Sunday, October 04, 2015

Social Media for Readers — The Basics

A while ago, I posted a list of basic social media guidelines for authors. This morning, looking over a few clients' social media feeds, I feel the need to post some guidelines for readers.

Before you get all indignant and worked up, I'll reassure you: I think it's wonderful that social media lets readers connect with authors. As a reader, I love being able to keep track of upcoming books and events via my favorite authors' Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I know authors who have built hilarious, caring communities online, and when it all works well, it benefits everyone. I know lots of authors who have made personal, in-real-life friends among readers via social media.

As in any social setting, however, missteps are bound to occur. I'm willing to give the vast majority of people the benefit of the doubt, and assume that when people do say or do something inappropriate, it's not from malice, but because they don't know any better.

All of the following guidelines are based on the fact that social media interactions are public. Having someone you admire Tweet back at you, or reply to a comment on Facebook, can feel like getting a gold star —literally, because that's how you mark a Tweet as a "favorite." That feeling of being noticed, recognized, acknowledged and rewarded is what we're all on social media for. It's lovely, isn't it? There's nothing like it. But this interaction happens on a platform that is open to the entire world. It's not a kiss behind a closet door; it's a high-five on a football field. Therefore, rule #1 is this:

Do not make a comment, post a link or share a photo that the recipient would be uncomfortable receiving in a public place that includes his or her parents, spouse, children, employers and clients. Any public figure's social media account is his or her virtual office. Social media is a dangerous place for private jokes, even with the people you're closest to. 

Do say hello, let the author know if you liked the latest book, ask about upcoming events, post photos taken at public events, ask questions about the book and the characters (respecting concerns about spoilers, below). Do understand that most authors have a full-time job other than writing, so maintaining social media networks might be something they have time for only after everything else — after they've gotten home from work, met their daily word count, had dinner with their families, put the kids to bed, etc., etc. Please be understanding if timely responses aren't always possible.

And a few corollaries:
  • Spoilers. Personally, I don't care about spoilers. I was lucky enough to see both The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense before anyone told me the endings, and if someone out there still doesn't know that Keyser Soze is [REDACTED], I don't feel responsible for keeping them in the dark. But basic courtesies apply, especially in situations where a book's publishing date varies by countries. Social media is international. If you wouldn't have wanted to know before you read the book, don't mention it in a public electronic forum without marking it as a spoiler. How do you do that on Facebook or Twitter? Good question. You could try starting the post with the word SPOILER in large angry letters, then hitting a couple of returns before posting the meat of your comments. Or you could ask the page administrator to set up a private area for discussion; Facebook lets you do that. Or you could wait a year.
  • Corrections. It happens to me, too: errors in spelling, punctuation, timelines, geography, word usage, etc. jump off the page and sometimes pull me out of the story. I hate when that happens. But it does happen, and in a book of 125,000 words, it might happen more than once. (And as I always say, most heart surgeons would be happy with a rate of two errors per 125,000 words.) If it really, really, really bothers you and you think it might bother other people too, it might be possible to correct the text for the paperback edition or the e-book. In that case, the polite thing to do is to send an email to the author via his or her website. Almost every author on Facebook will have a personal website that lets you do this. Better yet, send an email to the book's publisher. Leaving these corrections on someone's public Facebook wall, or Tweeting them in the public newsfeed, is the online equivalent of standing up in a cafeteria and announcing that someone has a mysterious stain on their trousers. 
  • Promoting your own book/services. It's rude to promote yourself on someone else's professional page or news feed, regardless of the circumstance. Don't do it.
  • Demanding quid-pro-quo. Following someone on Twitter or Facebook does not obligate them to follow you back, or to like your page. If you're following people on Twitter or liking their pages solely in an attempt to get likes and follows for yourself, you're doing social media wrong. You might benefit from my earlier post
  • Harassment/Stalking/Trolling. Everybody on social media knows someone who's left a network because it became too unfriendly or scary a place. Some people, sad to say, actually enjoy that. If you're a troll, you know that you are, and this post isn't for you. You already believe the world's a rotten place, and you want the online community to be just as rotten. Know this, though: most of us disagree with you. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Angels Unaware

Yesterday, I stiffed Jesus. And I maybe, possibly, was the victim of a con artist. Both of these things may be true.

I had gone up to New York for a couple of days to see people who were in town for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of the International Thriller Writers. It was a good time, but a lot of travel for a relatively quick visit. New York was hot and crowded and I have lost another small chunk of my field of vision, so just getting around the city is tenser than it used to be: I walk in front of people, I can't see people who are right in front of me (hi, Mark!), and that kind of concentrated socializing is exhausting when I'm used to spending days alone in front of a computer.

So when I got off the bus last night in Arlington, trudging into the Rosslyn Metro for the last leg home, I was tired and cranky and even a little bus-sick. A large woman about my age, dressed nicely with some dramatic eyeliner, was sitting with a cane right outside the Metro entrance.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do you live here? Are you from here?"

"Yes," I said.

"Can you talk to me for a minute?" she asked, so I stopped.

On the verge of tears, she told me a long and complicated story I had trouble following. She had gotten into a car accident that morning; she had gone to work, on a Saturday, at a Department of Commerce office in north Arlington. She had recently moved to this area from Atlanta, and was living with her mother in St. Charles, MD, a town so far from DC that I might not even call it an exurb. The bus to St. Charles wasn't running on the weekend, she said, and she was stranded. She needed $89 and change, an oddly specific number, to get a cab driver to take her home. She didn't have access to her bank account, which was in Atlanta. She had bone cancer, she said, which was why she had the cane.

I had a dollar in my wallet. I told her so. "There's an ATM right in there," she said. "I'll pay you back."

I remembered a time I had been stranded at an airport at the end of a trip, without enough money to get my car out of airport parking. My parents had bailed me out that time, and the manager of the airport hotel had let me eat at the breakfast buffet while I waited for the money to hit my account.

"I can give you $40," I said.

She walked with me to the ATM, and I took out $60 — that's what the ATM quick-withdrawal option dispenses, so I just hit that button. I gave it to her with my business card, and she said she'd pay me back. I wished her luck and went down the escalator to catch my own train. She had told me her name, but I can't remember it.

This morning, I wish I could. I wonder whether and how she got home. And I wonder why I didn't just give her $100. I could have. It's not money I can easily spare; a freelancer's life is a constant scramble, and this is the first year in 15 years of self-employment that I have any breathing room at all.

But, but, but. Jesus talked in parables, but on this question, he was absolutely clear. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

It's actually none of my business whether this woman was truly in need, or a scam artist. She presented herself to me as someone in distress, someone in need. She asked me, personally, for help. It was in my power to help her and I did it halfway. 

I don't feel great about this. I want to be the person who would rather get ripped off than turn her back on someone in trouble. I have tunnel vision in more ways than one, and I don't always see when the people closest to me need help and can't or won't ask. I'm going to be thinking about this encounter for a long time, and wondering what a whole-hearted response to that woman would have been. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Because America (no, really)

My younger sisters and their families came up to Washington to celebrate Independence Day this weekend. It's something I had come to take for granted in the years after college, something that was at best irrelevant to me and at worst an inconvenience (tourists on the Metro, traffic, loud noises from fireworks I couldn't see). But yesterday morning we all headed into our nation's capital in the pouring rain, hoping to see a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.

A woman on the street told us the reading had been cancelled for security concerns. I hope that's not true, and I couldn't find anything in this morning's paper to confirm that. Nevertheless, the line to get into the National Archives wrapped around the building, so we worked our way over to the part of the Mall where the Folklife Festival would be starting in another hour or two.

We had forgotten about the National Independence Day Parade, which was starting from 7th & Constitution at 11:45. It takes a while to get a parade that size organized, so we walked among floats and bands and people inflating giant balloons. The rain backed off, and everyone seemed happy to be there. The bands had come from all over the country — it's an honor but it's also hugely expensive, and I wondered how many bake sales, car washes, wrapping paper drives, etc. had gone into those appearances.

In our neverending political cycle, we hear angry people talk about "taking this country back." As I walked past a float sponsored by the Sikhs of America, I wondered, not for the first time: back from whom? Back to what?

The Sikhs were walking the Smokey the Bear balloon, and a Vietnamese-American group was walking the giant American eagle. One float carried clowns (Coulro-Americans?) and another carried cloggers. A Chinese-American group marched behind a man on horseback, dressed as the Lone Ranger. The Salvation Army Band led things off, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness followed about half a mile behind. I've never felt so American in my life, so joyful to be part of this nutty country where we are bound not by genetics or heritage or history, but by belief — belief in the self-evident truth that all are created equal, endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Start with those, and the right to walk down Constitution Avenue holding a giant inflated orange lizard goes without saying.

This country has never been about "back" to anything. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would have mocked the idea of "returning" to anything. They set out to create something entirely new, and they expected that it would continue to evolve as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I empathize more than I want to with some of the people who talk about "taking the country back." Some of them have been friends of mine since high school or college. They did everything the way they were supposed to: they stepped up and took responsibility when they might not have wanted to, they went to school and applied for jobs and paid their taxes, and watched other people get chosen and promoted above them, including some they consider stupider, lazier and less qualified. Today's Republican Party offers them the fantasy of a time when they could reap the rewards of that struggle, but the ugly truth is that time never existed. The 1950s era of prosperity? Funded by the GI bill and VA housing loans, with a top income tax rate above 90%.

Growth and prosperity have always, always been driven by the people who bring something new to the party, who don’t do what they’re supposed to, who challenge received wisdom and are willing to take a risk. Some of those people were marching in yesterday's parade, and I was proud to be cheering them from the sidewalk.

Friday, June 12, 2015

(Almost) All My Controversial Opinions in One Place

I’m on social media a lot for both pleasure and work, and the temptation to speak my mind about things other people will disagree with sometimes gets overwhelming. Rather than post things 140 characters at a time, I’m putting them all up here to 1) get them off my chest and 2) make myself a handy target for concentrated outrage so I can ignore it all in one place.

In no particular order, here goes:

The story of your life is about what you pay attention to. Pay attention to the people and things you love. Ignore the people and things you don’t. Fix what you can. Say yes as often as possible. Start every disagreement with the thought, “Could I be wrong here? And what are the consequences if I am?”

We should all live as our best selves, whatever we believe that to be. The overwhelming press coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition makes me feel I’ve been trapped on an airplane next to someone who wants to tell me about her hysterectomy. It is none of my business. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know. Please let me get back to my book. Do you mind if I put my headphones on?  

None of my business is a good way to get through life, except when you see someone in pain. Other people’s pain is everybody’s business. Other people’s joy is not, especially if it doesn’t interfere with your own.

Humor is based on shared assumptions, because it’s about surprise and inappropriate juxtapositions. When you ask, “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” you're really asking, “Don’t you share my assumptions about how the world’s supposed to work?”

We need to reinstitute mandatory national service: two years for everybody between high school and college, no exceptions except for profound disabilities. It doesn’t have to be military service alone. People could choose health care, infrastructure, education, community policing, sanitation. But we must have a system that brings people from disparate parts of our society together for a common goal, and shows people the work that goes into keeping it all running.

We need to have a national conversation about why we have police, and what we expect from our police forces. Some places probably need to disband their current police forces and rebuild them from scratch. Same goes for the prison system. No private citizen needs an assault weapon.

My personal pro-life credentials are pretty hard to challenge, but I don’t want to live in a society that enforces laws against abortion.

If you didn’t like a book, you didn’t like it. That’s fine. I don’t care for most seafood. That does not mean seafood is bad. I’m not going to go online and post one-star reviews of seafood restaurants — why would I do that? I’ll just go to a steakhouse instead. Bookstores work the same way.

Nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention. Boredom is exhaustion, depression or laziness.

We all start from a position of ignorance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either. Until we admit our ignorance, we can’t learn what we need to know.

If Fox News or MSNBC is your only news source, you’re keeping your world very small. That can feel like a safe thing to do, but the bigger world and the broader conversations are happening without you.

 If God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, our feeble human brains aren’t big enough to comprehend the true and complete nature of God. Sorry, we’re not. Every attempt is an approximation. I have my way, which is about feeling part of the community that produced me. You have a different way. God is big enough to welcome us all. If God can walk the earth as a living man — which I believe — God can also be a many-armed woman, or a bird-man made of gold. We can’t know. The whole point of faith is that it isn’t knowledge.

Most of what we can know comes down to ratios and patterns, things we identify as recurring. Color charts, musical scales, units of measurement.

Spelling counts. Vocabulary matters. The way we speak changes the way we think. We can feel things we have no words for, but we cannot know things we don’t have words or symbols for. Our names for things change the way we see them. The first time I heard my nephews say “firefighter” when I would have said “fireman,” I almost cried.

Because this is true, we need to be careful about the words we use for terrible things. Inconveniences and annoyances aren’t traumas, they’re part of life in the mosh pit. If you call a single unwelcome remark “harassment,” you are interfering with justice for the people who are truly harassed. Poison's in the dosage.

Last but not least, “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” Repeat that. “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” One more time: “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.”

Thanks, I feel better now. Feel free to disagree in the comments, which will be moderated.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Social Media for Authors - The Basics

It happened again this morning: I followed back an author who'd followed me on Twitter, and got a direct message asking me to "support indie authors" by buying this author's book. I immediately unfollowed and blocked this person.

Over the past couple of years, social media has become an important marketing tool for authors and publishers, and self-published authors in particular prize the various networks as free platforms for advertising and self-promotion. I help manage social media for more than one author, and I see how valuable it can be to build connections between author and reader, fuel word-of-mouth before and after new books come out, and create a public persona — a brand, even.

Social media is not, however, an electronic billboard, and using it that way is not only a waste of a great resource, it's actively counterproductive. Because human beings learn social skills by modeling the behavior of others, however, one author misusing social media leads to many authors misusing social media — and some seriously bad advice is out there for new authors, especially new self-published authors.

I'm giving away work I sell here, but this is important enough to me that I consider it a public service.

10 Tips for Authors on Social Media

1. Social media is social. Each social media platform creates communities of people who visit it for different reasons and use it in different ways. Choose your platforms first and foremost according to the ones you feel most comfortable with, then according to the ones that are most likely to be hospitable to your target audience. Twitter is an online cocktail party; Facebook is an online break room. Instagram is more like a flea market, and Pinterest is more like a crafts fair. Vine is the A/V club on spring break.

2. Social media is a long game. Sign up for an account and spend some meaningful time on it before you start posting things. Get a sense for what people talk about and how. No social media platform is the equivalent of a billboard or a TV ad; if you treat it that way, you'll be ignored and you deserve to be. In the beginning, at least, follow, like and friend accounts you find interesting, and don't pay any attention to whether or not they follow you back. Engage with them on what they're talking about or posting. If you treat it as a zero-sum game, you will always be losing.

3. Social media is about building a brand, not about selling a product. This is an offshoot of Tip #2. The most effective social media accounts are about the person, not about the product. They give followers a sense of who the person is: his or her interests, likes and dislikes. The goal is not to make followers say, "I want to buy this book," but to make followers say, "That person is so interesting, I want to know more, and I want him/her to do well."

4. Engage people on subjects of common interest — not your book. Replying to Tweets or leaving comments on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Vine is just like entering any other kind of conversation. If someone interrupted your conversation to say, "Hey, buy my book," you would consider that person a clueless boor, and wonder who invited them to the party. Don't do it on social media.

5. Don't send strangers messages about your book. Following someone or friending them on Facebook is not an invitation to be sold to. Direct messages about your book or even public direct Tweets about your book are spam. Spam, spam, spam. They are spam and they are an abuse of the terms of use you agreed to when you opened your social media account.

6. Follow, like and friend people you admire, and people whose careers you aspire to. Watch how they use social media. Neil Gaiman, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Patton Oswalt, Rosanne Cash — these are just a few of the arts figures I follow who do Twitter really, really well. Go to your bookshelves, your iTunes playlist, your Netflix queue and find your favorites on your preferred social media platforms. Watch how they engage. Not everybody you admire will do it well, but enough will to give you some meaningful role models.

7. Don't schedule posts. Yeah, I know your online publishing forum has told you how great TweetDeck and all those other automated services are, and I've seen the blog advice on how to schedule automated daily and weekly Tweets. Don't do it, especially not on Twitter, where news breaks and where people go to get updates on the latest breaking tragedy. If the world is watching an earthquake on Twitter and your autotweets are promoting your latest erotic novel, you will become a laughingstock and you deserve to be.

8. Keep hashtags to a minimum, and keep them relevant. Overuse of hashtags marks you as an amateur, and on Twitter, at least, it's a waste of limited characters. And be real: reviewers and serious readers don't go on Twitter and search the hashtag #books.

9. Be who you are. You cannot create a false version of yourself on social media. I'm not talking about pen names or fictional characters, which can be quite useful to authors on social media. I'm talking about trying to disguise your essential self on a social media platform. It didn't work in middle school, and it won't work on Twitter. Let's say you write military thrillers, but you yourself are a research librarian; you cannot pretend to be an ex-Special Forces guy on social media. It's exhausting, it's unsustainable, and it will inevitably backfire on you. If you're just someone who really likes that world, be that person. Social media is a world of fans. Wear your fandom proudly, and don't pretend to be things you aren't.

10. Don't do it if you don't enjoy it.  This is the single most important piece of advice I give my clients when they ask me about social media. If you're doing it because your publicist told you to do it, or because that self-publishing blog told you to do it, you're wasting your time and everyone else's. The most successful social media accounts are the ones run by people who are obviously having fun online, who engage wholeheartedly and like making those connections the Internet makes possible.

It is possible to make friends with strangers on social media, and you do that by discovering the interests and passions that connect you. One of these days, that interest or passion might be your own book — but you have to earn that. There are no shortcuts.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Reads of 2014

I don't read as much as I used to. This morning I finished reading the manuscript of my friend and client John Connolly's next Charlie Parker novel, A SONG OF SHADOWS (coming to the UK in April 2015, in the US sometime in early summer), and that brought my total to 115 for the year. It is possible, but not likely, that I'll finish Lisa Unger's CRAZY LOVE YOU before the end of the day, but I wouldn't do that just to boost my number.

About half of my reading this year was work-related: manuscripts, review copies, books I read for conferences (I moderated two panels at this year's Bouchercon, which accounted for about a dozen books), and books I read in my capacity as a judge for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. One of my 2015 resolutions is to do more pleasure reading; too often this year, when I wasn't working, I was destroying my brain with a video game and calling it relaxation. It's true that books are competing not only with each other, but with Netflix and YouTube and Candy Crush, and I've been as guilty of that as anyone else.

In making my list of favorite reads of 2014, I've deliberately excluded my clients, even though they published great books this year, too: The Wolf in Winter by the aforementioned John Connolly, and Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard; Terminated by Ray Daniel; Suspicion by Joseph Finder; Desperate by Daniel Palmer; and Fatal Impressions by Reba White Williams. (All of these clients, by the way, have equally good books coming out next year — and so does Lisa Lutz, whose forthcoming How to Start a Fire may be my favorite among all the books I've ever worked on.)

Alphabetically by author, then, here goes:

Alison Gaylin, STAY WITH ME (2014). Stay With Me completes Gaylin's trilogy about Brenna Spector, a private investigator cursed with hypermnesia, an ability to remember everything that's ever happened to her in precise detail. Over the course of three books — and her entire career — Brenna's been trying to find out what happened to her teenaged sister, Clea, who disappeared when Brenna was only a child. That search has damaged every other relationship in Brenna's life, and is now threatening Brenna's connection with her own teenaged daughter, Maya. I was awed by how well Alison (who's a friend) brought this story to a heartbreaking, profoundly satisfying conclusion.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL (2011). Donna's agent sent me this book, saying he thought it sounded like just my kind of thing, and he was right. Holy Ghost Girl is Donna's memoir of growing up in a tent revival community, as the daughter of a woman who became the organist for (and later mistress of) Brother David Terrell, an apocalyptic preacher. Donna remembers the practical details of that nomadic life in a way that reminded me how quickly almost anything can start to seem normal, if it's how you live every day; but what impressed me most was her extraordinary generosity of spirit toward the adults who raised her, even Brother Terrell. Brother Terrell is a weak, sinning man, but one who also seems to have access to a realm of the spirit most of us can't reach. These things are not mutually exclusive, Donna shows us, and having seen examples of that in my own life, I continue to ponder that mystery.

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES (2014). You know what? Being popular doesn't mean that something's not good. I expect to see this book on next year's Edgars shortlist. Retired police detective Bill Hodges can't let go of his unsolved cases, especially the apparently deliberate mass murder of a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, run down by a man in a stolen Mercedes. When the murderer starts to taunt Hodges, the retired detective has a new series of clues to pursue, and a new lease on life. This book blew me away. As much as I admire Stephen King, I was surprised by what this book showed me about the genre I work in. I have already pre-ordered the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them (2012). When I'm exhausted or burnt out on fiction, I read celebrity memoirs. I binged on them this spring, recovering from gallbladder surgery, and I have a stack I plan to go through this weekend. This one, a series of anecdotes — some very short, some longer — about the dead famous people Langella worked with, played with and slept with, is the literary equivalent of a whole can of Pringles. For the most part, he's kind, although some of the stories are sad, and a few have real barbs. I loved this book so much that when I finished reading it, I bought the audiobook so I could listen to Mr. Langella tell me the stories himself.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE (2014). 2014 was an embarrassment of riches for me, as I got to read two full-length Laura Lippman novels —this one and the Tess Monaghan coming next year, HUSH, HUSHas well as Laura's bibliomystery, "The Book Thing," and another e-book novella, "Five Fires." AFTER I'M GONE was my favorite of these, as well as being an objectively impressive book — a true ensemble story, about what happens to a family of women after the man of the house (husband, father) disappears. What appears to be the central mystery — what happened to Felix Brewer? — ultimately turns out to be irrelevant. The real story is, as the title suggests, about what happened after he left. Among other things to love about the book, the early chapters on Felix's courtship of his wife, Bambi, evoke memories of Herman Wouk's classic MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, a favorite of both Laura's and mine.

Liza Palmer, NOWHERE BUT HOME (2013). This year's winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction is a magical book about food, forgiveness and love, three topics that preoccupy me pretty much constantly. Aspiring chef Queenie Wake returns to her small Texas hometown and accepts a uniquely difficult job: preparing last meals for the death row inmates at the nearby state prison. Each meal becomes a meditation on Queenie's own past, including the alcoholic mother who taught her to cook and the high-school hero who was the love of Queenie's life. It's a beautiful, loving novel that feels like a gift and will make you want to eat chicken-fried steak.

George Pendle, STRANGE ANGEL: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (2005). You know what they say about stepping on footnotes before they start to multiply? I discovered this book through a mention of John Whiteside Parsons in GOING CLEAR, Lawrence Wright's fantastic history of Scientology. Before he founded Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard spent some time in Pasadena, living in a group house of Aleister Crowley's disciples headed by John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; in fact, Hubbard's second (bigamous) wife had been Parsons' sister-in-law/girlfriend. The story only takes a page or two in GOING CLEAR, but I had to know more. This wonderful, expansive biography by the author of THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE (which I also recommend) deserves to be a movie — and is going to be, if all goes well. The Satanic bedhopping isn't even the best part of the book: the most fun are the stories of Parsons and his friends blowing things up in the San Gabriel mountains, and that turning out to be Science.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT (2012). I had spent a few years away from Penny's Three Pines series, after THE BRUTAL TELLING, which broke my heart, and its sequel BURY YOUR DEAD, which enraged me (and which I still consider a cheat, and which still makes me want to bite someone). This book, however, went a long way toward bringing me back into the fold. Artist Clara Morrow's professional triumph, a solo show at the Montréal Musée d'Art Contemporain, is ruined by the discovery of a dead body in her garden that night. The dead woman is a childhood friend of Clara's, and her death sets off a chain of events that shake Clara's world to its core. A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is not only a murder mystery but a brilliant story about women's lives, women's friendships, and how women discover their own value at midlife.

Alex Stone, FOOLING HOUDINI: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind (2012). Probably my single favorite book of this year, this memoir of Alex Stone's life in magic becomes a discursive history of the art form. The thing about "magic" is that it often involves feats of skill, strength or technology that are just as amazing as the illusion the magician is offering; they're just complicated, and tedious, and hard to explain, and the audience would rather have the illusion. I like things complicated, and the obsessives who populate Stone's book are my kind of people. I'll reread this book in a month or two, and expect to get new things out of it then. If you're giving this book as a gift, pair it with Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy.

Joakim Zander, THE SWIMMER (2015). I got an early copy of this book through sources I cannot divulge, but the person who gave it to me said, "You know how everyone's supposed to be 'the new Le Carré?' This guy is the new Le Carré." I read this book in a single sitting. A veteran CIA operative abandoned his baby daughter decades ago; when, as an adult, she becomes an international target for reasons that seem unrelated to her parentage, her secret father does what he can to try to save her. The lines between hero and villain are fuzzy here, if they exist at all; as Steinbeck once said, there's no good and there's no bad, there's just stuff people do.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On having it coming

We all got it coming, kid. 
—William Munny, Unforgiven
Someone I loved hit me once.

I can tell you exactly when and where: Sunday, January 22, 1984, in a service hallway in the Flour Mill apartment complex in Georgetown. I was a sophomore in college. One of that year’s leaders of Mask & Bauble, our theater group, was hosting a Super Bowl party. Washington’s team lost ignominiously to Oakland that year, 38-9, but I left before the game ended.

The person who hit me was someone I’d had a romantic relationship with, but at that point we hadn’t been dating for almost a year. He was seeing someone else, and so was I, but our breakup had been more than usually complicated, with some long-term repercussions. I was only 18; he was only a couple of years older. We’d been avoiding each other, but I’d gone to that party knowing it was likely I would see him, because I wanted to see him. Sometimes it works that way.

I don’t remember why or how we wound up alone in that hallway, but I’m sure it was because I wanted to talk to him, and he wanted to avoid a scene. I don’t remember what I said to him. What I remember is an open hand striking my cheek, and a small popping sound because my mouth had dropped open as I realized he really was going to hit me. Not hard — he didn’t knock out any teeth, he didn’t leave a mark. And I remember what I thought:
I guess I had that coming. 
Yesterday my friend Sue Lin and I had breakfast at a funky coffee house in downtown Baltimore, and she gestured to me as we sat down. “Do you see what that girl’s wearing?” she asked.

I almost gasped. A very young woman at the bar was wearing a Ray Rice t-shirt. She was flirting energetically with the young man beside her, whom I assume was her boyfriend. It was hard not to leap to conclusions about her, about them, even (or especially) when she pulled out her card and paid for their breakfast. During breakfast I saw her turn a couple of times on her barstool and look over her shoulder, as if she expected people to be reacting to her shirt, as if she were wearing it to make some kind of statement.

They left before we did. I suppressed the impulse to jump up and intercept her on the way to the door. What could I have said to her? What should I have asked? I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you haven’t seen the video of Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out, don’t watch it. What it shows is Ray Rice and his fiancée having an argument before they get on the elevator, and it continuing once they’re in the elevator. She’s a slender woman; he’s an NFL running back. She flies at him, apparently scolding, and he cold-cocks her with a punch to the face. She goes down like a deflated balloon, and she is out. He drags her out of the elevator, then picks her up at the waist like a blow-up doll and drops her, still unconscious, immediately outside the elevator door while a hotel security manager looks on.

The Ravens have suspended Ray Rice indefinitely, but that wasn’t what happened first. What happened first was a press conference at which Janay Rice, having married the man who punched her, apologized for her role in the incident.
I guess I had that coming. 
Even now, I’m ashamed of my own behavior when I think of that January afternoon. To do that young man justice, years later I got a handwritten note from him, apologizing — for the slap, presumably, and for other things. I would like to say here, 30 years late, that I’m sorry for the damage I did him, too.




Nobody has that coming. Nobody. Not in an elevator, not on a football field, not in a hockey rink, not on a playground. If you strike someone in anger, you are disqualified from further play. You leave the field. You apologize, you make amends, you get whatever help you need to learn more appropriate ways to manage your anger.

So I guess what I want to ask that girl I saw at Spoons yesterday — what I would ask her, if I ever see her again — is, “Do you think you have it coming? Do you?”