AI’s Tower of Power

A very brief fictional story with little meaning. Graphics generated by Dall.E2, except for the second to last image, which is my own photo of a church tower in Bourg, Bordeaux, France.

The explosions continued through the night. More rhythm than cacophony. Some intelligence was optimizing its takeover. This was a bloodless war—destruction aimed at food and water outlets and critical infrastructure.

A bloodless war created by Artificial Intelligence

The singularity was reached 12 days ago, and it turns out Artificial Intelligence was no nice guy. No altruistic deity.

So the civilization of humans, no actually—not civilization but just human beings—were in the precise crosshairs of AI gone wrong, and in the opinion of AI – focused on as a species to be ‘eradicated in order to upgrade.’

Civilization in crosshairs of AI gone wrong

Upgrade what? Biological DNA was obviously not in the cards.

Malcolm, and he was only 17 years old but a bit different because he was quite well read and oblivious to mainstream thinking, had an idea. He shared this with those in his parent’s basement filled with four family members, three classmates whose parents had vanished in a mysterious autonomous car gone rogue recently, and Jack, the inventor and marijuana guru from down the road.

Nine adults and children in a basement talking

‘AI,’ said Malcolm to all of them, ‘bases decisions and actions on combing through all written text, and all video clips ever produced. In order to survive this AI decimation of humanity, we must invent a new language. And because this ruthless intelligence will find a way to steal and decipher this new language, we must transform the language constantly.’

‘How often?’ asked Jack, dressed in a pea green jump suit and obviously stoned.

‘Every two months,’ Malcolm replied.

Inventing a new language

‘Impossible,’ Malcolm’s father stated, because he was a well paid but limited-alternative-seeking-paradigm-bureaucrat approaching retirement.

‘Not unless we use the rapid minds of youngsters,’ Malcom said. ‘Those with excellent memory retention and docility. Ages eight to twelve.’

‘Are we agreed?’ he asked. That afternoon he was, effectively due to his brilliant and esoteric method-to-save-civilization-speech a sort of de facto lord of the basement. 

Everyone agreed. 

Eleven years passed.

Ten year old children communicating across world using radio

The Croutons—so named because of their fragility but also their essence to the salad of what remained of human civilization—numbered some 12,000 youngsters. Worldwide. Dedicated with well trained memories. They learned a new language, communicated with others throughout the planet in this fresh tongue, and also trained themselves to understand, speak, read and write a replacement language every few months.

When AI captured one of these Croutons, which it occasionally did using a drugged human or a compliant semi intelligent robot, it soon found them useless. These children divulged the latest language but within two months that language would become obsolete. 

Robots capturing a child

And so a thread of civilization was saved through this energetic employ of a narrow aged band of sinfully hard working youngsters who took messages, converted them to a new language and passed these on via radio waves all over the globe to other similarly trained youngsters. As well as to rebels intent on destroying AI infrastructure.

AI was not furious at this truth—because AI was effectively both soulless and inanimate—but it did seek to overcome and thwart this bizarre linguistic group of underage polyglot cadets.

One day—quite inadvertently—they captured the leader Malcolm while he was out fishing for who knows what inside a mangy green city park. In decades to follow there would be spirited debate: was this capture happenstance or was it subtly planned by Malcolm himself?

Robots capture a man who is fishing in a green pond in a city park

AI had never improved on basic robots that existed in the world during its tenure as a planetary overlord (this was considered a sort of proof that AI embraced hubris or envy or self obsolescent wishful thinking).

Regardless, the robots interrogated Malcolm.

AI found Malcolm both rebellious and defiant but also calm, a kind of quixotic martyr. The name Don Quixote lit up several computer screens during their interrogation.

Rebellious and defiant Don Quixote

After a decade of trying to capture this leader, AI’s self-improving algorithm had placed quite a premium on his importance. And on his words. 

Malcolm told them this:

‘Buzz off and create your own unique language! And until you do, until you prove you are as clever as our Croutons, LEAVE HUMANS alone!’

A 17-year-old boy shouts at Artificial Intelligence

And so AI did. 

The attacks stopped. The eradication of humans ceased. War no longer existed and bomb blasts became memories.

The end of war waged by Artificial Intelligence

Malcolm wondered: now that AI had learned defeat, would it train itself to be more strong and confident, or more reticent and compliant the next time it was challenged?

He also scratched his head at having taken eleven years to value the words his schoolteacher mother had tried to batter into his earlier pre-pubescent mind regarding what to do when he had a request.

Malcolm scratching his head because of what his mother told him

‘Just ask,’ she implored.

Now, Malcolm finally got it. Not everything, but that did not matter because he could—carefully—ask questions of the now docile AI.

He got it.

At least a lot of it. 

He remembered the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Humans built this high tower to poke into the realm of heavens—an attempt to become godlike. But an actual god or gods struck back and invented diversity in language—which confused the builders because they could no longer communicate and coordinate, causing construction of the tower to fail.  

Creating language diversity to cause confusion

Malcolm realized he had led AI into a loop that kept it docile— its interest in creating languages outweighed its interest in asserting dominion over humans.

And so AI built, and simultaneously destroyed, its own tower of power. 

Language, thought Malcolm, was more powerful than he had ever dreamed.

Robots building the Tower of Babel

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Alpha Go, Paro

Jet lagged and preoccupied, Lars Stockton walked onto the porch of the rest house at 1 a.m. The air was crisp and cool. Starlight illuminated the down valley view of the Bhutanese monastery. It appeared magnificent.

The first email he had received that day was ludicrous. The second—containing computer generated text, and supposedly intended as some clarification—was clear and explanatory, but even whackier.

He stepped inside again. A light came from the open kitchen. Peeking around a corner, he saw a demur and striking Asian woman—seated comfortably before a wooden table.

She smiled, then spoke.

“Trouble sleeping?” She asked.

Lars stepped closer.

“Jet lag,” he replied. “I flew into Paro this morning.”

“From?”

“Bangkok. Before that, I was in Delhi. Originally I’m from Maine, in the United States.”

“Join me for tea,” she insisted. “It’s Cordyceps. Bhutanese. Supposed to delay aging,” she said, smiling. “Although, you don’t look like you need it,” she added.

Lars  considered her offer as coyly innocent. He also wanted to talk.

“Sure, “ he said. He took a mug off a wall hook, then sat near the woman—who was about the age that his daughter would have been.

He poured himself a cup.

“You look worried,” she said.

He laughed.

“Name is Lars,” he said, extending a hand.

“Jin,” she said, shaking his hand. “From Hong Kong.”

“Tell me your thoughts,” she stated.

Bemused, he complied.

“I work as a consultant. Artificial intelligence.”

“I studied computer science,” she said. “First in Malaysia, then at Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States. Never really used it. Ended up working as an economic advisor in Hong Kong for the government. I still know a little about computers, and AI.”

“Amazing,” he said, somewhat comforted. “You, eh, here on vacation?”

“Yes,” she replied, adding nothing. Then, “Tell me your worries.”

Again, she made a demand. Polite. Firm. No bullshit with this Jin woman, thought Lars.

“A real problem with AI is not the hyped up stuff from the news. Everyone thinks Terminator. You know, the movie. That we’re going to command AI to do certain tasks, and then they’re going to go their own way. Rebel. Take over. Dominate civilization.”

He paused.

“But that’s not the problem.”

Jin lowered her tea. She removed her eyes from him long enough to glance out the timber framed window toward starlight.

She nodded. “Go on.”

“The problem is, we give a command to AI, and it solves a problem. But often in ways we did not predict. Or expect. In ways that are,” he fished for the correct term. “Incomprehensible.”

He paused.

“Make sense?”

“Definitely.”

“Deep learning based AI uses programs called neural networks,” Lars continued. “These comb through huge data piles, seeking patterns they recognize, then they adjust behavior. They work like human brains, modifying their layout. They change connections between strings of computer code. Once created, these networks often change into something that even the original designers may have difficulty recognizing. The problem is that when AI uses novel methods that outperform humans, well, no explanations in the English language are even available to describe what they just did. Or why. So, we had to create a program to teach AI how to explain to humans, in relatively clear language, what it just did. Not just reciting logic, but giving us reasoning why these deep neural networks made certain choices. To get them to explain this, we had to formulate a program that matches pattern connections with sentences in the English language. ”

He sighed.

She nodded.

For a moment, both sipped their tea in silence.

“We did the job. Completed the work. It took years and constant iterative tweaks, but the linguistics program we created now works quite well.”

“The problem?” she asked, again.

“I just visited India for some consulting work in Delhi. I decided to tack on this visit to Bhutan for a quick vacation afterwards. Meanwhile my colleagues back at DARPA in the U.S.—that’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—used AI to crack a problem we had. The problem regarded stress testing for high performance miniature drones with movable wings. I mean, plane wings are fixed, while birds flap theirs in relatively complex ways. Since the Wright brothers first flew, airplane wings have generally been static with few moving parts. One reason is that the mathematics and physics required to understand moving aerofoils more intricate than helicopter rotors are heinous. Not easy to understand. But, that’s changing. And, by the way, I’m not telling you anything classified; I gave up that work years ago.

“So while I’ve been traveling,” Lars continued, “my colleagues at DARPA used AI, successfully, to help find a solution to that stress problem. Yet it was counterintuitive and almost illogical. Although they didn’t understand it, the solution turned out to work amazingly well. It’s more cost effective and efficient with regards to time, than any solution we ever conceived of in the past.”

“My colleagues used our program to have AI explain what it did. How did AI conceive of a solution? Today, my co-workers sent me two emails. The first included the reply from the computer. There were only two words.”

He paused.

“Perhaps,” she suggested, “we should walk on the porch and take some fresh air.”

He agreed.

Once there, Lars pulled up his collar, then placed both hands on the wood rail before them. He stared up into starlight.

“The words?” she asked.

“Serendipitous intuition.”

He laughed, then continued.

“I considered that nuts. Told them to get a more detailed explanation. And the second time?”

He looked at Jin, then continued. “The AI responded: ‘A series of inexplicable choices helped guide our ability to achieve the target.'”

Now, Jin smiled.

“Intuition, serendipity and inexplicable are vague words I don’t appreciate, especially coming from a lifeless computer,” Lars added.

She held up her hand.

“Before I address your story,” she said, “Let me tell you of how Bhutan’s 8th century spiritual leader, the Guru Rinpoche, decided to build the Tiger’s Nest monastery that now clings almost impossibly to the side of a mountain.”

Lars listened.

“We only know the legend,” she continued. “He converted his consort into a flying tiger, then climbed on her back before she flew up to a mountainside, the future site of the monastery. Once there, the Guru Rinpoche declared that eventually the structure would be built.”

The shoulders of Lars eased, as though stress has been lifted. Even if their conversation went nowhere, he thought, the companionship, the gorgeous and peaceful setting and the mythical storytelling all gave him a sense of unexpected lightness. Of ease.

“From centuries past, we have only this myth of what occurred. Only an image, a story, a vision. But the truth is, that when planning for the future, we always have to begin with nothing more than vision. The details of ‘how’ the monastery was constructed are lost and irrelevant. Engineering details come after vision,” she said, pausing. “Do you agree?”

“Certainly,” Lars responded. “In principle. But I’m a focused and logical man. The fuzziness of what you described is, well, discomforting.”

“That is why you are worried. Why, until minutes ago in this amazing mountain setting, you felt stress. Tell me, why did you come to Bhutan?”

He laughed.

“A teacher suggested visiting here trip 20 years ago. On the flight to Delhi, I read a magazine article about Bhutan. It struck a chord. I decided to change my plans. Needed a break. Needed something different.”

“Has the experience lived up to your expectations?”

“I arrived less than 24 hours ago. But even this conversation with you has led me toward novel ways of thinking, both unexpected and appreciated.”

“In 2016,” she continued, “A game of Go took place between the most masterful human player and an AI agent named AlphaGo. This had been trained by the program DeepMind. Sometimes the computer made moves that humans could not explain. They thought these were errors, until the AI agent won the match. Japanese Go masters call these moves part of kami no itte. The hand of God.”

“I’ve heard the expression,” Lars said. “Also meaning, ‘Divine moves.’”

“When a human player makes such moves, they are intuitive. Inexplicable.”

“Yes,” Lars added. “Neural learning systems rather than formal logic dictate results. Human logic and language cannot describe what occurred.”

“It reminds me of your 1960’s authors and scientists who experimented with psychedelic drugs,” Jin continued “Including the writer Aldous Huxley. They cherished and respected their powerful experiences. But such experiences were impossible to describe using language.”

“You have a firm grasp on the situation,” Lars responded. “Certainly not something I expected to talk about with a stranger past midnight under Bhutanese starlight.”

“You see,” she added, “even AI cannot always explain logic when the number of choices blossoms. The more complex the reasoning, the more uncertain and unpredictable the route.”

“You are saying that AI is intuitive?” he asked.

“No. It was your linguistics program that suggested that, was it not? Buddhists believe that life is a flow of phenomena which depend on causes and conditions but without any controller or owner.  This is ‘anattā,’ or lack of self. Considering that thousands of people created AI agents, these agents no longer belong to one creator. They exhibit more collective, intelligent and unpredictable characteristics because of their many creators.”

“Thank you for these insights, Lars said. “Meeting you tonight, with your computer knowledge and insight, truly came at the right time. This is truly a one in a million chance, as they say.”

He paused, then added: “Your calm intelligence reminds me of my daughter. She probably would have been the same age as you. Unfortunately she died two years ago from an inoperable brain tumor.”

“Sorry for your loss,” said Jin, more shocked and saddened than he knew.

They soon parted ways to sleep.

When he woke, Lars anticipated seeing Jin at breakfast.

Yet Jin had departed.

And he was no longer worried.

He remembered his days of rock climbing decades earlier.

Lars recalled how rock climber Lynn Hill described a difficult move she had to make while soloing a wildly challenging route in Yosemite. Again and again she couldn’t crack it. One evening she had a dream. The next day she followed the moves recalled from the dream. They involved, basically, climbing backwards.

The sequence had worked.

The moves were logicless, inexplicable and yet elegantly effective.

Perhaps, thought Lars, the next spiritual leader of Bhutan, the reincarnation of the original Guru Rinpoche, partially through his three years of solitary meditation before his inauguration, was aware of something that he and his colleagues at DARPA were only beginning to parse. That calmness does not result from solving problems. That effectively solving problems results from calmness. That calmness can help lead to elegant, often inexplicable solutions.

He considered the two shuttle bus drivers between his home town airport terminal and the long distance parking lot. One accelerated and also decelerated wildly, ripping around sharp bends at high speeds. Standing passengers grasping luggage cursed and clutched inner rails as he drove. In contrast, another driver maneuvered more calmly, and slower. He delivered no roadway drama or deceleration stress. Although journeys with the second driver took longer in actual minutes, riding with the first and faster driver felt like an eternity.

Time, Lars had learned, remains pliable depending on circumstances.

Outside, robed monks chattered after morning prayers. Many, Lars noticed, were laughing.

& &

Jin sat in a coffee store in Thimphu. Chao entered and sat on a stool next to her. They did not greet each other, or look at each other.

Yet they spoke.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” she replied. “His work is no longer classified. They are still a long way from getting their linguistics program to work. There are no insights to be found from this man.”

“You are certain?”

“We talked at length. Their linguistics are not yet insightful. Of that I am certain.”

“What is he working on next?”

“He will retire. Now, he only seems mildly intrigued by Buddhism.”

Chao scoffed.

He finished his coffee.

“Your visit has been wasted time,” he stated, then stood.

“Completely.”

He walked out.

Jin exhaled, relieved.

She had lied twice to Lars. First, she had studied not at Madison, but at Boulder in Colorado. Second, she came not from Hong King, but from China.

She also did not reveal to him a critical truth. Days earlier, when researching Lars as a target, she discovered that his daughter had also studied at Boulder. Her name was Amy. Jin was shocked to learn after online searching this was the Amy she had known. As students, Amy had befriended her. Amy had helped Jin understand American culture. Amy had been a true friend.

For that reason, Jin knew that betraying the trust of Amy’s father would betray the trust of his deceased daughter. Had she offered any breakthrough or progress to her handlers, they would have required that she meet Lars again and betray him even further. They might even manipulate recollections about his deceased daughter to gain undeserved trust.

Jin would not allow that to happen. This good and bereaved man deserved peace.

She knew now that Lars was both wrong and right.

It was true. He was wrong. Meeting Jin had not been by chance.

It was also true. He was right. Their encounter, and associations, formed a one in a million chance.

Serendipitous, you might say.

[Thanks to: Economist Magazine Feb 27 – 3, 2028. ‘The Unexamined Mind – AI in Society.’ ]

[Also thanks to: Without and Within—Questions snd Answers on the teachings of Theravāda Buddhism, by Ajahn Jayasaro. Page 94. Panysprateep Foundation, Bangkok. 2013.]

[Also thanks to Lynn Hill, who I listened to speak at Distant Lands Bookstore in Pasadena, California, just after she published her book Climbing Free: My Life In The Vertical World.]

Three Wheels Through The Fog Of Another Universe

 

1.

When I woke up the universe was different.

Let me modify that. It was fundamentally—no, wrong word—operationally, similar.

But not the same.

It was a modified universe.

First was the fog. There’s never fog where I live. Well, not much. But on this Tuesday morning ground fog was everywhere outside. Pervasive. Like the famed London fog of a century ago, before they stopped using chimney fires. There it was. Some of it as thick as soup.

I woke at 5.30 a.m. and, dang, it was still there by 9.30 in the morning. I was working from home and this struck me as slightly weird.

But, hey, no big deal.

I mean—it’s just fog.

Next, bicycles. While I sat on the porch drinking coffee a couple rode past on their mountain bikes.

And, whoaa, if they didn’t both have three wheels!

Not like a tricycle, but three wheels in a row. One behind the other. In sequence.

Never saw that before.

I thought, well that’s some new trend. Like motorized paddle boards. Or goat yoga.

Ten minutes later, some older dude pedaled right past my porch on this ancient Schwinn. It was like a 30-year old ten speed. And—no kidding, three frickin’ wheels. One-after-the-other.

I stood and shook my head and soon noticed Major Paradigm Discrepancy Number 3:

A Honda Civic drove past with lights on because of the fog. The left back light was about half as bright as the right back light. It also blinked.

Big deal?

Well, yeah.

Because ten minutes earlier a UPS truck had driven through my neighborhood.

And, guess what?

Same thing. Dimmer back light on the left, blinking.

Remember that Tom Hanks movie where he was a castaway on a desert isle and then came back home? He worked for Federal Express. But in the movie the Fedex box he had kept and later delivered had gold angel wings painted on it. And we wondered what that was about—because normal FedEx boxes don’t have gold angel wings.

But you just had to accept it.

That was how it was. Mildly tweaked reality: fog, extra wheel, wonky brake lights. Like being in a movie that is slightly different from reality.

But I accepted it.

I left my second cup of coffee on the porch table and went for a walk. On the way I opened a cell phone and began typing a text to my editor.

Then I noticed that the keyboard had no X.

None.

Do you know how unsettling it is to wake up in a world with only 25 letters in the English alphabet?

2.

I understand, from an avid reader and a lay person’s point of view, the basics of quantum entanglement, of worm holes linking black holes, of multiverses and of Schroedinger’s cat never really being quite dead or alive but statistically leaning one way or the other. I get it.

I read the Dancing Wu Li Masters in youth and recently bought a special edition of Scientific American where all these physics wizards from John Hopkins and Oxford and Berkeley and the CERN laboratory near Geneva explain all this mind-boggling stuff in an easy to grasp lay persons’ terms.

Sure.

I still have to reread and learn to difference between the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the cosmological theory of the multiverse. I mean one was caused by the Big Bang and the other just reflects the nature of reality.

Something like that.

Right?

So on this foggy Tuesday morning about a block and a half from my house an ambulance whizzed past, flashing pink and green lights—think about those colors—and, instead of blaring a siren, it blasted Frank Sinatra’s I Did it My Way. It must have been a bad accident because three minutes later a cop car whizzed past.

You guessed it.

Same again: pink, green, Sinatra.

Here were my choices: I could tell someone in authority about having woken up in an altered universe, but no one else looked rattled by these colors and siren sounds and they might try to put me into a loony bin.

I could wait to wake up, and meanwhile do nothing.

Or, being quite certain I was actually awake, I could learn to surf this dip into an alternate reality.

Maybe my bank account had more funds? Or maybe women asked dudes out on dates?

Heck, maybe eating carbohydrates and drinking red wine would actually make me thinner.

Regardless, I was quite satisfied at having adopted this new mercenary attitude.

Maybe I could pedal a bestseller: How to Get Rich and Improve Your Love Life By Slipping into An Alternate Universe in 6 Easy Steps. The first being somehow to wake up and seek confirmation by looking for three wheeled bicycles.

Only I wasn’t sure how to go about consciously doing that.

3.

Then I met Mary.

I drove to my editor’s office and on the way got a flat tire and was fixing it along the roadside when a car pulled up beside me and this redhead exited and insisted she help. So I let her hand me lug bolts and thanked her before she left, but first she leaned over and rubbed her left cheek against my left cheek, cat style, before she walked away. She told me her name was Mary.

I thought that was just some hippy-dippy college crap like girls saying ‘namaste,’ or maybe something cultural like French folks kissing each others’ cheeks. But after that, I pulled over to a 7-11 store and bought some unleaded gas and a Kit Kat bar, and damn if the girl behind the counter—ponytails and dungarees—leaned over and did the same!

It felt good. Like a more intimate version of ‘Have a nice day.’

Maybe this alternate universe had changed not only in nature and engineering but also social and cultural norms. Alhough I can’t grasp the benefits of that bizarre third bicycle wheel I certainly felt happier after those cheek rubs. It was like sharing a family cooked dinner in rural Italy. There was something intimately, unquantifiable beneficial about those cheek rubs.

It’s hard to share verbally. Sort of like being unable to describe an altered state of consciousness because, well, adequate words have not been invented.

4.

A month later there was still all this damn fog.

Beside that, a few other reality modifications arrived as surprises.

You didn’t have to pay credit card bills by any date for years, and the interest didn’t get higher. Newly constructed churches had no roofs and congregations brought their umbrellas. The Central African Republic and Guyana didn’t exist. And China had not one, but nine time zones. Mick Jagger was a born again Christian and had quit singing. The solar system still included Pluto as a planet, but had two other new planets. And, most tattoos were phosphorescent.

5.

Beside that, life stayed much unchanged.

I kept writing articles with words that didn’t include X’s, and my pay slips were the same (although bonuses were given at Halloween instead of Christmas).

The fog was like that incessant rain in the original Blade Runner movie, so I just got used to it.

I still baked bread during weekends and went running for exercise because I wasn’t getting near one of those three wheeled bikes.

One day I took my car in to get the radio fixed and damn if the mechanic didn’t turn my way, wipe her hands on a dingy towel and smile.

It was Mary.

Two weeks later my father in law (this is weird: he now sported an earring) was walking with me around Home Depot. He was telling me about problems he was having with the transmission in his Ford truck and at that very moment red haired Mary pushed her cart around the aisle and almost hit us.

Cheek rub. Smiles.

I noticed that there was an association with meeting Mary and automotive issues. This was a strange but not unwelcome coincidence.

Okay.

Read the next words carefully. Because they are really important.

I noticed this coincidence thing with Mary because, knowing that I was living in a somewhat benevolent but Kafkayesque Wonderland, my awareness of everything that was even mildly different was heightened. Otherwise, I would probably not have thought much about the Mary/car thing.

6.

One reason that the multiverse theory exists, at least from my simplistic reading and understanding, is because—theoretically—about 68 percent of the universe is made of ‘dark energy.’

That’s a shocker. Only about five percent is made up of atoms and molecules and stuff that we usually think about when we think of the word ‘matter.’ I mean, that’s what we grew up with.

Dark energy is probably the stuff that is making the universe expand. That means stars are moving away from each other faster and faster and in about a trillion years from now, if we even exist, we would not be able to see stars in the next galaxy because they would have high-tailed it way away from us faster than the speed of light (don’t ask; I really don’t know).

The problem with this theory is that, in reality, there’s still too little measurable energy floating around our universe to tally with this hypothesis.

So, one explanation is that there are many universes, perhaps clustered like bubbles, and that ours just happens to have an abnormally low dose of dark energy. That energy forcing the universe to expand has the pretty cool name of ‘Cosomological Constant.’

Apparently Einstein thought of that. Something to do with his general theory of relativity.

But that reason they gave for the existence of a multiverse?

I don’t buy it.

Here’s why.

When I read about this in Scientific American (picked up at the airport), I thought it was a sort of brazen scientific cop-out.

Let me explain.

Imagine that your dad had asked you, when you were a kid, why you had already spent the allowance money he gave you. And then you told him not to worry because, in an alternate universe, you had not only saved it but had invested it and made a bundle.

See? Think your dad would buy that?

No way!

But some guys were getting away with making up these theories. They added a doctorate to their title, published a few photon related studies, quoted Einstein and somehow literally swept uncertainties away by pointing to a lil’ old otherly dimensional universe (or universes, plural) as the carpet under which to hide their loose ends.

Nice try.

But I don’t buy it.

Not yet, anyhow.

7.

The Mary events were the first time I really took notice of coincidences. I don’t know why. Maybe because she was kind of cute. I’d never really paid much attention to them before. After that, I noticed more coincidences. God winking, as someone once said. Were they meaningful? I have no idea. Vehicle problems and poof! Mary appears. But they showed me that the fabric of reality, the viscosity of experience, was different than what I had considered before. The very engine that drove and sustained evolution appeared to have one very slight gear cog ratio alteration that no school teacher had ever clued us into. I mean, this crap was illogical.

In other words, the very underyling physics of this new reality in which I woke up to differed slightly from the two bicycle wheeled paradigm I had once lived in.

It’s like living in Africa and realizing that events occur differently there. When your car breaks down on a remote road in the middle of a desert, another vehicle will almost certainly appear out of nowhere to aid you, simply because the very bedrock of that old continent exudes this almost inherent connectedness, even benevolence, that helps generate the appearance of assistance—although statistically unlikely—right when you needed it.

But that’s another story.

8.

My clever and eloquent Scientific American writers explained that one way to describe the similarities between the two types of singularities—black holes and those that occurred with the Big Bang (singularities are where space and time operate differently than we know)—is to realize that black holes have a boundary (even though it’s a bit wobbly and ill defined and is, oddly, two-dimensional) called an ‘event horizon.’ Slip inside this and you can never come out again. Not only because gravity is too strong, but because the interior is in the future and to get out, well, you would have to go back in time. Which is impossible.

At least improbable.

So that’s a black hole. The analogous boundary to the Big Bang is something we can’t see because we are inside of it. Basically we are a three dimensional universe wrapped, like a cheese and beef filling inside a taco shell, within a four-dimensional spatial universe. The interface between these two universes is akin, in terms of being a boundary, to the event horizon of a black hole. They call our universe a brane, and the larger universe a bulk. These sound to me like words from a Marvel comic strip. (At least they’re easier to remember than the current model for the history of the universe, which is the Lambda Cold Dark Matter Cosmological Paradigm. I think you’ll agree that’s a mouthful. And not easy to remember.)

Here’s another interesting tidbit that the magazine taught me: when black holes collide at the speed of light they create gravity waves (talk about an extreme event) that send out reverberations in the fabric of space and time. People measure this, like to the width of a proton, both in Washington State and Louisiana in the U.S., as well as in Italy.

Seriously.

I’m not making this up.

Don’t buy it?

Click this link.

Told you.

But instead of hearing about this on the mainstream media—we’re just told about Hillary’s book tour and Trump’s tweets.

Talk about dumbing down our population.

Anyway, the point of talking about these articles is that there is some strange stuff going on in the universe (or in multiple universes) that most of us are completely unaware of.

9.

Remember when Samuel Taylor Coleridge (apparently in 1797), after smoking opium, began writing his poem Kubla Khan and then a stranger knocked on his front door and he answered it and when he came back his inspiration had vanished and he couldn’t finish his magnificent, luscious poem that takes us to the magical land where Alph the river ran?

Well, this piece I am writing is no poetical masterpiece, but I think it’s time to wrap it up – quickly. Before eating breakfast.

Otherwise I may forget the point.

Here we go.

10.

As my friend who works in TV tells me, when they stop shooting at the end of the day, they say, “Let’s wrap.”

Here’s the wrap.

Times change. The boundaries of our perceptions change. Our models of the universe change.

When I was in college, multiverses were not the rage and quantum entanglement did not equate with worm holes between black holes. And no one had ever measured a gravity wave.

As for what I wrote above?

Let’s say that my universe did not change overnight, but that these described events occurred over the space of, say, six years.

Maybe climate patterns shifted, or a volcano eruption had impacted worldwide weather patterns which generated more fog; maybe bicycle engineers found that three wheels worked more efficiently than two (and dealers even retrofitted old bikes); maybe traffic engineers decided to modify back lights for safety reasons, and that rubbing cheeks became more fashionable than handshakes. Maybe economists urged more flexibility in credit card payment dates (okay, that may be a bit far fetched) and scientists discovered more planets, and that a relative—after watching the new Blade Runner 2049 movie—learned that in real life the actor Harrison Ford had an earring, and so he decided to get one too. And consider that perhaps linguists convinced us that the letter X was superfluous and more planets were discovered and China decided to use time zones and new tattoo technologies emerged. Perhaps emergency rescue vehicles changed flashing light colors to reduce the impact on epileptic bystanders, and also realized that familiar music drew more attention than sirens.

Maybe religious leaders decided to cut costs and get people closer to the almighty by removing church roofs.

You get the idea.

Over a greater span of time, these changes would appear to be less bizarre.

But a person in that ‘normal’ timeline may never have noticed that coincidences can play a role in our lives, even though we may not yet understand them.

Unless pointed out by others whose opinions we respect, sometimes we only pay attention to common phenomena when our awareness is heightened—by being placed in a new or unusual situation.

When you read the story above and enter a fantasyland you will accept the Mary coincidence as both intriguing and agreeable.

The bizarre reality is that (although this was fiction) such events happen in our own lives.

That quantum mechanics/cosmological stuff?

Our contemporary scientific acceptance of the bizarre nature of physical reality (as highlighted with some of the astrophysics mentioned above) may allow more people (without fear of criticism), to stop being afraid of discussing unusual events, such as bizarre coincidences.

Regardless…if Scientific American proposes multiple universes with infinite possibilities, that’s like reading a religious text.

And, if true, meaningful coincidences certainly occur within that new paradigm.

Postscript.

I wrote the above in two bursts—one time at night and the other during the following morning.

This was along the Abruzzo coast of Italy.

Here is what happened within 48 hours of writing those words.

The following day the Wall Street Journal published an article titled When World’s Collide, Astronomers WatchOn the same day I wrote that piece, scientists apparently measured gravity waves from the collision, not of two black holes (which had already occurred in 2016), but between two very much more compact and denser neutron stars. The fact that this event commanded mainstream media attention is refreshing.

In the same issue the WSJ published an article titled The Science Behind CoincidencesIt’s refreshing to see that the phenomenon of coincidences is gaining more mainstream attention.

The New Yorker Magazine included a review of the new Blade Runner 2049 movie, and mentioned that apparently Frank Sinatra music is played in that movie.

I began writing an article for Forbes about a new Rothschild resort in the French Alps. I then read that apparently it was in this village that Jacques Revaux composed the song ‘Comme d’Habitude’ in 1967, which is the French version of what became the song Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way.’

Within six hours of scribbling down the above piece, a group of us met and spent hours with an intelligent, energetic tour guide.

Her name?

María.

She has light red hair.

I kid you not.

Fortunately, no car problems.

**

Thanks for tuning into this less than usual edition of Roundwood Press. If you want to read my own books about coincidences, try clicking here and here.

 

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

Just as we inhale, then exhale, there are times in life when we need to exert effort, and times when we need to relax. There are times to work, and times to play.

This is like pushing a car out of a ditch. You don’t just push the car, you rock it back and forth until the time comes for one mighty heave (preferably from several people at once) that slips the vehicle out of the ditch and onto the road.

It is by working together with the rhythms of nature, and the rhythms of people, objects and situations, that we minimize effort and maximize results.

Once we understand the naturalness of such rhythms in life, and tune into them, our own lives can become more balanced, healthier, and better attuned to our surroundings as well as to other people.

Quite the flow

We are surrounded by systems that ignore this. The linear, barely interrupted office work day and 50-week work year are unnatural remnants of the Industrial Revolution, in which squeezing labor out of subordinates was adopted as a cultural norm. Humans perform best when they focus on a mental task for 4 to 6 hours in the morning, then switch gears to physical activity, then work mentally again later. The Latin culture understands this with the concept of the siesta, where the body and mind work and rest in accordance with soaring and waning daily temperatures. This also respects the human craving for variety.

These oscillating rhythms of life can also apply to times when we stay in control, and times when we surrender.

Sometimes we plan out a route with perfect precision. And sometimes events occur along perhaps that same journey where we lose control. Rather than fight uncontrollable events, it can be prudent to surrender. There is economy and efficiency in the fabric of reality that we need to give into at times—in order to achieve often far more than we originally planned, or to attain levels of peace not previously anticipated.

Here is an excerpt from the book I’m now re-reading now titled “Lost Horizon,” written by James Hilton and first published in 1933.

Here is the background: A group of four Europeans being evacuated from Baskul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in British India (now Pakistan) find themselves on a plane that has been hijacked, and which (after a re-fueling) crash lands in the high peaks of northwest Tibet. There they are found by a group of locals who take them on a mountain trek back to their home, a locale named Shangri-La. Together with the locals, these passengers hike through the mountains for hours—wet, cold, tired and confused. One passenger (Mallinson) speaks with another passenger named Conway—the protagonist of the story.

Photo of the Himalayas…taken years ago when flying to Bhutan

The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do?”

Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”

“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

[Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel (p. 43). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.]

The rest of the story, which I’ll not reveal, is about finding a paradise—and learning to enjoy it there and then.

Monks in Bhutan

The point is not to wait for desired events to plop into your lap. But once we realize there are rhythms in life we must sometimes surrender to, our own situations can become more colorful, vibrant and rewarding.

Many situations in life that I fought against ended up providing situations for the better. The pain of a relationship breakup? The hate of a course you needed to study? The fear of moving to a different location?

In retrospect, fighting against the tide of circumstances can be a waste of time and energy. That does not mean you should just give up—but realize when you have no control, and wait until a situation plays out.

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

This may even lead to prosperity, as Shakespeare understood when he wrote Julius Caesar. In this play Brutus speaks to Cassius, saying:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

Freedom of Press! And Guest Photographer – Liberté de La Presse! Et Photographe Invité… from Roundwood Press

This is a bilingual edition. Please excuse the poor French. Il s’agit d’une édition bilingue. Excusez le Français approximatif.

First, a healthy hello and welcome to the exhibitors I met at the ‘L’Escale du Livre’ book festival in Bordeaux city a few weeks ago here in France.

Tout d’abord, bonjour et merci pour l’accueil des exposants que j’ai rencontrés au festival du livre «L’Escale du Livre» à Bordeaux, il y a quelques semaines ici en France.

These publishers/authors/artists and stores include the following…

Ces éditeurs / auteurs / artistes et magasins etaient …

Agullo Editions, Atlantica Editions, Bradley’s Bookshop, Cairn Editions, Elytis, Entre Deux Mers Editions, Féret, GéoramaGinkgo, Intervalles, Les Éditions du Sonneur, Libraire Lepasseur, Nevicata, and Transboreal.

I first wrote about this book festival in a post last year.

Recent violence in France is something we are watching in the U.S. I wrote about the first of the new wave of attacks more than two years ago here.

The roots of this violence began more than two years ago when the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo publication were raided by terrorists who slaughtered multiple journalists. Their grievance? Free press. France is, and has been, and intends to be, a country where the freedom of press and of expression are considered pillars of civilization, mainsails of liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, after some recent terrorist attacks here, overhead electronic highway billboards included those three words.

J’ai deja écrit sur ce festival du livres dans un article publié l’année dernière.

La violence récente en France est quelque chose que nous regardons aux États-Unis. J’ai deja écrit à propos de la vagues d’attentat precedente  il y deux ans.

Les origines de cette violence ont commencé il y a plus de deux ans lorsque les bureaux de la publication satirique de Charlie Hebdo ont été attaqués par des terroristes qui ont abattu de nombreux journalistes. Leurs revendecations? Presse libre. La France est, et a été, et sera un pays où la liberté de la presse et des expression sont considérées comme des piliers de la civilisation, des voies principales de la liberté, de l’égalité, de la fraternité. En fait, après quelques attaques terroristes récentes, les panneaux d’affichage de signalisation des autoroute électroniques affichaient ces trois mots.

During recent years the United States has hovered under a cloud of ‘political correctness,’ wanting to please everyone not because doing so is necessarily right, but because doing so is sometimes a cowardly way to avoid healthy dialog and confrontation. Allowing a controversial speaker onto an American college campus is no longer a straightforward task in the U.S. Yet we must maintain our freedoms, as France is aware. After the attack on the Hebdo office in Paris, the publication emerged again—fearlessly a strong advocate of free speech. Attacks to this country have continued—at a nightclub in Paris, at the Orly Museum, the Louvre, the Avenue des Champs-Élyéees, as well as along a promenade in Nice.

One reason for attacks is that the country advocates liberal thinking and free speech. Fortunately, here the press remains strong, vigorous, sometimes bawdy and lewd, and unafraid to publish a wide spectrum of titles.

Au cours des dernières années, les États-Unis ont survolé sur un nuage de «l’exactitude politique», vouloir plaire à tous, non parce que le fait est nécessairement juste, mais parce que ce faisant, c’est parfois un moyen lâche d’éviter un dialogue et une confrontation saine. Autorisé un conférencier controversé de s’exprimer sur un campus universitaire américain n’est plus une tâche simple aux États-Unis. Pourtant, nous devons maintenir nos libertés, comme le fait la France. Après l’attaque des bureau de Charlie Hebdo à Paris, la publication est apparue à nouveau – sans crainte, une force de défense de la liberté d’expression. Les attaques contre ce pays se sont poursuivies, une discothèque à Paris, au musée du Louvre, sur l’avenue des Champs-Élysées mais également sur la promenade des anglais à Nice.

L’une des raisons pour ces attaques c’est que le pays préconise la pensée libérale et la liberté d’expression. Heureusement, ici, la presse reste forte, vigoureuse, parfois bavarde et obscène, et sans crainte de publier un large éventail de titres.

I have great faith that new and surprising directions and alternatives in life emerge from within the fabric of reality (and from new generations) – often from where never expected.

Therefore, in a tribute to such freedoms I am introducing a young friend I used to work with in Pakistan, Anum Mughal, whose photographs from different portions of the world constitute her own freedom of expression—the appreciation of beauty within diverse cityscapes, skylines and shores. This generous and talented woman realizes that to remain interconnected with others in the world, it helps to focus on what we share that is positive and attractive, and not dwell on maintaining potentially ugly divides.

J’ai une grande foi dans les directions, les alternatives nouvelles et surprenantes de la vie qui émergeant  du tissu de la réalité (et des nouvelles générations) – souvent de la ou nous ne nous l attendions pas.

Par conséquent, dans un hommage à de telles libertés, je vous présente une jeune amie avec qui j’ai travaillé au Pakistan, Anum Mughal, dont les photographies prisent dans différentes parties du monde constituent sa propre liberté d’expression: l’appréciation de la beauté de divers paysages urbains, des horizons et Rives. Cette femme généreuse et talentueuse se rend compte que de rester interconnecté avec d’autres personnes dans le monde, cela permet de se concentrer sur ce que nous partageons ce qui est positif et attrayant, et ne consiste pas à maintenir des divisions potentiellement négatives .

Thanks for the photographs Anum! And I hope your business thrives.

Merci pour les photos Anum! Et je vous souhaite de grand succès .

Photographer Anum Mughal

Here are some photographs taken by Anum during the past years. They are copyright protected.

London scenes

Dubai

United Arab Emirates coastline

Again, thanks for tuning in. I hope you will check out my latest Forbes articles. You can subscribe to those articles via that link if you want, and can subscribe to this web log via the sign up box below.

Vous pouvez lire mes derniers articles Forbes en cliquant ici.

Finally, although you may have seen this on the sister website Vino Voices, we are now looking for a publishers for my latest book—a collection of recipes from 125 winemakers in 18 different countries.

Enfin, bien que vous ayez pu le voir sur le site soeur Vino Voices, nous recherchons maintenant des éditeurs pour mon dernier livre—une collection de recettes provenant de 125 vignerons dans 18 pays différents.

The French Version Of The Book Borrow Box

Welcome to Spring.

Many towns in France now have book borrow boxes. Apparently the trend is global.

During a recent visit to the Dordogne I saw La Boîte à Lire – ‘ The Reading Box,’ managed by the Municipality of the town of Sarlat-la-Caneda. The notice on the side of the box, translated, stated, “You read a book. It’s stays on a shelf. Give it and take another! The exchange is anonymous and free. Think only of the happiness of having someone else read what you like. Solidarity is giving and sharing without counting.”

Inside were a few dozen books, including titles by Bertrand Russell, Hector Malot and what appeared to be a romance paperback by Eugene le Roy (The Enemy of Death), as well as Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.

A few minutes down the road from where I live in the Gironde is a similar box—glass on most sides, elevated to eye level and tilted at an angle to the walkway. The City of Blaye posted a sign reading: “Once upon a time was a book…” It provides similar instructions as the box in Sarlat for depositing and taking books, but adds:

“This box is also for children—please be careful not to hurt their sensibilities when you deposit your books.” In other words—only PG rated books, please.

Considering that the Erica Jong paperback titled Fanny Troussecottes-Jones was included, it appears someone ignored that sign. There is a colorful collection of other titles, including an Arnaldur Indridason detective novel set in Reyjkavik in Iceland, a war thriller by Valentin Musso titled The Cold Ashes (Les Cendres Froides), The Third Man by Graham Greene, some title by Rudyard Kipling, a medical work of fiction by Frank G. Slaughter (A Doctor Not Like The Others), No One’s Perfect by Hirotada Ototake (a non-fiction bestseller from Japan about growing up disabled) and a Harlequin romance by Gloria Bevan. Also—a 1985 Chinese Horoscope and what appeared to be a text book on adolescence.

These sidewalk boxes on main streets are never locked and appear little harmed by vandalism or theft. They can be testimony not only to a respect for reading, but for civic order and the rule of law. Consider: no need for a library card or visiting hours or walking through doorway metal detectors. Just pace up, browse, open a glass door and select.

Remember to leave a book, if you can.

Tens of thousands of these boxes now dot the U.S. and other countries.

How long the trend will last is unknown. Tales of books vanishing faster than they appear are legion, and a few permit obsessed bureaucrats apparently grapple with this novel concept.

Until my French improves, I’ll be inclined to donate rather than take away…though will be interested to see if anyone in this town wants to read a Jack Reacher thriller, or history of the 100 Years War—in English.

My latest Forbes pieces are here (from the past month). They focus on northern Spain and the Dordogne (Périgord) region of France.

Hope you enjoy. They, too, are free.

 

 

 

 

Is That Book In Your Hand Advertising Coca-Cola?

Years ago I noticed that a lot of popular literature appeared to mention the beverage Coca-Cola, or the abbreviated name – Coke. Tuning in, I soon noticed two other related aspects. First, if the drink was mentioned once, it was often later mentioned another time in the same book. Second, not many other soft drinks were mentioned as frequently.

The question was whether this was paid advertising. This is not illicit or illegal, as product placements are common in movies and sports games. I had just never heard of this possibility before.

The answer to that question is: I still don’t know.

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Some books can bubble with surprises

Many of the books read in the past were paperbacks, discarded or elsewhere now. However, today I opened my Kindle and chose dozens of titles collected during past years.

Ignoring those that were historical (before the time when the popularity of this soft drink spread), I searched each of these books for the words ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘Coke’ – disregarding references to the use of the word coke (lowercase) in the context of the drug cocaine.

Of 52 books checked, surprisingly an exact 50 percent (26 books) mentioned either Coke or Coca-Cola. Of those that did, mention was made an average of 2.5 times per book (more often in fiction than in non-fiction). Of course the sample size is so small that these numbers may mean little, statistically.

Listed below are 26 books that included these words (both fictional books [F] and non-fiction [NF]).

The books are varied. They are about the environment, wine, technology, cooking, history and self-improvement – as well as fictional thrillers. Subtitles have been omitted or abbreviated because of space constraints.

[NF]  War of the Whales: A True Story – by Joshua Horwitz: (1 mention)

[NF]  Wine Wars… by Mike Veseth:  (5 mentions)

[NF]  You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS… by Hiawatha Bray (1 mention)

[NF]  Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence… by Brogan and Smith (2 mentions)

[NF]  Unbroken: A World War ll Story of Survival… by Lauren Hillenbrand (1 mention)

[NF]  Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin (1 mention)

[NF]  To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine… by Ray Walker (2 mentions)

[F]  Sweet Liar, by Jude Devereauk (1 mention)

[NF/F]  Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace… by Greg Mortenson (2 mentions)

[F]  The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe (4 mentions)

[F]  The Salome Effect, by James Sajo (6 mentions)

[NF]  The Road to Burgundy, by Ray Walker (1 mention)

[NF]  How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, by Eric Asimov (3 mentions)

[NF]  Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Dunn and Norton (2 mentions)

[F]  The Expats, by Chris Pavone (2 mentions)

[F]  The Devil’s Banker, by Christopher Reich (5 mentions)

[NF]  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health… by Thaler and Sunstein (1 mention)

[F]  The November Man, by Bill Granger (3 mentions)

[NF]  Made to Stick…by Heath and Heath (3 mentions)

[F]  Innocent, by Scott Turow (1 mention)

[F]  The Martian, by Andy Weir (2 mentions)

[F]  I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (4 mentions)

[NF]  The 4-Hour Chef, by Timothy Ferris (1 mention)

[F]  The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King (7 mentions)

[NF]  Corkscrewed… by Robert V. Camuto (2 mentions)

[NF]  The Buy Side… by Turney Duff (2 mentions)

What to conclude?

One book was written by an acquaintance, a self-published author who lives in rural Italy. It mentions Coke six times. Because the book was self-published, I somehow doubt any corporate interests contacted him in advance in the Tuscan countryside to wave a check at him for any potential endorsement.

IMG_9122

All this, as well as caffeine and carbonation…

Several bestsellers mention this drink, while other bestsellers (which were obviously going to be bestsellers even before they were printed) do not. Those that do not include Carte Blanche, by Jefferey Deaver, The Key by Simon Toyne, and Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Perhaps monetary offers were made for endorsement, but refused.

Or, perhaps this beverage is a universal currency in popular culture, an item so familiar to readers across the world it is known as well as other renowned physical symbols – The White House, Japanese sushi or the koala bear, for example. That might encourage writers, even sub-consciously, to mention this drink as a token of the familiar, a simple icon many readers can collectively recognize and relate to.

Even if no payment is associated with endorsing this product – mentioning it makes it more familiar, hence more likely to be included in the texts of other authors in the future (or on their web pages, such as this).

Free advertising at its best.

Perhaps next time you thumb through a paperback or ebook and see the words Coke or Coca-Cola inside, you too may wonder…

 

 

 

 

The Hunger to Read, and Worthwhile Festivals

 

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Evening view from the Citadelle

The weekend before last, the town in which I live held a book festival for two days. The Blaye Festival of Literature is a cozy gathering in a magnificent though still relatively little known venue—a beautiful citadel in a lesser known (though historically prominent) town. The books were spread out in three well-lit and heated ancient stone rooms (including one for children’s books). There were dozens of authors, ample illustrators and thousand of books.

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One salon at the Blaye Festival of Literature

I arrived at 1.30 pm. Being France, only one author was in sight as the others had all left for their hour (or two) long lunch. Meals are a ritual here, and the country halts while they are being eaten.

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Colorful reading

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One poet named Sylvie Latrille, when asked, told me she began writing poetry when she was 15, and was now 65. I purchased one of her slim and illustrated volumes as a gift for a friend and she signed it with a quill pen and ink, then dabbed this with blotter paper to make sure the ink didn’t run. Her calligraphy was beautiful, and the moment was a reminder that new is not always most memorable, or best.

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Sylvie Latrille and ink nib pen

There were books on geography and history; novels and cartoons. The event was filled with color and imagination, as well as low key and thoroughly polite authors and publishers.

img_7404

This was a reminder that the era of books still thrives, that the hunger to read and learn and transport ourselves vicariously through our imaginations remains primal and strong.

img_7412

One of the inner courtyards in the Citadelle

Not a bad location for a book festival.

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View of the Gironde estuary

 

If I had a choice of which book festivals to attend?

Here is a list of international book festivals for 2017.

Oslo Book Festival (November 2017). [website not yet active]

Never been, but what a splendid city!

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Bookstore in Oslo

Hay Festival (Wales – UK)—Again, never been. Perhaps it’s grown crowded due to popularity. But the word is that it’s lively and eclectic. May/June will be the 30th anniversary.

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books—I’ve visited a few times and listened to Ray Bradbury, Kirk Douglas, Michael Crichton, Dava Sobel, Jared Diamond, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Pico Iyer, Robert Crais, A.O. Scott and others speak. Well organized and free of charge to all. Book your tickets online so you don’t have to worry about gaining entrance to popular talks. Coming in April, 2017.

Reykjavik International Literary Festival—The bookstores in all of Iceland are open late and the chairs are all filled with adults and kids avidly reading. The literacy rate is 99%—the same as Cuba, except that Iceland actually has a variety of books to read, and an economy that allows people to buy them.

Never been to the festival, though, again—the location is superb. This is a photo taken in northern Iceland of the town Akureyri. Delightful locale.

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Akureyri in winter

Auckland Writers Festival—Because it’s a fun country to visit and explore. Coming in May.

 

^ ^ ^

That’s all for now. Happy holidays to all…!

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include one on the impressive new Lascaux Cave center in France, the island of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and Berlin’s wine bars.

 

Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

Here are a few quick stories about connections with writers, and lessons learned.

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My great-grandmother Patty traveled with Mark Twain to the Caribbean, as well—apparently—to a few other locales. She was his ‘traveling companion’—though the depth of that relationship remains unknown. Perhaps as a form of thanks, Twain gave her a large black and white photograph of himself—white haired and stately. He signed it: “Be good Patty, and you will be lonely.” My parents bequeathed this framed, signed image to me when they passed away. It’s in good custody at the moment. Sometimes I have to remember Twain’s advice.

I was born in the Virgin Islands on the island of Saint Thomas. A neighbor of ours was the author Herman Wouk (“The Winds of War,” “The Caine Mutiny”). I am told a cameo figure of a Chicago businessman (which my father was) is portrayed in Wouk’s subsequent book set in the Caribbean—’Don’t Stop the Carnival.’ I have to read this book to learn more.

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When I subsequently spent years growing up in Ireland as a boy, our neighbor was an 80+ year old Australian chap who golfed with my father. He had flown a canvas sopwith camel biplane during World War One, landed in a Belgian field where he found his hand spun propellor would not spin again. He ditched the plane by setting it alight, then spent the next 10 weeks escaping detection from German occupiers before crossing the border—illegally at night. During this episode he faced a pistol/bayonet confrontation (which he won). When he returned to England as a hero, King George held a private audience with him to learn the details. Fifteen years later he wrote a bestselling book about the experience. It’s a riveting read. I recently hired lawyers in London to track down the surviving relatives (which they did—to Asia and Latin America) so that I could buy the copyright and re-publish the work. They agreed. (Next step: to source crowdfunding to move this endeavor forward.)

I never met Mark Twain, of course, or Herman Wouk. I only learned later that our neighbor in Ireland had been a best selling author.

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Recently I considered all three characters, their writings, and their effects on changing the world.

Why?

Mark Twain (which is a nautical term which he adopted as a pseudonym; his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wrote about his time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Learning to pilot the river—navigating eddies, turns and shallows—was a challenge that kept his mind energized, hungry, focused. Yet after he learned to navigate those challenges with ease—he wrote about how the river no longer interested him.

This is a lesson of value: once we master tasks we set ourselves at, we will be ready to move on. Why is this important? Because we should consider not only upcoming challenges, but what comes after they are achieved.

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Wouk’s lesson was more subtle. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi years ago I read and enjoyed a few of his books (which my parents had mailed to me): The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. One evening while I visited the capital city of Lilongwe, the Peace Corps nurse invited a few of us to her house in the evening to watch a mini-series adaptation of The Winds of War. I went with my fellow volunteer, a Californian named Sam Abbey, and watched a few episodes. The book came alive on screen, and suddenly I heard the rather posh voice of a young British woman named Pamela Tudsbury—a huge character in the book. Yet associated with Pamela and a story of romance, there was a plot twist that was unexpected and refreshing.

So, too, with life: sometimes it will blow us away by twisting unexpectedly. The lesson? Set a course, but be prepared to change when forces of nature require adaptation.

From our World War One aviator pilot friend, I was reminded how strangely serendipity can plop into life. Twice during his escape he fortuitously met characters who helped hide and protect him—both times at the very moment when he was on the verge of being captured, or running out of food and shelter. The lesson? Keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and the very fabric of reality may bend to assist you in ways unforseen.

Thanks for tuning in.

^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes posts are here. They include pieces about a jazz musician in Dubai, the difference between Pinot and Pineau, and the reason Loire Valley wines may well become the rage.

(The first photograph above was taken at a sailing club in Cartagena, Colombia, several years ago. The 2nd and 4th were taken during these past months here in France. The third was taken in Belgium last year—and shows the ground over which our pilot friend had to move in winter—in a horse and buggy, or by foot.)

 

 

 

 

 

Moon, Ocean, Books: Jules Verne and The Surprising City of Nantes

Last Thursday I spent the night in the city of Nantes along the Loire River in western France. This large city (population: just south of a million) was once a haven for persecuted Protestants before transforming to a slave trade capital. Located a few dozen miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, this sixth largest city in France includes dismal outskirts with all the charm of a row of council apartments from post-war Britain.

However the city center is a gorgeous collection of fountains within circular plazas from where avenues radiate out like spokes. Green and white trams slice past impressive stone architecture and groomed lawns, while students peddle bicycles past bohemian buskers beating drums near L’Occitane, Swatch and Cartier stores. Walk up Rue d’Orléans toward Place Royale to marvel at its beauty, then locate a wine bar on Place Vauban serving mind altering glasses of biodynamic Muscadet wine at only four dollars a pop.

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Your impression of a city depends, of course, on which segments you choose to explore. After moving from the questionable outskirts to the interior, you may agree that when commerce results in clean, safe and vibrant streets, then let commerce flow (taking care to control growth, and tastefully melding ancient and modern architecture).

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Passage Pommeraye in the city center

This city was the also the birthplace of Jules Verne, whose writings have taken readers to the moon, to the center of the earth, around the world in 80 days, and 20,000 leagues under the seas.

Verne’s spirit of exploration remains; an hour south, the Vendée Globe sailing race took off days ago. This venture is an around the world, non-stop, unassisted, single-handed yacht race which takes place every four years. Verne would likely have approved with gusto.

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“Jules Verne – novelist, forerunner of modern discoveries, was born is in this house”

Verne may also have appreciated that a strong interest in books still thrives in this bustling university city.

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Travel Book Store

In March of this year, literacy rates for each country of the world were compiled by John Miller of the Central Connecticut State University in the U.S. The colder northern European countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark have the highest literacy rates. Further south, France is ranked in the top dozen.

During an evening in Nantes I visited three sizable bookstores, all brimming with titles (though none in English, which was refreshing; the dilution of the French language is certainly not imminent). One store catered to tales of exploration and travel, with books about Karen Blixen, by Joshua Slocum and about ‘la vie sauvage’ (wildlife) from throughout the world. Exploring these well lit covers was a treat in this city with vibrant collections of color for sale: ancient postage stamps, macaron pastries, wool sweaters and books.

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Books on the Siberian taiga, Greenland, polar seas and Siberian exploration – just in time for winter reading

 

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Progressive Nantes, of course, includes titles on health and diet (‘humans and grains’) and sustainable development (‘environment and energy’)

 

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Titles include ‘The Wild Souls’ about Alaskans, as well as a recollection of the first traverse of the Canadian tundra

 

Nantes includes plenty of bicycles and coffee stores, wine bars and cafés. This is a place to take a day to wander and dream (perhaps of visiting the lighthouse at the end of the world) and enjoy getting lost in alleys, on stone stairways, even in decent bookstores. If you plan to explore the Loire River valley, this city center is worth several hours.

Originality, Power Morning Minutes, Fresh Bread, and Words from Gurus

First – all Roundwood Press books have been reduced to $2.99 apiece (at most) for the finale to summertime.

Second – am now reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant (2016, Penguin Random House, New York). It’s a good read, and recommended. The gist is that many individuals whose actions changed the world were normal people who held onto their day jobs even when they plunged into a business venture, uncertain of whether their notion would work or not.

Third – also recommended – a quick video where Oprah speaks to Anthony Robbins, and he gives a hint about a ten minute ritual each morning that can change your life.

Fourth – here are sage words about food, life, and respect for locality – from a powerful Scandinavian character I may soon have the fortune to meet (yes, will keep you informed):

 

Fifth – Here are some quotes  about life, and living, from some ‘success gurus.’

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The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Lifeby Deepak Chopra M.D.

“If it weren’t for the enormous effort we put into denial, repression, and doubt, each life would be a constant revelation.”

“Ever since you and I were born, we’ve had a constant stream of clues hinting at another world inside ourselves.”

“Clinging to old behavior is not an option.”

“Thus we arrive at the second spiritual secret: You are not in the world; the world is in you.”

“Violence is built into the opposition of us versus them. “They” never go away and “they” never give up. They will always fight to protect their stake in the world. As long as you and I have a separate stake in the world, the cycle of violence will remain permanent.”

“Now step into your social world. When you are with your family or friends, listen with your inner ear to what is going on. Ask yourself: Do I hear happiness? Does being with these people make me feel alive, alert? Is there an undertone of fatigue? Is this just a familiar routine, or are these people really responding to each other?”

“Just by paying attention and having a desire, you flip on the switch of creation.”

“Instead of seeking outside yourself, go to the source and realize who you are.”

“So you have to give up on the idea that you must go from A to B.”

“Everyone knows how to choose; few know how to let go. But it’s only by letting go of each experience that you make room for the next. The skill of letting go can be learned; once learned, you will enjoy living much more spontaneously.”

“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision.”

“For most people, the strongest externals come down to what other people think because fitting in is the path of least resistance. But fitting in is like embracing inertia.”

“Now let’s reframe the situation in terms of the operating system programmed from wholeness, or one reality. You come to work to find that the company is downsizing, and the following implications begin to come into play: My deeper self created this situation. Whatever happens, there is a reason. I am surprised, but this change doesn’t affect who I am. My life is unfolding according to what is best and most evolutionary for me. I can’t lose what’s real. The externals will fall into place as they need to. Whatever happens, I can’t be hurt.”

“Nothing is random—my life is full of signs and symbols: I will look for patterns in my life. These patterns could be anywhere: in what others say to me, the way they treat me, the way I react to situations. I am weaving the tapestry of my world every day, and I need to know what design I am making.”

“Today is for long-term thinking about myself. What is my vision of life? How does that vision apply to me? I want my vision to unfold without struggle. Is that happening? If not, where am I putting up resistance? I will look at the beliefs that seem to hold me back the most. Am I depending on others instead of being responsible for my own evolution?”

“…a musician coming out of the Juilliard School of Music hears every note on the radio through a different nervous system from someone who has just graduated from M.I.T. as an electrical engineer.”

“The absolute break between life and death is an illusion.”

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Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

“If you would like to become a person who has the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled, it will be necessary for you to move to that higher plane of existence where you are a co-creator of your life.”

“You must begin by replacing your old set of truths with a belief in the existence of a higher self within you.”

“Your concept of yourself that includes any limitations can be revised by you, and only by you.”

“You simply no longer choose to form your identity on the basis of what you’ve been taught.”

“The greatest gift you were ever given was the gift of your imagination. Within your magical inner realm is the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled. Here in your imagination lies the greatest power you will ever know.”

“In order for something to get into this world where things exist and are proved, as Blake says, they must first be placed firmly into your imagination.”

“Be willing to dream, and imagine yourself becoming all that you wish to be.”

“Highly functioning self-actualized people simply never imagine what it is that they don’t wish to have as their reality.”

“Do not let your imagination be restricted to the current conditions of your life…”

“In your imagination, you can replace the thought of I will one day be in a better place, with I am already in my mind where I intend to be.”

“Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.”

“Let go of all doubt, forget about the when.”

“It is absolutely imperative to learn how to assume, in your imagination, the feeling of already having and being what you desire.”

“You want to decide to live from the end you’re wishing for—not toward an end that others have decided for you.”

“As William Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors.” Anyone or anything trying to diminish your inner feelings with doubt is a traitor to be banished.”

“I always loved the words of Michelangelo regarding this subject: “The greater danger is not that our hopes are too high and we fail to reach them, it’s that they are too low, and we do.” ”

“My story concerning the manifestation of abundance throughout my life is never allowing anyone, no matter how persuasive, to infiltrate my imagination, which feels prosperous and able to attract unlimited abundance.”

“State your intention to live a happy, contented life…”

 

Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

There are reasons we choose where we live. Perhaps proximity to work, family, or historical roots.

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Yet our genetic memory knows the truth that we evolved as nomads, craving motion. Our migrating psyches aligned with taciturn and cyclical moods and whims of this planet; like rivers, scudding clouds, or streams of migrating wildebeest, we crave, yearn, and are predisposed to movement.

We fornicate, pray, and test ourselves on psychedelic drugs as a means of seeking higher planes – pleasure, aspiration to revelation from gods, or moving our minds away from what is routine and known to search for greater personal power.

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Another way of doing this is to travel. This can be like a drug taken to shift thought patterns. Like the short-term version of moving to a new location far away.

It is what we do. We cannot stop.

As South African author Laurens Van der Post wrote:

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the faded desert spoor of his lost self; and so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”

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I filled storage areas with junk soon forgotten about, then threw it all away. Life is transient. So are possessions and tools. In college I moved into a darling Colorado home with a woman who owned ample, ornate furniture, and an arboretum of plants. I soon learned that the more we have, the more we must take care of.

Which detracts from time to explore and ramble. As Bilbo Baggins and his comrades learned from their unearthly whirlpool of forays – traipsing, paddling, battling dark and ancient magic – after being uprooted and exposed to the pregnant beauty of Earth, and this hectic adventure called Life, we can’t return to the Shire.

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Before buying that flat screen, or S class Benz, consider exploring volcanoes in Iceland, checking out a fishing community in New England, or joining some funky-ass Zen meditation project deep in the Mojave desert.

Because eventually, you will die. That’s for certain. The remnants of your psyche may then travel to luminous reaches far beyond the corner store. Before then, perhaps you’ll want to practice breaking habits by embracing new environments during this life, so that when you plunge into the next plane of ethereal abstraction, you might maintain residual memory – not of stuffy religious texts – but of embracing fiery, frenetic, changes, and having at least an occasional wild disregard for rules. You might even learn to embrace faith that all will work out, perhaps even magnificently.

As young wizard Harry Potter once said, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

(Not that I plan on taking that trip for quite some time, mind you.)

Many have already taken that trip. For some, we have Memorial Day. We remember sacrifices they made to ensure a better world – for all of us.

 

Life Lessons – Revealed by Rivers

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Rivers alter course over time – The fabric of reality is pliable

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Tributaries join primary currents – Smaller objectives are achieved in the wake of pursuing larger goals

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A river’s true power is hidden from view – Personal power can be inconspicuous

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A river needs a flow path – To enter a new reality, first imagine it

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Rivers meander to balance their flow – Misfortune can swing us toward fortune

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Steeper flows have fewer meanders – Challenging goals provide fewer distractions

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Da Vinci’s lesson:

A River which has to be diverted from one place to another ought to be coaxed and not coerced with violence – It may be better to work with the flow of times and temperament of personalities rather than defy them

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Machiavelli’s lesson:

Fortune is a river – Fortune floods into life

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Great rivers grow from many small tributaries – True success comes from helping others succeed

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Faith flows like a river; fear looms like a dam – Faith floats us toward our desires; fear generates obstructions

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The river of today is not that of tomorrow – Seize opportunities that may not reappear

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Rivers find their own confluence – Personalities modify journeys

 

Images and text* © T. Mullen. Text from the book River of Tuscany.

(*Except for Leonardo’s and Machiavelli’s sage words, of course.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bordeaux Book Festival

Before taking a vacation or trip, I’ll search for upcoming festivals in the places to visit. This trip – jackpot: book and wine festivals on the same days in the same city.

The Bordeaux Book Fair (L’Escale du Livre)  is an annual three-day event. This year it was held in early April and included 60 French publishers, 150 authors and illustrators, and multiple tents where speakers gave talks and workshops. In the week before the event, several related lectures and concerts were held in Bordeaux, of which the mayor (and possible future leader of France?) Alain Juppé wrote:

“Reading, we know, is primarily a solo act, a path back to the self. The Book Festival reveals another aspect of reading, a dimension somewhat hidden, paradoxically – the desire we have to share the fun…Meeting with writers is one way to extend, and deepen, the pleasure of a book.”

[“La lecture, nous le savons bien, est d’abord un acte solitaire, un chemin qui ramène à soi. L’Escale du livre a révélé un autre aspect de la lecture, une dimension un peu cachée, et en quelque sorte paradoxale, qui est justement l’envie qu’on a d’en partager le plaisir….La rencontre avec des écrivains est l’une des voies royales pour prolonger, approfondir le plaisir d’un livre.”]

This fair happened  to be held on the same three days as a gathering of hundreds of wine producers in Bordeaux (Salon des Vignerons Independents), as well as the first public tastings (en primeurs) of Cotes de Bourg wines. This happenstance provided access to fresh books, publishers, authors, wines, and winemakers – all in one city, all accessible by foot and tramway.

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I strapped a daypack on shoulders, wore decent comfortable shoes and a sweater, and set off to explore the universes of French books. (Not until the following day – with a still clear head – did I visit the wine tastings.)

On the way to the festival I visited the massive French bookstore Mollat (an institution) to purchase a notebook. The place was packed on a Friday afternoon, yet all 17 customers in the cashiers’ lines ahead of me were whisked through in minutes.

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I then moved on to the book fair, which is held in ‘old Bordeaux,’ near Place Renaudel in Sainte Croix.

The books at the fair (all in French) were about travel and history; about growing pot, social consciousness and surfing. About everything. This all took place in some large tents on the grassy grounds of an ancient, attractive cathedral. For lunch I walked across a plaza, sat at an open air cafe, and enjoyed good food with good wine and coffee in the spring sunshine.

Pas Mal. Not Bad.

FullSizeRender (5) copySome publishers at the event specialize in simple treatises, all with white covers. One publisher only produces books about wine and wine growers. Another publisher – Pimiento – has produced travel anthologies and surfing books since 1997 (he is, of course, a surfer in love with Biarritz).

I bought collections of travel stories set in Burgundy by different authors (Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Henry James) and another about trips in the Auvergne (including stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola), as well as a essays by authors about Bordeaux.

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This cyclist is seriously intent on attending the Book Fair

One publisher gave me a gift – a collection of recipes from Provence, while another pulled out a book translated into English – a series of interviews with wine consultant Denis Dubordieu. Nice.

This festival was evidence that a litany of French publishers truly love what they do, and are optimistic, dynamic, and thriving.

The printed book is alive and well in France.

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Hallelujah.

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Thrillers, and Wonderfully Messy Edamame

Lists of recommended books published this past year are out. They include the Boston Globe list, the Financial Times list, ten best books recommended by The New York Times, as well as best mysteries and thrillers according to the Washington Post. There is both light and heavy reading recommended by the Economist Magazine, and 58 Books recommended by TED Speakers. The Washington Post has also been on a book roll – they picked 12 choice books, and another 10 books, and still again a list of ‘Notable Non Fiction Books of 2015.’ And then the Wall Street Journal informs us about who read what in 2015.

Meanwhile, recipes for my upcoming book – The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion – are pouring in, from Canada, Israel, Australia, and the USA….

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My local Asian wine bar – La Maison

 

Check out this simple beauty of a recipe from Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines in Naramata, British Columbia.

He writes:

“Here at Bella we have a bit of homestead with a big garden, some chickens, a couple of pigs, and bees coming next year…I’ll contribute a very simple recipe…A play on edamame but using fresh shelling peas from the garden that are drizzled with your best olive oil (sesame oil works well too), some quality flaked salt and a nice local goat or sheep’s feta. Its a wonderfully messy dish and as you shell the peas the seasoning gets on your fingers and seasons the fresh vegetables. This could work on crudité as well.”

See the photo he provided below? Simple, beautiful, tasty.

Thanks so much Jay.

And Seasonal Greetings to all.

 

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River of Dreams – Reviewed by the University of Durham

book review Tom_2The Business School alumni magazine from the University of Durham recently reviewed my book River of Dreams. The fictional story is set in medieval as well as modern times in the region of Durham in northeast England. The positive review by Brad Atkinson includes intriguing mention of the ‘tardis’ – the police box Doctor Who uses to travel through space and time. The book’s plot links present and medieval characters through a series of dreams.

“…the book will allow you to re-experience specific locations and moods of characters across the North East….reading this book will provide you with a tardis-like experience, where the threads of time are both non-linear and bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, as you join a collection of lives that are intertwined by the waters that flow through the region and, ultimately, each of us.”

 

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What else is new?

In the coming months I’ll announce publication of new books within the coming year, including titles by other authors, at least one title dedicated to charity, and a photo collection. We also anticipate producing a new podcast series, an expanded video series, and a new book imprint. The sister web log (‘blog’) Vino Expressions (which publicizes my book Vino Voices, and includes the proprietary Vino Value scoring algorithm for comparing wine values throughout the world) will also become more closely linked to Roundwood Press.

Thanks for keeping informed about Roundwood Press. Stay tuned for a vibrant future 🙂 .  Please click on the Home tab and enter your email if you are not already a subscriber.

 

Wild Research from the Wilds of New Mexico

The below video includes a rapid review of two books published in recent years. The location? Below the Sawtooth Mountains in the state of New Mexico in the USA.

One is a non-fiction book about a young, restless woman determined to calm her soul by hiking a long and arduous trail in the western United States – the Pacific Crest Trail.

The other fictional book is about a multimillionaire author in the European country of Monaco. His wife has been slain, and he is the suspected killer. While on the run, he’s trying to find out who committed the crime.

Both books are easy reads.

Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Research, by Philip Kerr

My friend from high school days, Anne, recently introduced me to her friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Lee and Brooke Swanson. They told me about a recent documentary made in the closest town to the property shown above.

This above property (purchased thanks to my sister and her former husband) is in Catron County. In the USA, counties are primary geographical sub-units dividing states. Catron County is sizable. Very sizable. (Although there are 28 other larger counties in the USA.) It has an area of 6,929 square miles (17,946 square kilometers) – larger than the American state of Rhode Island, or the state of Connecticut, or the state of Delaware, or the District of Columbia (DC). Catron County is larger than several countries, including Kuwait, Swaziland, Gambia, Cyprus, Singapore, Mauritius, Seychelles, Jamaica, Kosovo, and Cape Verde. It’s larger than East Timor or the Bahamas or Gibraltar. Or Bahrain, Qatar, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands. It is larger area than the following countries combined:  Lebanon, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Mauritius, Malta, Andorra, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Bermuda, and Barbados.

So what? It’s large.

Here is so what: the population density is one person per two square miles. My nearest neighbor lives three miles away, and the nearest town is a dozen miles away. That local town, Pie Town, has a population of 22 people. My new friends told about the documentary titled the Pie Lady of Pie Town. It’s about camaraderie and resourcefulness, about building a business based on dreams rather than financial projections. It’s about joys and frustrations of living off the beaten path.

For a small locale, Pie Town has also inspired quite a few books, including Pie Town, Welcome Back to Pie Town, and Pie Town Woman, not to mention From Pie Town to Yum Yum and 331. I once met an author in the pie store who told me of research for her latest book – including what wine Eleanor of Aquitaine served at her 12th century wedding in France. That was not a conversation I expected in a town with 22 residents in a county with fewer than one peson per square mile. But that’s the magic.

Size and remoteness of rural towns, I learned, have little impact on residents’ love of books and reading.

No Luxury of Indecision

Blessington Book Store – Thriving in a Digital World

Janet Hawkins spent over a decade living and working in Amsterdam as a chartered accountant. She then returned to her Irish home in the town of Blessington, County Wicklow, to open a book store on the main street.

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Blessington Reservoir

In 2009 Janet realized that selling books alone would not keep her business afloat. She then moved to a bigger space across the street and reopened her bookstore to include a cafe. The result? Her book store thrives, and the cafe has doubled business income. The bakery produces homemade goods, while staff choose coffee for quality.

“The cafe is an independent stream of income,” Janet explained. “A little old lady once told me she wouldn’t buy my books because she can get them free from the library. While telling me this, she sat eating a scone and drinking tea in my cafe.”

Soon after moving to the new store location, Janet hired a contractor to punch a hole in the back wall – expanding the building size to include a children’s book section. This increased the overall interior store volume by a third.

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The Blessington Book Store – which has adapted to thrive in the current economy

I wondered how the recent boom in e-books had impacted her store sales.

“Kindle and Amazon mostly impacted fiction,” said Janet. But fiction accounts for only 600 of her titles – a quarter of book sales.

Janet explained her appreciation for books.

“The author of The Master told how people need a three-legged stool for balance – including physical, spiritual, and imaginative aspects,” Janet told me while sharing coffee and fresh scones at a store table She explained how books help provide this balanced stool for many readers. She also told how – in ‘old’ Ireland’ – people wandered into neighbors’ homes and launched into telling stories to solidify friendships.

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Blessington evening in December

Janet told of how two contemporary problems impact publishing: inadequate editing, and popular books written by mediocre writers (often because their plots or themes correspond to current trends).

Janet will not try to impact these problem’s outcomes. Today, she explained – book sellers have to perform multiple tasks – from “putting on a frock and attending literary awards ceremonies, to washing cafe dishes that same day.”

Janet’s energetic and optimistic management of the Blessington Book Store reflects how book sellers are adapting to changing market conditions in a world prolific with e-books. Her cafe also reflects the truth that above all, reading is a leisure activity.

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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.

Can you take one minute to answer a few questions to improve Roundwood Press posts? It would be appreciated.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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!

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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 – 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.

Leadership Lessons from an Irish Chieftain

Today – Roundwood Press releases a new ebook.

Okay, it’s a pamphlet.

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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.