Sunday, 7 July 2019

Ruby Reviews 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 bu Paul Auster

A few months ago a friend gifted us a couple of books. She’s not a regular reader and thought she ought to try and be one, so she had bought some Booker Prize shortlisted titles in hardback. It may have been a New Year’s resolution or something, and like so many of those it fizzled out pretty quickly. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster subsequently appeared on our shelf. I was just coming off a strict diet of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, by way of style research (did I mention I have a new Ger Mayes crime novel coming out myself soon?) and thought a bit of highbrow reading was in order, after all of Parker’s killing and mayhem. However, Lincoln in the Bardo defeated me within the first dozen pages. Clever as the delivery method might be in that book, I couldn’t stomach it. So I turned to the huge 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

Inside the front of the hardback jacket cover, 4 3 2 1 lets the reader know what they’re taking on. Archie Ferguson is the MC and the book follows four alternative life paths from 1947 through to the late 1960s. Chapters are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and so on to signify which of the four Fergusons are on call and the initial 1.0 sets the background with the Russian émigré Jewish grandfather, his son Stanley and Ferguson’s mother, Rose. The parental characters also develop different life paths and are a constant feature of the book through flashback and forward. As a reader, I’m not a strong advocate of too much flashback and I dislike foreshadowing, but the author manages to use both techniques without being too invasive. Even when the certain death of some characters is foreshadowed, Auster somehow acquires the reader’s permission to do so. Perhaps that is because, knowing an individual is about to be killed off in life path A, the reader rests assured that the same individual is likely to endure in life path B, C or D. The discomfort of losing a character to which the reader has built an attachment is diminished, as they’re only one part dead.

I had thought it would be difficult to follow the four separate life paths of Ferguson. There were a few times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was in 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I didn’t succumb to the temptation of turning back to previous chapters. Instead, I trusted the author to provide enough clues and hooks to keep me on track, and Auster manages that well. As a reader, it was an enjoyable experience. As an author, I wondered how much technical work had gone into writing the book. Did he write four different 250 page novels? Did he plot all the details and timelines in advance? Were checks made to ensure the reader would intuitively know which of the four life paths were being read?

Paul Auster’s style put me in mind of John Irving, albeit with less acerbic wit. Auster’s coming of age story is threaded through with the emotional and physical rollercoasters that the first quarter-century of a life might contain. Love, abuse, disaster, romance, tragedy, sex, crime, friendship, racism, violence, success, failure, in all their shapes and colours. With Irving, the MC’s life story sometimes takes a route other than that which the reader might have preferred. With Auster’s 4 3 2 1 there is a choice of routes. The reader isn’t trapped in lengthy observation of a single trajectory. I could have eaten a little more humour than 4 3 2 1 contained, but that’s just a matter of taste. The twist in the tail, however, is quite deliciously logical.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Ruby reviews Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

It would take a special kind of secluded living not to know that Donald Trump has been in the role of President of the United States of America since January 2017. He’s the media’s villain and the media’s darling, depending upon the media. Notoriety is generally more newsworthy than being a hero and so most of the Trump stories we hear in Europe are disparaging. But where does the truth lie?

News media tend to have a bias. If your personal tendency is right-wing then you are likely to follow certain news sources that reinforce your world view. If you’re more left-wing then another list of media outlets will be more to your taste. Sometimes people sample the news via channels they don’t respect or believe, just to get a bit of spice thrown into the mix. Social media can broaden people’s news church but it can also narrow it. Facebook, in particular, will serve up newsfeeds from individuals’ newsfeeds and pages that are matched by algorithms to your own friends list, pages you have visited etc. The risk is that people end up preaching to the choir, or end up in the choir being preached to, and only one perspective gets presented. These days a lot of folk get their news from social media and believe what they see. The problem is this may sometimes be – yes, a phrase that is synonymous with the Trump presidency – fake news.

Social media is full of fake news these days. Was that always the case? It seems I can’t remember when it wasn’t. As an author, I don’t take a strong political or idealistic stance (perhaps sometimes I should). I have a wide circle of facebook friends and this gives me a broad perspective when it comes to viewpoints, both politically and geographically. I read stuff that makes me groan, other things that make me laugh, and content that makes me think further, wondering if it’s fake. Rarely do I unfriend, unfollow or block someone on social media. Also I don’t engage in political or idealistic online conversation. (I lurk and throw in the occasional one-liner with hopefully comic effect. But I take it all in, I see human nature in the raw and absorb what I see to help fuel my writer’s imagination.) When I see something outrageous, I fact check. Almost invariably, regardless of the viewpoint, it’s either fake news, taken out of context or only partially true. 

In the run up to Trump’s election, and since his inauguration, fake political news has been crashing through social media like a hailstorm. It’s bewildering. As a larger-than-life character, Donald Trump is a soft target for cheap ridicule. Mocking him for his creative hairstyle or those strangely small hands is just being mean. His oratory style and tendency towards hyperbole are not what a lot of people typically expect from a POTUS, but he doesn’t claim or want to be a typical POTUS. He wants to shake things up. According to The Guardian UK newspaper, he had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since taking office, sometimes more than 100 in one day. How could this possibly be the case? Surely a Head of State has to be taken at his/her word and any untruths would be a cause for grave concern? 

The peculiarity of the Trump presidency is perplexing to us Europeans, over in these staid old countries where one bold-faced lie can bring down a leader or even a government. Just 12 hours ago, Trump tweeted a quote from One America News - “There’s not one shred of evidence that President Trump has done anything wrong.” How did the world become a place where the president of a huge and powerful nation feels he needs to share those words? 24 hours ago Trump tweeted Despite the most hostile and corrupt media in the history of American politics, the Trump Administration has accomplished more in its first two years than any other Administration. A quick Google search on this topic produced an interesting article from the UK’s BBC, which suggests that there were some areas where the Trump administration has exceeded the results of previous ones. However, rate of turnover amongst senior level advisors and length of government shutdown due to funding are probably not the medals he’s looking for. But hey, we know he doesn’t really believe what he himself is saying, except in the moment. He’s just trumpet blowing, like the childhood rhyme of dominance – I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.

So what is the truth? What’s going on? Normally I would raise my hands (in Trump fashion) and say look, America is a very different society to ours. All countries have their problems, often depending on complex historical factors. In little old Ireland, where I live as an ex-pat Brit, we have very few deaths due to firearms, there isn’t an opioid crisis and racism is more subtle than skin tone. How can we begin to understand life across the pond? Leave the USA alone. If they want Trump (and the majority of voters, by whatever rules in play, must have chosen his team) then let us just enjoy the spectacle and see what results. But then, while trying to use up a spare half hour waiting for a train in Dublin’s Heuston Station, I stumbled over a copy of Fire and Fury. I rarely read non-fiction but something made me pick it up. Perhaps reading this would make things clearer?

The surprising thing about Fire and Fury was that there was nothing surprising in it, when it came to a catalogue of White House events. From stories of the Trump campaign trail, the rousing calls of the candidate at mega-rallies, the tumultuous early days of the presidency, and the myriad well-heeled individuals who made cameo White House appearances before being sacked or resigning – everything was familiar. When Wolff quoted such a person or an anonymous source as having said or done something, I knew it already. This wasn’t because I was late to the party – I had bought the paperback a year after the hardback was first released. It was because the world, through global media, had lived through all this. 

Wolff tells a story of a latter-day Game of Thrones, with the houses of Trump, Bannon and Priebus battling for ascendancy. GoT with a twist, because none of the main cast has any real gladiatorial experience in the Washington colosseum. White Walkers, Wildlings, the Night’s Watch, noble dynasties, Viking types, warrior queens, mean-looking lads on horses, all waving their weapons and circling each other, with one eye on the media scavengers who sniff for carrion. The chaos proves too much for some would-be warriors who leave the field after their first blood wounds. New heroes then arise, only to have their skulls ceremoniously crushed by dominant champions. The Princess summons her dragon to breathe fire upon the weakened in-house foes, but we know the dragon will eventually take his own flight. Once I finished the book, I had to google the characters’ real-life names and find out what happened in the sequel. Sure enough, the outsider victors of the Wolff story have all since succumbed to their fate, Trump blood and marriage being the only certain protection against treachery and spells.

Critics have said that Wolff played with the facts on occasion. One reviewer criticised him for using the device of unreliable narrator (although I’m not sure that review really properly explained the method) but surely that’s the whole point of the story. Everyone in the organisation has a different world view, and many live in their own reality. Some (albeit not many) see themselves as following their great leader. Others endeavour to mollify his excesses. Another plays the role of guru. The big man himself just wants to be loved and plays fast and loose with any material at hand to achieve that end. 

This book has, however, had an unexpected effect upon me. I am no longer surprised or appalled by anything that Donald Trump says or does. If I look at his historical tweets I just say yeah, that’s him, or no, I think someone else wrote that one. Fire and Fury has numbed me to the unfiltered thoughts of the current POTUS. I find myself able to step back and wonder if what he does and says will really have any impact upon my little world. Bearing in mind that the House of Representatives shifted control to the Democrats after the recent mid-terms (which, of course, very often happens during a US presidency), Donald Trump is going to have increasing difficulty implementing his campaign promises. Until next time.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

How to Stay Looking Good, Put on Muscle and Survive the Christmas Hangover

A few simple steps will serve you well over the festive season. You'll look younger, feel stronger and hitt the new year with a running start.

Step 1 - Head to a reasonable clothes outlet (e.g. Next or River Island) and buy a pair of those smart jeans with the stretch fabric. Buy a new top too, something with high cotton content and just a little loose.

Step 2 - Shave that beard. What? You didn't grow the pre-Christmas beard? Didn't you get the memo? Shave the beard down to stubble and keep it that length for the duration. Don't mind about female family member complaints after Christmas kisses - they secretly like the abrasion. Step 2 is optional for the ladies (at a certain angle and in a certain light that upper lip shadow can be very attractive).

Step 3 - Adopt a Christmas and New Year exercise routine. This should be muscle intensive e.g. 3 sets of pushups and 3 sets of squats. Do this every other day with increasing intensity. E.g. 3 sets of 10 squats at the start, working up to 3 sets of 40 by the end with extra weight (a small child on your shoulders or your life partner on your back, for example).

Step 4 - Eat everything that comes near you. How else are you going to gain weight?

Step 5 - Drink everything that comes near you. You're going to need hydration with all that exercise.

Now watch yourself develop. The weight gain should be at least half a stone (7lb). You know this is muscle because your trousers aren't getting tighter (stretch) but your shirt (wash frequently) is getting more snug around the shoulders.

Step 6 - Decrease your intake of turkey and ham as the meat's consumability moves from "probably still okay" to "wouldn't give that to the dog". (Don't throw the remaining ham in the compost bin like last year, when it got stuck to the bottom and didn't come out til Easter. Don't even want to talk about what that was like.)

Step 7 - Gradually change your liquid intake to less carbs. The cans of beer that you used to hydrate yourself in between Christmas day meals should be changed to wine. Start with red, migrate to rosé and white, then move on to the gin & tonic. Over the course of two weeks, not all in one day. Gin & tonic is practically a health drink. Put fruit and vegetables in it. Make sure your Christmas presents included a breathalyser. Never, Ever drink and drive.

You should reach your destination in good shape (mentally) with a solid muscle gain (mentally) and having had a good time. Reality will hit in due course but we'll deal with that when we come to it.
You're welcome.

This blog post is written in the spirit of this is how it turned out so I'll pretend that was my intention from the start.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Farewell to Feed140, now tend to your evergreens

Evergreen content is a boon for social media. If you write a blog post that is interesting or useful for your target audience in perpetuity (or at least for a good while) then it is sensible and reasonable to reuse that content. Like a plant that doesn't shed its leaves during winter (e.g. laurel, holly, most conifers), such content can be called evergreen. I have several writing and social media posts on this blog that have generated a lot of traffic over the last few years and, in the main, they're of the evergreen variety. So it makes sense to nudge a potential audience towards those posts with e.g. Twitter. One tweet a day helps point people in the right direction and, if the tweets are numerous enough and carefully worded, why not recycle them?
I have a list of around sixty tweets which I run sequentially out of my @Ruby_Barnes Twitter account. Or at least I did, until recently. I used an app called Feed140 which allowed me to upload a playlist of tweets and schedule them for release. I loved Feed140 for its simplicity but, alas, it is no more. Kudos to Doug Hudiberg for his work with Feed140. I'm sorry it didn't work out and I wish you all the best for the future. Now I'm going to have to delve into another app for scheduling my evergreen content tweets. I liked Feed140 so much as it was an app rather than a program. Now looking for a suitable replacement.

Friday, 1 June 2018

GDPR for Authors and Publishers - the Greatly Disproportionate Paranoid Reaction

So, it's 1st June 2018 and the sky hasn't fallen down. On 25th May 2018 the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. If you haven't heard about it then lucky you. But you're probably in the same boat as I am. A subscriber to just about everything, my mailbox has been chock full of messages from all kinds of organisations requiring me to take action because of GDPR. Some require me to update my details on their list and give consent to continue receiving communications from them. Others just advise me that they have updated their privacy policy and given me a link to it or even included the long, long privacy policy in their message. Squirrel that I am, I file away all these missives under "GDPR". But not just for posterity. The content of these messages, combined with a large number of articles and podcasts on the subject, has been my reference library for how the real world has handled GDPR and allowed me to form my own opinion and strategy on the subject.

A quick word on all those GDPR mails that I received from publishers, authors, vendors, associations etc. I didn't get enough of them. I should have received something like 400 mails. Because that's how many unique logins and passwords I have saved in my browser privacy & security section. So 350+ individuals / organisations have failed to comply with GDPR, because I'm a European Union citizen and they hold my data. But I won't hold it against them. Let them sweat. I'm cool about it.

Now, the disclaimer. I'm not a GDPR expert and I'm not a lawyer, so what you decide to do for yourself is entirely up to you, no liability accepted by Ruby. But I have nearly half an idea what I'm talking about. As Compliance Manager (up until recently) for a national data operation, I've had the great pleasure of meeting with data protection officials and trudging through a data protection policy for the organisation. It's dry stuff and we drank a lot of tea. I knew GDPR was coming and I suppose it was and wasn't a surprise how things turned out. Some people panicked. Some people saw a chance to make money. But there are a lot of very useful resources online which will help those who need help. A real lot of resources. Free resources, you don't need to spend hundreds of notes on a "GDPR pack". So, do you need help? Should you have done something? Have you got your head in the sand?

If you are an independent author or a small publisher (there are of course other interested parties but those two categories are the ones I'm talking about here), then you probably handle customer data. I'm talking specifically about mail lists. If any of those customers reside in the European Union then you are affected by GDPR. If you / your publishing outfit is located in the European Union then you are affected by GDPR. If you have a non-EU location and you have no EU customers then you can stop reading and go pick up a free copy of Zombies v. Ninjas: Origin. (Read that and you will understand how we in the EU are feeling about GDPR.)

At the risk of repetition, let's make this simple:
  • if you're an independent author or a small publisher with a mail list which includes EU citizens, then you need to observe the GDPR; 
  • if you're an independent author or a small publisher based in the EU, then you need to observe the GDPR.
Continuing with the simple theme, you need to be able to demonstrate where you obtained the contact data from and what consent that individual gave for use of their data. You need to look at your mail list(s) and decide if you can demonstrate the provenance of the contacts and their data in that list. Should the GDPR police descend upon your darkened room (unlikely event but who knows. The Handmaid's Tale and all that...), will you be able to explain through the splutter of tear gas to the intruders just why you think you have the right to retain and use the data of individual humans?
  • If your contact has bought your product and joined your list then happy days. They have demonstrated their interest in your product by flashing their wallet and signed up to receive your newsletter etc. You should inform them of your privacy policy (you do have a privacy policy, right?) and the option to unsubscribe in all future communications.
  • If your contact hasn't (or you can be sure if they have) bought your product, but has joined your list ("enter your email here to join our list and receive..." etc) then also happy days. They have given consent to be mailed your newsletter etc. Again, you should inform them of your privacy policy (you do have a privacy policy, right?) and the option to unsubscribe in all future communications.
  • If you don't really know where you sourced the contact information, if you can't demonstrate that your sign-up form made it clear that they were giving consent to future communication, then you need to ask them to reconfirm their consent to future communication.
  • If you know that the contact information was manually uploaded by yourself or your organisation, and there is no real record of their consent to future communication, then you need to ask them toreconfirm their consent to future communication.
In my own case, I run four mail lists and can clearly demonstrate consent for three of them. The fourth was obtained as part of a joint initiative with other authors wherein readers expressed their interest and agreed to be added to the mail list of the author whose book they liked. But I can't say that the small print was adequate for GDPR. The open and click rate for that list is very low. So I've had to reconfirm consent with the readers on that list and yes, I've lost a fair chunk of it. But a good number have confirmed.

Now finally, to mention again your privacy policy. You do have a privacy policy, don't you? And it's clearly displayed on your blog / website? If GDPR affects you then you need a privacy policy. It doesn't have to be twenty pages long but it does need to be relevant. You can't just copy paste someone else's privacy policy, but you can use them to inform your own. Take a look at author and publisher websites and track down their privacy policies. Study the privacy policies in GDPR emails sent to you by organisations similar to yours. Then formulate your own and get it out there as soon as.

The GDPR police are probably not going to storm your building. They have bigger fish to fry. But better safe than sorry.