Schiff’s Backstage Tour of Cleopatra

Despite the unpleasant coating of the cover, akin to toad skin, I could not put down Stacy Schiff’s entertaining biography Cleopatra A Life. To avoid parting with the fascinating metropolis that was Alexandria, and the larger than life single-mother-queen-goddess of Egypt, I even began to read it out aloud to my children as a bedtime story. I was prepared to distort the history for young ears, but quickly found it to be a surmountable task as murderous plots and incest were celebrated more frequently than birthdays in Cleopatra’s inverted family.

I hope my children could piece together from the heavily censored bedtime version that not all princesses have to marry the prince charming or an over-weight man from the swamp. Even though Cleopatra was born a princess, she had to work and fight for her right to become and remain a queen. Cleopatra, who spoke fluently nine languages, was a highly intelligent and educated woman, which was a key to her success. The most important lesson to learn from Cleopatra’s story is that history is written with an agenda and should be viewed in context. Schiff succeeds to provide that context for past historians, and does not merely recount the different tales of Cleopatra we have come to cherish over the centuries.

Future historians might criticize Schiff for advancing her own agenda by casting Cleopatra as a modern Alexandrian woman in a dark contrast to the oppressed women of Rome, for stripping her of bewitching seductive powers and portraying her as an equal, if not superior, to the powerful men of her time. Schiff’s Cleopatra, a capable, wealthy sovereign, who captured all of Egypt and several Roman hearts with her mind rather than her looks, was a master of public relations and brand management. Schiff takes the reader to an exclusive backstage tour behind the scenes, restores the glory and in the end provides one final tribute to her subject: even Cleopatra’s demise emerges as a triumph.

Schiff’s Cleopatra brings to mind Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe, another modern albeit fictional Egyptian, who forces the reader to shed misconceptions about the ancient times. Waltari’s novel The Egyptian is so well grounded in the egyptology, that it is worth the read even for those who prefer non-fiction. I highly recommend both.

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Biography Trapped in Steve Job’s Reality Distortion Field

Walter Isaacson has written once again a biography for the masses, wrapped in a pretty high gloss dust jacket, that could have come straight from the Apple design factory, featuring Steve Jobs on front and back. The book was not supposed to be published until 2012, and in some minor details it shows. It would have benefitted from a few more editorial rounds, to avoid a few logical errors in sentences and overuse of some words such as “reality distortion field” coined by Jobs’ colleagues. All in all, it is an enjoyable read; only rarely did I trace back to double-check details. In less than four days, the 571 pages had turned almost by themselves. In the end, I wished both Jobs and Isaacson would have had a chance to write a few more chapters.

Nothing demonstrates better how Isaacson has captured the Steveness as the heading toward the end of the book “And One More Thing…” followed by Jobs’ own words on his hopes for his legacy. The account of Jobs reflecting on death, and the possibility of God, sounds almost too good to be true. Still, even if Isaacson sugarcoated the last paragraph, it is the perfect ending that surely would have pleased even Steve. For an Apple fan like myself, this book is a joyful read but leaves something to be desired.

Despite his best efforts, Isaacson fails to avoid the reality distortion field. Isaacson does portray Steve Jobs truthfully as an egocentric, flawed human being, but falls for Jobs’ compelling mantra of control when it comes to Apple’s business practices. Failures of Microsoft, Google, IBM and others serve as a backdrop for Apple’s insanely successful products and iTunes and App Store strategy, followed by the future in the iCloud. The mantra goes as follows: tightly integrated hardware, software and content will lead to innovative products and user-friendly experience. Isaacson acknowledges a few casualties of this approach, porn and political satire censored by Apple, and refers to the debate casting Apple as the Big Brother. The chosen examples, and the email exchange between Jobs and Valleywag editor Ryan Tate, not only reveal Steve’s attitude – but also Isaacson’s, that it is a company’s responsibility to draw the line somewhere and protect the people from whatever it is the company deems undesired or harmful. What Isaacson ignores to disclose, is that Apple has already demonstrated the dark side of being the Big Brother, and it is not merely a frightening possibility of the future.

iFlow, by BeamItDown Software, used to be a feature-rich eBook reader with a promising start to become the next generation eBook reader for the iOS, but earlier this year Apple changed the rules for the App Store predicting a negative cash flow for BeamItDown Software among others. The new agent model required a 30% cut for in-app purchases and banned directing users to a website to purchase subscriptions and digital products. Combined with the requirement of a fixed commission of 30% for all book sellers, Apple intended to make sure only they could sell eBooks on Apple devises with a profit. In one swift move Apple killed the innovative iFlow reader  and crippled other eBook readers, such as Kindle for for iOS, in favour of their own iBook.

The large companies in the eBook market were able to push Apple to loosen up the new rules, allowing publishers to mark-up the price for in-app purchases, to account for the 30% cut, or forgo the initially required in-app purchase option altogether. A change that was disguised as an enhancement to the user experience, and intended to ensure users pay the same price regardless which eBook reader they use, ended up doing exactly the opposite.

For the music industry, it is already clear that you need to play ball the way Apple sees fit, or you won’t play ball at all in the digital market. The big players in the eBook market were able to avoid the fate of iFlow this time around, but the playing field is now rigged for Apple to hit a home run with the next version of eBook. I’m sure Apple will eventually deliver a wonderful next generation eBook reader that the users will love, and we will once again marvel the clever innovations. I also predict that we will be astonished how they did it without Steve, forgetting that anything that Apple dishes out in the next three years probably bears his thumbprint.

Isaacson states at the beginning, and repeats near the end of his book, that Steve Jobs did not ask to read the biography in advance. I would be surprised if Apple PR department didn’t get to review the book before it reached the printers. In 2005 Apple was not happy about an unauthorized Steve Jobs biography, “iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business” published by John Wiley & Sons, and decided to remove all the titles of the publisher from the iBookstore. For Apple to refuse to sell an unauthorized biography of its co-founder is dubious for a company that touts freedom yet it is understandable. But to pull the plug on Wiley’s other books, in attempt to force the hand of the publisher, is a blatant example of misuse of power. It is a frightening prospect what Apple could do with this power if the next insanely great product is the next generation iBook reader, and even more so, if it is iCloud instead.

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Einstein’s Little Princess

I have just finished Walter Isaacson’s hefty book Einstein: His Life and Universe. It was a real page turner. Isaacson has taken the general relativity, and the man behind it, to tell a compelling story. Surprisingly, not even the calculations Einstein wrote down on his death bed leave you as baffled as does his personal life, particularly his relationship with his first wife and children. I am incapable of enjoying even a biography without a compulsion to interpret everything I read.

Lack of evidence appears to have made Isaacson cautious to openly support any theory on what happened to Albert Einstein’s and Mileva Maric’s illegitimate daughter Lieserl. On the surface it looks like he dutifully lists the different theories, the most popular one being that Lieserl died of scarlet fever as a toddler. Another theory favored by Robert Schulmann of the Einstein Papers Project, according to Isaacson, is that Mileva’s close friend Helene Savic adopted Lieserl. Also according to Isaacson, Helene Savic brought up a girl named Zorka, who was blind, never married, was shielded by her nephew from interviews and died in the nineties. Isaacson is careful to state that Zorka’s nephew, Milan Popović, favors the theory that Einstein’s daughter died of scarlet fever, but then goes as far as to state that Zorka’s relatives have not provided any proof, such as a birth certificate, to prove Zorka was not Lieserl.

Conveniently, most of the correspondence between the women from this time period has been destroyed by Mileva herself and Zorka’s protective family. Only few letters between Einstein and Mileva remain that reveal Lieserl even existed. In one of them it was discussed that their daughter might have suffered some lasting effect due to scarlet fever, which Isaacson speculates could be blindness. Several chapters later Isaacson mentions in passing Mileva’s sister by name – Zorka. There is nothing like a princess that inspires people to name their daughter (I’ve done it myself twice) so Zorka was by no means uncommon name in Serbia at the time. Still something in me gravitates toward the tragic and poetic theory, which Isaacson appears to support in between the lines.

The adopted by a family friend theory would certainly explain several peculiarities in Mileva’s and Einstein’s life. While Mileva was pregnant, and immediately after giving birth, Einstein was thrilled, and nothing suggested that they would give up the baby. Almost nothing: two months before giving birth, Mileva wrote to Einstein about telling her friend: “I don’t think we should say anything about Lieserl yet.” and “We must now treat her very nicely. She’ll have to help us in something important, after all.” Isaacson speculates this could be a cryptic hint that Mileva and Einstein hoped their friend would take custody of their child.

After Lieserl was born something clearly changed. It could have been Einstein’s new position at the patent office, like Isaacson suggests, or that Lieserl was born with a birth defect, or something else that made Einstein and Mileva decide not to raise Lieserl themselves. At this point, I was no longer able to help myself; I let my imagination take over.

Suppose Mileva didn’t want to give her baby up for adoption, even under the circumstances, but didn’t want her family to raise her child either, as later on Lieserl would learn who her parents were, so she turned to her friend Helene Savic for help. The condition of the unofficial adoption would be that Mileva would be able to stay in contact with her daughter through Helene, but Lieserl, and no one else for that matter, would never learn who her true parents were. Hence their letters were deliberately destroyed. Suppose Helen renamed Lieserl, Zorka, possibly upon Mileva’s request. After all it was her sister’s name, the sister whom she confided in about the pregnancy. One thing is certain though, Lieserl was a family secret, and I have little doubt it consumed Mileva until the day she died.

Why would Mileva keep the letters written by Einstein that revealed they had a daughter? To remind herself that their daughter was loved once, however briefly, a romantic would say. As an insurance, something she could use to blackmail Einstein into marriage, and later for financial support, a cynic would say. All of the above, and to protect Zorka in the event it would come to light that Einstein and Mileva had a daughter they had given up for adoption. Nothing is as convincing as admitting to a secret in order to hide another one.

And nothing is more lucrative than to cherry-pick evidence to support your own theory. All is well except there was no blind girl named Zorka, unless Helene Savic had three daughters. She did, however, have a daughter named Zora who was born the same year Lieserl is supposed to have died. Zora eventually married and had children. If someone was blind, it is unlikely it was Zora, as in the family picture she is the one looking into the camera, but her sister, who was born the same year as Lieserl, stares slightly off camera. I could be mistaken that there was in fact Zorka at the Savic household, but she wasn’t listed in the family tree, and therefore Milan Popović, the author of In Albert’s shadow, is not her protective nephew.

Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, on Steve Jobs, will be released today. I hope this time around Isaacson won’t let the apple fall too far of the tree.

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A Digital Desk Drawer

Are you looking for a story that reads like a grown-up romance, unfolds like a mystery, and at the end opens up for interpretation? Take a peek at the beginning of 7 Days and Counting and join Informal Editors.

“Something David Lynch might write if he wore high heels. For me it is about guilt.” — Jussi V., a 40 year old technical writer, who is an avid fan of surrealistic stories.

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Writer’s block and other excuses

The summer is almost over, and I haven’t been able to scribble more than ten lines of Still Counting that I feel confident enough to share publicly. Those were the only words that I was able to commit to when I decided to include the beginning of the sequel in the 7 Days and Counting manuscript. Rest of the first chapters ended up in a digital waste basket, and it’s dawning on me why so many writers refrain from revealing their early drafts to anyone.

What began as a mild writer’s block, has turned into a barricade of obstacles, or so it seems in comparison to last spring. For one, my children have become scholars of Miyazaki, Pixar and classic Disney animations. I can only hope they have learned some Japanese and English in the process. They have also expressed their artistic talent by drawing on the walls and furniture, which I’m sure all children do at some point, but the difference is that my children believe this to be desired behavior. Also, publishing 7 Days and Counting is more work than I thought. I chuckle at myself, and my naïve thoughts how I would just finish a manuscript, send it to potential publishers, sit back and wait for the off chance it would be picked up by someone, and they would take it from there. Thankfully, I have met several published authors, and other people in the business, who have corrected my misconceptions of both publishing and self-publishing.

My last excuse is that I’ve enjoyed reading too much to do any actual writing, so before I’m able to provide you Still Counting for a sneak peek, let me recommend a few books you might enjoy while waiting.

If you still miss the short-lived HBO series Carnivale, then pick up Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and be ready to be transported back to a depression era circus while fighting for a scrumptious apple, a walker over wheelchair and other comforts as an old man in a present day nursing home.

I plowed through Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris this summer, as I’ve read all the novels in the Sookie Stackhouse series, but I have to confess it is more out of dedication to finish what I started than for the books themselves. The HBO series True Blood, based on the Sookie’s world of telepaths, vampires and other mythical creatures, has taken the essence of Harris’ creation and proved that once in a blue moon a moving picture is better than the original written word. Unless you are a true fan of Sookie, and wish to find out how her creator saw her journey, stay away from the books and enjoy the polished, coherent version of her world in the show. In case you haven’t seen True Blood, and any pulp fiction involving vampires and were-animals makes you squint, as if it were twilight, let me assure you it is not just a soap set in supernatural world. The show as entertaining it is, deals with religious fanaticism, racial and class issues and gets away with murder much in a same way as The Simpsons or South Park does, because they are considered to be just cartoons.

There were a few other books I read this summer that stirred up more thoughts than I can fit in a paragraph, so I will dedicate separate posts for those in this blog.

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Who are the stealth readers?

I like numbers, as the title 7 Days and Counting might reveal. The reoccurring prime number seven, in particular, is my favorite. The simultaneous simplicity of it combined with the promise of several, sets seven apart from other one digit prime numbers, and makes it unique. Five comes close, but it is reduced to playing a second fiddle to a boring round number ten, and five ends up being just the “half”. I like any patterns seven is involved in, even arbitrary ones, such as a week, which makes the number seven even more appealing.

Still, even I’m surprised, how fascinated I’ve become of the blog statistics. In April I noticed that over one hundred people had read the beginning (7DP01) of 7 Days and Counting, but I only know a few of them. Now, I’m curious who the stealth readers are, particularly the ones who have taken the time to crack the weak password only to read the ending of the outdated blog version.

Then again, it could be that the persistent stealth readers would have liked to read the complete story, and in the order it was intended, but the blog doesn’t make it exactly easy. As the latest post is always listed first, it is difficult to follow a story, especially this one that unfolds forwards, backwards and then forwards again. The PDF version takes care of this problem, but introduces another. I don’t know who to send it to. If I post it on the blog, the stealth readers might download it, but most likely I would never know if they read parts of it, all of it or none of it. The blog statistics are hazy at best, but still at times they provide invaluable real-time feedback of the reading patterns that help me to find problem areas in the story.

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Still Counting – The Sequel

I’ve began to write a sequel for 7 Days and Counting, and would like to invite anyone, who is interested, to sign up and get a chance to read it, while it is still work in progress. The blog version of the first story 7 Days and Counting is outdated, and I do not recommend reading it. Please wait until the final version is published, or drop me a message, and I’ll send you a personal PDF copy of the current version.

Originally, I had planned to write the prequel first, but the feedback I’ve received so far on 7 Days and Counting has made me change my mind about the order of the series. As much as I love the dysfunctional heroine of 7 Days and Counting in the sequel she plays only a small part as a side character. Some of the other characters of 7 Days and Counting will get their spot in the limelight in the story entitled “Still Counting”.

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It is 7 Days and Counting folks

The story is now nearly complete, though the book is not finished. I’d like to thank all of you for helping me to get this far. Particularly those, who took their precious time to give me comments, as well as support. I’m also thrilled that in the process, some of you have become as enthusiastic about the story as I am.

If you would like to read the whole story, please sign up to this book, or drop me an email within 7 days x 2, and I will send you a personal copy of the draft. What I ask for in return, is brutally honest, and constructive critique, as I still have the possibility to fix it, before I’ll have the dots and commas polished.

As a result of the comments I’ve received so far, the story has evolved, and simple patches to the blog version are no longer feasible. Therefore, I have changed most of the posts to be password protected. Only Part I and the beginnings of both Part II and Part III remain public.

Those of you, who have read at least the first two parts, know the seven letter password, the answer to the question: “What is the name of the heroine?”, and may opt to read the outdated blog version. Others are welcome to try the brute force attack, which I’m sure will succeed, or patiently wait until the finished book.

Edited May 5th, 2011.

I extended the signup for 7 Days and Counting to two weeks to give the stealth readers, who have read only the password protected blog version, chance to receive the complete version.

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Protected: 7DP35 – Seventh day, 8th of October

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Protected: 7DP34 – The date, 7th of October

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