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?

On Unfair Reviews

They destroy morale and businesses.

These days, many companies have created online rating/review services for a wide variety of things. There’s Google and Yahoo! of course, for just about any business or product that can appear in search results. There’s Yelp for local businesses and there’s Urban Spoon for restaurants. Angie’s List, which I’ve never visited, even advertises on NPR. Hell, back when I was writing Quicken books, even Intuit tried to get into the act — although I’m not sure how that went, considering how completely saturated the review market is.

There are also product ratings systems on many online services. All the online booksellers — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. — have them. There are rating systems for computer applications built into services such as CNET Downloads and Mac Update. Even Apple has online ratings for the products it sells, from hardware and software in its Apple stores to iTunes content, to iOS apps, to iBooks.

Frankly, these days you can’t shop for a product, company, or service online without being bombarded with people’s opinions of said product, company, or service.

And therein lies the rub.

What Are Opinions?

Reviews are a matter of opinion. And, on the surface there is — or should be — nothing wrong with opinion. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

In a perfect world, a person would research a product, company, or service to determine whether or not it should meet his needs. If he decides that it does and gives it a try, he becomes entitled to form his own opinion on that product, company, or service. His opinion should be based on how well the product, company, or service met his needs, based on his expectations, which should be drawn from his research. It should also be based on his actual experience with the product, company, or service.

Sadly, only a small fraction of reviewers these days seem to understand this simple fact: you are not qualified to form and share an opinion of a product you know nothing about, or one that failed to meet unreasonable expectations.

An Example

Suppose you like cherry pie. You do a bit of research and determine that nearby ABC Pie company sells pies. You go to its website. You learn that they have won awards for their pies at the county fair for the past ten years. You learn that they appeared on a morning talk show where they talked about their pie-making techniques — and they even have a video clip on their Web site for you to watch. You learn that they have all natural ingredients and that all of their fruit pies are made exclusively with fresh, US-grown fruit. You drive over to their pie shop and are amazed to see a line coming out the door of people who have come to buy pie. You wait fifteen minutes on line. You get to the counter and ask for a cherry pie, to go.

The woman at the counter is friendly, but tells you there is no cherry pie. She’s apologetic when she reminds you that it’s February and they are unable to get fresh cherries until June. She reminds you that all of their fruit pies are made with fresh fruit. She tries to interest you in some other pies, but you want cherry. She apologizes again and says she hopes you’ll be back in the summer. After making sure there’s nothing else she can help you with, she moves on to help the next customer.

You’re upset. You feel that you wasted your time going to a pie store to get a pie you think they should have had. After all, you assumed that a pie shop would have cherry pie.

Are you qualified to get on Yelp and bash ABC Pie Company for disappointing you? For making you wait on a long line? For having terrible pie?

Of course not. You had unreasonable expectations — based on your own research! — and you never actually tried their product.

Besides, if cherry pie was the only thing you’d buy, why not call ahead to make sure they have it before taking the time to visit?

To get on Yelp and fire off a one-star rating and a review that bashes ABC Pie Company for the long line and lack of cherry pie would be unfair. To further tarnish the company’s reputation by insinuating that their pies weren’t good or that the woman at the counter was rude would be tragically unfair.

Yet people do this all the time on Yelp and other review services. And it hurts businesses.

And that brings me to the motivation of today’s post.

I am a Victim

One of the things I learned early on a writer was to not read reviews of my books. The reason: although many of them were fair — positive and negative — there were always a handful of unfair reviews that would get my blood boiling.

The earliest of these was back when I wrote my first Quicken book in the late 1990s. The Amazon reviewer gave it 1 star and said that it didn’t include anything more than what you’d find in the manual. This was blatantly untrue. The book included several lengthy sections with advice on finding mortgages, reducing debt, shopping for insurance, and calculating loans. I wrote this original material at the request of my editor, who wanted the book to provide information to help readers get their finances in order. I drew upon my accounting experiences as a small business owner, as well as what I learned in college business courses. I created photo-copyable worksheets, each of which appeared in the book. None of this content was in the product manual. It was clear that the reviewer had never read the book — and possibly never even opened it. Yet, for some reason I couldn’t discover, he had taken it upon himself to bash the book and publish outright lies about it.

Talk about unfair!

I appealed to my publisher and they went to Amazon with the facts. The review was eventually removed.

It was then that I decided to avoid reading reviews of my books.

iBooks Author IconBut sometimes reviews get in your face. Yesterday, I checked the listing for my iBooks Author book in the iBookstore. I don’t even know why I did. And I was shocked to see a one-star review where the reviewer had taken the time to do some book bashing. His complaint: the book wasn’t written with iBooks Author. He claimed that it was impossible to write the book without using the software to write THAT book. (Almost as if he didn’t think I’d ever used the software at all.) I guess he never considered that the book provides instructions for creating another book with iBooks Author. Or maybe that’s not good enough for him.

It’s almost as if he’s suggesting that when I write a book about Excel, I should write it in Excel. Or when I write a book about Photoshop, I should write it in Photoshop. (A picture book, I guess.)

I should mention here that nowhere in the book’s description does it say that it was written with iBooks Author. Obviously, he had unreasonable expectations. (Kind of like assuming there’s cherry pie when there’s no reason to believe there should be.)

So he bashed the book. Even said “don’t waste your money.” As if the content didn’t count for anything because it wasn’t written in iBooks Author.

(Don’t waste your money on this Toyota because it wasn’t built in a Mercedes factory.)

Why would someone do such a thing?

Is he stupid? Does he simply not understand what a review is supposed to be? A summary of how a product met reasonable expectations?

Or just inconsiderate? Does he have a mean streak that makes him want to hurt people by making unfair comments in public?

Or have it in for me? Is there something about me personally that he doesn’t like? Something that makes him want to hurt me?

Does he understand the impact of his actions? My book had steady sales for four days in a row, but after his “review” appeared, sales dropped off. While I don’t know for sure if his “review” caused the drop, what am I supposed to think?

And what am I supposed to do?

I should mention here that the only other review (with words in addition to stars) was a five-star review that had glowing praise for the book. (And no, it wasn’t written by me or any close friend.)

Obviously, I’m going to try to get Apple to pass judgement on the review. I think I have a case, but I don’t really think Apple will do a thing. As I mentioned at the start of this post, things like this happen all the time. Apple would need a full-time staff just to handle complaints about unfair reviews.

I’ll just have to live with it and hope potential buyers can see just how unfair it is.

And if you think book reviews have been the only source of angst for me, think again. This telemarketer’s “review” was so over the top, I had no trouble getting it removed.

Fight Unfair Reviews

As a business owner and author, all I can do is present my case for the other business owners and authors out there. Many of us work hard and seriously do our best to make customers and readers happy — or at least satisfied.

If you have a legitimate gripe about a product, company, or service, by all means, share it. If a product, company, or service did not meet your reasonable expectations, tell the world.

Throughout the years, I’ve gotten feedback about my work from people who have read and commented on my work. Not all of it was good. In every case possible, I took the negative points — the fair ones, anyway — to heart and used them to improve my work in the future. I’ve added new content to later editions of the same work, I’ve changed the way I present certain material. I want my work to be the best it can. I want my readers to be happy with my work. Legitimate, fair reviewers can help me — and others — be the best we can be.

But unfair reviews don’t help anyone.

See an unfair review online? Mark it unhelpful or report it (if possible). Weed out those unfair reviews so the fair ones get the attention they deserve.

Small business owners are depending on it.

The State of Macworld Expo

The end of an era? Looks that way to me.

When Apple announced, two years ago, that it would no longer attend Macworld Expo, lots of people said the announcement was Macworld Expo’s death knell. Like some other people, I thought that opinion was a both harsh and premature.

I don’t think that anymore.

On Friday, I did a presentation as a member of the Macworld Expo Conference faculty for the first time in at least eight years. I used to speak at Macworld Expo all the time, having at least one session in San Francisco and Boston (and later, New York) and even Toronto from about 1993 through 2002 or so. Back in the early 2000s, IDG took over the show and the conference management changed. They also went off in a new direction that stressed the creative aspects of working with the Mac. I was always more of a productivity person, so I didn’t fit in.

I still went to the show once in a while, but not very often. I came a few years ago, mostly to meet with one of my publishers. But that was it.

Looking back at it, I realize that I was deep in the Mac world at Apple’s first peak in popularity. The shows — especially in San Francisco — were huge. The very biggest shows took up both exhibit halls of Moscone Conference Center. All the big vendors were there — Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, Claris (later FileMaker), Quark — the list goes on and on. The show floor was buzzing all day long. The noise was deafening and there was a pure adrenaline rush on first entering the exhibit hall. And the products introduced! Even my husband talks about innovations like the Video Toaster (which, ironically, I believe ran on an Amiga). I remember all of Apple’s big hardware and software releases and the software demos that were both educational and entertaining. And how could I forget the Boston show where Mac OS 8 went on sale and my first Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide sold out?

Afterwards, the parties would start. They were amazing affairs — the Exploratorium is a good example; the party sponsors rented the entire facility, leaving us to wander around and play with the exhibits. There was headliner entertainment, too: one year was Chris Isaac at one party and Jefferson Airplane at another. There were cruises and bungee jumps at Boston Harbor. There were full food, open bar parties at the top of the Fairmont in San Francisco. As one of the B+ list speakers/authors (in those days, anyway), I’d party hop with my peers. I remember one year bouncing from one party to the next with Bob Levitus, who always managed to get into all the parties, whether he had tickets or not.

Things change. Apple took a serious downturn. Things looked bad. Then Steve Jobs came back. The original iMac breathed new life into the company. More products followed. I remember seeing hundreds of buses all over San Francisco skinned with images of five colors of iMacs. But despite Apple’s subsequent successes, Macworld Expo was never quite the same. The show began to shrink.

What I saw on the show floor this year was a shock. The show was tiny — by old standards — occupying about half of one floor at the relatively new Moscone West building. At least 80% of the items on display could be classified as accessories — mostly protective or decorative covers — for the iPad and iPhone. There were very few Macintosh items.

Macworld Expo had become iAccessoryworld Expo.

Although most of the folks I spoke to about their thoughts on this matter seemed to agree with me — some more strongly than others — the members of the Macintosh press that I met there were surprisingly upbeat about it. One of them even commented that Microsoft’s support for the show is a good sign. Support for the show? They didn’t even have a booth! Having a party for a chosen few and being one of the sponsors on another party isn’t the kind of support I’d be upbeat about.

If I had travelled to San Francisco for the sole purpose of seeing the show floor — as I know many people did in the past — I would have been sorely disappointed. Disappointed enough to demand my money back. What I wouldn’t be able to get back was the travel time and expense and the three hours of my life spent trying to understand how so many accessory developers could think there was a market for yet another version of an iPad case. Or skin. Or screen protector.

The real value in Macworld Expo was the conference sessions — now more than ever. The conference management assembled a collection of experts — some old timers like me, some younger and newer to Mac OS (and iOS, of course) — and offered a variety of interesting tracks and sessions for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users.

My session about building your iPad for business was relatively well attended — the room was about half full. I received a handful of follow-up questions and a polite round of applause at the conclusion of my talk. Several of the attendees came up to the front of the room to thank me or offer complements. It was like the old days, but on a much smaller scale.

After all, Friday’s room could have held only about 100 people when, in the past, I did sessions that packed a room that seated more than 300.

And the meeting room area at Macworld Expo used to be busier than a high school hallway between classes each time a session let out. Now only a few dozen people meandered about, shuffling from room to room.

At least these people got something worthwhile for their money.

I know these are harsh words and, as a member of the Mac community with a long Macworld Expo history, it’s hard for me to type them. The conference faculty was treated quite well, with generously filled swag bags, a comfortable place to rest between sessions, and both breakfast and lunch every day. The session rooms were relatively well equipped. It’s hard to share negative opinions about Macworld Expo when IDG staff responsible for the conference part of the show treated me well. But if this blog post precludes me from ever speaking again at a Macworld Expo, so be it. I don’t sugar coat anything and I’m certainly not going to sugar coat this.

While I realize that the old days are long gone, I think that if IDG can’t do better than what I experienced this past week in San Francisco, they should throw in the towel on Macworld Expo and concentrate on better ways to share valuable information with Mac OS and iOS users.

Ebook Review: The Pillars of the Earth

Ebook FAIL.

Since this week’s blog theme seems to be FAIL, I figure I’d finish off the run of FAIL posts with the most epic failure of all: Penguin’s “ebook,” Pillars of the Earth. This attempt at ebook publishing is so full of FAIL that I almost don’t know where to begin.

When is an Ebook not an Ebook?

Home ScreenWhen it’s an app.

That’s the first problem. Announced almost the same day as Apple’s announcement that iBooks would support multimedia elements, I made the assumption that this new, “amplified” edition of Ken Follett’s novel would be an example of iBooks’ new capabilities.

I was wrong.

Not only is this a standalone iPad app, but it requires a whopping 1.54 GB of storage space on an iPad. “Updates” — and there has been one so far — are equally huge. In fact, Apple warns you:

Do not attempt to download this product wirelessly. Download in the App Store on your computer and transfer to your iPad by synching your apps.

The product itself is poorly designed, consisting of:

  • An ebook reader module. There’s nothing special about this at all. While it mimics the iBooks’ curling page flip, its implementation is sluggish and buggy; more than once, the page flip happened so slowly that it was impossible to turn the page. (It just wouldn’t move enough to “flip” over.) I had to quit the app and restart it to continue reading. The table of contents is broken down to the chapter level which wouldn’t be so bad if the chapters weren’t 50+ pages long. As a result, if you wanted to go back to a previous part of the book, it took forever to go to the page you wanted and then return to where you’d left off. Ebook settings do not include font size; you have to pinch to change that and more than once, it reset itself.
  • Character TreeA “Character Tree.” This feature is supposed to help you understand the relationship between characters. I found it nearly impossible to navigate and parts of it seemed to be locked out. It was more of a source of frustration than information. I still can’t figure out why some characters have flashing halos.
  • About the Author material. This includes text and video information about Ken Follett, author of mostly spy thrillers. This book is not spy thriller.
  • About TV Series material. This is the extras stuff that’ll likely turn up on the DVD. Starz marketing material, through and through. I figured I’d go through it when I was done with the book, but after the disappointment of being locked out of content, I figured it would be better to avoid additional frustration.
  • Links. I guess if they’ve got us, they may as well shoot marketing material at us with both barrels.

The settings screen is a joke. While it might have been a good place to put font settings, instead it offers just two options: Page Flip Sounds and Use Night Theme.

Annoying DialogI think the ultimate indicator that this is a poorly designed app is the dialog that appears every single time you open the app. Illustrated here, it includes a Don’t Show button. I tapped it every single time, but the damn dialog continued to appear.

Typos, Missing Breaks

The ebook text had its own problems:

  • There were typos. Real typos. I stopped counting after seven.
  • There was no indication of scene changes. For example, you’d be reading a scene where two characters are talking or doing something. Next line, another character who isn’t in the scene is talking or doing something. Huh? While the printed book may have used additional space to indicate a scene change, the ebook version doesn’t bother with such niceties. I guess they think the reader needs to be jarred to his senses once in a while.

Apparently, copyediting is not part of the ebook production process at Penguin.

The Movie Clips

Embedded in the book’s text are icons that, when clicked, may or may not display a movie clip from the Starz dramatization of the book. There were four problems with this feature.

  • Movie ClipThe clip usually did not match the text. The screenplay is apparently not a faithful adaptation, so dialog, characters, and scenes are different. Watching these clips while reading the book is like reading a book and watching a movie roughly based on it at the same time. Not a very rewarding experience.
  • The clips are teasers. There’s not enough content to make them valuable. They’re merely a tool to get you to watch or buy the Starz series.
  • The clip would not reliably play full screen width. You had to coax it to fill the screen by tapping a button in the upper right corner.
  • Unable to PlayThe clip would not display until it had aired on Starz! This zapped me early on. After reading a passage that described the cathedral under construction, I was pleased to see a video icon, hoping to be able to visualize the rather complex description. Instead, a dialog box (see image) told me that “speed-readers” had to wait until that clip aired more than a week later! My surprise quickly turned to anger when I realized I’d been sold a marketing tool for Starz.

The Book

Ken Follett writes spy thrillers. I’ve read a few of them. They’re good. Ken Follett should keep writing them and stop writing medieval historical fiction.

At first, the book was a pleasure to read. It introduced me to medieval times with an air of authenticity — other than dialog, of course — that was enjoyable to me. The dialog was not authentic at all and I think that’s okay. I don’t think I could have struggled through medieval dialects, spelling, and grammar.

But the book got very long very quickly. I’m a fast reader and can normally knock off a novel in two or three days, reading in the evening before bed. This one took more than a week. It seemed to go on and on and on. The story got boring. Even when it was supposed to be exciting it got boring.

About halfway through, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the book anymore. I’d passed the point of being able to watch video content — nothing was available to me — so all I could do was read. And what I read was disturbing.

Spoilers Ahead!

The book had several antagonists. One was a violent man named William who couldn’t seem to have sex with a woman unless beating her was part of the act. He raped one of the protagonists while her brother was forced to watch and then had his groom rape her, too. He basically went through the book, beating, raping, and killing. There was no stopping him. He literally got away with murder again and again.

It made me sick.

Another antagonist was a bishop who would forgive William for his sins. No matter how bad they were. He was evil in his own way and also seemed to get away with his acts over and over.

These two antagonists, and a few other minor ones who wound through the plot, had their way with just about anything. It was heartbreaking to read their latest dastardly deeds, page after page. After a while, I wondered why I was reading. There was no enjoyment in the plot, no real reward for the reader who needs to see good triumph over evil. It was simply a long, drawn out punishment for the good guys.

We’re not talking about a short book here. The mass market paperback — the version you’d buy in an airport bookstore, for example — is 983 pages. That’s a hell of a lot of evil to wade through.

Oh, every once in a while, the protagonists would win a small victory. They defended their town against William and his raiders, “only” losing 70 or so people in the process. Hooray. That was after William had burned their town to the ground on the previous raid, killing innocent men, women, and children, including one of the protagonists, and causing the financial ruin of the woman he’d raped while her brother watched. Talk about insult to injury, huh?

Throughout the whole book, I kept waiting for William to get his just desserts. He finally did, on the last pages of the book. Somehow he and the rest of the cast had managed to live — during medieval times, when Wikipedia reports average life expectancy to be only 30 years — to their 50s, 60s, and beyond. It was then that William was finally hanged. An astute reader will realize that the bad guy has lived a long and comfortable life, directly responsible for the rape, maiming, and murder of hundreds of people, and it is only in his old age that he’s finally punished. We’re supposed to be satisfied with that?

The interaction between the characters was unrealistic and contrived most of the time. I’d read a scene and wonder why they did (or didn’t do) what they did (or didn’t do). It doesn’t seem to make sense sometimes. It’s as if the author’s only purpose is to set them up for something in the future — something unpleasant. And there are only so many times you can get into a character’s head and read the same thoughts before you stop caring about what’s in there.

And sex? Not only is it prevalent throughout the book, but it’s often quite graphic, with various private parts being stroked, grabbed, fondled, squeezed, sucked — you get the idea. I don’t know how it got past the Apple censors with this rating:

Rated 12+ for the following:
• Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity
• Infrequent/Mild Realistic Violence

Mild? I don’t think so. The graphic descriptions of the rapes with their violence against women were disturbing enough to warrant a more protective rating than that.

And I don’t think I’ve read the words fuck and cunt so many times in a book in a long time — if ever. If this were a movie with that language, it would be rated R — that’s 17 and older, Apple.

But the most tasteless bit of narrative? One of the protagonists having sex with a stranger within hours of his wife dying while giving birth to their child. And we’re supposed to like these characters?

Finally, the book was supposed to be about the building of a medieval cathedral. In reality, it was a book about the brutality of the ruling class, the corruption of the Catholic church, and the rough life of peasants during medieval times.

Spoilers Done.

A Learning Experience

I thought this “ebook” would be a publishing breakthrough. That’s how it was heralded on USAToday and other news outlets.

After seeing the excellent Wired app — which I need to review here, too — I had very high expectations for ebook publishing. I thought that publishers finally “got it.” I didn’t expect them to take advantage of readers by selling them advertising material for a partner organization. I didn’t expect to be locked out of content I’d paid for. I didn’t expect an ebook to take up so much precious space on my iPad.

I’m not the only one disappointed by this mess. The iTunes store shows only 29 ratings averaging only 2 out of 5 stars. I wonder how many other buyers have demanded their money back, too.

My refund comes this week.

Highest Duty

A book review.

Highest DutyLast night, I stayed up late to finish reading Highest Duty by US Airways pilot Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger. Captain Sullenberger was the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed with no loss of life in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.

I’d been wanting to read the book for a while but I kept putting it off. I wanted it to be my first purchased ebook experience. I was supposed to get a Nook for Christmas, but the idiots at Barnes & Noble were completely clueless about customer service and timely order fulfillment, so I canceled the order. I wound up with an iPad in April. After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of ebook reader software — iBooks, Kindle Reader, and B&N Reader — I decided to go with the Kindle software and ordered the Kindle edition of the book from Amazon.com. From what I hear from Twitter friends, the iPad makes a better “Kindle” than Amazon’s Kindle.

On Heroes

I’ve always been intrigued by Captain Sullenberger’s modesty and apparent reluctance to bask in the limelight of his extraordinary experience. People call him a hero but he [rightly] refuses that title. He quotes from a letter he received after his Hudson River landing: “I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice.”

I agree with this definition of a hero. Captain Sullenberger did what he had to do and was fortunate enough to have the knowledge, experience, demeanor, and team to carry it off successfully. His love and respect of life — including, of course, his own — is what motivated him to do everything he could to succeed.

In many ways, that’s better than being a hero. When a terrible situation was thrust upon him by circumstances he could not change, he rose to the occasion and emerged victorious, saving the lives of 105 people. Along the way, he gave the rest of us hope — after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in the midst of a serious economic recession, with wars going on in the Mideast — he showed us what people can accomplish when put to the test. He gave us the happy ending we all needed.

It Wasn’t a “Miracle”

Another thing that intrigued — and, I’ll admit, pleased — me about Captain Sullenberger was his failure to credit his success to the intervention of some supernatural being. I’m talking about God.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing famous athletes and celebrities and just plain people thank God for something good happening to them. Scored a record number of goals in a basketball game? Thank God! Won a Grammy? Praise Jesus! Tornado took out the house next to yours but left yours unscathed? God was watching out for you!

It makes me sick. People don’t want to give themselves credit where credit is due. They work hard, they train, they practice, but they give God credit for getting the ball through the hoop. They learn music, they practice singing, they get a great producer who helps package their material, but they give Jesus credit for winning that Grammy. They don’t want to admit that luck has a place in our lives — good luck preserves one house while bad luck takes the one next door away. What of the people who lost the basketball game or the Grammy or their home? Did God simply not like them as much? And what about when these winners get their own dose of bad luck — injury, illness, scandal, death? Did God change his mind about them?

Captain Sullenberger, however, did not thank God or any other supernatural being for the positive outcome of his Hudson landing. At least I didn’t hear him do so in any article, interview, or elsewhere. I wanted to read the book to be sure that he didn’t thank God within its pages. He didn’t.

And that just makes me respect him even more.

The Story

The book mingles autobiographical material with events from the day of the landing. The autobiographical material was presented in a roughly chronological order, but did bounce around a lot with side stories, including references to the Hudson landing. I’m not sure that was the best approach, but it did keep me reading.

Captain Sullenberger is clearly a true pilot. He entered aviation because of his love of flying. From his start as a teen, he took aviation seriously, learning what he could to be a better, safer pilot. He understands the importance of knowing an aircraft’s systems inside and out. He understands the value of studying past accidents to prevent future ones. He also understands that all the things that happen in our lives define who we are and how we will react in a given situation.

Flight 1549 from Wikipedia

This iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River by GregL originally uploaded to Flickr can be found on Wikipedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

A detailed discussion of the events of January 15, 2009 begin about 60% through the book. The story is riveting. He combines his narrative of what happened with references to his past that he believes influenced him to make certain decisions. For example, his knowledge of research into why military pilots sometimes ejected too late is part of why he decided not to worry about saving the airplane by attempting an airport landing and instead concentrate on saving the people by landing in the river. (There’s a lot more to his decision than that; this is just part of what went into it.)

Throughout this part of the book are bits and pieces of the cockpit transcript, recorded by microphones during the flight — the so-called “black box” data. Even though I knew how it would end — don’t we all? — I found the details fascinating. It was a great example of teamwork between Captain Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles. Later in the narrative, it was clear that the flight attendants were also part of the team, helping passengers off the plane in as orderly a manner as possible.

The aftermath of the experience also made interesting reading. Getting an inside look at the mail Captain Sullenberger received from people on the plane — as well as many people who had no direct connection to the flight or its passengers at all — revealed the psychology of people. I’m not the only one who appreciated the happy ending to that seemingly doomed flight.

The Soapbox

One of the complaints people have had about the book is the soapbox aspect. Captain Sullenberger believes that airline pilots are not treated as well as they should be by their employers considering the hours and responsibilities of their work. He believes that pay cuts and pension cuts are making it ever more difficult to attract and retain quality pilots who actually care about their work. He suggests that airline pilots are like bus drivers of the sky.

Although I don’t have intimate knowledge of the airline industry, as a professional pilot who has worked for a large tour operator, I know exactly what he means. Aviation employers don’t care how good a pilot is. As long as the pilot meets insurance requirements and can do the job, all that matters is how much that pilot costs. In my experience, many employers would rather hire a cheap, entry level pilot than a seasoned professional who costs more. They don’t see the benefit of the experience. They’re gambling, of course, on the equipment and circumstances of flight — when something goes wrong, will the entry level pilot have the experience and knowledge to bring the aircraft and passengers back safely?

In the airline industry, pilots are locked into their employers for seniority. If they leave one airline, they lose all seniority and start at the bottom at their new employer. This prevents experienced pilots from looking for better jobs. It stagnates the employee pool. And although Captain Sullenberger didn’t mention this, it prevents good ideas from one airline from migrating to another.

Captain Sullenberger does discuss how many airline employees have simply stopped caring about anything other than what’s in their job description. As budget cuts reduce non-essential staff, customer service suffers. Captain Sullenberger talks about his personal experiences going the “extra mile” to help passengers who can’t get the help they need from other airline employees. He talks about how most airline employees are simply tired of doing other people’s jobs. He doesn’t blame them — he hints that they’re underpaid for what they’re supposed to do — but he does decry the system that results in this poor attitude.

He also believes that budget cuts have the potential to reduce safety. A good example of this is the emergency procedures book that his first officer needed to consult on the loss of both engines. In the past, the book had numbered tabs that made it easier to find content. The airline, in a cost-cutting measure, had stopped including the tabs, making it necessary to thumb through the book and look at individual page headings to find content. In the slightly more than three minutes the cockpit crew had to land the plane without engines, every second was valuable. Yes, this flight had a happy ending — but could other flights be lost due to cost cutting measures like this? It certainly makes you wonder.

My feelings about Captain Sullenberger’s soapbox are mixed. I didn’t like reading his complaints, but, at the same time, I knew they were valid. And I know that his experience and the interviews, articles, and books that come from it are the perfect way to get the message out.

While Captain Sullenberger was careful not to criticize his airline, it’s clear that US Airways is just as bad as the others when it comes to matters of pilot compensation and cost-cutting. Perhaps his insight will help make the situation better?

Sadly, it probably won’t.

Thumbs Up

In all, I give the book two thumbs up. While it’s especially good reading for pilots and others interested in aviation, I also think it makes a good guide for young people who want to make something of their lives. And for the rest of the world, it’s a great look at one of the most amazing emergency landings we’ll likely ever see.