Book titles are key to attracting a target audience. Check today’s NYTIMES review of Benjamin Black aka John Banville’s Philip Marlowe reboot. Fans know that Raymond Chandler favored snappy titles, crisp dialogue and sassy dames. The title “The Black-eyed Blond” says it all. Readers know exactly what they will get. It’s truth in advertising writ large, something every author should consider.
Have you ever secretly cheered when a backbiting co-worker gets his comeuppance, or googled the tabloids for the photo of a ‘supermodel’ (is there any other kind?) caught with a patch of cellulite and no makeup? How about the implosion of the celebrity marriage that everyone proclaimed was “perfect”?
Most of us occasionally take a perverse pleasure in the misfortunes of those whose looks, social status or finances exceed our own. It’s a comparison thing which according to author Richard Smith (The Joy of Pain), is hardwired into most animals especially humans. Cutting the mighty down to size as the old saying goes isn’t charitable but it feels sooo good! This, my friends is Schadenfreude, and like many of you I have taken a few trips to the dark side of this social emotion.
Dr. Smith says it’s normal, healthy even. After all, Schadenfreude is a passive pleasure that arrives by happenstance and leaves us feeling better about ourselves. Best of all, it’s as guilt-free as a diet soda without the bitter aftertaste. Someone else’s seismic loss is our gain.
The late, great Gore Vidal declared, “Every time my friends succeed, I die a little.” He tapped into the vein of Schadenfreude within us all by acknowledging this brutal fact: the success of a peer may bring our own failings under merciless scrutiny.
Writers are especially susceptible to this malady. We read the work of our colleagues and quietly judge their output against our own. Commercial success may be equated with “selling out” as if healthy bank balances or critical acclaim are the work of Satan.
The multi-talented Clive James devoted an entire poem to the concept that underlies Schadenfreude. Read I beg you the entire work. You will chuckle, wince and read it once more. The opening line says it all:
“The book of my enemy has been remaindered and I am pleased.”
Silly me. I have always loved Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song “Hallelujah” and figured it was sort of a homage to Handel. WRONG Yesterday I actually listened to the music with lyrics on YouTUBE and realized that the song was a sensual tribute to many things some of which were definitely not envisioned by Handel. I immediately downloaded my favorite version by the late Jeff Buckley and have been playing it while I compose some of the spicier scenes in my latest novel. Such inspiration! Now the song is even more meaningful.
Long ago, the grandmother image was safe and unassailable. Kindly ladies with open arms, permed hair and sensible shoes eased the transition from childhood to adolescence for many of us. They offered love and maternal solace focused on the next generation, sublimating their own unfulfilled dreams or personal achievements.
Not anymore. Enter the Baby Boom generation, a legion of female achievers whose horizons expanded far beyond the traditional hearth and home. Many grandmas today eschew support hose for designer duds and would never consider a tight perm. While their laps are taut and toned, they are no less welcoming. Their horizons include the boardroom, courthouse and eventually the presidency. Angela Merkel is a prime example of that as is Ruth Bader Ginsberg and many others. In addition to unqualified acceptance, they offer their grandchildren inspiration and belief in the possibilities.
My own beloved Grandmother did that too. Admittedly she loved her perms, hairnets and sensible flats, but she offered me wisdom and sage counsel too. This mother of five, who operated the family business when her husband fell ill, taught me this: Find a profession, support yourself and always keep your own money. You can achieve anything.
Grandma Glam is more norm than anomaly today and that’s a good thing. Little girls (and their brothers) learn that while aging is part of life’s continuum, dreams and goals don’t end at the kitchen sink.
So give her a hug and head down to Sephora with Grandma. Their makeup is truly awesome.
Most mothers wheedle, coax or coerce their offspring into doing what’s right. If that doesn’t work, some resort to creative, even bizarre self-improvement strategies. My sister and I had less than perfect posture, a defect that drove my poor mother to distraction. After the usual inducements failed, she devised a solution that was pure genius.
An old Swedish lady lived across the street from my grandmother’s house. We never exchanged more than a hand wave, and it’s very likely that her command of English was limited. Still she appeared outside her home each day walking her white Spitz Queenie, and tirelessly sweeping her porch and steps. Winter or summer her garb never changed— always a dark babushka covering thick tufts of white hair and a short, thick woollen coat from which an apron protruded. And sunglasses—all year round she wore sunglasses.
We played on the patio, high above the street, under the watchful eye of my mother who always feared that a kidnapper would abscond with her precious girls. One day when I asked why our neighbor wore sunglasses, my mother swore us to secrecy and spilled the beans.
“Mrs. S. is working undercover,” said Mom. “She is a Hollywood talent scout for Photoplay magazine. That’s why you always have to stand straight and tall. Remember, she’s watching.”
At six years of age, the secret identity made sense to me. I never questioned why Hollywood would station an agent in Irvington, New Jersey instead of Schwabs Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard. It had to be true. After all, she wore sunglasses and my mother told me so.
For the next year, my sister and I promenaded past the house across the street—walking soldier straight—as often as we could. Mrs. S. never signed us to a contract or even said a single word. Just that brief wave every time she walked with Queenie. We moved away and Mrs. S. went to her final reward. It may not have been Hollywood but I know it was heavenly. My mother told me so.
I live in Massachusetts but I’m not a citizen of “Red Socks Nation” or Patriots Nation for that matter. It’s nothing personal. I felt the same way in Texas ( Cowboys–America’s Team–oh please), Chicago (Cubs, Socks, Bears, who cares?); Michigan (Sports enthusiasts in a city desperate for basic services), New York, Virginia, Maine–ad infinitum. I prefer to confine my citizenship to onenation (USA), and one state at a time.
Silence in the face of team hysteria is the politically correct and wise course of action. Typically I grimace but never confess that I actively hope the team in contention LOSES! Until academic achievements are celebrated with the same zeal as athletic prowess, I will persist.
Today’s Globe reported that each home game pumps $25 Million into Boston’s economy. Now that’s something to celebrate. But when drop out rates and youth unemployment hit the stratosphere, does a winning sports team mean anything for the host city? Not really.
Yesterday, I carried it too far. At the dry cleaners, a lovely older lady asked me, “Did the Sox win last night?”
Instead of playing along, I told her I was not a fan. The poor woman looked crestfallen. “I usually don’t follow them,” she said, averting her eyes. “Just for the world series.” After she scuttled away, I experienced an acute case of GUILT. If an activity brings pleasure (and economic bliss) to people, must I be the grinch who spoils things?
My new resolution is to trot out my party manners and act neutral. I will be Switzerland in a shooting war between teams, whoever they may be. Don’t expect me to like them or to care.
That’s my confession. Please be good sports.
The Themes of The Manhattan Puzzle
By Laurence O’Bryan
What has been hidden in Manhattan by the most powerful people on earth?
What would you do to a Manhattan banker who treated ordinary people like slaves?
What magic is buried under Manhattan that allows it to rise again from anything the world throws at it?
BXH Bank building, Manhattan, vehicle entrance visible under the arch.
Image © LP O’Bryan
These are the themes of The Manhattan Puzzle. The story sees Sean and Isabel (my characters from The Istanbul Puzzle and The Jerusalem Puzzle) reunited in Manhattan at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks, BXH. There’s been some grisly murders, and now the plot takes a new twist. The contents of the book they found in Istanbul are revealed.
My personal journey with this story grew out of my disgust at the financial crisis that has brought many so low. I am interested in the myths and the beliefs of those who value money above everything.
But The Manhattan Puzzle is about other things too. For instance, what would you do if your partner didn’t come home one night? And what would you think if the police turned up at your door the next day looking for him?
Relationships are under stress everywhere, because of the demands placed on us by our jobs, but few of us will face what Isabel has to face when Sean goes missing.
There is violence from the start in The Manhattan Puzzle too, but the opening has a woman inflicting it on a man. I am tired of reading about men inflicting sexual violence on women. I think it’s time for the handcuffs to swop wrists. And they certainly do in The Manhattan Puzzle. You can download the first chapter here as a pdf.
But don’t get me wrong. I love Manhattan. It’s a city in a snow globe of dollar bills. So look in your bookstore and on your E-readers and order it too, if you want.
To order The Manhattan Puzzle click here.
Or to visit my website click here.
And thanks for reading this and for buying The Manhattan Puzzle, if you do. I hope you find it entertaining and the themes interesting.
Imagine that: the New York Times reports that females at the esteemed Harvard Business School are less likely to thrive than their male classmates. Despite having equal or superior academic skills, a distressing number of women fall short on classroom participation—the subjective assessment that comprises 50% of their grades.
To its credit, Harvard has devised a number of well-intentioned academic interventions to reverse this trend. Most are doomed to fail. It is a law of nature, universally observed, that high stakes competition encourages an assorted bag of dirty tricks and exclusionary practices especially amongst the “Masters of the Universe” types that populate elite business schools. Official sanctions are a palliative that will ultimately send these chest-thumpers underground to snicker with like-minded members of their ‘secret societies’.
I propose a different tact, one that sends an unequivocal message to both genders. Women have to toughen up and fight for their place at the table. Far too many of them have assumed that “feminism” is some quaint concept spoken fondly about by their addled moms and grandmas. Many young women refuse to identify themselves with it, and openly state that the battles have already been won. REALLY?
Being a “nice” girl ensures that you will curry favor with a certain type of man who may date you but rarely chooses to hire and promote you. Speaking up (or out) poses risks but it also confers benefits such as self-respect, leadership, and yes, a better grade for “class participation”. I am unsympathetic to claims that women are “intimidated” by sneering classmates who challenge or ignore them. This is the real world, ladies, especially for those of you who actually enter the fray whether in the financial jungles or the boardroom.
One can be comforted by the knowledge that many of these superannuated Frat boys will be indicted, imprisoned, or lopped off the evolutionary chart in the decades to come—hoist on their own noxious petard.
Courage under fire never comes easily but taking responsibility for one’s own life is part of the deal. Just ask those soldiers (male and female) who risk their lives daily for the rest of us.
Female applicants must gird their lady parts for the battles ahead. By clarifying their personal and professional goals and calmly assessing their willingness to fight the good fight, they may just reverse the current trend.
Stop waiting for a savior—gallantry died long ago.
I have delivered literally thousands of speeches/presentations over my career. In my former life, I taught aspiring Executives how to maximize their public appearances. (Disclaimer: I never taught them line dancing or encouraged participation in poorly scripted videos.) Consider this advice when you market your book.
Dos and Don’ts
1 – The Joke’s on you. (Don’t start with a joke unless your routinely do stand-up comedy. You’ll be memorable for the wrong reasons)
2 - Don’t imagine everyone in the room is naked to dissipate your nervousness. (REALLY! Look around this room. Would you really like to see most/any/all of your colleagues au natural?)
3 – Unless you are specifically reading from your novel DON”T READ! SPEAK to your audience. Use keywords on an index card if you must but not FULL SENTENCES. You’ll bore them into a stupor, possibly an irreversible coma. There are civil and criminal penalties for this offense.
4 – Humor is an especially effective tool when giving a presentation but only if it is NATURAL to you. Your goal is to make you AUDIENCE relax, have fun, and hear your message. Determine your own style and go with it.
5 – Read your audience—If they’re nodding off, it’s time to change tactics, or conclude your talk. Remember: leave them wanting more.
6 – Tip for the ladies: AVOID those little bitty, tentative voices that lack authority. You’re selling your product and yourself— confidence breeds acceptance by others.
7 – Tip for the gents: AVOID being pompous, especially in an all female audience. Don’t play the big man—Don’t take yourself too seriously—CALCULATED HUMILITY builds audience rapport.
8 - Move around the room a bit if you can—don’t stay glued to a podium. It relaxes you and your audience.
9 - Avoid sexist or other controversial uses of language. It interferes with your message, and you’re there to give a clear, unambiguous sales pitch for you & your product. Keep Mr. Hyde chained up at home while you play Dr. Jeckyll.
10 - HAVE FUN—If you enjoy yourself so will they. It also builds confidence and enhances your authority with an audience when they see that you have mastery of your subject.
The Boston Marathon tragedy has prompted knee jerk responses as well as thoughtful, nuanced discussions of immigration policy. When confronted with unspeakable evil, rational thought is often the first casualty. It’s tempting and even comforting to cocoon ourselves in familiar things and spout Nativist sentiments—Until we pause, take a breath, and look around us.
Today’s Boston Globe recounted the events leading up to the capture of the miscreants. (I refuse to say alleged since the survivor has already confessed.) I was stunned by the surnames of first responders, police officers, and others who exhibited exceptional bravery in time of crisis. Irish, Italian, Polish, Hispanic—a veritable league of nations and races that reflects the strength and vitality of our great nation. Ironically, it was an immigrant from China who eluded the terrorists when they hijacked his vehicle, and sounded the final alarm.
My point: they are the true face of immigration, normal Americans with shared values who seek to help not hurt their community, to build, not to destroy. We have escaped the stagnation and decline faced by other nations in part because of them. The influx of talents, ideas and zeal from other cultures continually revitalizes America. We are better because of them, and our values are a constant rebuke to extremists everywhere.