own thunder dragon to subdue evil spirits after one of them transformed into a dog. I’m not going to speculate on the imagery of what took place, but I can see why the tourist board might want to avoid detailed questions regarding that story.

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Land of multiple monasteries

 

Before venturing to Bhutan, I read a few books about the country. Even if you don’t plan to visit, these are good armchair travel reads about a small nation that will likely grow in international renown, and soon. First, Bhutan has the fourth fastest growing economy in the world; second, the King’s casual comment at a summit in India in 1979 that he was not interested in gross national product, but in gross national happiness, has been latched onto by philosophers, economists, development experts, and politicians as an alternative way of viewing economic progress as most nations currently regard it.

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Happy? Seems that way.

 

Third, in about four years from now, the 22 year old Rimpoche will be inaugurated as the spiritual leader of Bhutan. Why is this important? Because he is the seventh reincarnation of the 17th century Guru Rimpoche, who transformed to a flying tiger and instigated construction of the country’s most spectacular cliff-hanging monastery. But apparently several reincarnations were never discovered, and in their place the spiritual leaders of Bhutan were appointed. So, this rather unique Rimpoche may, in a few years, begin occupying a niche with a level of international reverence approaching that now shown to the Dalai Lama.

Stay tuned.

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Easygoing, though devout and dedicated Bhutanese monks

 

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Ornate clocktower in sleepy, downtown Thimphu

 

The book Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli is a tale of surprise; imagine one day that your relatively humdrum Southern California existence is shaken when you are invited to move to Bhutan for more than a month and help establish a radio station in the capital city. Lisa describes both frustrations and joys: the camaraderie and kindness of coworkers as well as the frustrations of befriending a Bhutanese woman who ‘visits’ her in the United States, but really only moved there to stay and find work. Lisa works in Bhutan, leaves, and then returns only to discover, surprising and abruptly, that the city of Thimphu is not really a place she can call home. This is the rawest revelation in the book; that the romance has ended, and she realizes that her own roots and home are elsewhere.

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Plenty of mountains and valleys; just need some road improvements.

 

Married to Bhutan – How One Woman Got Lost, Said ‘I Do,’ and Found Bliss by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming eases herself into the culture of Bhutan, and then plunges in by marrying a local man. Her insights into the culture are, from this relationship, direct and honest. At times she finds herself mystified by the culture and the people, regardless of how close she wants to become to the Bhutanese. The book is also a paean to the strength and benefit of a good marriage between two people dedicated to working hard to make the union solid and lasting. Her descriptions of spending winter nights in unheated, or poorly heated buildings, brings home the reality that Linda has shucked the habits of visitors, embraced the ways of locals, and moved on from any soft living she may have enjoyed before moving to Bhutan. As with all books about Bhutan, there are plenty of scenes about one of the most common events in the country – sitting down, chatting, and drinking tea.

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Anytime is tea time

 

 

Saigon – a Good Read

In trying to find a decent book about Vietnam, I found books about war, as well as recent travel guides. But my friend John Rockhold, who fought in the Vietnam war and who now lives in the city of Saigon with his Vietnamese wife and two children, recommended the book Saigon – An Epic Novel of Vietnam, written by Anthony Grey in 1982, and re-released in October, 2013.

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A local market scene, from a painting on sale in a Saigon alleyway

Years ago when I worked in Malawi, John worked for a Danish consulting company. One day, myself and two other Peace Corps volunteer engineers were sent to where he managed a project in the southern town of Balaka. He immediately provided us with work to do while the Malawian government waited for funding for rural water supply projects we were assigned to design and build. In my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi John is the man who introduced us to Malawi. [Named Rickenbakker rather than Rockhold.] John now owns and directs his own successful engineering consulting business in the city of Saigon – also now known as Ho Chi Minh City (please, no political correctness comments regarding the city name; locals refer to it as Saigon).

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Downtown Saigon today – a colorful blend of parks, traditional architecture, and raucous moped traffic

 

The fictional book Saigon begins in the 1920s and moves to the 1970s, following the life of a young American who first visited the country with his parents as a boy, and found love, friendship, and intrigue during his subsequent visits.

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A map painted on the wall of the old train station, which is now a market

 

This is a grand tale, which – like a James A. Michener book – is long, sweeping in scope, and entertaining. It is a tale of family and allegiances, woven in with the author’s solid grasp of history and facts from days he spent working as a newspaper foreign correspondent.

The book provides rich history about the French / Vietnamese relationship long before the United States engaged in a war in the region. This includes how much the French valued this coastal S-shaped strip of land.

The Frenchman peered through his binoculars for a moment. “Yes, Monsieur Joseph, you are right. That is the coast of the most beautiful and prosperous French colony in the world.” ’

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John shopping in his home city – where he was stationed as a soldier decades ago

 

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Market fresh

The book also weaves in the history of Vietnam before the French arrived.

“…they had named their country Nam Viet — Land of the Southern Viet People. This was changed to An Nam — The Pacified South — by the Chinese who conquered them, occupied their territory for eleven centuries, and called them Annamese.”

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Local ‘pho’ noodle soup – inexpensive and delicious

 

For those interested in Vietnam, including military history, this book provides illuminating insight into conflicts from the past century. For visitors to Vietnam, the story also highlights fundamental geography, topography, and cultural variations within the country.

“…the rocky peaks of the thousand-mile-long mountain spine that linked the rich southern rice lands of the Mekong delta and Saigon with the fertile plain of the Red River around Hanoi in the north.”

This engaging story provides history about Saigon within a tale of deception, rape, torture, bravery, and unexpected victories.

“In old Annamese it means ‘Village of the Boxwoods,’ after the trees that originally grew there. It wasn’t much more than a fishing village until the eighteenth century when French Jesuits and a few merchants demanded the right to build a city. But its name could also be based on the Chinese characters ‘Tsai Con,’ which mean ‘Tribute paid to the West.’ ”

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Majestic Hotel – where foreign correspondents stayed during the Vietnam war

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During the French colonial era, ample opium dens operated around Saigon

The book’s characters include United States Senator Nathaniel Sherman, who brings his two young sons to visit Saigon on a hunting trip. During this outing in the initial chapters, his bravery and bluster are unhinged through a bizarre act of cowardice. The story, one of many from the book, sets up Sherman’s ego to topple by showcasing his own defiant narratives. For example Sherman tells his sons how Vietnam, or any nation, needs to be ruled by force.

“That’s the way of the world. The rich and the powerful call the tune. If you can muster superior strength, you can impose your way of thinking on others — even if they don’t like what you do or the way you do it.”

This story will take you on a journey into Vietnam far deeper and more extensive than any books confined to military conflicts of the past fifty years.

Thanks for the hospitality, John and Nga. And for recommending a good read.

My happy hosts - John and his wife Nga - in Saigon

Happy couple – John and wife Nga – in Saigon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Home in Burgundy

Two years ago my friend Robin and I spent five days at a house in the village of Magny-les-Villers in Burgundy – surrounded by vineyards and rolling countryside. On arrival at such a quiet location, Robin wondered aloud whether we would find things to do for five days. On leaving, we both wished we could stay for weeks longer.

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Peaceful Magny-les-Villers

I found this new book about Magny-les-Villers online. Turns out it was written by Laura Bradbury who (together with her husband Franck) rented us the house where we stayed. Titled My Grape Escape, this book is all about finding and renovating that property. It is about camaraderie with friends, family, and workers who help inject sanity and levity into the daunting task of completing renovations before the first paying guests arrive.

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Colorful entry way from an inner courtyard

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View of the local church steeple

The genre is that of foreigner buys property in France, undertakes renovations, and in doing so learns to slow down and appreciate the quality of day to day life. It also documents the transformation of a person as well as a property. Laura was in her twenties when she and Franck purchased this property. Her years of studying law at Oxford convinced her that time spent in non-productive tasks was almost abhorrent, something to feel guilty about. But her husband Franck helped demonstrate otherwise.

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One of many cellars within walking distance

When they set off to spend a day buying a second hand car, they instead enjoyed long hours with friends eating breakfast and lunch, and drinking wine and coffee, and buying – unexpectedly – all required kitchenware for their home at a bargain price. Their failure to find a car was alleviated within days when they found one to purchase elsewhere. The book is filled with these scenes – which expand Laura’s comfort in letting go of control. As Franck asks her about events in life: “…why don’t you try to believe that they will turn out just fine – no matter what we do or don’t do?”

One day when Laura and Franck part from their friend René, he leans in the open car window to tell her, “…never confuse what is urgent with what is truly important.”

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We found a tiny wine outlet…

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…selling some cracking good burgundy

 

Laura lets go of her plans and realizes that working long hours in a law firm might damage her precious marriage. She also begins to enjoy herself more. Opportunities to learn abound around Magny-les-Villers. “I had never met anyone who was more gifted for capitalizing on a moment of celebration than Burgundians,” she writes.

 

 

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Whether you want the renowned Montrachet….

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….or a famed Clos du Veugeot…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….or just a simple wine for lunch – Burgundy has it all

On visiting a physician to get a prescription for pills to reduce anxiety, Laura hears her husband Franck ask whether his wife can still drink wine while on medication.

“Only good wine,” Doctor Dupont answered. “I would highly recommend around two glasses at lunch and dinner. Something fortifying. A Pommard or a Vosne-Romanée would be perfect, though I would also consider a solid Savigny. I would, however, advise you to stay away from the whites at the moment, Madame Germain. They tend to have an agitating effect.”

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Voila! What the doctor ordered – Vosne-Romanee

IMG_0460a - PS2The book is riddled with colors, scents, and images of good food and wine. There are blue-footed chickens from Louhands, yellow wine from the Jura region, cherry red ramekins, lime green pie plates, as well as stewed rabbits and prunes in white wine sauce, smoked morteau sausages and potatoes with crème fraiche and freshly chopped parsley, and bottles of bubbly crémant, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, and Savigny-les-Beaune Les Guettes.

The home they are renovating comes with historical intrigue. Built in the year of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille – 1789 – it was also used to house a billeted German soldier during the Second World War.

It was a pleasure to read this story of how the property we stayed in was first renovated. Though I never met Laura and Franck personally because they were in Canada at the time, the attention to detail they put into each communication, and their rapid responsiveness to our queries were both informative and helpful. The brightly painted home was a joy to stay in. On more than one morning while there, we woke, drank coffee, sliced a baguette for breakfast, then simply opened the door to wander by foot around some of the most sublime and precious wine properties of the Cote D’Or.

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Burgundy terrain – producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

This book brings alive the quirky joys of living in the French countryside, and will make you reconsider what you truly consider important in life.

Check out more about Laura and Franck’s properties in France, here, or Laura’s book My Grape Escape, here for the Kindle version, and here for the paperback.

Where to go?

Laura and Franck can recommend some of the best places to visit. Two local wineries recommended by Franck are the following:

Domaine Naudin-Ferrand

In Magny-les-Villers; 03 80 62 91 50; info@naudin-ferrand.com

Domaine Maillard-Lobreau

In nearby Savigny lès Beaune; 03 80 21 53 42; maillard-lobreau.gerard@wanadoo.fr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books, Booze, and Branding

This week it’s time for something different.

I write two blogs – one about wine, the other about books and publishing.

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What to do after you’ve launched a new book

Every Tuesday I try to fire off one blog post, alternating posts on different weeks between the wine and publishing sites.

Why Tuesday? I checked the stats. People don’t check the internet much on weekends. They’re at football games or soccer matches or fixing up their homes or cooking with friends. They tend to look at the internet quite a lot on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. So I write during weekends and post on Tuesdays, hoping to snag attention when most eyes surf the net.

This week – I am posting the same blog for both sites: vinoexpressions (also known as wineandwork), as well as roundwoodpress.

The reason is simple.

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This week we go from Barolo…

A few years ago, a friend sent a link to check out Wine Library TV. Someone named Gary Vaynerchuk ranted about wines on videos. I thought he was a bit over the top and loud, but he did come across as down to earth.

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…to books

I’m now reading Vaynerchuk’s book – Crush It. Basically, he used the internet to promote his family wine business and succeeded wildly, then decided to step away from wine in order to work on promoting how the internet can be used for personal branding. The book is filled with short videos that keep the narrative lively.

This self-appointed wine wizard transformed himself into a branding guru.

Branding –

Here are a few quotes from Vaynerchuk’s book regarding following your passion, and branding yourself.

“…live and breathe your passion. Do that, and you’ll no longer differentiate between your work life and your personal life. You’ll just live, and love doing it.”

“Everyone – EVERYONE – needs to start thinking of themselves as a brand. It is no longer an option; it is a necessity.”

“…skills are cheap, passion is priceless.”

“Tell me your story, and if you’re good, I’ll come back for more. Then I’ll tell my friends, and they’ll come…”

[Italicized quotes above – copyright: Vaynerchuk, Gary (2010). CRUSH IT! Kindle Edition.]

His steps toward success in building your brand are simple, but require that you work your tail off. The major factors he attributes toward succeeding in building your brand are: do what you are passionate about, create excellent content, keep it down to earth and real, create a community, and make the world listen. This is a fun book to read, because Vaynerchuk is down to earth and energized.

Whether you like wine, are an aspiring author, are looking for work, or trying to carve out your own professional niche, it’s worth reading this book. Why? Because personal branding is critical to selling your product or yourself. I never met Gary. But what he says resonates with the same message provided by the authors of the book titled: APE, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book, described in an earlier blog post: if you want to succeed in this internet wired world, don’t pump out BS or try to be what the Irish call a ‘chancer.’ Because whether you are describing wines you love or trying to get others to tune into your latest series of sci-fi or pet grooming book series, you truly have to believe in what you are doing.

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No BS

That confidence resonates with others.

Your brand will grow as your outreach expands, your confidence notches up, and your communities grow.

Community – 

The internet has created a brave new democratic space. Writing web log posts has allowed me to gain access to a community of people who are passionate and informed about what they do. The virtual community is far larger and more diverse and international than if I was only able just to walk around the ‘hood getting to know neighbors.

Let me illustrate, first about wines, then about publishing.

If I have a question about wine from the French Riviera or the Ligurian coast, I’ll contact blogger Chrissie who writes The Riviera Grapevine; if I want to know about Italian Piedmont wines such as Barolo (or if I want to talk about a new fiction book idea), I can drop an email to author / wine guide / blogger James Sajo who lives in Italy and runs a guide business and is dialed into local wines. To get the scoop on the best deals in Bordeaux wines, I’ll get in touch with my friend Les Kellen, who runs wine tours and operates a guest house in Blaye, Bordeaux.

If I want advice on publishing and marketing (or want to see some zippy artwork), I’ll check out Robin Kalinich’s site, or check out the blog or drop a message to Fiona Pearse – an IT guru and author living in London.

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Bordeaux is a region, a wine blend, and also a very successful brand

Using the internet, I don’t have to hop on a plane or drive (though that’s fun) to get up to date information from people who are passionate about what they do. Instead, I just check in with the virtual world, and zip off an email query.

Another Word about Wine and Books –

What else do wine and books have in common? I subscribe to the Wine Spectator magazine. Because I’m working in Asia, I get the digital rather than the print edition. So I recently looked at the site and realized they have an entire wine course – with quizzes, instructional materials, quotes, and multiple videos that are free for subscribers. As the site says, homework was never so much fun. One lesson is about Buying Wine. To encourage people to be experimental at wine stores, they write:

“Think of a trip to the wine store as if it were a trip to the book store…None of the titles are familiar, so you read the plot descriptions on a few back covers as well as the employees’ comment cards…Buying wine is pretty much the same, only a bottle of wine is often less expensive than a hardcover book…” [Copyright Wine Spectator magazine.]

Thanks, as always, for tuning in.

Cycling to Dun Aengus in Western Ireland

Years ago, my mother was ill in the hospital before she passed away. One day I visited her and read aloud a short story I had written about Ireland – and which had been accepted for publication. The book publisher (Travelers’ Tales, of San Francisco) had sent their formatted galleys in case I wanted to make any last minute revisions. I read the piece aloud. She listened for cadence and substance, then suggested one or two modifications before nodding her head that it was good to go. I still appreciate her input and attention to rhythm.

This true story is about riding a bicycle in western Ireland to an amazing old stone fort named Dun Aengus. It’s also about how landscapes alter our perception of time, and how time can enhance how we appreciate the places we visit.

The book includes stories by Frank McCourt, Nuala O’Faolain, Colm Tóibín, Maeve Binchy, and Rosemary Mahoney. I still feel proud to be included in this anthology.

Still, times have changed. Now there is a visitor center at Dun Aengus, and you have to pay a few Euros to enter the site. Apparently there are lots of visitors, though when we visited we were alone. Mmmm…did this piece written decades ago help encourage even a few more visitors? From now on, think I’ll keep news about exploring these jewels quiet…

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Copyright Travelers’ Tales

 

This bicycle trip in western Ireland helped inspire me to write – years later – a book that weaves historical fact with fiction to produce a tale spanning five millennia of Irish history. Titled River of Ireland, the book tells of Viking raiders, warring chiefs, crafty politicians, romantic musicians, and a brave Spanish Armada captain – all who helped  shape the character of Ireland’s culture.

Read the short piece titled – Cycling to Dun Aengus. 

Read about the book Traveler’s Tales – Ireland.

Read more about the book River of Ireland.

As the Gaelic saying goes, An té a bhíónn siúlach, bíonn scéalach. Or – who travels has stories to tell.

Check out this recent New York Times article about another desolate, windswept sanctuary for worship off the west coast of Ireland, called Skellig Michael.

Or check out this YouTube video of Dun Aengus. There’s not much of a structure left – but you can imagine looking out from a fortress toward a wild ocean view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Fiction Book from Tom Mullen – Dreams, Murder, History

Happy November, all.

Hope that weather and life go well for you.

I’ve just published a new book, titled River of Dreams.

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Cover art by sister Trisha Ray

This easy read tells how three characters in a young man’s dreams – from three different periods of history – provide clues as to who committed a murder. The story is set in the ancient and mesmerizing city of Durham in northeast England.

I began writing this while living in Durham. Although the first draft was completed a few years ago, I recently got around to final editing and formatting. The video below tells a little about the book.

The cover art was produced by my sister, Trisha Ray, who also recently produced a beautiful book about travel.

You can also learn more here about the magic of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral: ancient, moonlit, gorgeous

After a thousand years, Durham Cathedral keeps its magic

The blurb (included on the Books tab of this website) tells more:

In the wake of murder, three characters within a young man’s dreams identify the culprit. But putting the criminal behind bars creates another challenge. Set within England’s beautiful and ancient university town of Durham, River of Dreams braids together stories of a medieval battle, construction of a Norman cathedral, and a failed French rebellion – to help solve a murder mystery. A soldier, a milkmaid, and a rebel transform to unusual allies in this fresh storyline that oscillates between centuries and flicks between nations. 

I do hope that you enjoy this book.

Learn more about River of Dreams.

For three months, the book will only be available on Amazon.  After that it will be available on other ereader platforms. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app to your computer, phone, iPad, or other electronic media reader.

Also – you can now have an electronic signature for any ebook from Roundwood Press. The ‘Author’ tab of this website shows how. Or, just click on the icon below.

Get your e-book signed by T. Mullen

New Paul Theroux Book about Africa

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Desert beauty of rural Namibia

Forty years ago, author Paul Theroux landed in the country of Malawi to work as a Peace Corps volunteer. Not only did he teach English in a rural setting, he wrote what he thought were magazine articles for a European publisher, until finding out that his written assessments about Malawi’s dictator were being paid for by a German espionage agency. This unpredictability about writing and travel hooked him.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has just published Theroux’s latest book: The Last Train to Zona Verde – My Ultimate African Safari.

This is another non-fiction travel book, the same genre Theroux began mastering when his assembled his book The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975.

This time, Theroux explores South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. This time, he uncharacteristically turns down the offer of riding a train twice. The word ‘ultimate’ in the title does not refer to this African excursion as being the best; it refers to it as being his last.

Theroux’s travel writing captivates an audience because it is fresh, honest, and eclectic – typically including interviews with random locals, philosophical ramblings, and brazen candor about nasty locales we’d prefer to read about than actually visit.

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Local transport in the Damara region of northern Namibia

Many years ago I was inspired to join the Peace Corps by Theroux’s writings, and coincidentally served in the same country where he did – Malawi. After that, my next two work stints took me to live in Namibia, and then Angola. Partially inspired by Theroux, I wrote three individual books about these countries (the photos on this page come from those books). Obviously, this book by Theroux appeals to me.

Theroux begins by highlighting what inspired him to hit the trail again, quoting a piece from an essay by Henry David Thoreau: “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things.” Theroux also enjoys the simple pleasures of being able to do whatever he pleases when he travels solo: “All solitary travel offers a sort of special license allowing you to be anyone you want to be.”

During his wanderings and encounters with Ju/’hoansi people in rural locales, as well as slum dwellers outside of Cape Town, he reflects on a truth that occurred after he began writing his travel books: that half of the population of the world now lives in urban settings. He writes, “…as Elias Canetti points out in Crowds and Power, people feel more secure in a crowd; so they flee the emptiness and insecurity of the countryside to seek consolation in an urban slum crowd, even a futureless and filthy one…”

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The bombed out governor’s mansion in Maquela do Zombo, northern Angola

His glowing description of Windhoek, capital of Namibia, is as accurate as his disparaging portrait of Luanda – Angola’s capital. His insights into the obvious disparity between rich and poor also pepper a hefty percentage of his observations.

“Namibia is a land of extremes…While Namibia has one of the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes in Africa, it ranks near the bottom in land and income distribution.”

Regarding this iniquity, Theroux saves his heftiest criticism for Angola, a country where it is deserved because of the billions of dollars in oil revenue the government takes in, and does little to redistribute. “But, this being Angola, it was the rich, and only the rich, who appeared to me sluttish and criminal. In the bush there existed the possibility of renewal: a new season, a new crop, a new water source.”

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The lush, fertile, and land-mine infested countryside of Angola

Theroux comments at least twice about his retirement age (he is in his seventies). The vitriol of much of the writing that characterizes many of his travel pieces has mellowed considerably in this book, the mark of an author who has written many of the books he has wanted to, taken a fair share of the trips he has yearned for, and has not the slightest compunction of admitting when he knows that it is time for a trip to end. Theroux makes his decision not to continue the trip based on unstable and dangerous geopolitics within the next countries he had planned to visit. But it’s obvious that – this time – he has no regret in ending the journey. Like Steinbeck wrote about his drive around the United States in the book Travels with Charley – In Search of America, there comes a time when you know the trip is over, and it is simply time to go home.

But while this book lasts, you’ll enjoy the journey.

 

Video Preview of the Book – Trailing Tara

Here’s a quick video preview about the fictional book Trailing Tara.

Click here to read more about this book.

The plot unravels from the beaches of Malibu…

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…to the sands of Namibia.

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And from the Swiss Alps,

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…to the Badlands of New Mexico.

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Check out Trailing Tara at Amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fresh Tips about Self Publishing, Marketing, Life

In California recently my friend Nazli Ghassemi, author of Desert Mojito (a fictional book about Dubai) recommended a fresh book about self-publishing. The landscape of this world is changing so fast that most books about the topic are obsolete if they are more than a year old.

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Home, Studio, Publishing House

 

The book is titled APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book, by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch. At $2.99 for the e-book version, this is a steal. The book covers all aspects of self-publishing, but is certainly geared for e-books, an avenue that wasn’t available on a practical basis when I published my own first book in 2004. The book includes practical editing advice (hire an editor, first, then check yourself for copy editing; one chapter explains the correct use of serial commas, hyphens, and underlining). It also discusses marketing, e-book formats, how to sell your book on Amazon, B&N, Google and Kobo, as well as how to market your book.

Another book that addresses book sales, but it is really about how the internet is changing YOUR world, and how you can use it to change yourself is Trust Agents – Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust. (Thanks again, Nazli!) This book will change the way you think about how you choose to navigate through day-to-day life, and work. It basically says that most humans can spot a fraud, and those who use the internet often spot the bull&%$! floating around. This book (and some websites listed below) highlight a truth amplified by the ubiquity of the internet – that to succeed in your chosen field, you have to be genuine. Otherwise few will visit your website, buy your product, or want to communicate with you.

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Farewell to the Fortress of Mainstream Publishing

 

Until recently, many self-publishers were regarded disdainfully by New York publishers, as well as by some authors (one author refused to write a testimonial for my first book, claiming that professional publishing equated with higher standards of editing quality; he should read the latest ‘blockbuster’ Dan Brown novel, complete with multiple and egregious editing errors). Nowadays, who cares? Enough authors have found that scaling the walls of Fortress New York Publishing Houses is a waste of effort when there are lush, economically fertile publicity pastures elsewhere. If you want to self-publish, read these books.

I almost attended a three-day internet marketing conference in Boston during vacation. Before going there I decided to contact an Irish friend who recently started up a new e-commerce business in London. He told me to hold off on the conference, and instead check out the sites listed below. Hope you don’t mind that I am sharing some (not all) of these, Howard Kingston (of Future Ad Labs HQ, 42-46 Princelet St, London, E1 5LP).

One of the key lessons shared is that if you attend a conference, forget about sidling up to ‘key’ and well-known people and faking that you like them. Instead, find some buds – whoever – who are the type you want to hang out and drink a beer with. You’ll feel comfortable, spend time with people who share your interests and values, and good things will start to happen.

Lessons learned from marketing ‘the 4-hour body.’

Everything you should know about book marketing.

The future of books.

Search Engine Optimization Recipe

Zen Social Media Marketing (for UK readers); Click here for USA readers.

 

Podcast:

This podcast is not cutting edge.  But, if you are a novelist and like listening to radio discussions, check this out from PR Insider Radio Show – about the challenges of getting publicity for your novel. It’s engaging and informative. If you want to promote your book – you should try gaining all the knowledge that will help you.

 

 

How Wonderful is Malawi – Warm Heart of Africa?

Before being accepted to join the Peace Corps years ago, I momentarily imagined being sent to some small, beautiful, unique country no one (or very few people) had heard of.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. When the recruiter told me via telephone that I was being sent to Malawi, I mumbled ‘sure,’ hung up, then drove to the library to find out which continent Malawi was on.

I spent three joyful years living there.

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Malawi maize tossed in wind

What is unique and attractive about this small, landlocked African nation?

Here’s  a list.

1. Cichlids.

Lake Malawi is over 550 kilometers long and more than 70 kilometers at its widest. When you sit at the shore, it’s like sitting by the ocean. There are hundreds of cichlid fish that evolved in the lake. Some live hundreds of feet deep. Some consider cave roofs as their home, so swim upside down. Different species occupy various vertical layers of water, having evolved in a wide range of ecological niches. This means the diversity is huge. Lack of industries along the shoreline and little pollution means the lake has excellent snorkeling and diving in relatively warm water.

Check out this trailer, one of several films about these cichlids, from Earth Touch.

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Usisya shoreline and Mphandi Hill along Lake Malawi, north of Nkhata Bay

 

2. The Jet.

Finally, some clear political thinking about prioritizing health versus well-being appears to be glimmering in this portion of Africa. Read this Daily Telegraph article. The bottom line: President Joyce Banda is selling a presidential jet, valued at $15 million, to raise funds to help provide food for Malawians during a drought. She also cut her own salary and is selling dozens of Mercedes-Benz vehicles used by government cabinet members. Go girl.

3. Geography.

Malawi’s diverse geography is generously mountainous. The Mount Mulanje massif, flanked by gorgeous tea fields, is a place where can you spend days hiking along different trails crisscrossing a plateau, and staying at basic cabins or camping out.

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Gorgeous and massive Mount Mulanje in the south

Massive and tranquil Lake Malawi fills part of Africa’s north-south running Great Rift Valley, and has spectacular snorkeling for an inland lake.

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A Jewel by the Lakeshore

In northern Malawi, much of the Vipya Plateau highlands are covered by an enormous pine tree plantation. The trees and cool high altitude make staying at a cabin there like being in Scotland or Bavaria. Another little known geographical jewel in the far north is challenging to get to because of remoteness: the Misuku Hills. A friend and I once motorcycled here and stayed at a guest house belonging to a coffee plantation. Here, school children peer off the edges of soccer fields into deep valleys more reminiscent of Nepal than Central Africa.

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Watching a waterfall from Livingstonia, in the north

4. Wildlife.

Malawi has five national parks and four wildlife preserves. Lions stalk prey in Liwonde National Park a few hours south of the capital city, zebras, sable and roan antelope cruise across highland Nyika National Park in the far north, and you can sit with binoculars in an elevated ‘hide’ at Vwaza Marsh watching hippos wallow along mucky shores.

Below are a photos I took using Kodachrome film while living there (as with all photos on this post).

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Vwaza Marsh hippo

 

 

Elephants Liwonde 89

 

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5. Music.

Check out Peter Mawanga music.

6. The People.

Malawian people are the country’s primary attraction. The country was established as a British Protectorate, but never colonized by a European nation. This meant that Malawians have enjoyed living life according to their own cultural norms (except at the whims of one long running dictatorship). Soils are fertile, the lake has abundant fish, and high altitude grazing has kept cattle clear of flies that transmit sleeping sickness. These factors historically helped keep Malawi’s people agriculturally self-sustaining and exposed to little stress, which appears is reflected in their warm hearted and generous attitude, even to foreigners.

In conclusion, Malawi is quite wonderful…

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Radiant landscape, warm smiles

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Reading list:

Brazenly, I recommend my own book – which includes hundreds of photographs as well as tales of life as a volunteer working throughout Malawi.

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi, by T. Mullen.

Cover Water and Witchcraft

 

 

Last night, I began reading Vuto by A.J. Walkley. The author spent time in Malawi as a volunteer. Vuto, in the Chichewa language, means ‘problem.’ and this fictional work describes the hardships of a Malawian mother coping with an intriguing circumstances.

1.Vuto Book Cover

Also – you might want to check out this classic from the 1950s, when the renowned author explored both Mount Mulanje and Nyika Plateau in Malawi.

Venture to the Interior, by Laurens van der Post

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And this book is an inspiring true story – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

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You should also check out the TED video of the author speaking. This may well make you shake your head in amazement.

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews – Volcano, Bliss, Travel

Three books are reviewed below. One fictional book revolves around a catastrophe that changed ancient history. One non-fiction book tells of roaming the globe to evaluate happiness. The third book includes drawings and anecdotes that highlight the benefits of travel.

Pompeii by Robert Harris tells of days before and during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, when spewing boulders and magma coated the landscape and entombed the city of Pompeii for centuries. This book is about a water engineer (an aquarius) name Attilus, who investigates why the Aqua Agusta – longest aqueduct in the world – has stopped functioning. This is a simple tale where engineering runs into politics and corruption, where a natural disaster challenges victims to break their habits to survive, and where a man’s determination to find his love will keep you turning pages.

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The legacy of clever Roman aqueduct builders lives on

Harris draws us into the story by coloring an engineer’s quest with historical details that capture our curiosity. The book will make readers want to veer back in time to Pompeii to see how the gears of civilization spun before this volcano erupted.

“A man could buy anything he needed in the harbour of Pompeii.  Indian parrots, Nubian slaves, nitrum salt from the pools near Cairo, Chinese cinnamon, African monkeys, Oriental slave-girls famed for their sexual tricks…”

The book operates at three levels – providing admiration for Roman ingenuity, clueing us into colorful daily life in an ancient era around the Bay of Naples we likely knew nothing about, and keeping us focused on the story of an engineer trying to solve a technical problem while also trying to spare lives from a natural catastrophe. Genuine characters, including Pliny, enter the story. Harris writes:

“A sickle of luminous cloud – that was how Pliny described it…sweeping down the western slope of Vesuvius leaving in its wake a patchwork of fires. Some were winking, isolated pinpricks – farmhouses and villas that had been set alight. But elsewhere whole swathes of the forest were blazing.”

This is a captivating, easy read. It will increase your respect for how Roman society functioned, and how Roman engineering was a powerful factor in transforming that society.

Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos: An Illustrated Chronicle of Travel, Art, and Finding Home is an illustrated book written my sister, Patricia Ray. Below is the write up I provided on Amazon.  It’s truly a visual treat.

The book is a superbly illustrated collection of short stories and vignettes that tell not only about living and working throughout the world, but of finding joy in simplicity. Whether the author is piloting a single engine plane over the Sahara Desert (“In a single engine?” the control tower operator called by radio, “Damn girl, you’ve got more balls than I have”) or eating ‘Undercooked Goat in Lemon’ or ‘Roasted Skunk with Fruit Wine’ in Vietnam, the overall emphasis is on finding fun and laughs in life’s everyday bizarre occurrences. The book lassoes tales of travels in the 70s (including buying a used car for ten dollars in Scotland, or showing up for dinner in Germany where everyone is polite, but completely naked) as well as working for an airline and cruising around the world, with comparisons to living at a quiet home in New Mexico – where joy comes from peaking at tadpoles or drinking wine while watching a thunderstorm.

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Alluring New Mexico landscape

This is an easy and fun read – enlightening and inspiring – and illustrated with watercolors saturated with vibrant colors, as well as photographs taken in Ireland, Iran, and Liberia in the 1970s and 80s. These include an old Irish farmer who rides his donkey because he never learned how to master a bicycle, a traffic cop with sunglasses who gives tickets for ‘reckless parking’ in West Africa, and hippies working as lumberjacks in Bavaria. This is the type of book you read either with a good mug or tea or pint of brew but also with a real paper map – because you will want to plan out your next travel adventure. Full marks on this book! It’s an excellent read and visually gorgeous.

1. Meanwhile Cover

In The Geography of Bliss – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner learns about the World Database of Happiness, and sets off across the planet to field check whether the data may be true. The book is filled with insight and wit. In Switzerland, he writes: “I’m reunited with my love. I’m back on a Swiss train. My next stop of Zurich, a city so clean it makes Geneva look like a slum.”

Weiner finds that the collective happiness of people depends at times on how much they are provided for, versus how much they are left alone, and how much choice they are afforded. But the more he seeks answers, the less the definition of happiness appears fixed.

“We need a new word to describe Swiss happiness. Something more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy.”

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Switzerland…

 

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Great Britain…

 

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Thailand…

 

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United States…

 

 

 

 

In Bhutan he finds that factors leading to overall contentment of the population include low crime and splendid geography, and explores the concept of how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) relates, or doesn’t, to happiness. He is surprised when sudden and unexpected bliss envelopes him after time spent in the country.

“Yet sitting here in this airport terminal that looks like a Buddhist temple, watching an archery match on a small TV screen and drinking bad instant coffee, I am overwhelmed with a feeling that is alien to me: calm.”

In Iceland he realizes that a ‘pinch of self-delusion’ may be important for the happiness of locals, but laments that so many artists in the country – unrestrained and uncriticized – ‘produce a lot of crap.’

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Happy Icelanders – is it the…

 

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…ale, or…

 

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…good food?

Onward he travels, through Qatar and Moldova and Thailand and Great Britain and India and America. Especially memorable is his criticism of Moldova and the subsequent criticism of him by Moldovans. Weiner writes, “All around me, I see misery….is this place really so miserable, or have I fallen prey to what social scientists call confirmation bias?” At the book’s conclusion he mentions how Moldovans who read his book wrote and suggested that he kill himself, to which he reminds us that it was the Moldovan people themselves who reported being so unhappy when queried in a survey.

The entire concept of happiness often confuses Weiner. About Thailand and its people, he writes, “Thais, even those who don’t actively practice Buddhism, maintain a certain equilibrium that I find infuriating. They just don’t get flustered, even when life hurls awfulness their way.”

This is essentially a travelogue with the premise of happiness as a focal point. It’s a smooth and entertaining read that provides fresh insights on what we really value and cherish in life. It also provides decent laughs.

 

Book Review: Wave – A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami

On the 26th of December, 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala’s friend named Orlantha stood in the doorway of a hotel room in the Yala National Park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. She praised Sonali’s two children and her marriage and said, “What you guys have is a dream.”

She then looked out the window and saw a tsunami wave flushing toward the hotel.

Minutes later Sonali’s ‘dream life’ vanished when her husband, children, parents and friend Orlantha were all killed by the tidal wave that ripped thousands of lives apart in Sri Lanka.

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Calm before disaster

Wave is a quick, unsentimental read. Sonali first recalls strange memories of being swept up in water. Her mind recalls unexpected imagery while this nightmare unfolded, while she was temporarily trapped in a car, then swept away. At one point she looked up to the sky. “Painted storks, I thought.  A flight of painted storks across a Yala sky…”

After finding out that her family has been killed, she stays with other family members who live in Sri Lanka. At first, she is resigned to end her own life. She writes, “The next morning my aunt called doctor. A bit pointless, I thought, I will kill myself soon.” And, “I kept Googling ways of killing myself.  I needed to know how to do it successfully, I couldn’t mess it up.” The result of her mindset was that “An army of family and friends guarded me night and day.”

The story describes time in Sri Lanka, and then Sonali’s return to her London home years later. It was there where she had lived with her children, as well as the husband she  had met while studying at Cambridge. For years, Sonali oscillates between depression, denial, and drug abuse.

“This could not have happened to me. This is not me. I teetered endlessly. Look at me, powerless, a plastic bag in a gale.” And, “After my evening of drinking I’d pop two pills, then another two, another four, four more, and two more again, in quick succession. Then a mug of gin.”

She blames herself for the death of their family, though there is no reason to do so.

“How I have fallen. When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame. I was doomed all along, I am marked, there must be something very wrong with me. These were my constant thoughts in those early months.”

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Tranquil, and powerful

The years pass and her ability to handle the loss increases. There are also glimmers of the inexplicable and the synchronous that she, a professor of economics, does not question. One event regarded the sister of her deceased husband.

“Steve’s sister Beverly sat on my bead wiping her tears. On the morning of the twenty-sixth of December, she had woken up in London, weeping. At the time she hadn’t been able to imagine a reason for this….before someone phoned her with news of a tidal wave in Sri Lanka, she had been crying.”

Another occurs when she visits the site of the demolished hotel in Sri Lanka with her deceased husband’s parents. They wander around the wreckage.

“When I came back to my father-in-law, he was holding a sheet of paper, peering at it. He showed it to me. He told me he’d stood in that wind and spoke a few words into the air, to Steve and the boys. That’s when something fluttered by his foot…..just a scrap of paper…It was the back cover of a research report written by Steve…”

With time, her ability to cope increases – not by blocking out the past years with her family, but by embracing them.

“I can recover myself better when I dare let in their light.”

As she re-establishes her life and works not only in London but also in New York, Sonali faces a recurring problem when people she meets ask if she is married or has children, or where her parents live. Mostly, she shrugs off these questions and ignores them. This book, however, is her answer.  It is Sonali’s way of admitting that the past with her family was not a dream, but a beautiful reality, where she learned – as any of us may – how all we cherish can be lost within minutes.

 

Wave – A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami

by Sonali Deraniyagala

Published by Virago Press, a division of Little, Brown Book Group, London.

Epic Brian Boru Movie in the Making

Check out the websites listed below that hint of an epic upcoming movie.

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Inland from the site of Ireland’s most epic battle

In 2005 I traveled to Beal Boru in Ireland to research Brian Boru – Ireland’s greatest chieftain – to write my book River of Ireland.  I was hoping someone would make the movie to celebrate the thousand year anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf – which took place on Easter Day, 1014.  Apparently they are.  Click on any of the following:

Irish Independent Article

RTE article

Cork Independent Article

Raised as a shepherd boy, Boru became Ireland’s greatest chieftain…

During that trip I spent a week traveling alongside the Shannon River. I visited sites to research chapters regarding Boru, as well as other stories based on Irish history – including the Spanish Armada ships that wrecked off Ireland’s coast.  When the trip ended, I still needed another week to finish gathering information. Fortunately, I soon unexpectedly ended up with a few months off between work contracts and returned to Ireland to finish the ‘field research.’  This included interviewing a genetic archaeologist at Dublin’s Trinity College to learn what animals roamed across Ireland a few thousand years BC – the point where my book begins. I also hiked the Shannon callows – low floodplains – with a biologist to find out more about local endangered birds for another chapter.  And though it was still winter and the Brian Boru center was closed, the manager drove down and opened the doors for me so I could do more research.

The Irish Sea – less bloody than one thousand years ago…

River of Ireland is a fictional book based on multiple real key events that shaped the history of Ireland.  One chapter is about the uncanny, inspiring story of Brian Boru.  I’m looking forward to a movie coming out that does justice to this chieftain who united Ireland, and drove out Viking invaders.

If you want to read another fictional book woven around the story of this great chieftain of Ireland, try Lion of Ireland, by Llywelyn Morgan.  She writes some excellent and acclaimed fiction about Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Synchronous Trail

Catharsis, coincidence, and death at a splendid spot in Colorado

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This story begins in Boulder, Colorado, and moves through…

Completed years ago, The Synchronous Trail – Enlightened Travels has been updated and is now available as an e-book. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Here’s a little history about the book.

I finished a draft fifteen years ago, then edited and updated the text several times. The book explores powerful coincidences, and how they can have a major impact on our lives. It’s about a search throughout the world for why and how ‘synchronous events’ – as psychoanalyst Carl Jung called them – occur.

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…northeast England…

This was a tough book to write. Why? Delays and uncertainty. At the beginning I had no idea why some events can knock life off its trajectory or open our minds to view reality in a different way. This meant that writing the book was like making a movie before the screenplay is finished, or constructing a building before the blueprints are ready. There was also the added complication of not knowing if I would ever conclude why these ‘synchronous’ situations impact us. In other words – why start a book if there might be no ending?

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…the highlands of Guatemala…

 

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…Africa’s Great Rift Valley…

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…the Persian Gulf…

I originally wanted the structure to resemble that of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – to provide an engaging, entertaining, simple story. Originally, this ‘story’ was going to revolve around my experience of building rural water pipelines in Malawi. But after beginning to write in Africa, I realized that synchronous events were still a mystery. In other words, I could start the story, but not finish.  So I scrapped the idea and instead wrote Water and Witchcraft -Three Years in Malawi – a memoir about colorful years spent in that country.

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…Morocco…

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…New Mexico…

Eventually the puzzle unraveled. I learned powerful reasons why synchronous events can impact our lives. When I was finally ready to assemble this book, an excruciating task lay ahead: gathering and dissecting past writings and journal entries and weaving these into something that resembled a coherent whole (not as coherent as I would like). This involved paring down often intricate and complex events into simple scenes to provide a clear and simple narrative. The years rolled by as this came together. Finally, I assembled the story as a travelogue – where colors, scents, sounds, and imagery from multiple geographies help ground the context of each chapter.

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…and the Namib Desert

The resulting book is a journey of discovery about how life is far more pliable than most of us realize. Incidentally – my other book titled Synchronicity as Signpost is just the distillate of lessons learned while writing The Synchronous Trail. The difference between these two books – Trail and Signpost – is that between writing the two, I realized that sometimes you just have to relax, and listen to what life is trying to tell you.

I hope you enjoy.

Click here to read more about The Synchronous Trail.

Click here to learn more about Roundwood Press.

Click here to read about other books from Roundwood Press.

 

 

Book Review – Inferno by Dan Brown

On a recent trip to Italy I brought a hefty hardcover copy of the new book Inferno by Dan Brown.

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The plot moves from Tuscany…

The first half is entertaining, engaging, and filled with promise. Brown also educates us about historical happenings in a way that is seamlessly entertaining. Then, in trying to manufacture surprise, the plot tries to back out of its entire premise. This doesn’t work. Readers want plots to move forward, not to circle around like a dog chasing its tail. The plot plummets as credibility disappears, consistency vanishes, and Brown offers us a personal, editorial polemic as an ending. Readers want entertainment. For morals or for preaching we can read Aesop’s Fables or editorials from a newspaper.

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…to Turkey

It’s also disquieting that the publisher of a guaranteed best-seller refused to shell out enough money to hire an editor who knows the difference between the words ‘enormous’ and ‘enormity.’ Not once, but twice. Coming from a supposedly ‘reputable’ New York publishing house, this insult to the English language is egregious. The inside of a cathedral may be enormous, while a cruel punishment would constitute an enormity. Enormous refers to size. Enormity refers to something morally wrong.

The word ‘deplane’ is also used twice. It’s not a word. A noun is not a verb. It’s an airline company’s display that they are linguistically incompetent. Would we ‘decar’ after driving, or ‘desleep’ in the morning or ‘deoffice’ after work? Mmmm…it may be time to ‘deread’ Dan Brown’s books.

Perhaps the movie will be better. It would be difficult not to be.

Click here to read about my own book titled River of Tuscany.

Click here to read about other books from Roundwood Press.

Watchful in a War Zone

On a forgotten and rutted dirt road in Angola, our Land Cruiser got stuck in mud. The nearest town was a four hour drive away. I got out and sat on a log and realized I had malaria. We ate mangoes and sweated and waited five hours before the first random vehicle approached.

Check out our happy rescue tow-truck:

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An unexpected tow truck

This scene epitomizes Angola – where tragedy mixes with joy, beautiful landscapes are sprinkled with land mines, and sweetness is never far from sorrow.

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A questionable bridge

But here is the strange thing: after living through decades of bombings, machine gun attacks and watching the slaughter of friends and compatriots – these people still laugh. A lot. They smile. A lot. They sing and joke and flirt with open abandon. They think that helping strangers stuck in mud is nothing short of a grand adventure. That’s an eye opener. Talk about resilience.

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Buying black market gasoline

Angola is beautiful. There are lush green highlands, horseshoe shaped waterfalls, gorgeous glens and tranquil beaches. It was clobbered by civil war after Portuguese settlers pulled out. The war lasted decades. Roads decayed, telephone lines disintegrated, and buildings were punctured by aerial bombs. The scenario grew ugly.

These are a few photos from my e-book Water after War – Seasons in Angola.

 

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A rainbow of hope

I had the fortune to spend a few months in northern Angola in the late 1990s. Later, after leaving the country to work in a cushy job with a poolside apartment in Dubai, I ended up returning to Angola for a few months. Why? The landscape is seducing, and addictive. The cease fire between wily rebels and a Marxist government lasted for over a year before guns rattled again and bullets flew and rocket launchers downed United Nations helicopters delivering food to internal refugees.

The rolling hills of Uige

With beauty…

 

Careful

…lurks danger

When peace arrived and the war – which was more about egos than ideology – ended, Angolans were happy to leave the memory of those decades behind. Now they have roads to improve, bridges to repair, mine fields to clear, crops to grow and inflation to reign in. They’re still smiling as they go to it. They are a proud people looking ahead, not behind.

Click here to read more about the book Water after War – Seasons in Angola. [Click, then scroll down the new page.]

 

 

 

Namibian Magic

Thanks for the recent show of interest in the book – The Deep Sand of Damarland – A Journal of Namibia.

Below are a few photos of Namibia from the book.

 

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The massive sand dunes of Sossflei, Namibia

This book is a simple tale about living and working in an African country – it’s also about the power of shifting how we think.

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Within days of arriving to work in Namibia, I was flustered, semi-despondent and ready to resign.  My girlfriend lived on a different continent, the project I was assigned to manage was a mess, the boss skipped out to another country and told me to deal with visitors to the project, and I lived in a hot remote town in an alien land.

But I stayed.  After all, there was nothing to lose.  That realization was relaxing.  When I regarded the job and situation as a playful challenge, reality seemed to bend itself to accommodate desires.

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94 Alice Rob Swakopmund - a - psRebecca and Marie PCVs - psAlso – after a few drives across a harsh, barren, desolate desert – the landscape itself turned beautiful.

During these months I met intriguing characters – a German bicyclist who recalled – with joy – the adventure of getting mugged in a distant city, or cowboy contractors who could have been plucked from a storybook.

(“…he told me how as a boy, he lived rough and wild and used to ride out to the bush on horseback to lasso giraffes.”)

 

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The sands of time

The more I relaxed, the more the entire scenario became like a dream.  Desired friends and situations began appearing from nowhere.  By throwing away the notion of an ‘ideal’ life and embracing free time, open space, and  a mesmerizing landscape (plus the odd and random sighting of elephants or giraffes), living off the beaten track turned magical.

You can click here to read more about The Deep Sand of Damarland.

 

 

Leadership Lessons from an Irish Chieftain

Today – Roundwood Press releases a new ebook.

Okay, it’s a pamphlet.

Irish Chieftain Cover NEW Updated Cropped

How powerful are these lessons?

Nine hundred and ninety-nine years, one month, ten days and give or take about an hour ago (as of this posting), Ireland’s greatest ever chieftain – Brian Boru – wielded these lessons to change the destiny of an island, and crack the power of Viking invaders.

On Easter Day in the year 1014, these lessons powered the man who grew up as a shepherd boy to galvanize a thousand tribes, summon enemy longboats from as far away as Iceland to do battle, coalesce the energies of vibrant but disheveled island people, and smash the raging armies of arrogant foreign plunderers. Boru’s greatest battle – at Clontarf along the Irish Sea – raged all day, but the outcome was clear by mid-afternoon.

This pamphlet summarizes challenges faced, and victories won, by Brian Boru, and highlights lessons he mastered to change the fate of Ireland.

Today, these lessons are still potent – whether to gain personal victory, or to reshape the course of life.

This is the first publication from the new Dreaming Leader series. It kicks off a series of concise, inexpensive lessons that are clear, simple, and practical.  Upcoming titles will include lessons from a Carthaginian general who invaded and defeated the Romans, as well as lessons from Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful but unconventional female ruler in France.

The main Roundwood Press website page will soon be updated to include this new series.  In the meantime, click on the cover image above for information from Amazon, or click here for details from Barnes and Noble.

You don’t need an ereader – you can download the Kindle app or Nook app to your phone, computer, or Ipad.  We realize and understand how you love printed books.  So do we.  And they are not going away.  But the time has come to also enjoy another format for reading – that of ebooks.

We appreciate your visit to Roundwood Press.

As the Irish say – Go raibh míle maith agat.  

Let a thousand thanks be upon you.

Click here to read more about Leaderships Lessons of an Irish Chieftain.

Wandering Italy with Hermann Hesse

(This is the first of occasional posts about authors whose words and thoughts reshaped the thinking of generations.)

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Looking down from San Vigilio village toward upper Bergamo

 

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, German author Hermann Hesse visited the upper and lower cities of Bergamo in Italy, fifty kilometers northeast of Milan.

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The Orobie, or Bergamo Alps

Hesse was in his mid-30’s. He had recently fathered a third child and had yet to write Siddhartha or The Glass Bead Game. But this trip came before a brave, pivotal moment in his life.

Hesse paced over curving, cobbled alleyways between stone clock towers, ancient cathedrals, and red tile roof homes inside the walled upper city – Città alta – before climbing to the higher village of San Vigilio. From here he looked out toward plains, alps, and lush hillsides that inspired his remark of this being one of Italy’s more beautiful corners.

Hesse visited three years after publishing his novel Gertrude, in 1910.

At the opening of this book the narrator declares “Even if, as it is decreed by the gods, fate has inexorably trod over my external existence as it does with everyone, my inner life has been of my own making. I desire its sweetness and bitterness and accept full responsibility for it.”

Sage words from a wanderer.

How much did Hesse adhere to what he wrote about individual responsibility? In 1914, the year after he visited Bergamo and the year in which the First World War broke out, Hesse was assigned a military duty of guarding prisoners. He then wrote an essay that advocated this his fellow citizens stay wary of zealous nationalism. The result was such a backlash that he eventually forfeited his citizenship and took a Swiss passport instead. In retrospect, his bold words appear prophetic.

Only after purchasing my ticket to Bergamo did I learn of Hesse’s visit to the village just above that city – San Vigilio.

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A sweet patch of earth to call home

 

DSC_7253After traveling from the Città alta via a funicolare cable tram to San Vigilio village, I found an outdoor cafe where a half dozen people sat. The waiter refused to serve me, saying I had to wait an hour before lunch time. Mystified and frustrated, I paced instead to the neighboring San Vigilio Ristorante Pizzeria, with a magnificent view down valley.

The unexpected snub from the previous waiter delivered good fortune. I sat and read a restaurant pamphlet, which told how this eatery opened in 1913 with the name Isola Bella (Beautiful Island). Hesse had visited this location that same year, where he had a ‘quick glimpse at the glass doors’ of this same restaurant and was inspired to enter because of the view.

DSC_7281In a show of happy solidarity with this wandering writer, I ordered casoncelli, Bergamese pasta rolled to resemble the winged hat of a nun, topped with bacon. I then drank a glass of Valcalepio rosso local red wine.

Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, but his book sales plummeted before being revived again by the 1960s ‘counterculture’ movement in the US and Europe. Hesse often wrote about unexpected twists of journeys that shape us.

Casconceli pasta

Casoncelli pasta

Years after this visit to Italy, Hesse moved to live in the Swiss hillside village of Montagnola, high above Lake Lugano. This enclave shares much in common with San Vigilio – being a small and sparsely populated hillside community with access to stunning views, crisp air, and no sense of rush. Were I a betting man, I’d guess that his first visit to Montagnola reminded him of his happy visit to San Vigilio. Regardless, this wandering author who inspired generations to seek personal enlightenment before monetary gain knew the value not only of beautiful countrysides, but of courage.

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Simple headstone for a powerful thinker – in Certenago, Switzerland

Learn more about Roundwood Press, or the author, or the books.

Bubbles, Bocce Ball, and Book Launch

This Roundwood Press website launched earlier this month. Considering this took place in south Asia in a relatively restrictive environment regarding alcohol – celebrations were low key. Still – champagne and beer flowed, and dinner included homeade dishes made by several people. This food related to geography included in books sold by Roundwood Press.

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This included Irish soda bread, Tuscan tortellini (challenging – considering the Chinese pasta maker handle cranks backward), Panamanian marinated and barbecued snapper with lime and chile, Middle Eastern tabouli, banoffy pie concocted out of a recipe from Malawi, and American brownies.  Guests included folks from France, Norway, Colombia, Pakistan, Australia and the US. We even linked in a friend from Karachi via Video Skype.

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IMG_9044 - aBetween glasses of Carlsberg and Domaine de La Janasse Côtes du Rhône red wine, we played games of rootop bocce ball – or boules.

Thanks to those of you who could not attend – but followed us online. And thanks for showing interest in the books!

I hope you’re interested in follow ups, and suggest you sign on for updates to this web log on the Home page.

16 Writing Tips

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Here are a few writing tips.  They include lessons learned over time, as well as insights harvested from writers who shaped the tastes of generations.

"There is no friend as loyal as a book" - Hemingway

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” – Hemingway

1.  Make your writing active, not passive. “The Visigoths defended Carcassonne” instead of “Carcassonne was defended by Visigoths.”  Your subject should perform the action, rather than be the receiver of action.

Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Read it every year.

2. Use short words and short sentences.

Why?  Read The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch.

3. Minimize adverbs.  He ran.  Not: He ran quickly.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez (author of One Hundred Years of Solitude) tries to eliminate every adverb from his writings.  This makes the text tighter and easier to read.

4. Spice up your writing with smells, sights, and specifics – she stuffed six pairs of dirty Levis in a green cotton laundry sack before breakfast. Or this from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: “Moments later shadows moved like spatter paint along the walls, catching the light when they passed the window so I could see the outline of wings.” Got it? Spatter paint. Wings.

5. Ground your scenes in some physical space. Don’t float. Whether a castle, a cast iron bed, or a mosquito ridden swamp – people have to be somewhere.

6. Dialog. Use plenty.

7. Outline, outline, outline. James Patterson (the highest earning author of 2012) described this as the key to writing when he spoke at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books years ago.

"I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil" - Truman Capote

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil” – Truman Capote

8. My mother’s advice – when it gets too serious, crack it open with levity.

9. Surprise. Now and then. Ken Follet writes that, “There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation.”

10. Write first, then get it right. Write it down. Edit afterwards.

11. Show, don’t tell.  In Moby Dick, Melville writes,  “What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?” instead of, “I had concerns about the trip.”

12. Break the rules – judiciously. But first earn that priveledge by learning when the literary police take off for a lunch break.

13. Write about what turns you on. Need inspiration? Read Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

14. Here’s potent advice from Ernest Hemingway: Finish What You Begin.

15. This is odd, but essential advice I once read about writing:  be a likable person. Otherwise, become one.

16. Read. Novels, cookbooks, comics, newspapers, blogs, laundry machine instructions, magazines, dentist office Monster Truck magazines….whatever.

Most importantly – enjoy!

Read more about Roundwood, and this website.

 

 

 

 

Contributing Artists for Roundwood Press

This Roundwood Press website is the collaborative output from a colorful lot of talented artists.

Logo –  

IMG_3194 - bTo design a logo relating to Ireland, the Wicklow Hills, and the town of Roundwood – artist Helen O’Brien (we grew up in Ireland together) referred her sister’s Spanish husband Carlos. He had free reign as long as the logo included woods and some concept of ’roundness.’  His first design turned out to be splendid.

Website Design

brad-fitzgerald-new-photo2After scouring dozens of author websites I contacted Brad – because his designs are clean and tight, and he is easy to work with. Brad has a degree in graphic design. He is also a father and an ultra-marathon runner. Brad listened to the website concept and worked accordingly. From inspecting his initial concept drafts, it was clear that selecting Brad was the right move. Check out: Apt Design

Maps – 

Map Design from Slovenia

Maps included in the African Raindrop and Vagabond series were custom designed by Kreso Krestes from Slovenia.  I searched for a map maker in Slovenia after visiting the country and finding the people industrious, decent, and down to earth.  Kreso’s work is technically professional and visually compelling.

Book Cover Designs –

Eight book covers include my photographs – some taken decades ago in Switzerland and New Zealand.  Two other covers were custom prepared by the following artists.

Picture ChanaChana Hauben prepared the book cover for Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.  We studied art history in Europe as teenagers, and she went on to become a member of the board of directors for the Getty Museum in Malibu by the time she was thirty. Chana prepared two full size oil paintings – for both front and back book covers – which were drum scanned and transformed to electronic images. She lives with her two beautiful children in Orange County, California.

IMG_3322aTrish Mullen Rempen prepared the cover for River of Dreams.  Trish is my sister and owns her own rug design, import and distribution business based in New Mexico (Foreign Accents). She is also a pilot, speaks several languages fluently, and has traveled via elephant and canoe to corners of the world I’ve never heard of.  Her cover drawing is based on a vista of the thousand year old Durham cathedral in northeast England, which is a key setting for scenes from the book.

Editing – 

IMG_0475cBarbara Kral-Hasty Carr edited two books – Wine and Work, and River of Dreams. We studied in Durham in the UK (and took plenty of trips together), where Barbara’s editing skills shone.  Barbara also suggested direction for the books, and reviewed and offered input to improve the layout and content of this website. She works as a marketing guru for Hallmark in Kansas City, and is an avid rower, reader, and cook.

Book Formatters –

Guido Henkel took on the challenging task of formatting three books with hundreds of color photographs in the African Raindrop series. Guido spent thirty years designing video games, then turned his explanatory ‘how to’ blog series about writing books (he is the author of the Jason Dark book series) into a side career of formatting books. He has formatted hundreds of books, including New York Times listed bestsellers.  Check out Guido Henkel

Book Cover Layout –

Tracy Yates - Book Cover Wizard

Tracy Yates prepared the textual layout of covers, and ensured thematic unity for four of the book series. She also formatted books in the Curving Trail series. Tracy has been working with ebooks and graphic designs for almost a decade, and manages her business ProEbookFormatting as well as her growing family. Pro Book Formatting

Photographer –

Karin P. in Colorado

Karin Prescott took the wesbite photograph of me. Karin’s photography experience includes traveling to Gabon on assignment with National Geographic and taking all photos for the book Peak One – about a mountain near Dillon, Colorado. An avid skier and mountain biker, she lives in a mountain cabin at over 11,000 feet elevation in Colorado.

Roundwood Press is Live!

Welcome to Roundwood Press.  Millennia of battles, raids, subjugation and victory forged the character of Irish people, while years of writing shaped these books.  I hope you find a topic you enjoy.

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These books were written over a span of decades. Whether you like fiction or non-fiction, or history, adventure, romance, philosophy or self-help – something here should suit your tastes. Some reads are quick and easy, while others are longer and more intricate.

Click on the Home tab – there are a dozen books available.  Here are suggestions about what to choose from any series:

IMG_8808Water and Wine Series –

Wine and Work – is an easy read that includes words, stories, and insights told by more than 50 people from around the world.

 

Chitipa easterAfrican Raindrop Series – 

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – is a simple read about quirky people working in a stunning land.

 

DSC_6756Curving Trail Series – 

Synchronicity as Signpost – is a fast, easy read that may open your mind to fresh possibilities.

 

DSC_6536Rivers of Time Series 

River of Tuscany – includes tales of battle, genius, and even cookery based on real events.

 

LivingstoniaVagabond Series –

Trailing Tara – skips around the world with unusual surprises, determined characters, and a hunt that can change the course of civilization.

Thanks for visiting Roundwood Press.