WikiLeaks and Absurdistan

absurdistan_coverOne of my favorite novels of the past few years is Absurdistan. This comic romp by Gary Shteyngart takes place in a degraded post-Soviet world, where all anyone cares about is making money. The book is narrated by Misha Vainberg who dreams of returning to New York, where he was a student. Though a Russian heir to a fortune, he considers himself a lost American, trapped in corrupt country.

To get back to the United States (and the love of his life), he travels to the Caucasus republic of Absurdistan. He hopes to get a visa there. Along the way he joins in epic bouts of drinking and conspicuous consumption, as the nouveau rich show off their wealth with huge bounties of caviar, vodka and prostitutes.

This is fiction, or so I always thought, the invention of a very funny writer. But then I read the WikiLeaks cable on the wild wedding in Dagestan, Russia. It’s like the world of Absurdistan come to life, featuring a rich cast of characters frolicking along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The cable even has the perfect blurb for the back of a paperback:

The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance.

Continue reading “WikiLeaks and Absurdistan”

The Perfect Gift for Mystery Lovers – Murder in Ocean Hall

Do you have someone on your Xmas list who likes a good mystery, particularly one set in Washington, DC?

Then check out my novel, Murder in Ocean Hall. In this mystery, the world’s most famous ocean explorer is killed at the Smithsonian. It’s up to a cynical DC detective to solve this high-profile case.

Murder in Ocean Hall takes place in a Washington “beyond the monuments”, in the real neighborhoods of the city that most tourists don’t see. Set during the summer before the 2008 presidential election, we follow Detective Thomas across the city as he encounters the powerful and the powerless in his quest to solve this case. He’s grown bitter from decades of investigating bloody mayhem on city streets. Despite the new condos and gentrification, has the city really changed? Or is it doomed to dysfunction?

I’ve lived in DC for almost twenty years. I know the neighborhoods, the conflicts and the personalities of this unique city. I’ve been behind the scenes at the Smithsonian and worked in the field of ocean exploration, where my murder victim comes from. The book is set in places I’ve lived in and is informed by that most universal DC experience, street crime. It features some real characters, including a brief appearance by Marion Barry (no book in DC would be complete without him).

A reviewer wrote about my book that it:

will take you behind the scenes of places you’ve been and tell you how they function then give you insights into people in power and how they fail to function.

Murder in Ocean Hall makes a great gift for anyone who likes a good mystery or wants to uncover the seedy underbelly of our nation’s capital.

And if you live in DC, I will even sign it for you!

Murder in Ocean Hall is available exclusively at Amazon. The paperback is only $9.99 while the Kindle edition is just $2.99.

murder in ocean hall

FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?”

libros en madrid

Only three years old, FotoWeek DC has blossomed into a city-wide event encompassing gallery shows, competitions, lectures, workshops, portfolio reviews and parties.

There’s a lot of great free stuff to attend. In addition to gallery shows, there are some interesting lectures and workshops going on this week.

One of them was “To Publish or to Self-Publish” held at the Corcoran over the lunch-hour today. While it was billed as a comparison of traditional photo book publishing against the new on-demand model, the discussion was much broader than this. Continue reading “FotoWeek DC 2010: “To Publish or to Self-Publish?””

Chris Guillebeau and The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau in DC
Chris Guillebeau speaks at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC.

Last night, I listened to Chris Guillebeau speak at the Barnes and Noble in downtown DC. Chris is one of my favorite bloggers, from the Art of Non-Conformity. His message is that you don’t have to live like everyone else, that you should follow your passions while looking to leave something behind.

He lives what he writes about – he’s on a quest to visit every country in the world and has been in 125 of them so far.

Now he has a book, also called The Art of Non-Conformity, and is off on a 5o state tour to support it. His publisher thinks he’s crazy. As a writer myself, I think he’s crazy – North Dakota?

While his DC reading was standing-room only, his next stop in West Virginia will be less attended. Chris emailed the one person signed up for the reading, telling her to make sure to be there.

In person, he’s much like his blog – more curious about the audience than himself, non-judgemental, cognizant of how lucky we in the West are to have the “problem” of following our dreams. After speaking for a bit (and filling in DC on his 50 state map), he took questions from the audience.

Why did he write a book? Blog posts don’t change lives, was his answer. His goal in writing the Art of Non-Conformity was to get people to positively change and to share his and others stories of how to do it.

One goal of his book has been to bring people together. In the Q&A session, he let the audience answer each other’s questions, covering such diverse topics as entrepreneurship and conflict-free diamonds.

What I like about Chris is that he doesn’t say that there is one magic answer for everyone – it’s not Scientology or the 4-Hour Work Week. Your quest to change yourself, and the world, can involve very small steps – life experiments, where you get away from your desk and visit an art gallery. Or start learning a new language during your commute.

Unlike other so-called “life hackers”, he believes that the quest for efficiency is overrated. A new method of burning through your email is meaningless. It’s better to figure out how you can pursue adventure while helping others.

In his view, the core questions to think about are:

What do you want out of life?

What can you offer the world that no one else can?

In a city filled with well-paid people trapped in bureaucracy, these questions have enormous resonance. The Art of Non-Conformity aims to guide people in finding their own answers.

Would Self-Publishing Have Saved John Kennedy Toole?

A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books. In this picaresque novel, John Kennedy Toole creates a vivid and hilarious world, the French Quarter of the 1960s, and populates it with unforgettable characters and fantastic scenes. His protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps the first slacker in American literature. He disdains work and the modern world, longing for the Middle Ages when his genius would be appreciated.

I read A Confederacy of Dunces in college and loved it from the very first pages. It’s a broad comedy, expertly told by someone who clearly knows every inch of his beloved New Orleans. Moreover, Toole was familiar with the slang and patois of the city’s residents. He portrays them as corrupt, flawed, confused – but always well-meaning, in their own way. Continue reading “Would Self-Publishing Have Saved John Kennedy Toole?”

Behind the Scenes at the Publishing Delay

The Kindle version of my book, Murder in Ocean Hall, is now available in the UK, through

So now Kindle users in London can download my book while drinking a cuppa.

What did I have to do to get my book in the UK? Nothing – Amazon took care of it for its Digital Text Platform (DTP) authors. And DTP is free. It was easy to use – you just upload the text of your book and the cover.

With e-publishing there’s no waiting on printing presses or slow-moving publishers. An author can distribute his work with just the click of a mouse. And readers can get their favorite author’s work immediately, rather than waiting on a publisher’s schedule.

Why does this matter? My mom is a huge Kate Atkinson fan (Behind the Scenes at the Museum). She reads everything this English author writes. Atkinson has a new book (Started Early, Took My Dog) coming out. It’s available in the UK on August 19. But it won’t be here in the US until March 21, 2011!

Does it take six months to translate Britishisms into Americanese? Does it take that long to design a cover? To get it into American bookstores? I imagine that the publisher needs the time to do a marketing campaign and so on.

But why delay the US Kindle version of Atkinson’s new book until March 21, 2011?

Readers are an impatient lot and want their books now. With e-publishing, there’s really no reason for such an indefensible delay.

I'm Not That Joe Flood

I am the Joe Flood who wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, a mystery set at the Smithsonian.

I am not the Joe Flood who wrote The Fires, a new book on 1970s-style arson in the Bronx.

Why do I mention this? Because I’ve gotten a couple emails from editors of well-known magazines asking for information about my book.

But they think I’m the author of The Fires. I’m not. And a quick look at my site (like in the about me section) would reveal that. While I’m a writer, I primarily write fiction.

I’m surprised by a couple things:

  1. So, nobody reads web pages carefully? Not even editors? They just skim until they find what they’re looking for? I imagine these editors did a search on my name, my site popped up, and they emailed me, assuming that this must be the right person.
  2. Everyone blindly trusts Google to know their wishes? Search engines can’t read your mind. You can type in “Joe Flood” but it might not be the right “Joe Flood.”

Ironic, this lack of reading comprehension and digital literacy from people who work with words on a daily basis.

Don’t Mess Up My Block – A Short Story

Note: Don’t Up Mess My Block, published in Thirty First Bird Literary Magazine, is an excerpt from my novel of the same name.

“We must do the thing that terrifies us most.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

I was dressed up like an Italian, with gold chains around my neck.  Sweat poured from under my black wig as I pushed my way through the crowd.  I shouted up at the French paratrooper.  “European national!” I said, holding aloft my new EU passport.  The gate of the embassy opened and I ran for the waiting helicopter.

We in the West take so much for granted – elected governments, honest police forces, functioning capital markets, pornography on demand.  These are benefits of our civilization.

However, I believe it is the duty of us fortunate people to bring prosperity and democracy to the darker corners of the world.  And I also believe in seeking out personal challenges, as evidenced by the above quote.

Which is why I was in the Republic of G——.  I don’t spell out the name of this country for reasons that will be clear later in this narrative.

I had spent the past year in Hiltons and Hyatts from Akron to Long Beach, empowering audiences to heedlessly seize their dreams with my “Don’t Mess Up My Block” concept.  Several articles had already been written about my idea and the response in the blogosphere had been very favorable.  I started the tour lecturing to middle school business clubs and concluded by giving a presentation to more than a hundred passport clerks at the State Department.

After the applause died down in the Condoleeza Rice Auditorium, the director of the West Africa desk approached me with an interesting proposal.  Would I be interested in applying my practicums of self-improvement in the Republic of G—?

I initially declined his offer.  The Republic of G— is infamous, even by degraded African standards, for its corruption, state-sponsored violence and swarms of biting gnats. And for its “intractable civil war”.  That was the phrase that was used more than any other in press accounts of this unfortunate sliver of a country.

Besides, I was making a comfortable living with my “Don’t Mess Up My Block” presentation.  Based upon a late-night encounter with a hooker who told me to get lost, the root of my self-actualizing speech was to be loyal to your blind ambition, whatever the costs.

As I advised audiences to clear the deadwood (kids, family) out of their lives to achieve success, my speaker fee steadily climbed and was approaching the five-figure sum enjoyed by my mentor, Esalen.

Esalen was also my life coach at this time.  I talked to him weekly, as we reviewed my goals and activities.  Esalen took a keen interest in my life, especially when it came to my speaker fees.

“Soon, you and I will be on the same level!” I laughingly told him.

“You should take the State Department job,” Esalen responded.

I was silent, imagining my violent death in a green jungle at the edge of the equator.

“You should take it because it’s dangerous,” Esalen said, as if sensing my discomfort.  “If you come back alive, you will be fearless. And if you don’t, well, lesson learned.”

We discussed the matter into the night, over the phone. Esalen was ensconced in the Four Seasons San Francisco while I lounged comfortably on the 800-count sheets of the Four Seasons Washington.  My trajectory had taken me, in just a few short months, to the exalted level of inspirational speakers that Esalen occupied.  My mentor believed that I needed a new challenge, something that would really stretch me.  The fear of my execution at the hand of Maoist guerillas was a legitimate concern, for they had recently put to death a whole busload of bird-watchers from Nebraska, on perhaps the most ill-planned expedition ever mounted by the American Aviary Society.

“You’ve become too comfortable,” Esalen said.  “You need to stretch.”

After several hours of argument, Esalen convinced me.  I would go to Africa, because I could get killed.  It was the type of challenge that I needed. Esalen seemed relieved that I was going to a war zone.

The next morning, I called the State Department.  My contact was delighted.  They had money they needed to “move” as he called it, before the end of the fiscal year. I would start immediately.

The next day, I was on a plane to Africa.  After landing on a pockmarked runway, I was taken to the Presidential Palace.  Lions roamed the grounds of the immense estate.

Columns of smoke lined the horizon, from villages that the guerillas were “purifying” of capitalism.

The Ruler, as he was referred to, listened to my presentation politely, almost docilely.  This was a man who came to power in an early-morning putsch a couple years earlier.  The elected President had been rousted from his bed and shot at poolside by The Ruler himself. At the time, he was known as Captain Mobumbo. Not one to delegate, he liked to handle matters personally.  After his ascension to power, he beat the guerillas back to their highland bases.  His methods were extreme, but successful.  With his hands-on management style and disregard for the “rules” (like human rights), I likened him to a jungle Steve Jobs.  He would be at home in any corporate boardroom in America.

Now, however, he needed help.  The Western powers had cut off the line of credit he used to buy Kalashnikovs from the Ukraine.  His methods had been a little too extreme.  Amnesty International had discovered mass graves and assumed the worst.  Anyone could’ve put those bodies there.

Without access to new weapons, The Ruler had lost his way.  He was tentative, unsure, and the guerillas had crept out of the mountains and fought their way almost the length of the entire country, until they were nearly to the Presidential Palace itself.  In the capitol, democracy blossomed, and with it came a swarm of critics biting at the ankles of The Ruler, like the fabled gnats of this swamp-laced land.

Where the people once saw blood and terror in his eyes, now they sensed weakness and confusion.

The man I saw wasn’t the stern-faced executioner of yore.  He fiddled with prayer beads as I began my presentation.  I told him about my encounter with a prostitute.  “After I said I wasn’t interested, she told me to get off of her block,” I explained.  “I was getting in the way of her success.  I was messing up her block!”

The Ruler shared a laugh in his native tongue with his AK-carrying guards.  As I outlined with him the idea that reaching your potential requires removing people from your block, his visage became serious.  He leaned forward, as if hearing a good folk tale. I warmed to the task and smote the air with one hand.

“You must clear your block!” I shouted, willing the man into action.

The Ruler burst into applause, a smile spreading across his face.

“Marvelous! Simply marvelous!” he said.  He then grew serious.  He took me by the hand, squeezing it with just a hint of his legendary strength.  “This is what the State Department wants?” he asked.  His blood-red eyes stared into mine.

“Yes.”  I believe in the practice of responding confidently to any question, even if you’re unsure about the answer.  Doing so establishes your authority.

Did the State Department really want The Ruler to implement my ideas?  It seemed like they did.  The contract for services was unclear, with vague words like “education” and “outreach” scattered throughout its dozen pages.  If State didn’t want “Don’t Mess Up My Block” adapted to G—- then why send me to the country?

If I was more adept at the murky world of diplomacy, I would’ve asked more questions.  However, I was from the land of business consulting, where success is measured by speaking fees and muted applause in conference rooms.

The Ruler leaned forward.  “The message is understood.”  His eyes now blazed with newfound confidence.  He strode out martially.

I returned to my room, lulled to sleep by the roar of lions, confident that I had earned every penny of my $25,000 remuneration.

The arrests began the next day.  I saw it on BBC, shortly before The Ruler kicked the network out of the country.  It was a wholesale roundup of his enemies. He called it, “Operation Don’t Mess Up My Block.”

My contact at State was furious.  The Ruler apparently claimed that I, and, in extension, the U.S. government, had authorized this crackdown.  The Ruler had explained to State that those arrested we’re messing up his block.

“This was just a public education grant!” my contact fumed.  “You were just supposed to give a presentation on management techniques!”

“He asked for advice and I gave it to him.”

My contact made a guttural sound of anger and frustration.  “I just had some money left in the budget that I had to spend! And now all of West Africa is destabilized.”

“Maybe,” I said, thinking quickly.  “Maybe, West Africa needed to be destabilized, like a company needs a reorganization.”

The phone line cut off.  The Ruler had shut down access to the outside world.

There was a knock at the door.  The Ruler needed me.

“Thank you for your excellent counsel,” he said, resplendent in his uniform of tiger skins and peacock feathers.  He occupied his throne as if he was immortal.  “My enemies are now in jail. They were block messers. But, now, the opposition say that I mess up their block by putting their leaders in jail.  They have called for a general strike.  What do I do?”

I was improvising, when I am best. “There are unresolved pressures in your political system.  They must be allowed to come out into the open, so that a solution can be arrived at.”

The general strike began and, within days, the country had run out of gasoline and food.  The people were hungry and restive.  The Ruler had shot all the leaders of the opposition so there was nobody to negotiate with.  The streets devolved into running gun battles between soldiers and the opposition.  Both sides were running out of food and ammunition.  Meanwhile, the fires of the Maoist guerillas kept inching closer to the capitol.

A C-130 landed in the middle of the night and evacuated all Americans in the country.  However, in an apparent oversight, I was not informed.

On a borrowed satellite phone, I got through to my contact at State.  “Sorry about that,” he said.  “We just forgot.”

“Can you get me out?” I asked.  The boom of mortars was getting closer.

“Ask the French.”  The line went dead.

The Ruler summoned me.  He was feeding whole chickens to his lions.  He held a bird aloft by its neck.

“This is the last chicken,” he told me.  “No more chickens left for the lions.  No beans left for the soldiers, either.”

We watched the lions fights over the chicken carcass, guarded by restive soldiers with machine guns.

“Hungry soldiers aren’t loyal,” he observed.

I proposed doing a listening session with the palace troops.  I would facilitate and record their perspectives.

“I just need some whiteboards and markers.”

The Ruler considered the offer.  “That will buy me some time,” he said.

The next day, I went down to the barracks.  I had not been provided a whiteboard or a laser pointer or slides or even a laptop.  The soldiers didn’t understand the point of the exercise. They remained in their bunks as I explained that I was to facilitate a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of employment with The Ruler.

“Now, what is constructive feedback?” I began.

Suddenly, there was a roar from the airstrip.  A DC-9 lifted up into the sky.  On it was The Ruler and the country’s gold reserves.

The soldiers rushed outside and mindlessly fired their AKs at the departing aircraft.  My situation no longer seemed tenable.  The Ruler was en route to the south of France.  I needed an exit strategy.  Before the soldiers could return and vent their rage on me, I caught a car to the city.

The Charles de Gaulle, a rusty French aircraft carrier, loitered offshore, ready to evacuate European nationals.  Vive le France, I thought.  I knew that I had to think positively if I was to survive.

In the capitol, no bullets were left.  The soldiers and the opposition had joined together to loot the city before the guerillas arrived.

How did I manage to get an EU passport?  Networking, Third World-style.  A taxi driver I bribed knew a local fixer who I bribed who knew a forger who I also bribed to get me an EU passport.  The photo in the passport was of someone else, which is what necessitated that I wear a wig and gold chains in order to pass as Marco Lucchese of Palermo, Italy.

The French paratrooper didn’t even look at the large-nosed visage in the passport and compare it to my own more pleasingly symmetrical face.  He just saw that I was holding the right-colored document in hand and waved me toward the parking lot where a helicopter was waiting.

As we lifted off, the city in flames beneath us, I reflected on the experience.  After a client engagement, I always spend a few quiet minutes processing the encounter, as if I was meditating.  What did I learn?  What value did I provide?  What’s my takeaway from the experience?

The helicopter banked hard to avoid a RPG as the other passengers on the flight screamed.  The grenade exploded in a red blast a hundred feet away, nearly shaking us from the sky.

Maybe the Third World wasn’t ready for American-style personal empowerment?  As we fled the continent for the safety of a waiting aircraft carrier, it was hard not to make that assessment.  Had my ideas failed in Africa?  Was “Don’t Mess Up My Block” not an appropriate strategy for a newly developing country?

We were now over blue waters dotted with fishing boats fleeing the chaos of the Republic of G——.

My ideas were sound.  The implementation was faulty.  The Ruler had applied them incorrectly.  By jailing all of his enemies, he had destabilized the country. His enemies weren’t the one who were messing up the block.  In fact, it was The Ruler who was standing in the way of his country’s ultimate embrace of democracy and capitalism.  Only by getting rid of himself could the country succeed.  Despite the chaos and the looting, the Republic of G—- could now progress into a brighter future.

I could see the PowerPoint slides now, as I explained things to the State Department.  This would be an important lesson for them to record and understand.  Perhaps I would be invited to give a lecture series to Foreign Service Officers around the world.

With my African adventure, I had discovered something important. I had stretched myself, as my mentor Esalen wished, and came away from the experience with a vital lesson.  “Don’t Mess Up My Block” was a compelling meme, one that animated the leader of a country to change everything.  That was a truth that deserved to be heard beyond just the few people I could reach through my public speaking.

Excitement filled me as the Charles de Gaulle came into view, trailing an oil slick a hundred miles long.  My fellow passengers were crying in relief at their deliverance. I, however, had work to do.

The helicopter landed with a hard thump aboard the aircraft carrier.  Deck personnel rushed us off the craft, its blades still spinning.  The chopper was going back to rescue more Europeans.

I believe in striking while the iron is hot. Inspiration is a fickle mistress.

While the other refugees were calling out their thanks in a polyglot of languages, I grabbed the first sailor I saw.

“Can I get a laptop?” I shouted.  “I have a book to write!”

No More Washington Post Book World?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that one of life’s joys is to sit down with a good newspaper.  Though I’m someone who’s spent a career working on web sites, there’s some really special about a quiet morning with a paper.  And some coffee.

A newspaper is easier on the eyes than a glowing screen.  It also offers the chance of serendipity, of stumbling upon some article you never would’ve read, just because you have to turn pages to find the article you’re looking for.  A newspaper is also mostly distraction-free (no videos blaring, no animating ads) which, IMHO, makes reading an article in print a richer and more rewarding experience.  Things I really want to absorb, I need to see on paper.  

Today comes the news (ironically, from The New York Times), that the Washington Post is ending Book World, its Sunday books supplement.  Economic reasons are cited.  I find this hard to believe.  Washington is one of the most literate cities in the country, filled with readers, and writers, too.  Hop on the Metro, visit a coffee shop, stroll through a park and you’ll find scores of people lost in good books.  The city is home to excellent and popular bookstores, like Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose.  With the wide range of books that people in DC read, there’s got to be a need for book reviews. Continue reading “No More Washington Post Book World?”

StrengthsFinder 2.0

I took the StrengthsFinder 2.0 test. It asks you a series of questions on how you like to work, how you get along with other people and how you’ve organized your life. You have 20 seconds to answer each question because they want your gut responses, without a lot of thinking. The same kind of questions are asked again and again, in slightly different formulations, to find out how strongly you feel about something. When answering, you choose a range of responses from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly.”

When you’re done with this online test (it takes 20-30 minutes to complete), you’re presented with a list of your top five strengths.  Here’s mine:

  1. Input
  2. Strategic
  3. Intellection
  4. Maximizer
  5. Learner
I took this test three years ago, when it was part of Now, Discover Your Strengths.  Interestingly, I had the same five strengths when I took it last, just in a slightly different order.
What’s different in StrengthsFinder 2.0 is, along with a list of your strengths, it provides a couple of additional tools to help you become happier and more effective. The first is a personalized guide that contains:

Brief descriptions of all five of your strengths

Your Personalized Strengths Insights, which describe what makes you stand out from others with the same theme in their top five

Some examples of what the theme “sounds like” — real quotes from people who also have the theme in their top five

Ten very practical ideas for action for each strength

A Strengths Discovery Activity to get you thinking about how your talents and your investment work together to build strengths that you can apply to your work and personal life

A Strengths-Based Action Plan for review with a friend, manager, or colleague.

There’s also a simple online tool where you can pick from their suggestions on how to improve yourself and build a custom guide of practical ideas for you to follow.

If you’re a compulsive planner, StrengthsFinder 2.0 is for you. But I think it’s also useful for people going through a career transition or just wondering if they’re in the right job.

I strongly agree with the core philosophy of StrengthsFinder – you should concentrate your efforts on what you’re best at, rather than trying to improve upon your weaknesses. Not only is this a more efficient use of your time, it’s more likely to lead to happiness.