The Little Prince

A classic children’s book full of ageless wisdom.

The Little PrinceYesterday, I read The Little Prince a novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. According to Wikipedia,

The novella is both the most-read and most-translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as braille), selling nearly two million copies annually with sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.

Odd that I should live 53 years before managing to squeeze such a famous 98-page read into my busy schedule.

On the surface, this children’s book, which includes simple watercolor illustrations by the author, tells the story of an aviator who has crash-landed in the Sahara Desert. He’s working hard to repair his plane when he meets a small prince who has travelled to earth (and a few other places) from a tiny asteroid. What follows are stories from the little prince’s travels, each of which has an important message that isn’t just for children.

The Fox

Chapter XXI made the biggest impact on me. In that Chapter, the little prince meets a fox who explains to him, in the course of their conversation, the meaning of the word tame:

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

Later, the fox adds:

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

Can you think of a more beautiful way to describe the bond between two people who have come to love and depend upon each other?

There’s more to the story than that, but I’ll let you discover it on your own. I’ll just say this: the end of the story of the fox made me cry when I read it yesterday and it made me cry again today. There’s so much truth in the words. I’m filled with sadness at the knowledge that so few people understand this simple wisdom and how it applies in their lives.

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

Matters of Consequence

Underlying most of the book is the idea of what’s really important in life. Saint-Exupéry refers to this as “matters of consequence.”

In the little prince’s travels, he meets a businessman who is busy counting and doing sums. He’s too busy to relight his cigarette and almost too busy to answer the prince’s questions between counting and adding. He tells the prince that he can’t stop, that he has so much to do, that he is concerned with matters of consequence. Those matters turn out to be counting the stars, which he has claimed ownership of, despite the fact that he’s not even sure, at first, what they’re called. The prince has questions about this:

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”

Later, the prince asks the man what he does with the stars.

“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied.

“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven…”

“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

It’s that what it’s all about for too many people? Slaving their life away in pursuit of the almighty dollar, neglecting what’s really important in life? All so they can accumulate what they believe is wealth and keep it safe from others?

Later, the little prince is angry with the pilot because the pilot has failed to answer a question the prince thinks is important. He sums up his meeting with the businessman and what it means to him:

“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man — he is a mushroom!”

In my life, I’ve spent far too much time with mushrooms. Indeed, I think I was a mushroom for a time myself.

Read the Book

If you’re more interested in morals and philosophy than what’s on reality TV, celebrity gossip shows, or the business press, do yourself a favor and read the book.

Read it slowly and savor the lessons revealed in the little prince’s travels. I’m sure you’ll take away a lot more than what I’ve shared here — I know I did.

Art History Book Mystery Partially Solved

So that’s why they sent me a copy!

Last spring, as I was finishing my packing and preparing to leave my Wickenburg home for good, a box arrived in the mail from Pearson Education. I’d been writing for Pearson’s Peachpit imprint since 1995 and assumed the box contained copies of my latest book about Mac OS X, translated into other languages. Of course, all my other books had already been packed and I was bummed that I couldn’t pack this latecomer with the others.

The Mystery

Art HistoryBut when I opened the box, I was very surprised to see that it wasn’t a translation of one of my books. It was an absolutely beautiful 1240-page hardcover book about art by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothern titled simply, Art History (Fifth Edition). A quick look on Amazon.com showed me that the book would cost nearly $200 to buy. That wasn’t difficult to believe. The book was beautiful.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have only a passing interest in art history. But paging through this book while trying to figure out why it had been sent to me, I realized that I was holding the definitive guide to the history of art — a book that covered art history as far back as prehistoric times. It was chock full of gorgeous full-color photos. Everything the average person could want to know about the history of art worldwide was in this amazing textbook.

But why the heck had it been sent to me?

I didn’t know the authors and I didn’t write textbooks. I had never voiced an interest in art history to anyone I knew. There was no note with the book. Nothing at all to explain why I’d gotten it. I wound up assuming that someone at Peachpit had sent it to me as a gift — I’d been getting quite a few little gifts from friends who sympathized with my divorce ordeal.

I packed the book carefully in one of the last boxes I sealed up. It would look nice on the coffee table in my next home. And maybe — just maybe — I’d have time to read some of it when I settled down again.

A Partial Solution

This morning, I got two email messages, each referring to permission to use one of my photos.

One message was from a woman named Evi, who I vaguely remembered from the past. In this new message, she told me she needed to “re-clear the rights to use the below picture” for a new edition of Stokstad’s Art, A Brief History. I scrolled down and saw one of my photos of the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio
I shot this image of Lookout Studio after dawn one day in October 2008, most likely while I was on one of Flying M Air’s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures (which I stopped offering when I permanently moved out of Arizona).

It was very important, Evi told me, that my rights be extended to Pearson, the US publisher. The other message was from Pearson and included a permission form. (Pearson has forms for everything.)

Art Brief HistoryI looked up the book on Amazon.com and found a 640-page paperback book titled Art: A Brief History (5th Edition). Although I’d never seen the book before, it did get the wheels turning in my head. I did another Amazon search on the author’s name and found the book discussed at the beginning of this blog post — the book I’d received out of the blue at least nine months ago.

And then I remembered a bit more about my email exchange with Evi. It had been about two years ago. Her company had bought — actually paid — for the rights to use the photo. Somewhere along the line, I must have also requested a copy of the book. Months later, I got the check from the UK-based company drawn on a US bank, cashed it, and promptly forgot all about it.

Is it possible that they used my photo in such a big, beautiful book? Or did they use it in the shorter paperback she mentioned in her email message?

But the dates didn’t jive. The paperback book was published in December 2011. Surely it hadn’t been that long since all this transpired.

And if it was in that 640-page paperback book, then why had they sent me the 1240-page hardcover book?

Without asking for details — which I really don’t think is worth the bother; after all, this poor woman has thousands of pictures to get permissions for — the only way to know is to look through the book they sent me to see if my photo is in there. Of course, that box is still packed and still in storage. I likely won’t unpack it until later this summer, at the very earliest.

Permission Granted

I’ll definitely be giving them permission to use my photo again. And I won’t charge them a fee this time. I’m hoping that the photo did appear in the bigger book and that I get a copy of the smaller book once it’s revised.

Needless to say, I’m tickled that my work appeared in such wonderful volumes. Photography is just a hobby for me; to have my work recognized and used — with permission — in such a way really makes me happy.

Lessons from the Goldfinch

A long and winding, beautifully written book with numerous disturbing story lines.

The GoldfinchMy friend Barbara, an avid reader, recommended The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to her Facebook friends, including me. I’d been looking for something modern and mainstream to read since binging and burning out (and subsequently dropping) the Arthur C. Clark (and ghostwriter) Rama series books. (Clarke’s original Rendezvous with Rama is a short masterpiece of science fiction; the long, drawn out books in the series that came afterward were some ghostwriter’s attempt to fill too many pages with unnecessary personal drama reminiscent of today’s reality TV shows that, quite frankly, annoyed and bored me. I was in the middle of the third book when I decided I’d had enough.)

On a whim, I looked it up on my library’s website, discovered they had an ebook version, and put it on hold. When it became available two weeks later, I checked it out and began reading on my iPad.

I soon realized two things about the book:

First, it was beautifully written. The author used words to expertly paint pictures of New York, Las Vegas, and other backdrops for the story that put me right in those places. Keep in mind that I’ve spent a lot of time in both places and I can assure you that she nailed every aspect of her descriptions. From grabbing a taxi in New York to wandering the streets of ghost housing developments in the desert outskirts of Vegas, she put the reader there expertly. She also managed to convey the moods of not only her first person narrator but the places and situations he was in. I realized almost immediately that I’d been stuck in a rut reading garbage fiction. This book was like a breath of fresh air for my brain.

Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book to give you an idea of what I mean:

If the day had gone as planned, it would have faded into the sky unmarked, swallowed without a trace along with the rest of my eighth-grade year. What would I remember of it now? Little or nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air. It had rained in the night, a terrible storm, shops were flooded and a couple of subway stations closed; and the two of us were standing on the squelching carpet outside our apartment building while her favorite doorman, Goldie, who adored her, walked backwards down Fifty-Seventh with his arm up, whistling for a taxi. Cars whooshed by in sheets of dirty spray; rain-swollen clouds tumbled high above the skyscrapers, blowing and shifting to patches of clear blue sky, and down below, on the street, beneath the exhaust fumes, the wind felt damp and soft like spring.

Holy cow. Are you there with me? I can see the yellow of the cabs speeding by, all with their “hired” lights on, while the doorman, in his cap and long coat, steps out onto the avenue, arm held high with his whistle blowing wildly in his mouth, trying hard to get a taxi while mother and son wait under the arched awning in front of the building. I can hear the car horns and other doorman whistles, see wisps of steam rising from the manhole covers, smell the pungent odor of flooded storm drains. All the while, pedestrians rush by under umbrellas, collars turned up against the driving rain as they splash through small puddles on the sidewalk in hopelessly wet shoes.

So much of the book is like this for me.

Second, it was extremely long. I didn’t realize how long it was in real pages until today when I looked it up on Amazon just to get that piece of information: 755 pages. Wow! And my library loan gave me just two weeks to get through it!

The story follows the narrator through the tragic loss of his mother and the morally questionable acquisition of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch. Throughout the story, Theo describes the events of his life, from being shuffled from one home to another, left on his own to discover drugs with a friend to his troubled adult life. I don’t want say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot lines for readers. Amazon’s description, which was obviously written by some publishing house marketer who didn’t bother to read the book, is a bit misleading.

Simply stated: the story is dark and although I never actually disliked the first person narrator, I kept thinking over and over how stupid he was being to screw up his life the way he was. As one reviewer who found the book too sad to finish put it, “Just when I think it will get better something else bad happens.” A note on Amazon says that 172 reviewers made a similar statement. I would have, too.

But it was the beauty of the writing and my hope for a happy ending that pulled me through the book. Reading in bed before dawn or curled up on the sofa on a foggy afternoon, I paged through it, marveling at the quality of the prose while lamenting the main character’s often self-inflicted misfortunes. Although friendship was a major theme throughout the book, Theo’s friend was not a good influence and I had a lot of trouble getting past that until the third part of the book.

I was rewarded at the end with two passages that I bookmarked because they had special meaning to me. Both occur near the end of the book, in the narrator’s lengthy summation of his story and what he learned from what he’d been through.

Theo talks a bit about the goldfinch in the painting, a small bird fastened to its perch with a length of chain. He talks about the bird not being afraid of its surroundings despite its tiny size. About it not being timid and not being hopeless and refusing to pull back from the world. And then he says:

And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back. Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of the newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death. […]

And — maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein, although it doesn’t matter since no one’s ever going to see this — but does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end — and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?

Not exactly the kind of quote that makes you feel good about life. But in my own life, it has a lot of meaning.

Although I can’t complain about most of my life — I’ve worked hard and played hard and enjoyed life within my limited means — the events of the past two years or so have taken a serious toll on me. They’ve made me see life from Theo’s point of view. Life’s a real struggle sometimes, especially when difficult, unexpected situations are thrown in your path. A marriage gone sour for reasons you can’t comprehend. A formerly loving spouse lying, cheating, and committing a never-ending series of hurtful acts against you. Stranger-than-fiction situations triggering PTSD-driven responses that cause a chain reaction of apparently unsurmountable problems.

This is the catastrophe Theo is talking about, complete with broken hearts and no appeals or do-overs. Unlike Theo, however, I didn’t bring the catastrophe on myself — it was thrust upon me by others. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with it until recently.

I struggle now to move forward with as much of the joy as I can muster. My friends and family tell me I’m doing an amazing job, that I’m a strong woman and will get through my temporary setbacks. I know they’re right. I have plenty of good days among the bad. But I also know the feeling of utter despair that Theo shares throughout the book.

The other passage I bookmarked reminded me a bit about what’s driven me my entire life.

In the book, Theo does self-destructive things: drugs, theft, fraudulent transactions. He knows these things are wrong, but he does them, sometimes justifying them in his own mind to make them more acceptable. Sometimes he’s just too weak or lacks the willpower to stop. In this lengthly passage, he questions the “norms” and what people are expected to do with their lives.

I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers — – hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark — and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, the beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all the right ones? Or, no to take it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet– for me, anyway — all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I’m only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because — isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture — ? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted — ? What if the heart, for all its unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical checkups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or — like Boris — is it better to throw yourself headfirst and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you blew out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.

I was raised to believe that people follow a predestined path: grow up, go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandkids, die. Somewhere along the line, “get a job” turned into “have a career” and that career was supposed to be in an office working 9 to 5 for a paycheck.

But something about me made me question that path when I was in the “go to school” phase. You see, rather than getting that office job with good career opportunities, I realized I wanted to be a writer. To say I was discouraged is an understatement, but I toed the line like the relatively obedient kid I was. It wasn’t until years later, when I’d invested quite a bit of time in the “have a career” phase that I realized how unhappy I was.

You see, I didn’t follow my heart. I followed someone else’s “life formula” and that formula just wasn’t working for me. I got off the path I was on and started fresh on a new path. And I haven’t regretted it one damn bit. The only thing I regret is not getting on that path in the first place and wasting 8 years of my life doing something I really didn’t want to do.

My situation really isn’t anything like Theo’s in the book. Theo’s path was self-destructive, mine was constructive. But the point this passage reinforces is that we need to follow what our heart tells us is right, even if it doesn’t conform to what’s “normal” or what’s expected of us. I’m fortunate in that my heart usually steers me onto a path that I do want, one that’s good for me and others around me.

It just saddens me that people close to me have ignored their heart in favor of the easy life formula that’s considered “normal.” I know they will eventually regret taking the path they took — if they don’t already regret it.

Anyway, that’s my takeaway from this book. I recommend it if you like well-written prose and you don’t mind a dark story with a brighter ending.

One last thing. In prepping to write this, I Googled The Goldfinch. I wanted to see what the painting looked like. I was disappointed. What do you think?

Clive Cussler Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

Apparently, even best-selling authors can’t be bothered to do their homework.

Atlantis Found CoverIn my never-ending quest for light reading while I sit around in Wickenburg waiting for my marriage to be terminated, I picked up a copy of Atlantis Found by Clive Cussler from the library. This book features Cussler’s protagonist, Dirk Pitt, a man so outrageously skilled and lucky that he makes James Bond look as inept as Inspector Clouseau.

Hey, I did say I wanted light reading, didn’t I? (And yes, I do realize I was bitching about a supposed Cussler book just the other day.)

But no matter how light reading is, it really bugs me when an author gets something insanely wrong. Take, for example, this passage from the book:

Purchased by Destiny Enterprises from the Messerschmitt-Bolkow Corporation, the Bo 105LS-7 helicopter was designed and built for the Federal German Army primarily for ground support and paramilitary use. The aircraft chasing the Skycar carried a crew of two, and mounted twin engines that gave it a maximum speed of two hundred and eighty miles an hour. For firepower, it relied on a ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannon.

My helicopter pilot brain shouted “How fast?

You see, there’s a little thing called retreating blade stall which normally limits the airspeed of a helicopter. I don’t know of any helicopter capable of going 280 miles per hour. Certainly not one with a single main rotor system.

But hell, I’m not an expert. I’m just a pilot. What do I know?

Bo 105P
German Army BO 105P photo by Joey Quan.

So I looked it up the MBB Bo 105 on Wikipedia. And I scrolled down to the Specifications Section. And I learned the following specs:

  • Never exceed speed: 270 km/h (145 knots, 167 mph)
  • Maximum speed: 242 km/h (131 knots, 150 mph)
  • Cruise speed: 204 km/h (110 knots, 127 mph)

280 miles per hour? How about 150 miles per hour? That’s more reasonable.

And, coincidentally, it’s the never exceed speed for my Robinson R44 Raven II — although, admittedly, I don’t have any ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannons.

Come on, guys! Do your homework! I know it’s fiction, but when you discuss the capabilities of an aircraft that actually exists, how about getting it right?

On Heavy-Handed Writing

When the author’s voice is so loud it distracts you from the story.

One of the things that I think clearly identifies a good author is his voice. Simply said, when I read fiction, I expect to be drawn into the story, with each word, sentence, paragraph, and page feeding my imagination with clear and smooth descriptions of the characters, settings, actions, and dialog.

Seems pretty simple, huh? Unfortunately, not all authors are able to pull this off. Some try so hard to paint scenes or describe action that their heavy-handed writing prevents readers from getting into the story. Instead, the reader hears the author’s voice, often shouting for attention about how clever he is.

The Silent SeaThe best way to illustrate this is with a passage from a “Clive Cussler” book I just finished. Let me present two versions of the opening paragraph and offer a critique before I explain why I put Mr. Cussler’s name in quotes.

A Bad Start

I bought the Kindle edition of this book from Amazon after reading a synopsis written by an acquaintance. The book had the elements I like in a good fiction read: a mystery, action, suspense. And the fact that it was (apparently) written by an author I knew didn’t hurt things either. I was eager to pick up a book that would keep my mind off the other crap going on in my life so I bought it without first reading a sample. I somewhat regret that.

The truth of the matter is, if I’d read the first paragraph of the book before buying it, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bows met the rocky beach. It hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, its tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When the retriever reached land, it shook itself so that drops flew like diamond chips in the crisp air, and then it looked back at the skiff. The dog barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach that took startled flight. Feeling its companions were coming much too slowly, the purebred tore off into a copse of nearby trees, her bark diminishing until it was swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

This is just one example of the heavy-handed writing I found in this book. The author is trying to show off, trying too hard to show what a great writer he is. All he succeeds in doing, however, is calling out his voice to the reader, who has to stumble over his awkward sentences to get the visual the author intends.

Want some specifics? How about these?

  • Using the word bows instead of bow to refer to the front end of a boat. While this is technically okay (either word works), bow is more commonly used. (I honestly thought it was a typo until I looked it up.)
  • Putting a tail on a “blur.”
  • Referring to a dog as “it” and then clearly indicating its gender later with “her.”
  • Identifying the thoughts of a dog.
  • Using five different words to describe the same character: blur, it, retriever, dog, purebred. (Purebred was over the top for me; it’s a snobbish way to refer to a dog.)
  • Overall awkward sentence construction for several sentences. I was especially bothered by all the geographic facts jammed into the last sentence.

I also had a problem with a dog swimming with its tail straight up, but I resolved that by looking at photos of a retriever in water; one in particular seemed to illustrate what the author had written. Still, it bothered me enough to want to look it up. Most dog breeds known for swimming skills use their tail as a rudder in the water.

I started wondering how the author could have presented the same information without his voice shouting out to be heard. As an exercise, I rewrote the paragraph:

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bow met the rocky beach. The retriever hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, her tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When she stepped onto the beach she shook herself, sending drops like diamond chips flying through the crisp air. She looked back at her companions in the skiff, then barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach, startling them into flight. Impatient, she tore off into a small grove of trees nearby, the sound of her barking soon swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

I identified the blur as a retriever right away so she (not it) could logically have a tail. I liked the visual of the diamond chips, but not the construction of that sentence, so I changed it. Copse reminds me of corpse so I used the more common small grove; I also took the adjective nearby out of the middle of the noun phrase and put it at the end. I couldn’t do much with the geography lesson without moving it to another paragraph, so I left it.

I don’t know…is it better? Or just more to my taste?

My point is this: a well-written sentence/paragraph/page/book should not make a reader want to rewrite it to remove distractions.

By or With?

And that brings me to the author, Clive Cussler. The reality is that Mr. Cussler did not write this book. It was written by Jack Du Brul. On the cover (see above), the word with is used instead of by. Mr. Cussler’s name is in huge letters — indeed, as large as the book title’s — and Mr. Du Brul’s name is added in tiny letters, almost as an afterthought.

This, in my opinion, is misleading.

Unfortunately, this is very common. An author writes a few bestsellers, perhaps with a series character. For whatever reason, the author stops writing. But because the author has a huge following, his name has a ton of value to the publisher. The publisher either actively searches for a writer willing to publish additional titles under that author’s name or simply considers proposals by authors to do so. The result: the famous author’s books continue being published, but they’re written by someone else.

Clive Cussler is not the first author to do this. Tom Clancy has done it. So has Robert Ludlum. And I’m sure there are dozens of other bestselling authors who are allowing their names to appear on books written by others.

As if readers can’t tell the difference.

You can argue that a reader can clearly see who the author of a book is by simply looking at the cover. After all, the real author’s name does appear there. But when a “name brand” author’s name appears on a book cover, I expect to get a book that would meet the level of quality of that author. I don’t think Clive Cussler would have written an opening paragraph like the one I quoted here. And I don’t think the book would be full of other examples of loud author voice as this one was. So I don’t think his name should appear on the cover at all.

About this Book

What’s interesting about this book is that although it had plenty of examples of awkward author voice, there were plenty of times when the author’s voice faded into the background and the story just came out. Almost as if there was another author involved — maybe Mr. Cussler after all? — or a very good editor. Or maybe the author just couldn’t keep up his screaming throughout the book.

Overall, the book was readable, even for a picky reader like me. I could overlook the writing problems because of the interesting plot twists. And although the plot itself was outrageously unbelievable at times, I was able to overlook that, too. In the end, it gave me just the kind of distraction that I needed.

If I had to rate it, I’d give it 3 (out of 5) stars. Worth reading, but get it from the library.

Lingering at the Crossroads

On the profundity of book quotes.

I don’t buy printed books anymore. I read ebooks, usually on my iPad, after either buying them or getting them on loan from the library.

Yes, I will agree that there’s something nice about holding a printed book in my hands, smelling the paper when I open it for the first time, and turning physical pages made of real paper as I read. But there’s something even better about being able to carry dozens — if not hundreds — of books with me everywhere I go and to be able to pick up any of them where I left off, no matter where I am.

Besides that, there is no place for printed books in my life these days. I’ve become transient, with most of my physical possessions packed for the day I land, hopefully on my feet, in a new home.

Highlights and Notes

Although I never put pen to paper in any of the printed books I owned — that would be sacrilege! — do “mark up” the ebooks I’ve bought. I do this by highlighting passages and adding notes. I can later go back and review these highlighted passages and think about what they meant to me when I highlighted them — and what they mean to me now.

Cover of 11/22/63I just finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’d gotten it for Christmas last year (or maybe the year before) and it has sat on my iPad, downloaded into the Kindle app, for months.

Reading is one of my few escapes from reality these days, but it isn’t easy for me to do. I have a hard time staying focused on any thought-related task; I do far better with physical tasks. And I have to admit that after taking a long break from Stephen King — the last book of his that I read was The Dead Zone and I didn’t even finish it — I didn’t think his brand of horror thriller would be a good match for my mood. But the book, which centers around time travel to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, wasn’t quite what I expected. It was more historic fiction than horror — no demons in the corn or giant crabs on the beach. It was also long — 853 pages! — and I found it absorbing enough to keep my attention for the several days it took to read. I think I can safely say that I enjoyed it.

Of course, that’s not what this blog post is about. It’s about the truth I found in some of the book’s passages that I highlighted — truth that applies to what I’m going through now.

The latest version of the Kindle app offers four highlighting colors: pink, blue, yellow, and orange. I used pink to highlight five brief passages that made me stop and think about my divorce.

The Crossroads of my Marriage

A good portion of the book deals with the relationship that forms between the protagonist and a woman he meets in his travels. They fall in love, but he’s got a secret that he can’t share with her. It’s got nothing to do with her or their relationship, but his inability to share that information with her is causing problems with their relationship. He writes:

Sometimes a man and a woman reach a crossroads and linger there, reluctant to take either way, knowing the wrong choice will mean the end…and knowing there’s so much worth saving.

In hindsight — which is usually 20/20 — I know when my husband reached the crossroads of our marriage. It was in mid 2011, before I got back from my fourth summer season in Washington.

By the time I got back in October, my husband’s roommate had finally left, leaving our Phoenix condo open for me to move in. We still had the house in Wickenburg, of course; my husband had been living in Phoenix during the week and in Wickenburg on weekends for the previous three years. He had a roommate in Phoenix most of that time and his roommate did not make me feel welcome. So I avoided the place as much as I could. With him gone, however, things changed. We got new furniture and blinds for the condo and I moved my office into the second bedroom. I lived there with my husband and our dog and usually went back to Wickenburg on weekends with them.

I thought being together more would make our relationship better, but it didn’t. My husband never seemed happy; I assumed it was his job, which I knew frustrated and annoyed him. His behavior frustrated and annoyed me. Things deteriorated, fights erupted, he gave me a steady diet of disapproving glances whenever I wanted to do something that he didn’t like. But he never talked to me about what bothered him so I continued believing it was the job.

In reality, he’d reached a crossroads that I hadn’t seen. I don’t know exactly when he got there — I suspect it was during the summer, while I was away. A year later, in September 2012, he told a mutual friend that I hadn’t told him that I loved him when he came to visit me for my birthday in 2011. He was carrying around that disappointment (or anger?) for over a year but hadn’t said a word to me about it. (I never was much of a mind-reader.)

So he reached the crossroads and likely felt very alone. He lingered there, waiting for something — I don’t know what — to happen. Meanwhile, I was chomping at the bit — as I so often am — anxious to move in one direction or another. His malaise and my inability to make it go away by doing what I thought he wanted me to do — making a home for us in the condo — bothered me, but I still didn’t see what the real problem was.

He got to the crossroads without me, while I was spinning my wheels in frustration just down the road. Or maybe up the road.

He lingered at the crossroads of our relationship from at least October 2011 through my departure for my summer season at the end of April 2012. And then he decided on a path — one that clearly proves that he didn’t think what we had was worth saving.

He began looking for my replacement. He found her in the form of a desperate woman eight years older than him, a woman who sent him photos of herself in lingerie, a woman who convinced him to ask for a divorce. A woman who even provided him with lists of divorce attorneys to call, along with the advice that he should call as many as he could because I wouldn’t be able to work with any of the ones he’d spoken to. A woman who called him “baby” and would eventually manage his side of our divorce.

He reached the crossroads of our relationship and made a decision without me. He put his fate in the hands of a stranger. And I’m living — no we’re living — with the fallout from that decision now.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. Relationships need to be completely honest and open. As two people travel through life together, they should do so hand-in-hand so when they reach a crossroads, they reach it together and can guide each other to make the right decision on which way to go.

I wish we’d both understood that.

Undeserved Anger

Later in the book, the main character gets caught lying to his girlfriend. He gets angry about it and thinks:

We never get so mad as when we get caught, do we?

This sentence hit me like a freight train and brought me back to the August day when I discovered that my husband had lied about having an affair and hiring a divorce attorney. I caught him in the lie and texted him about it. He reacted with rage — rage directed at me.

Yes, he was angry at me because I’d caught him in at least two lies.

His reaction bothered me a lot. The man I’d fallen in love with would have been calmer and possibly — but not likely — apologetic. He would have attempted to offer some sort of explanation. He wouldn’t have reacted in angry rage with a threatening and accusatory email response.

As if it were somehow my fault that he’d lied to me.

We never get so mad as when we get caught. I knew firsthand what that meant.

The Bad Dream that Doesn’t End

Later in the book, the main character and his girlfriend have a falling out — mostly because he’s hiding the truth from her. (His motives are good, but how can she understand that when she doesn’t know the full story?) The fight is over and he’s leaving. He’s thinking:

Part of me was thinking this was all just a bad dream, and that I’d wake up soon. Most of me knew better.

This describes my state of mind since June 30, 2012, my birthday, when my husband called me on the phone to ask for a divorce. I didn’t know then that he was probably calling from the home of the woman he was living with, the woman who had become his mommy and would direct his actions against me for the next nine or ten months. Back then, it was just a shock — only weeks before, we’d been discussing him and our dog spending the summer with me.

For months, they subjected me to every form of harassment they could muster, trying to wear me down, trying to make me give in to a proposed settlement that would take away nearly everything I’d worked so hard for my whole life, leaving me homeless with my savings drained. It wasn’t enough to be wronged by his lying and cheating — they wanted to ruin me financially, too. Every time they’d throw some new form of harassment my way, I’d think that what was happening couldn’t possibly be happening. It must all be a dream — a terrible nightmare — and that if I were lucky, I’d wake up soon in my own bed with my husband beside me and my dog at the foot of the bed.

I even dreamed about him. I dreamed about making love with him. I dreamed about him holding me in his arms, comforting me as I sobbed from the grief I feel every day. I dreamed of him saying he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to hurt me, that the woman he left me for meant nothing to him and he was coming back to me.

But there’s no waking from reality, no matter how unreal it seems.

And I know that.

FEAR

In the book, the protagonist had been married to an alcoholic who went to AA. He mentions one of her AA slogans:

FEAR, standing for false evidence appearing real.

This reminded me of the paranoia that my husband and his girlfriend/mommy were apparently suffering from. She followed my Twitter stream like a circling buzzard’s eyes follow the trail of a wounded rabbit. She’d seize upon some innocuous tweet and send it to their lawyer as evidence of some imagined wrong-doing. I tweeted about flushing a dead fish down the toilet and it became evidence that I was destroying my husband’s valuable exotic fish. I tweeted about scanning and shredding documents as part of my paperless filing system and it became evidence that I was destroying my husband’s documents. These claims went as far as the court, along with fifty pages of other tweets, accompanied by demands that I stop destroying my husband’s property and grant him an immediate inspection of our home.

The only problem was, the fish belonged to me, they’d cost less than $10 each, and they were already dead. The papers I was scanning and shredding were all mine. I’m not a complete idiot.

Their — or perhaps just her? — paranoia led to fear: false evidence appearing real.

It’s almost sad to see my husband stuck with someone so psychologically unhinged that she reads between the lines and sees threats everywhere. Almost. But as my friends tell me, he’ll get what he deserves. Apparently he deserves to live out his life with a vindictive and paranoid old woman.

Why Does Life Have to Bite?

The last passage I highlighted is a piece of dialog from the protagonist’s girlfriend. At the risk of sharing a spoiler, let me just say that she was attacked and severely scarred. She says:

“Also, I’m angry. I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?”

And this is my problem with the whole situation.

My divorce ordeal — and I really can’t use a more appropriate word — has hit me hard, harder than anything I’ve ever had to live through. My parents’ divorce, deaths among family members and friends, personal illnesses, financial hardships — nothing comes close to the pain and suffering I’m dealing with right now, every day of my life.

There’s no closure until it’s over — and even then I doubt I’ll ever have the closure I need. That’s mostly because I still don’t understand how it happened. I still don’t understand how the man I spent 29 years of my life with could throw away everything we had to shack up with a woman he’d met less than a month before. I still don’t understand how a man I loved and trusted with my life could betray that trust and subject me to the kind of mental torture he’s been throwing at me for the past nine months.

But I need to put things in perspective, as my wiser friends have pointed out.

One friend likes to talk about the hypothetical “little girl with cancer.” Yes, I’m better off than she is. At least I’ve had 51 years of life and most of it was relatively pain-free. The little girl with cancer won’t have that.

And, closer to home, I have a very good friend who is also going through some difficult times with her partner. On so many levels, her situation is far worse than mine.

Or I can just read the news and think about the millions of people worldwide, living in hunger and poverty or in war-torn nations. Losing family members, homes, livelihoods. Living in situations so horrible I can’t begin to imagine what their lives are like. I don’t want to imagine it. Like most other Americans, I’d rather turn a blind eye to the world’s more serious problems and wallow in my own grief.

And I know that’s wrong.

But it’s all relative.

Life is hard, life is cruel, life bites.

I suppose I should be happy that things aren’t worse. But that’s a very difficult proposition to grasp, especially with my future so uncertain after so many years spent planning and ensuring my — no, our — financial security.

My Crossroads

Now I’m approaching a crossroads of my own life. It’s not a place I ever expected to be at age 51. I planned and worked and saved and did everything I thought was best to avoid being someplace like this. I doesn’t seem right that I should be here.

It isn’t right.

But right doesn’t matter. As much as I’d like to believe it does, it really doesn’t. No one really cares about right and wrong. I’m naive to think otherwise.

Eventually, my divorce ordeal will end. The loss of my husband, my dog, my home, and the life I loved will be complete. The man I loved and the dreams I thought we shared will fade away like so many broken and dried autumn leaves on winter’s first cold and windy day. I’ll stand at the crossroads and I’ll make the decisions I need to move forward alone, with whatever the judge decides I’m allowed to keep.

As so many of my friends tell me so often, I’m a strong woman and I’ll be okay.

But I can’t help thinking about the mistakes that were made at that other crossroads, the one I didn’t see. And I’ll always wonder how things could have been different if the man who’d reached that other crossroads had chosen a path that I could rejoin him on.

The $49 Kindle

This should be free.

KindleTwo days ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a status update that linked to a CNET article titled “Get a Kindle with Special Offers for $49 Shipped.” The article detailed the hoops you’d have to jump through to get a 6″ refurbished Kindle for just $49. The device normally retails for $69.

No Need for a Kindle

I don’t have a Kindle. I never wanted one. I had a NOOK on order when they were first announced, but since B&N took so damn long to deliver and the iPad was announced while I waited, I canceled my NOOK order and bought an iPad. I’ve upgraded it for various reasons ever since.

I love my iPad. I use it for all kinds of things, from monitoring the weather (Weatherbug, Intellicast apps) to planning and tracking long flights in my helicopter (Foreflight app). I also use it as an ebook reader with the iBooks, Kindle, and NOOK apps.

Ironically, it’s the Kindle app that I prefer. Amazon has a good selection of books and can synchronize them between up to 5 devices. There are Kindle readers for iPad, iPhone, and Mac OS — as well as other devices. So I can buy a Kindle ebook and read it on any device at any time — and keep my pages synchronized. No, it doesn’t support the kind of Interactive features available in books created in iBooks Author, but since Apple takes so damn long to approve those books, there aren’t many to choose from. And if there was an Interactive book I wanted, I could look at it in iBooks. If I had just a Kindle device, I couldn’t do that.

In my mind, the Kindle is an extremely limited ebook reading device. While I know some folks think the Kindle Fire is pretty close to an iPad, they’re only fooling themselves.

A Sucker for a Good Deal?

As an ebook author, I always wondered what my books would look like on a real Kindle. So there was a certain desire to get my hands on one — even temporarily — to see what it could do and how it looked. $49 seemed a pretty low price to pay to satisfy my curiosity, especially since I had a $300 credit on my Amazon.com account from selling my iPad 2 to them. So there wouldn’t even be any out-of-pocket cost.

So I jumped through all the hoops — not an easy task on a day when my 3G connection was in full frustration mode — and bought one.

It arrived today.

My Observations

Kindle with Packaging
Smart packaging. Really. (But no, that isn’t a cup of coffee on my Kindle. It’s one of the ads that appear automatically when it powers down.)

Amazon obviously took some cues from Apple on the packaging. They designed a simple cardboard box just the right size for the device and the USB cable that comes with it. Tasteful, simple. Slap a label on it and throw it in the mail. Amazon calls this “frustration-free packaging” — and it is.

When I first pulled out the Kindle, I admit I was somewhat impressed. It was very small and lightweight — like a thin paperback book. I could imagine myself reading a book on the device — throwing it in my purse and pulling it out when I was having lunch or waiting on line somewhere. Of course, I already do that with my iPad — would I take one instead of the other? I doubted it.

I plugged it into a power source to make sure it was fully charged. It came to life, prompting me for my language.

And that’s when the frustration began.

You see, I’m so accustomed to a touch-screen that I couldn’t immediately figure out how to use the buttons. To make matters worse, every time I tried to press the Select button (in the middle of a 5-way controller), I wound up pushing either the up or down button on the controller. Seeing the button I needed to “press” onscreen and not being able to just tap it was driving me bonkers.

But I got past that — at least at first — and got my next surprise: a wifi connection was required to use the device. For some reason, I thought all Kindles had built-in wireless capabilities. Silly me.

So, for a bit more irony, I connected the Kindle to my iPad’s wifi hotspot. That got my account set up so I could start looking at my library.

Around then, I was a bit irked to see that the bottom part of the screen was taken up with a banner advertisement. This 1/2 inch ad appears on the Home screen and changes periodically. I’m not sure where it comes from, because it appears even when wifi is disabled. Right now, it’s advertising an HGTV show called “Design Star.” I don’t think there’s any TV show that could possibly interest me less. Odd that Amazon.com, which knows what I’ve been reading about and buying for the past 5+ years, can’t target an ad toward my interests.

I fumbled around a bit and then realized that I really needed to learn more about how to use the Kindle before trying to read one of my own books. It doesn’t come with any printed documentation — which is really no surprise — and I didn’t have much trouble finding and opening the manual that’s included on the device. I read up about it but before I could do anything else, I got a phone call and stepped away.

When I returned to the Kindle, it was displaying a fullscreen ad.

Apparently, when you leave it alone, it displays a “screensaver.” In the world of Kindle, screensaver = advertisement. It took me a while to figure out how to make it go away. I had to power it back up. The screensaver remains on screen when the device powers itself off. Repeatedly turning the device on and off displays a different “screensaver” each time it’s powered down.

I realized then that Amazon had gotten me to pay $49 for an advertisement delivery device. That’s downright offensive to me.

I played around with it a little more. I found the page turning buttons unintuitive, requiring me to push down instead of in. That might seem like a minor distinction, but with a device small enough to hold in the palm of my hand, it seems more logical to turn a page by squeezing it instead of using a finger on my other hand to press down while holding it. And, of course, my brain keeps telling me to press the right button on the 5-way controller.

And did I mention the delay when turning pages in the books it’s designed for reading? The current page kind of blurs or darkens out before the other page appears. Like a blink. I thought they’d fixed that problem.

As for the much-touted annotation feature, to enter notes on this Kindle, you have to deal with its keyboard. That opens a whole new world of hurt. The keyboard has tabs for symbols, lowercase, uppercase, and international characters. You need to get to the right tab to type the right character. (God help you if your wifi password is a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols; it could take quite some time to enter those characters.) Then you need to use the 5-way controller and its center button to highlight and select characters. Rather than presenting them in standard QWERTY order, they’re alphabetical. I could imagine myself forgetting what note I wanted to type before I’d typed the first few words.

Even defining words requires you to use the controller to navigate to the beginning of the word you want to define. I’m not sure if I’d care enough to bother.

My Conclusions

Before actually getting my hands on this, I thought, hey what’s $49? Seems like a good deal to me. But in the less than 60 minutes I played with the Kindle, getting more and more frustrated every time I tried to do something, I realized that this device should be free, like razors used to be.

Do people actually like this device? Use all of its features — including the nightmarishly designed keyboard? Tolerate its never-ending stream of uninteresting ads?

I can’t and won’t. I’d lose my sanity trying to use this regularly. I could burn a $50 bill and get more satisfaction for money spent.

This puppy is going back to Amazon. I’m sure there are plenty of other suckers out there who think it’s a good deal. Let them give it a whirl.