Friday, May 30, 2014

All Systems Go by Zenovia Andrews

The cover of All Systems Go says the book is "A solid blueprint to build business and maximize cash flow," and "Surely there is a more consistent way to do this." Zenovia Andrews is the founder and CEO of The MaxOut Group, and her self-published book offers almost 200 pages of suggestions and advice.

There is nothing wrong with the advice: "see where you can cut time, improve procedures, and make the functions work for you..." "update your systems constantly...." "establish various automated systems to free up your time..." "focus on the people in your business to create a climate of results-driven performance..." "systematize your income and cash flow..." "[be] a business leader, not a business worker." Andrews recommends that a business have enough cash in reserve that it can continue to function for an entire year without a sale.

Andrews believes in software and recommends that the reader buy, install, and use as much business software as possible to automate as many functions as possible—purchasing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, sales performance, inventory control, customer service, marketing, and more and more and more.

She also believes in reports. She recommends weekly and monthly reports on sales, expenses, learning and growth, customers, business rules, reputation, business processes, "weekly re-engagement reports inspire your employees to innovate," and more and more and more.

The book is a sermon. It tells readers what they should be doing, but it gives almost no suggestions—no case histories, no step-by-step examples—of how, exactly, to do it. Here, for example, is what she says about the law: "You need to make sure everything and everyone is legal in your business. Legal fees, fines, and even jail time are a disaster and will affect your business culture." It certainly will, but how is the reader to make sure everything is legal? She doesn't say.

It is not clear for whom Andrews wrote All Systems Go. Much of the advice is so basic it would offend an entrepreneur who has been in business more than a year. But much of the advice would be of use only to owner/managers who have employees to which they can delegate, manage, inspire, and reward. And to a business that has the potential to generate enough cash to build up a cushion that could sustain it for a sales-free year.

Finally, the manuscript needed an editor badly. To take examples at random: "An operations manual will create a set of rules, standards and practices for your company." No, the manual doesn't create them; the manual contains them. "Write down each person that works for you, by name." Better: Write down the name of each person who works for you.

I am afraid this book is not a solid blueprint to build business and maximize cash flow. I wish it were.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being - Part II

I've written a review of Ruth Ozeki's novel, A Tale for the Time Being, a book I think is wonderful. I was therefore interested in the 1-star review/comments in Amazon. At this writing, there are 15 (compared to 273 5-star reviews), and I'm not sure what they say about the book, about the readers who felt impelled to write, or about the reading public. Here is a sample:

"I really disliked this book! Interesting premise but boring dialogue, and too much technical information."

"Extremely hard book to read and understand what was going on. Could not even finish it. Could have been summarized in 2 pages with life principles it was raising." (If this reader did not understand what was going on, how would s/he know it could be summarized in two pages?)

"I did not get very far in this book - I abandoned it as it was silly drivel. The author invites you to read no further at the end of each of the first few chapters! This person needs to be listened to. Finally I did and quit reading." (Actually, it's not the author who invites you to read no further, but a character who is writing a journal.)

"This is one of the most depressing, dull books I have ever read. Maybe it is just too deep for me but it had no point. If my book club hadn't chosen it I would have put it down about a third through it." (Does the book have no point? Or did this reader not understand the point? This seems to be a common position: The fault is in the book—not in my ability to understand the book.)

"Too depressing, and not something someone should read especially in the sixth grade!!! I felt depressed by the main characters sense of not being cool. There was so much cussing and a lot of suicidal thoughts!!...Both of my parents agreed with me that it is not good to have those thoughts in your mind, and also, the huge use of profanity!!...I can not even try to number the words of dirty language. This book is inappropriate for kids under the age of 18!!" (I am sure Ms. Ozeki would agree that her book is inappropriate for a sixth grader. I wonder how this child happened to be exposed to it at all.)

"Story a devise [device?] to prove the writers point, which i found too obvious to want to figure out. Great reviews by those who were charmed by the devise." (If the device is obvious, what does the reader have to figure out? If you have to figure it out, is it obvious?)

"We chose this book as a book club read and unanimously hated it. It was hard to get into and the story got lost in the physics and philosophy. At times it was just bizarre and disconnected. The previous reviews I had read sounded so good, I thought it was just me but when absolutely everyone in our book club disliked so much I felt vindicated. Waste of money and time. Anyone who wants to give it a try should go to the library!" (Interesting that the entire group hated the book. How, I wonder, does the group choose books? In my experience, it's best if the person who recommends the book has read it and could then, perhaps, defend her view.)

I suspect that what these comments really say is what the Romans said, "De gustibus non est disputandum," tastes are not to be argued.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

This is not a new novel. The paperback edition I read came loaded with rave reviews from major newspapers. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was one of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year. Interestingly, the Amazon reviews are about as evenly split between 5-, 4-, 3-, 2-, and 1-star as I've ever seen. (The totals at this writing in that order are: 68, 50, 47, 51, 37.)

The story follows Alan Clay, a 54-year-old American executive of a global information technology corporation, who has come to Saudi Arabia with a team of three much younger executives to demonstrate a holographic teleconference system to King Abdullah. They hope to obtain a contract for the entire IT system of King Abdullah Economic City, a brand new metropolis rising in the desert beside the Red Sea an hour or so from Jeddah, where the team is staying in a luxurious Hilton.

Eggers has done something exceptionally difficult, I think. He has created a depressed, hollow, and foolish protagonist without writing a depressing, hollow, and foolish book.

Many of Alan's troubles are self-induced. By page 4, he has recognized that many of his decisions have been short-sighted, expedient, foolish, or all three. "He and his peers did not know they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was—virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office." Alan (and Eggers) blames a lot of his problems on globalization and the loss of American manufacturing to the Chinese and other foreign companies. Alan had been a senior executive in Schwinn, the Chicago-based bicycle manufacturer, and was instrumental in its eventual move to China.

Alan's marriage was a disaster. He essentially watched a friend commit suicide by wading into a freezing lake without lifting a finger or calling for help. He loves his college-age daughter, but he cannot communicate with her honestly and openly. He has a disturbing growth on the back of his neck that. while drunk, he explores with a knife. In the mountains of Saudi Arabia, he jokes with a suspicious local that he's with the CIA. (In the rural mid-East! It's like joking you have a bomb with an airport security screener.) Alan is so depressed (I guess) he is unable to respond sexually to two different women who offer themselves to him. He is monumentally bored while waiting for the king, but does not read, is not interested in learning anything about Saudi Arabia, and seems to have almost no internal resources whatever.

Nevertheless, A Hologram for the King held my interest all the way through. I absolutely believed that these characters—and thankfully Alan is surrounded by a number of people who are not depressed, not hollow—would act in these situations in this way. Eggers has a number of interesting things to say about globalization, about Saudi society, and, therefore, about American society and the number of short-sighted, expedient, or foolish decisions we have made about what we value, where we place resources, and where Eggers thinks we're going.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Beauty by Frederick Dillen

Carol MacLean, the "Beauty" in Frederick Dillen's new novel, has a very clear 'I want.' She is middle-aged, single, and works for Baxter Blume, a fund that buys companies, loads the extraneous divisions with debt, and shuts them down. Carol's job is to travel around the country shutting down entire companies and selling whatever can be salvaged. She hates that because what she wants to do is run her own company. Her New York bosses have promised that all she has to do is kill two more companies, and they'll give her her own. Her last job is to shut down a fish processing company on Elizabeth Island, just off the Massachusetts coast (which sounds suspiciously like Gloucester).

Will it surprise you to learn that the high finance snakes back at the New York fund renege on their promise to give her a company? Would it surprise you to learn that Carol—knocked to her knees by this news—begins to think she might be able to save the fish processing company and run it herself? Would it surprise you to learn that one of the key players in the rescue of the company is a widowed Elizabeth Island fisherman and that although Carol has been working in high finance for years, she's actually a child of a working class father from Detroit with a lot in common with a working-class fisherman? In other words, Beauty, is a fairy tale.

Nevertheless, Beauty is a lot of fun. Dillen is able to write about a complex and potentially boring subject without overloading his story in financial minutia. I suspect there are many women who will relish watching Carol fire the four senior fish company executives who have brought the firm to the brink. And just when it looks as if everything is going to work out the way it should (i.e., goodness and justice triumph), Dillen throws up another entirely believable hurdle to Carol's dream of love and management.

My only reservations have to do with the shifting point of view and Dillen's style (which is related to the POV issue). Dillen tells his story from several on-going points of view: Carol's, her mentor Baxter's, the fish company's HR executive, the fisherman with whom Carol becomes involved. Unfortunately, they all sound similar, which is not helped by the style. Here is a sample from a town meeting: "Easy got himself up quick, but so did the rest of the room. A working fish-town in its bones, all of them stood. Easy knew them all, except Carol, and Carol belonged here even though she was pretty. Everybody else—him, too, obviously—was a long way from pretty. The men were lumps or withering or broken in half, from jobs that ate your body. Most of them also didn't care so much about shaving. The drinkers, men and women both it was in their faces. The druggers, a few had come, the old ones, which you never expected at first but you weren't going to mistake them; they'd have come because they knew they had a connection in the crowd...."

Despite my reservations, Beauty is interesting if only because Dillen has created an adult woman with the kind of business challenges we do not often see dramatized in fiction.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reality Hunger: A Manifsto by David Shields

This book, published in 2010, is promoted at "An open call for new literary and other art forms to match the complexities of the twenty-first century." It consists of 618 numbered items, some as sort as a sentence, a few as long as a page and a half, in 26 chapters. Shields has published three novels, and collections of essays; Reality Hunger was his tenth book.

Shields makes the case that because memory is fallible memoir and autobiography is actually form of fiction. Moreover, because words are not things and because writers choose the words they use, decide the order in which they fall, shape the sentences and paragraphs, nothing we write is "real" in the sense that a horse, a house, or a noose is real. Yet, "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art." Shields argues that the well-formed novel with plot, characters, description and action is as passe as Dickens or Trollop. Today's best fiction is (or should be) a collage, a mix tape, a mashup of quotes, letters, advertisements, news stories—bits and pieces that serve the author's vision.

As is Reality Hunger itself. I did not realize until I was more than halfway through the book (this reflects both my traditional mindset—blinkers—and my naiveté) that the book is virtually entirely  snippets from other sources that Shields has clipped and arranged. It took me a while to catch on because the individual numbered items are not cited and would not have been, Shields tells us, had not the publisher's lawyers insist he add an appendix with the sources. The book is a collage, a mix tape, a mashup.

It is also thought-provoking. The quotes Shields has found and the way he has ordered them so that they play off one another, resonate, convey more (or different) meaning in their new context is extraordinary. But to give you a sample of the quotes taken virtually at random without the context:

77. We all need to begin figuring our how to tell a story for the cell phone. One thing I know: it's not the same as telling a story for a full-length DVD.

112. Memoir is a construct used by publishers to niche-market a genre between fact and fiction, to counteract and assimilate with reality shows.

421. I don't know what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.

573. To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.

574. He who follows another will never overtake him.

575. You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.

I believe that anyone who is serious about writing should buy, read, highlight, and think about what Shields has produced. What in it makes sense? What doesn't? Why?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore is such an accomplished writer and her new collection of short stories, Bark, has received such positive reviews—reviews with which I concur and which I cannot elevate—I thought I would simply lift sentences from the book in an attempt to convey Moore's brilliance and engage your interest.

"Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends. 'I'm going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.'" —The first sentences of the first story, Debarking

"Every woman I knew here drank—daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friends—all of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or, so we imagined it)—who hadn't had something terrible happen to her yet." —A random sentence from The Juniper Tree

"Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke. Married for two decades of precious, precious life, she and Rafe seemed currently to be partners only in anger and dislike, their old lusty love mutated to rage." —Paper Losses

"He saw now that her fingernails really were plastic, that the hand really was a dry frozen claw, that the face that had seemed intriguingly exotic had actually been scarred by fire and only partially repaired. He saw how she was cloaked in a courageous and intense hideosity. The hair was beautiful, but now he imagined it was probably a wig. Pity poured through him: he'd never never felt so sorry for someone." —Foes

"Then as something caught fire between them, and love secured its footing inside her. when she awoke next to him with damp knots in the back of her hair like she'd never experienced before, the room full of the previous night's candles and the whiff of weed, his skin beside her as silky calico of cool and warm, and as they both needed to eat and eat some more together, she began to feel OK that he sold drugs. If he did. What the hell? At least there was that. At least he did something." —Wings

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is quoted on the jacket: "Moore cannot write a bad sentence, cannot create poor characters, cannot tell flat ho-hum stories. When she's good, she's very, very good; when she's bad, she's good." I agree and wish only that I could do the same.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

This past week I went to an author talk at RJ Julia Booksellers a wonderful independent bookstore in Madison, CT. Jenny Milchman talked about her experiences as a writer and her new novel, Ruin Falls, and Carla Buckley talked about hers and her novel, The Deepest Secret.

The two authors, who are friends, are on a book tour to publicize the new books. All but three of the perhaps two dozen members of the audience were women of a certain age, which says, I believe, something about who buys and reads books (or who buys and reads Milchman's and Buckley's books). While they talked somewhat about the inspirations about their new books, they spent more time talking about their experiences as writers.

Milchman wrote nine novels before she was able to attract an agent for the last, which became Cover of Snow. It took 21 months between the publisher's acceptance to publication, during which time the publishing machine was in operation: copy editing, cover design, internal design, obtaining cover blurbs, sending out galleys to bookstores and reviewers, setting up press events, etc., etc. During the 21 months, Milchman was supposed to be writing another novel so that a year after the first’s publication, another would be available for the market. Her agent thought Milchman's novel number 7 might sell based on the sale of number 8, and Milchman wrote number 9. The publisher rejected both numbers 7 and 9, so Ruin Falls is her 10th.
Their talks reinforced a lesson I already knew: publisher want to slot writers into a certain niche. No one—not publishers, not booksellers, not readers—wants to be confused over what a writer is like. This is a Jody Picoult, a Daniele Steele, a J.K. Rowling book. And a brand-name writer has an audience that will buy everything they publish without reserve. The editor's job is to find writers who will regularly produce manuscripts that are similar enough for readers to buy without being shocked by unfamiliar content.
I asked Milchman and Buckley how much editing their books received from their agents and their editors. They both said they had extensive edits from both.
I asked if they signed multi-book deals. Milchman had not. Carla had signed a two-book deal. For her second book, she created nine proposals—detailed outlines of the stories, character descriptions, back stories—all of which the publisher rejected. Almost in desperation, she came up with another idea, submitted a two-page proposal the publisher bought and which became The Deepest Secret.
I asked about titles (a subject about which I am struggling at this moment) and they were able to tell good stories about the problem of finding an acceptable title. Milchman’s editor had real reservations about Ruin Falls, but that was the working title and although Milchman suggested a gazillion other possibilities, the original became the title almost by default. Buckley had many of the same problems with one of her books. The foreign editions of that book all have very different titles because the local publishers were no more happy with the working title than the American publisher. 
After the author talk, I chatted with the bookstore staff. I asked how long the store keeps a title in stock. It might be months—or in the case of a classic, years—or it could be as short as a week. Self-published books have virtually no place in bookstores because their authors are not prepared to send books on consignment and pay the shipping to and from the stores. The stores generally have no basis on which to buy a self-published book, no reviews in Publishers Weekly, no advance reading copies, none of the marketing support that a major publisher offers. Even if a bookstore were willing to buy self-published books outright, how would the staff know what will sell?
All in all, an exceptionally stimulating and interesting evening.