Category Archives: Books

Little house of men

MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people we believe love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.

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ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.

“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”

The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.

They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I thought about it and bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon.

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THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.

Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.

 

“So all of you cooked?”

“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”

 

MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.

I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit perfectly. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.

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THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.

I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”

“CHAIN!”

His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.

And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.

The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.

I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.

It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.

I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.

 

“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.

“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”

 

SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.

We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.

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IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”

I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.

This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.

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Two stragglers

So first Fat Cyclist called me out, and then I called him out back, and then he missed his story deadline, and then I made my deadline for “The Rambler, Part 2,” and gave him more time and he got “Last Ride on the Kokopelli” done, and then November 30th at midnight, I missed my deadline for getting the whole book together and up for sale.

So…I can’t tell who won anything. I think we both lost—but we also both finished our stories, and I’m about to finish the book. That’s noble and honorable, right? Coming in under your own power after you miss the cutoff?

Here’s the cover:

RIDE3_cover_12_01_15

It still needs its back cover and spine designed, a missing author blurb snagged, ISBNs registered, and some other stuff that somebody’s got to do and I’m the only one here. I tried. Sometimes N+1 is how long it’s going to take to finish a book.

Should be a couple more days or so.

We also never quite got around to agreeing on exactly what would happen if one of us lost, but now that both of us have, it seems to me it should be doubled.

So if we take [never really figured out this bet] and double it, we get…uh…well, I think we get “donate money to each other’s favorite charity.”

What say you, FC?

two_stragglers

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Simple machine

I WAS DEPRESSED when I woke up yesterday morning, and weight loss had reversed since I got sick earlier in the week, and it was 15° out and gloomy and there seemed no point. So I posted on Facebook:

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Because I’d posted something all tough-sounding, now I had to be able to say later that I’d done it, so I eventually found all my winter cycling clothes (not the Lycra ones, the jeans and parka ones) and went outside.

Because I keep a very cheap bottom-end single-speed fatbike outside, and still have the buckskin mittens I got in the Arctic and never thought I’d use again, I could ride to my new workspace without worrying about getting stuck there if it snowed during the day.

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Because cycling drives your psyche clean, I got there in a good mood, and because even 3.7 flat miles is a workout on a 60-pound bike with 15psi tires, I got there in a good mood and invigorated—and hungry.

Because I was now in Danbury, I didn’t have to eat random leftovers out of the fridge.

And because I was invigorated and fed, and have always loved any unfamiliar cold sweet drink, I was friendly and happy.

Because I was friendly, I got into a friendly conversation with one of the guys who started the Hackerspace, and because I’m “the book design guy,” was taken forcibly by the lapels and hauled across the street, to a medium-small press, where I was introduced to the publisher and acquiring editor.

Because I don’t have a headlight on this bike yet, I rode home just before dark.

Because I was home before dark, I had time to check out Open Mic Night at my local coffeehouse, which I liked better than the open mics I’ve checked out at local bars. I have a new song that’s almost done.

Because I hadn’t written all day, I felt the day had been a failure. But not the kind of failure where everything’s hopeless, which is how I’d felt in the morning; the kind where you know it actually is a failure of sorts, but because you got your riding in…eh, you know, no point being despondent. And the lard thing was pretty funny. Just do better tomorrow.

Here’s the lard thing. I have no idea how to count calories when buying Chinese food cooked by the owner of the grocery store:

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THIS MORNING I weighed in at less than 220 for the first time since November.

I was also a little sorrowful for no very clear reason, and a little sick, still. But the depression wasn’t so bad. And because I didn’t want to break the new streak, I rode to work again.

Bicycling gives you the same ideas you get when you’re falling asleep, only you can write them down when you get there. When I got to the Hackerspace, I wrote down what the climax and ending of this novel are.

(Because bicycling also replays painful old gaffes on a loop, I imagined how people I’ve been weird to—because at specific times of my life, my personality wasn’t back together yet—would react to the book. Eh, Snyder. Yeah, don’t like him. YOU can, I’m not saying otherwise. We all have our tastes, and none are wrong. Just…you know…*raised eyebrows and shrug*.)

(Because bicycling also pumps good mood through your entire being, I remembered I don’t actually care all that much that I sometimes fumble the social thing.)

Because I know the climax now, I’m taking a break from plotting and narrative and working on blurbable reviews. Publishers Weekly will call it one of the first masterworks of the early twenty-first century. The New York Times will marvel that a genre writer could have produced such a layered work of subtle complexity. These are advance blurbs, and subject to change.

I will be accused, by my friends, of snobbishly distancing myself from genre, and will patiently explain what I really meant in the interview. My explanation will be grudgingly accepted, but only four of my friends will still talk to me a month later. That’s a net gain of two, so this works out great.

Metal tubes, cables, rubber, leather. Gears and levers. Miracles.

Bruno the Big-Boned

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The Man Who Designed Books

I REMEMBERED, WHILE compiling a big list of production managers, small press owners, and anybody else I could think of who might need my services, that they always ask for samples, and it always takes hours to figure out just what they want and which things to send. If they specialize in how-to for sports-loving arthropods, I wonder if the self-help for anxious cetaceans I did will be quite the right thing to send, and I notice, while browsing EXO-STRIKE! An Invertebrate’s Guide to Bowling (in order to familiarize myself with the publisher), that it contains a lot of diagrams; there are none in my design for EASY ECHOLOCATION: Mackerel Without Worry.
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A thought about an experiment in translation

This is on my personal blog instead of the RIDE blog because it’s just me thinking aloud.

Any literary translators out there?

So I was thinking it would be nice to have RIDE available in other languages, but then I thought, No, each translation would probably cost too much to make sense.

So then I thought, what about a royalty split? Translator gets a percentage. But then I thought, No, I had to stop doing royalty splits with authors because the accounting is so impossible, plus it’s kind of insulting to say, Hey, do all this work and you might get a fraction of what I get out of it.

So then I thought, what if the translator just gets all the sales income and I don’t get any part of it?

And then I thought, I’m not actually seeing a down side for anybody here. I wouldn’t make any money, for either my editing/design/production or my own story, but that’s not the same as a loss. The story authors and the artist would be in a similar situation: they’ve been paid and aren’t seeing anything more coming in after that anyway, and any author/artist who didn’t want to participate could just say no thanks. The translator wouldn’t get paid up front, but they wouldn’t have to spend anything, either, and after doing the work, they’d be the foreign publisher. So the first penny that came in on that edition would go directly to them—and so would the ten-thousandth penny.

Since we’re not dealing in physical copies, but rather in .epub, .mobi, and .pdf files, and I’d do the production work (slotting the translated stories into existing files where the English stories currently reside, changing the title on the cover from RIDE to whatever word now goes there, sending the files to the translator) without compensation as part of the experiment, there is no out-of-pocket expense for anybody, just some work for me and some work for the translator.

Translator starts their own accounts at Amazon, Lightning Source, B&N, iBooks, etc., uploads the files, talks it up online, and gets some money. How much money? I have no idea. Not a ton; RIDE isn’t The Hunger Games, and it only exists because I love bikes and wanted to read short stories about them, not because I did any market research. But the money also wouldn’t be zero.

But that’s the experiment’s main question: Is this a viable plan? Would everyone benefit enough to keep doing it? Would there be any kind of “rising tide floats all boats” effect? Would the expansion of the series into more languages help each edition sell more because the series itself becomes better known? Would anybody but the translator end up getting anything out of it? Would the translator get more than a few bucks?

I don’t know. It’s all question, no answer, at this point. But that’s my half-formed idea. What do you think?

If you comment, please include who you are, where you are, and what you do, so I can understand what perspective to read your comment from: Writer, publisher, translator, reader, know-it-all (pick just one, please), continental U.S., Fiji Islands…

translation_idea

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Two things I designed recently, and the kind of clients I’m looking for

I also posted this at the TYPEFLOW blog.

Books come from authors. Directories come from databases. Both have their quirks. Databases drink less.

I wasn’t sure whether talking about directories here would make me seem less like a book person, but the truth is, I love both. For either, my job comes down to transformation: A novel is transformed from an ugly, unhelpful Word file into something like fine art; a directory is blobs of raw data refined into attractive, functional listings.

Typeflow does both. Here are some examples:

(Click to see a bigger version that you can zoom in on.)

Directory and book interiors
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Three questions

RIDE 2 cover

Cross-posted at the RIDE blog.

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IT DIDN’T OCCUR to me, when I decided to use this “Three Questions” game to say what I liked about each story, or why I’d chosen it, that I would eventually come to my own. Instead of telling you how great it is, I’ll tell you something I learned.

The first RIDE anthology (mumble mumble purchase mumble) was my first stab at being an editor and publisher. One of my mistakes was in sending Advance Reading Copies to reviewers when everything was almost perfect—except for my own story, a novelette called “Night Ride.” The cover did say UNCORRECTED PROOFS, after all, which people would know meant there was still some hammering and sawing going on, and I was thinking of the book as a team effort, which implied there was a team for me to take one for. People were trusting me, and if tasks had to fall undone before the ARCs had to go, it was only fair if most of them fell into the bucket with my own name on it. So I sent the ARCs out.

And then I minded.

Not as much, though, as I’d have minded being that guy who sends a string of “Wait, I uploaded a new version!” emails.. So I stuck Don’t ship the ARC before your story is as polished as all the other ones in the “lessons learned for next time” column, along with Don’t publish the ebook and the print book at different times and Don’t miss the holiday sales window.

Those last two…well, RIDE 3, I’ll do better. But “The Rambler, Part 1” was nice and shiny before the first review copies of RIDE 2 went out. And—yeah, it’s a poem. It rhymes. I was reading Chaucer in the tub on my iPad, and I saw that he was heavy on the plot and light on the closely observed moment, and I went I can do that! I can not observe stuff!

…up through Harlem, onto Broadway; picking
out his silhouette, they weave to follow,
sticking tight past Jimmy Jazz, Apollo,
Duane Reade, Rite Aid, Popeye’s Chicken,
toward the river, tires quicken
toward the bridge that goes to Jersey.
If he’s caught—there’ll be no mercy.

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Barb Goffman (“Ulterior Motives”)

asks three questions of

Keith Snyder (“The Rambler, Part 1”)

Barb: In “The Rambler, Part I,” your rider is using his bike as a means of escape, literally. Have you ever raced away from someone on a bike, trying to avoid them?

Keith: I like to do these things called brevets, which are long-distance rides with proscribed routes and time limits. I’m also the CEO and OGH (Only Guy Here) of a book design company that grew from a fledgling business that sucked up all my time in 2011 to a big workload that sucked up all my time in 2012. So my last ride that went all night was in 2010.

Whaddayagonnado—I been busy.

But in 2010, I was severely underemployed and emotionally shredded, so I was riding longer distances. One was a 400K that went through the Pine Barrens at night.

The overnight portion of a brevet can be physically and emotionally difficult; you’re fatigued, it may have been a while since your last real food, you’ve had several imaginary but not entirely silent confrontations with the most obtuse people of your acquaintance, and your metabolic thermostat has sprung its coil. You can’t remember why you thought this was a good idea, your car is fifty miles away, and there’s no train and zero bars on your phone.

Brevet routes tend to be designed to put you on smaller highways and mountain roads as much as possible, both to reduce the number of cars you’ll encounter and because stoplights bleed your average speed more than you’d think. (Well, stopping at them does, anyway.) So depending on route, season, weather, and velocity—I’m slow—you can end up in unlit desolation for long stretches of time, able to see only as far as your headlight beam, utterly blind to the sides and rear. 4am isn’t just the best time for an army to attack, because the other army is at its worst; it’s also when a dirty, discouraged randonneur (or frozen, or drenched; we do this in all weather) can’t see the point of this anymore.

The Pine Barrens are a forest shot through with cranberry bogs. There are no streetlights because there is almost no night traffic, and there are no stars except those directly overhead, because the pine trees snuff them out in all directions. On this night there was no moon, either, and an overcoat of clouds over whatever stars had escaped the pine trees. I could see the highway in front of me well enough to think every stretching shadow was a pothole, but the portion of beam higher than the road didn’t do anything but collude with every reflective highway sign to blow out my vision and hint at an ever-moving wedge of distant black foliage.

But you can hear things in the cranberry bogs.

I don’t know species, so I classify them all by size. That soft crackling and crunching, very soft, everywhere, is the the local insect biomass stumbling over thousands of tiny twigs, falling off leaves, dropping into ponds. Briefer, more directional little snaps and dull creaks are your beefier bugs and possible birds. Next larger: definite birds—woodpeckers, the occasional confused rooster—and continuing up the size scale are your random small mammals, trotting coyote, bored, leaping deer, the isolated shapeless thing skulking across the highway.

And to my left, the deep, leathery flap of something huge in the air, rising off a dirty water surface. There’s a creek, or a bog, or a flooded ditch off the highway there, because the rising thing’s feet drag on liquid as its wings beat. It gains altitude ponderously, amassing momentum, its hot weight coming even with me, then rising above eye level—and my panic has flooded me with so much strength, I can barely get my fumbling fingers on the shifters.

Once identifiable as little rocks, gravel has become dim streaks beneath my pedals. I’m maintaining barely enough self-mastery to not flub a shift and grind my non-precision budget drivetrain. Hair surges on my neck and forearms—the luxurious wingbeat is closer, the dense black body gliding in the humid black air; my butt’s bouncing because I just outran my gearing. The highway floats ahead in a few dozen feet of bulbous gray light. A few inches behind my saddle, the floating glow of a deep red coal—the brightest taillight on the Internet—is beacon and rangefinder for anything that wants to strip my nerves from my meat.

There’s a deep bovine growl three feet from my ear, a hot snort on my cheek. I’ve just whimpered and my legs are spinning faster than the gears can accept, and I don’t know what gear I’m in, so I shove a shift lever in my blind panic, and there’s a cling! and a thrrrrrip!; my pedaling legs flail against nothing, and I understand that the chain has come off.

A single blast of warm air into my face and through my helmet vents, and thick leather wings and a whip tail clip the topmost antumbra of my headlight, as I grab my handlebars and fight to keep from crashing; I stutter-step with one foot a few times because I can’t remember how to unclip the other one and I stand alone shaking, the flashbulb impression of a massive bat ray still fading in my retinas, and up in the depth of night, something smashes the tops of the invisible pines.

Barb: Is there anywhere in the world you would like to explore on a bicycle but haven’t been able to? If so, where and why? And what’s holding you back?

Keith: There aren’t that many places I wouldn’t like to. In some alternate universe, I have no family and one of these. In that same universe, its bushings never fail, and my witty, self-deprecating accounts of adventures through a smorgasbord of terrains and cultures are the most fascinating things that happen near the onion dip at parties of A-list literati; but this never happens. So let’s just keep things as they are.

Barb: What’s your most embarrassing or funny biking story?

Keith: FCO (Failure to Clip Out) in front of Princess Grace of Monaco. She pretended not to see, but we both knew.

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LIKE YOU’VE NEVER read Chaucer in the tub on your iPad.

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