Don’t be a fool

The following post should be entirely unnecessary, as its message is obvious, the equivalent of statements such as Look both ways before crossing a street, or Diversify your retirement portfolio, or Twitter sucks.

But a friend of mine, whose intellect I respect, today went on Facebook (which also sucks) and posted a quote that can be proven, with less than five minutes of Internet research, to be false.

I guess even the most basic lessons need reiteration.

Nope — he didn’t say it

Let’s start with a different quote, one that I have to refute about twice a year. I’m no fan of The Fraud, and I’m more than a little disgusted with the GOP’s response to his regime, but I’ll never be satisfied with the tease of dishonesty, no matter how much it may flatter. This quote needs to go away, forever, although I’m pretty certain it will continue showing up in my Facebook feed from time to time, like a recurring outbreak of a dormant virus.

She didn’t say this either

Time to move on to today’s subject, a less egregious distortion but still a deliberate lie. For those who don’t know her, Brooke Baldwin is a journalist for the American news network CNN. In 2015, during a live interview on the subject of police training, she made the following statement:

A lot of young people — and I love our nation’s veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don’t know the communities, and they’re ready to do battle.

Baldwin was criticized for this remark about veterans, and the following day she apologized, on air as well as online. To summarize: she made an error, acknowledged her mistake, and issued an apology. Sorry folks — nothing more to see here.

But then, three years later… “Don’t hire veterans!” And five minutes of my life lost to research, and another hour writing this post.

It’s not that I’m against paraphrasing, but enclosing a misleading paraphrase in quotes is inexcusable. Let me walk through an example, using a famous aphorism that’s entirely appropriate for today’s subject:

Now THIS, he actually said

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Abraham Lincoln

Let’s paraphrase the quote as follows:

 

Not entirely accurate, but close enough

Abraham Lincoln believed Americans were gullible.

You could argue this strays from Lincoln’s intended meaning (for one thing, he doesn’t specifically address his countrymen), but there’s still a close enough connection to his original words to justify the paraphrase. And by not using quotation marks, the paraphraser acknowledges going beyond Lincoln’s words to make a related, but not identical, comment.

Now let’s take it to the extreme that’s become the norm these days, and the place my friend went today by forwarding the Brooke Baldwin fake quote — distort the original words beyond recognition, and give the fabrication an unwarranted air of authenticity by using quotation marks:

I’m going to hell for this, aren’t I?

“Americans are a bunch of fucking idiots.”

Abraham Lincoln

I didn’t enjoy calling out my friend today, but I also believed I wouldn’t be doing her any favor by letting her foolish mistake (five minutes of research! really!) go unchallenged. Truth matters, and by playing loose with accuracy for the sake of bolstering our arguments — and by forwarding quotes that can be easily proven to be fake — we only serve to embarrass ourselves.

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Review: Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook

This collection of essays from Belt Publishing travels the diverse range of communities within and adjacent to Cleveland, a city with a legacy that elicits both pride and remorse. Its septuagenarian residents can recall a time when Cleveland was considered one of America’s top ten cities, and the city’s broad thoroughfares retain evidence of a municipality designed to accommodate over a million people. But like many cities in the Great Lakes region, Cleveland relied on industries that began cratering fifty years ago; civic unrest in the 1960s hit the city particularly hard, and when interstate highways opened the doors to the suburbs, the city’s population fell to levels not seen since 1900.

To their credit, the editors of Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook decided not to overlook the devastation caused by the city’s depopulation. The anthology includes a frightening account of one young couple’s disastrous attempt to settle in a crime-stricken neighborhood, and there are a few odes to industrial sections that are little more than ghost towns. Mixed in with these sobering tales are a few too many panegyrics to areas where urban pioneers have established thriving communities; written in a voice resembling an over-enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce spokesperson. Given the typically distorted view of Cleveland in the media, such ebullience is understandable, even if if makes for poor writing, but fortunately there’s more than enough quality work in the anthology to overcome its occasional flaws.

If you’re not a current or former resident of northeast Ohio, this book probably isn’t for you — the essays rely on a civic memory that a reader from outside the area simply won’t have. But if you’re looking to gain more knowledge of the city of Cleveland, this book will be insightful.

***

This review is a milestone of sorts. Last December, I attended a holiday party for a Cleveland literary group and was fortunate enough to win a raffle for six books from local authors. I vowed that evening to review each of those works, and over the past several months I’ve blogged about a bildungsroman, an autobiography about a harrowing crime, a detective novel, a collection of plays and monologues, another novel that deserved to be better than it turned it — and with today’s review, I’ve completed my obligation. Fortunately, I attended a book swap last week for the same group, and was able to exchange most of those books for a new collection, which will be the source for future reviews.

Review: Lies Will Take You Somewhere

I am a lazy reader. I’d actually do fine by any quantitive measure of reading (words/pages/books read, time spent reading, rate), but it’s absurd to evaluate the activity by a productivity yardstick, like you would for running or splitting logs. Reading is better evaluated in qualitative measures, such as how well the reader constructs meaning from a text, and its in this regard that, for as much education I have and as much time I spend reading, I believe I fall short. I don’t want to work too hard when I read; I have no interest in figuring out the hidden meaning of a character’s name, I get irritated when a conversation becomes so obtuse that I can’t figure out who is speaking, and if a story can only be appreciated by someone with an extensive knowledge of some discipline (take your pick — medicine, military history, philosophy), I don’t see why I should bother with it.

And I really hate plot holes, and unresolved mysteries.

Which brings me to Lies Will Take You Somewhere, the only novel published by the late Sheila Schwartz. The language of this novel rises to the level of poetry at times, and I can understand why Schwartz won numerous awards for her short stories. Whether she’s describing a character’s mood, showing a physical action, setting a scene, or even telling a joke, Schwartz can evoke a powerful visual image through her words:

This place is what Saul calls a monoculture, which to Jane has always sounded like yogurt, but she knows what he means.

She gasps as he tugs himself out of her without warning — the thick rope of him flopped against her inner thigh.

… the glasses smudged like he breathed all over, and his breath never dried.

… the lava of his anger cooling to stone.

… books sprawled face down on the carpet as if thrown there and concussed, barely breathing, …

The central conflict of the novel — a troubled marriage made more complicated through layers of deceit woven by both husband and wife — is also compelling, and while the plot twists are perhaps overly dramatic, the characters respond in ways that are very believable, and quite moving. I agree with her husband, novelist Dan Chaon, in his review of the novel: “Her fiction walks this incredible thin line between hilarity and despair, between the absurd and the tragic, between detachment and compassion.”

Yes, I enjoyed this novel. I just wish it didn’t irritate me so much.

I can’t describe what bothers me without revealing major plot details, so if you don’t appreciate spoilers, now’s the time to check out. Early in the novel, the wife (Jane) flies down to Florida to take care of her late mother’s estate. While there, she discovers several oddities, one of the most significant being the disappearance of a piano treasured by Jane’s mother. Meanwhile, her husband (Saul) receives the latest in a series of cryptic letters by someone claiming to be his mother, who disappeared when Saul was a child. Saul also is told about an affair Jane had chosen to keep hidden from him, and calls her in anger; when Jane attempts to purchase a plane ticket to return to Philadelphia, she discovers all of her credit cards have been locked.

So far, so good; the foundation for a intriguing tale has been laid. But then Saul calls again, and demands Jane return home — which she can’t, because Saul has frozen her credit cards, by his own admission. Has Saul lost his mind, or is he tormenting her? His motivation never becomes clear. In addition, no explanation is provided for the piano’s disappearance, or for the letters from Saul’s “mother.” These major plot developments are left as mysteries.

Did the author provide hints that a reader more astute than I would have perceived? That’s a definite possibility, but again, I’m a lazy reader, and when an author presents me with a significant mystery, I want a resolution that’s equally prominent. More plausible, though, is that these ambiguities are a message from the author about life’s uncertainty. We don’t get all our questions answered in life, the author appears to be saying, so why should I provide them here? If that’s the author’s message, I find it dissatisfying. Fiction is not mimetic; we have different expectations as readers than we do when acting in the dramas of our reality. True, fiction is also not mere escapism, but the insights it provides us should be a little more compelling. Life’s uncertain, so fiction should be as well — that’s an OK sentiment if you’re an avant-garde artiste, but it doesn’t work well for a storyteller.

The above ruminations may just be the frustrated sentiments of a lazy reader; I’ve been called worse. That being said, I believe “Lies Will Take You Somewhere” suffers from clear technical flaws that distract from its obvious literary qualities.

Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing

Joanna Penn’s book was one of the first I read when I began to investigate writing professionally seriously. It was refreshing to review my notes from last year for this review, and realize how much of its practical advice I’ve been able to carry with me as I made my career decision. How to Make a Living with Your Writing didn’t convince me to go down this path, but it did help me realize my ambition, while difficult, could be realized.

There are a number of ways I could summarize this book, but I’ll go with a list of its most salient advice for novice writers like myself:

  • Develop multiple streams of income — Penn earns her writing income from multiple sources — blogging, article writing, nonfiction and fiction book sales, and public speaking, among others. At any one time, one or more of her revenue streams will run dry, yet other streams will help alleviate the drought. Of particular interest is her discussion of scalable and non-scalable income; work for hire (such as magazine and technical writing) pays only once and is non-scalable, while a nonfiction book or novel will generate revenue over the course of many months, even years. Penn states her writing income was 0% scalable at the start of her career, and a decade later had increased that portion of her income to 80%. That’s a career progression that’s ambitious yet attainable.
  • Nurture good work habits — as in any endeavor, its important to act like a writer before one can have success in the industry. Penn describes a number of habits that can lead to success — scheduling time to write, having a dedicated writing space, obtaining the right equipment, honing researching skills, joining writers’ communities, developing resilience to and appreciation of criticism. And my personal favorite, getting enough sleep. Over the past year, I’ve been dismayed at the number of times I’ve been advised (often by people with no involvement in the writing profession) that I need to get up at the crack of dawn every day and start writing if I wanted to make this profession work for me. That’s not how I operate; I can push on to way past midnight, but if I have to get up early to make a living, I might as well return to my somnambulant career in corporate IT. It is refreshing to read a successful author such as Penn argue that individual writers need to identify their own best working hours.
  • Come up with your own definition of success — Penn identifies many types of criteria for success — literary or commercial fame, genre fiction or literature, traditional book and magazine publishing or their online equivalents, working with agents and publishing houses or self-publishing. Penn has a clear preference for digital media and independent publishing, and argues the profession of writing is headed towards these trends, yet she also presents a convincing case for traditional publishing. Penn also describes a hybrid approach to book publishing: beginning as an independent, building your resume and readership, and then looking to get an agent and pursue traditional publishing. Penn lists the opportunities and challenges available to the writer, then lets the reader decide which to chose — or as she puts it, “your publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve and your definition of success.”

I’ve read several books about writing both before and after my first read of this, and I can’t say I’ve been more inspired by any other. In fact, I think it’s time for a second reading.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want

In preparation for my recent career change, I read a number of books on the subject, of which I’ve only reviewed one so far. Was this lack of reviews due to a reluctance, almost embarrassment, to publicly acknowledge my ambition? Might be on to something there. In any event, there’s no better time than today to overcome that feeling.

Mike Lewis is a former venture capitalist who decided to leave his job and become a professional squash player. If reading that last sentence makes phrases such as mid-life crisis and white privilege come to your mind, I can’t blame you. While the confidence evident in every page of the book he wrote about his journey is assuring and necessary (this book is supposed to inspire the reader to make a bold decision, and hesitation is never a good source for inspriation), it comes with an alarming lack of humility, as if the author’s decision to follow his dream was a right he had earned. Many people dream of careers similar to the author’s, but most of those dreams aren’t as self-aggrandizing as making money playing an obscure sport, and many people simply don’t have the resources necessary to turn that dream into reality. When I walked away from the world of office work for the last time, a prayer of thanks sang in my heart for the opportunity I had been given, and for all the advantages of family, education, and wealth that enabled my decision; it is disappointing, and quite frankly disturbing, to never read a similar sentiment in this book.

However, the book does have its merits. The author conducted a great deal of research into his career change, and in sharing his discoveries provides a valuable resource for anyone contemplating such a move. The “Jump Curve” he outlines (in short — listen to yourself, make a plan, believe in your success, and don’t look back) is both simple and detailed, and I’ve found it helpful in preparation for my own decision. Of even greater value, though, are the dozens of interviews he conducted and which form the basis of the many first-person narratives running throughout the book. The author’s narcisstic journey might be off-putting, but the reader can relate to the people in these sidebar stories. The main narrative satisfies the intellect (how does prepare to make the jump?), but the side narratives give the book its heart (here’s evidence that people like us can do this).

There are also a number of memorable quotes throughout the book, some from the author, others from the side narratives, and others directly from outside sources. Many of these have stuck with me as I contemplated and finally enacted my decision:

[T]here’s a difference between crazy and stupid

[T]he best things in life lie on the other side of fear.

[I]f you bring forth what is in you, it will save you, and if you do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want is a niche publication, of interest solely to readers contemplating a change in careers. The author’s solipsism can be overbearing at times, but the advice it offers, especially from the anecdotes shared by the interview subjects, makes it a worthwhile read.

Blackeyed

Most of the works in this collection of plays, stories, and monologues from Mary E. Weems are intended to be performed rather than read, yet they are still powerful and appealing even in solitude. The author’s language is rich, especially when she writes in the voice of women longing of love. An abused wife despairs that her husband “likes my tears with his breakfast;” another woman laments how love sours “like white milk left out too long;” another observes that she and her husband are mismatched “like a well-made and a raggedy shoe.” Perhaps the most poignant passage comes in the play “Purses:”

Sometimes I think we learn how to love backwards. We learn as babies to love our mamas, our daddies, our grandparents, our sisters and brothers, our auties and uncles — everybody close in our lives but —

Ourselves!

Most of the works center on the experience of African-American women, a group that is perpetually underrepresented in literature. However, one play, “Closure,” describes the urban housing crisis of the late 2000s from the perspective of the furniture and appliances abandoned from a foreclosure. A basement light bulb recalls the lives he had once witnessed:

Hope dank as the smell in this basement
that used to hold me, a freezer, and a washer
and dryer for the Ramirez family, their 2 dogs
and three cats. This house once as full of love
as a Valentine’s Day card, emptied like a movie theater
after someone yells fire.

The final play in the collection, “Meat,” is about the 11 Cleveland women murdered by Anthony Sowell between 2007 and 2009. The playwright’s intent is to honor the victims, yet perhaps unfortunately the killer, named Tone in the play, steals the show. As depicted in this play, Tone’s mind is depraved, horrifying, and utterly unforgettable.

The voices of the women, however, rise above Tone’s insanity, and this accomplishment makes “Blackeyed” a compelling anthology.

Trust Imagination

It was some time in November 1990 — I don’t know the actual date, or even the day of the week — when I walked into an office on the northwest side of Chicago and worked my first day in a “real” job. I had just finished the coursework for my doctorate in literature, and my attempts to earn enough money to feed myself through teaching and grants were proving to be frustrating and futile. When the offer of a steady paycheck came up, I was too desperate to say no. My idea at the time was to test the waters for a few months, and if I seemed to be swimming all right, I’d stick with it until I finished my dissertation. Six years later, diploma in hand, I finally left that job — and immediately took on another, which eventually lead to another, and another, until eventually I had close to three decades of experience working with many wonderful and some truly awful people, in addition to a heavy dose of corporate systemic incompetence.

Yesterday, that ended.

After turning in my laptop and identification badge to my manager, I walked out of my most recent office building for the last time. Twenty-seven years and eight months of steady employment, interrupted by a few brief voluntary transition periods, has been left behind in order to pursue making a living as a writer. It’s an ambitious goal, one I had considered as far back as 1990 when it became apparent my academic career was going nowhere. I had known many professional writers during my university years, and they spoke regularly of the occupation’s difficulty, going so far as to actively discourage students like myself from its pursuit. I was easily persuaded (a fault that carries with me to this day), and took the advice to pursue a more practical career.

Yet the desire to write, not as a hobby but as a career — to write as if my life (or at least its creature comforts) depended on it — never left. During those brief periods of unemployment, as well as those times when the mundanity of working life seemed unendurable, I was tempted to finally act on my ambition, only to have those dire warnings from the past urge me to play it safe once more.

So why make the move now? Years of good financial planning, and (let’s be honest) incredibly good fortune, have put my wife and I in a good position. We’re not independently wealthy, but we can afford to take on a little risk in both our careers. My wife runs a cake decorating business out of our home — check it out. We’ll need to earn a living for at least another decade, but if I need to be working, I want to finally do the job, the only job, I’ve always wanted to do.

When I walked out that door yesterday, I started on a new path. journey ahead is full of more uncertainty than I can ever recall. But I’ve never been so certain that I’m on the right path.

On occasion, I use this blog to comment on music. After turning in my notice at work a few weeks back, I was listening to random songs on my phone when a gem from Peter Gabriel started playing. He wrote the song immediately after leaving Genesis, and the decision to pursue his own career left him feeling anxiously excited. I’ve enjoyed the frenetic energy of this song, with its unusual yet uplifting rhythm, for decades, but hearing it now, as I felt my own heart going boom-boom-boom in response to my career move, made me appreciate its power in a way I couldn’t comprehend before. To get what you want, you have to let go of what you have; to stop playing it safe, you have to trust imagination.

Neuromancer

My plan to write a review each week hasn’t worked out, but now’s as good as time as any to recommit myself to the goal.

Ever since it was published in 1984, Neuromancer has been on my must-read list. (There’s a lot of books on that list, some having gathered as much dust as William Gibson’s novel; finally pulling one off the shelf, and enjoying the experience, is like eating a perfectly preserved cake.) It’s a book that can be appreciated on many different levels — it has the futuristic detail of classic science fiction, the suspense of a page-turning thriller, the grit of a dystopian fantasy, and the spirit of a countercultural manifesto.

And for all of its noir appeal and rough language (really, if the f-word’s not your thing, stay away), it does have its aesthetic qualities. The prose can be lyrical at times — metaphors such as my personal favorite, words emerging like discreet balloons of sound, are plentiful and never overdone — and it accomplishes the difficult task of making compelling characters of its antiheroes. “Neuromancer” has endured because Gibson succeeded in his attempt to create a unique work of fiction, far superior to the majority of works in the totally forgettable genre of cyberpunk it helped to inspire.

The Penguin audiobooks performance by Robertson Dean was steady but unspectacular. The narrator never overdramatizes, but while his voice was never dull it never was quite appealing either. Listening to this audiobook was like eating a warm bowl of plain oatmeal — you feel good about your food choice, but even better for being done with the experience.

Faith in the Future

I’ve just published an article about a nonprofit organization that assists faith communities on issues such as energy conservation and climate change. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with anxiety about humanity’s impact on the environment, and I believe religious institutions should inspire us to hope that we can reverse the damage that’s been done.