Sunday, July 31, 2011

Paperback Flashback: Grizzly by Will Collins


Celebrating vintage paperbacks--both the cheesy & the profound.
But mostly the cheesy.

 

Movie novelizations are what I would call drugstore fiction.  They're the kind of books you'd pick up off the carousel wire-frame rack while waiting to for your prescription to be filled.  At least that's how it was for me in the 1970s.  I remember standing in Jackson Drug leafing through paperbacks of Grease and Welcome Back, Kotter, looking for clues about character and motivation.  Movie tie-ins were also a way to "see" the movie on the page if you couldn't sit in the dark theater and watch the real thing.  I lived in a small town and movies were slow to reach the screens there.  I remember my Dad making a joke about going to see that "new release" The Sound of Music.  This was in 1980.

But I digress.  Movie novelizations have been around since D. W. Griffith first started cranking a camera (I have several novels in my collection from the 1920s as proof that Saturday Night Fever: the Novel was not so unique).  With very few exceptions (Alan Dean Foster, for one), movie tie-in authors toil at a scorned art.  As Joe Queenan notes: "Authors of film novelisations, not unlike pornographers, rarely get the respect they deserve."  These books are odd literary artifacts where, essentially, the "author" is assigned to write the book months before the movie is released (sometimes before shooting has wrapped).  And so, armed with just the screenplay and very rarely actually seeing the finished film, the writer sits down at his typewriter (I think of tie-ins as curiosities from the 1970s, before the age of personal computers) and cranks out a novel in about 18 hours, lifting dialogue straight from the script and throwing in little arty flourishes of description and exposition whenever possible--like writing "There are still many who believe that the insolent chariots sold by Detroit can go anywhere and surmount any terrain" instead of "The drunk teenager drove up the side of Mount Insurmountable in his Jeep."

Which brings us to Grizzly, where you can find that aforementioned "insolent chariots" sentence.  I never saw the 1976 movie--hell, I wasn't even allowed to go see Jaws back then--but my 13-year-old spidey sense tingled enough to convince me Grizzly was just one big ball of crap.  Like any number of rogue-animal movies in the wake of Jaws, it was designed to make us stay out of the woods (or water or desert or field of daisies harboring rabid grasshoppers).  This, I think, was a nefarious plot on the part of urban planners who wanted us all to live in cities and avoid Nature at all costs.  Whatever its cinematic merits, I can tell you that Grizzly: the Novel is a prime candidate for celebration here at Paperback Flashback.

For starters, who in the world has guts that crunch?  Second, don't you think little Miss Bambi Perkychest would feel that saliva dripping on her hair?  Finally, that bear on the cover looks just like the one which used to be on display in the corner clothing store in my hometown.  Before you got to the tables with their stacks of Wrangler jeans, you had to walk by the stuffed bear, the one with the threadbare belly where all the local kids liked to rub the fur despite the admonitory signs DO NOT TOUCH THE BEAR.

By the same token, I think it only fair to warn you: DON'T PET THE NOVEL.


(Click to enlarge)


Page 100:
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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Soup and Salad: Buh-Bye Borders: Writers Reflect on Chain's Impact, World Book Night, Where in the World is Alice Bliss?, Agatha Christie Hangs Ten, What to Read at the Beach, Lassie's Author was Hardboiled, Ridiculous Book Titles, Flannery O'Connor Bathroom Supplies, 2011 Man Booker Prize, What Will Happen to the Wall of Books?


On today's menu:

1.  I'm feeling iffy about the meltdown and closure of Borders.  It was always my least-favorite of the mega-bookstores (the one in Columbia, Maryland was consistently filthy and cluttery), but I understand the upheaval its departure is causing some communities.  I'm always sad when another place to buy books and host readings is taken away from readers; and my heart does go out to suddenly-jobless bookanistas.  At Salon, a dozen-plus writers--including Ann Patchett, Erica Jong and Darin Strauss--offer "A Wistful Farewell" to the chain.  Anthony Doerr writes: "What does the demise of Borders mean?  It means we lose a few more dazzling temples to the written word.  It means more good people lose their jobs.  And it means--one can hope--that there’s more room in the meadow for some upstart saplings."  I especially liked this reflection from Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton):
      I grew up in the tiny village of Cooperstown, N.Y., where there were precisely two places to buy new books: the grocery store, which had all of your sexy and bloody stuff; and Augur's Books, which slowly replaced most of their bookshelves with baseball jewelry and signed balls until a tiny but beautifully curated collection remained. Beyond that, there was the annual library book sale, where you could get an 1890s "Daniel Deronda" and complete Modern Library collections of Sir Walter Scott with squished insects inside.
      When I first came to a blockbuster bookstore--bright, cool, caffeinated, filled with endless quantities of books that smelled clean and had no silverfish running out of them--it seemed not unlike my idea of heaven. The truth is I love bookstores, any bookstores. I'm terribly sad when an indie goes out of business, but I've never fully understood the rage against big chain bookstores, because I've found that, more likely than not, they're staffed by smart, passionate, well-read book lovers. It breaks my heart that these people will now be out of jobs.
      As a citizen, it's cause for mourning, because you worry about people eating and paying rent; as a writer, it's also scary because we need all the solvent book-readers we can possibly get. It seems to me that we should reserve our fury about this for the virtual bookstores who don't love teachers or firemen or roads or municipal water supplies or feeding hungry children at least one good meal a day in school. You know, all the things that make civilization more sturdy, and all the things that are supposed to be paid for by taxes--which aforementioned virtual bookstores somehow believe they're above.
You can read all of the authors' reflections on the liquidation here.


2.  Here's some exciting news to counteract the black-cloud headlines about Borders:  World Book Night is coming to the United States.  The UK event was a big hit this past March, and so as with anything the Royals do we Yanks must follow suit (except for that afternoon tea thing, that's never really caught on over here).  Shelf Awareness has the details on World Book Night, American Style which is set for April 23, 2012:
Imagine being given 48 copies of one of your favorite books for free to give to anyone you want. That's the basic idea behind World Book Night, which was held for the first time in the U.K. this past March 5. Participants chose one of 25 titles, and then received 48 copies of the book and gave them out to anyone they wanted. During the first World Book Night, some 20,000 people gave away a million specially printed books--40,000 copies each of the 25 titles that included Life of Pi by Yann Martel, New Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Beloved by Toni Morrison. All parts of the book world came together to support the effort, including publishers, booksellers, writers and, last but not least, readers. Just in the past few months readers in the U.K. nominated titles for next year's U.K. World Book Night. The final list of 25 titles for 2012 will be announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.


3.  Speaking of the globe, Laura Harrington's new novel Alice Bliss is packing her trunks and heading around the world on a reader-to-reader tour.  The Where's Alice Bliss? campaign hopes to send the book to four continents and all 50 states courtesy of Book Crossing.  You can sign up to be part of Harrington's ambitious plan at her website.  No word on whether or not Alice will be traveling with Carmen Sandiego and Waldo.


4.  This is hardly news to those of us who have read Agatha Christie's autobiography, but The Guardian is breathlessly trumpeting the headline that the Grand Dame of Murder was one of the first Britons to surf....standing up.  She "was something of a pioneering and diehard wave-rider.  At a time when many of her contemporaries were chugging cocktails in Blighty, Agatha Christie was paddling out from beaches in Cape Town and Honolulu to earn her surfing stripes."  Not necessarily news, but it's always fun to see Agatha Christie in a bathing suit.



5.  If you're one of those who are only just now taking a much-needed summer break, Michael Dirda offers guidance at The Barnes and Noble Review on what to read at the beach or in the hammock:
      Summertime, and the reading is easy….Well, maybe not easy exactly, but July and August are hardly the months to start working your way through the works of Germanic philosophers. Save Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl for the bleaker days of February.
      No, what you want at this time of the year are the books that you can idly pick up, readily put down, then lazily pick up again, as you snooze in a hammock or toast in the sun. Neither too absorbing or too emotionally demanding, they should lull, inspire reveries, provoke a smile, or maybe set off a few memories suitable for an afternoon's daydreaming. If summer were a movie, it would be a stylish romantic comedy like The Princess Bride or To Catch a Thief.



6.  One book you might want to pack along (if you can find it) is You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up a hardboiled noir from 1938.  I'd heard of it before, but it wasn't until I read Woody Haut's excellent essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books that I learned the author, Richard Hallas, was the pseudonym for Eric Knight.  Eric Knight's greatest claim to literary fame?  Lassie Come-Home.  Like me, Haut has a hard time reconciling "a hardboiled novel filled with murder, robbery, gambling, blackmail, scams, and suicide" written by the same guy who made his fortune from a tale about a cuddly collie.


7.  HuffPo has the 15 Most Ridiculous Book Titles Ever.  I think Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is rather catchy, but I'd probably steer clear of The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.


8.  Because I'm such a Flan Fan, I have a Google News Alert set for "Flannery O'Connor."  Imagine my surprise when I saw a link for "Flannery O'Connor bathroom supplies."  Turns out "Flannery O'Connor" is the name of a dorm at Loyola.  Dang!  I was all set to buy some Hazel Motes Toilet Paper.


9.  The 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced:
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Side
Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie
Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues
Yvvette Edwards, A Cupboard Full of Coats
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child
Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English
Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days
A.D. Miller, Snowdrops
Alison Pick, Far to Go
Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb
D.J. Taylor, Derby Day
As usual, I haven't read any of the nominees, but The Sisters Brothers, Pigeon English and Jamrach's Menagerie are all on my short-list of TBR books.  Galley Cat has free samples of all the titles.


10.  Over at Writerly Life, Blair wonders "What Will Happen to the Wall of Books?" if she keeps filling up her Kindle:
The process of change is slow, and we’re at a very early stage. But in looking at the collapse of Borders this week, I can’t help wondering whether the delight in books as physical artistic objects might be a fading phenomenon. Or books might become an elite, artisanal object rather than a mass-produced and highly common thing. We might begin to treasure the few physical books we have, while somewhere alone on a shelf a slim hard drive is holding the world’s texts.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Freebie: The Magician King by Lev Grossman


Congratulations to Kelli Beck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace.

This week's book giveaway is The Magician King by Lev Grossman, the sequel to his 2009 bestselling novel The Magicians.  The books are like a modern Narnia, an adult Harry Potter, and a Lord of the Rings without any hairy Hobbit feet.  Here's the publisher's jacket copy for The Magician King:
The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges. Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent's house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.

And here's the opening paragraph to the novel:
Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless. He wore black leather boots up to his knees, different-colored stockings, and a long navy-blue topcoat that was richly embroidered with seed pearls and silver thread. On his head was a platinum coronet. A glittering side-sword bumped against his leg--not the ceremonial kind, the real kind, the kind that would actually be useful in a fight. It was ten o'clock in the morning on a warm, overcast day in late August. He was everything a king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Magician King, all you have to do is answer this question:

Grossman is also the book critic for a major news magazine.  Name that magazine.  (The answer, if you don't already know it, can be found at the author's website.)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.   Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.   Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 4--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 5.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mag Watch: One Story, Issue 152 ("The Joy of Cooking" by Elissa Schappell


The last few issues of One Story left me feeling like a faucet with both taps turned on full: neither hot, nor cold.  The stories were competently written and I certainly admire any writer who is able to land the coveted, once-in-a-career appearance in the pages of the journal which does exactly as it says, delivering one story in each issue.  But the selections didn't move me the way I'd come to expect One Story to make me leap up from the dinner table when I heard the mailman lift the rusty hinge of my mailbox and drop a new issue inside.  Lately, I'd been finishing everything on my plate before I excused myself to go get the mail.

Elissa Schappell's story in the latest issue, "The Joy of Cooking," restores my faith in One Story.  It's a table-leaper.  It also whets my appetite for Schappell's forthcoming collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls (from which "The Joy of Cooking" is taken).  The story has a simple premise and setting: a 24-year-old girl calls her mother and asks for "the family recipe" for chicken.  Over the course of the phone call, the mother leads her daughter, step-by-step, in the preparation of the bird.

"Where's the drama in that?" you ask.

What if I were to tell you the daughter is anorexic and the mother is self-absorbed and jealous of all the attention her child gets?  What if I were tell you there is another (unseen) daughter who is in competition for the mother's affection?  What if I were to tell you the daughter is disgusted by touching the "slimy" chicken, but she's desperate to cook it "perfectly" because she's entertaining a new boyfriend that evening?  What if I were to tell you she burns her fingers on the salt she rubs on the chicken because she has chewed her cuticles to bloody shreds?  What if I were to tell you both the mother and the daughter are obsessive-compulsive, especially when it comes to numbers?

You want drama and conflict?  "The Joy of Cooking" is a cauldron of narrative tension in 29 pages.

Schappell has chosen to tell the story from the mother's point of view and that makes all the difference in the world.  The conversation and a series of flashbacks (counting down young Emily's birthday cakes, all the way back to 1 years old) are filtered through this slightly manic and occasionally funny voice.  These are the thoughts parading through her head as she takes the call from her daughter, Emily:
I looked at the clock: 4:00. Yoga started at 4:30. After yoga, provided I wasn’t bleeding or paralyzed, I was planning to pop into the drug store and buy new lipstick. Something youthful but sophisticated, with shimmer. My mother always said that a woman should have a signature lipstick the way a man had a signature cocktail. I’d married and divorced Emily’s father, Terry, in Cherries in the Snow. After the new lipstick, I was going to treat myself to an overdue haircut. Something new, possibly even a little racy. I’d been toying with the idea of bangs. Then, at 6:30, I was meeting Hugo, the new man shelving the philosophy section at the bookstore where for the last fifteen years I’d been working as a cashier and bookkeeper. I had shaved my legs. It was just coffee, but let’s just say it had been a long time between cups of coffee. 1,825 days to be exact. Five years. Not that I was counting.

As the conversation continues and we learn more about the two women by means of the chicken recipe, the character of the anorexic girl becomes as visible as (dare I say it?) sharp bones pressing against skin.  She is demanding, naive, impulsive, and theatrical in everything she says and does.  "When Percy Shelley, the poet, drowned, Mary Shelley carried his burnt-up heart in her handbag for the rest of her life.  In her handbag!  That's real love.  That's what I'm waiting for."

This is no soft-focus, disease-of-the-week movie geared toward earning our sympathy for the victim.  It's a fierce portrayal of a very complicated relationship between two women, centering around what is probably the most divisive issue of today's society: food.  The chicken is both sustenance and death, the hope of good things to come (a "perfect" date with the boyfriend) and the catalyst for disaster.  Everything we see, smell, hear, taste and touch these days implies that food is one of the central "blueprints for building a better girl."  Schappell cuts right to the heart of that idea in smart, concise language.  Here, for example, is her description of a support group for families of girls with eating disorders:
Later, at the coffee urn that had been set up down the hall away from the meeting room so we couldn't hear our daughters, we talked about their spines, and the way their clavicle bones stood out like Victorian ruffled collars, and how we counted their ribs. What poor protection they seemed for their heart and lungs. We called our daughters skeletal. Skeletal. A word that, when spoken, felt like eating something soft with bones. One mother described the sight of her daughter in a bathing suit as Auschwitz on the Jersey Shore. Out of courtesy, I laughed, though no one else did.

I could go on at length about the pleasures of this issue of One Story--and perhaps I've already said too much--but, wait, I haven't even mentioned Terry, the ex-husband who was a notorious philanderer and probably the cause of Emily's painful yearning for love.  Even in this minor character, Schappell gets off a wonderful zinger in this flashback scene:  "Terry's phone rang in the middle of singing 'Happy Birthday,' the sound of a funky jazz trumpet coming from his pants pocket."  The symbolism of that trumpet in the pants is spot-on.

In fact, everything in "The Joy of Cooking" is spot-on perfect.

(If you don't already subscribe to One Story, you can order a copy of Issue 152 on this page.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Front Porch Books: Special Dzanc Books Edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly assessment of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mr. UPS, deliver them with a doorbell-and-dash method of deposit, I call them my Front Porch Books. Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. To see a larger version of the book covers, click on the thumbnails.

This special edition of Front Porch Books features a crop of new arrivals from one of my favorite small presses: Dzanc Books.  I've written before about the background of the Michigan publisher and its beginnings.  To my discredit, I haven't read as many titles on its backlist as I should, but founder Dan Wickett has tried to remedy that by sending a couple of large boxes my way.  It was like Christmas in July when I brought the boxes off the front porch, opened them, and found these wonderful gifts inside.  These are just the tip of the Dzanc iceberg; I encourage you to visit the publisher's website and discover the latest lit-fic treats.

(I should also mention Dzanc Books is offering an unbeatable deal on e-books: join the eBook Club and get eleven books for $50.  The Club delivers a new eBook in DRM-free MOBI, ePub, and PDF formats to its members on the first day of every month, with each selection coming from Dzanc and all of its imprints.)


Pacazo by Roy Kesey: Kesey's collection of short stories, All Over, was the first Dzanc Book book I ever read--in fact, it was the first book to roll off the Dzanc presses--and it put my radar on full Red Alert: here was a new publisher who took the business of good fiction very seriously.  (My review of All Over for January Magazine can be found here.)  It's a mantle Dzanc has worn proudly in the years since.  Unlike All Over, Pacazo is a big, bricky chunk of a book.  Even just sitting here on my desk, it shouts "Epic!"  Indeed, the scope of the novel seems broad, but (like all great epics) focused on one heroic protagonist.  Jacket Copy:  "Roy Kesey's riveting debut novel tells the story of John Segovia, an American historian who teaches English at a small university in Piura, on the desert coast of Peru. The narrative moves between John's obsessive search for his wife's killer and his attempts to build a new life for himself and his infant daughter. The storms of El Niño--three months of savage rains, insect plagues and collapsed bridges--and the ghosts of history that stalk the sands of the Sechura Desert give this novel the sweep of an epic tale. Throughout, Pacazo explores and celebrates the many ways in which we construct the stories we tell of ourselves and those we love."  Blurb-worthiness:  "Roy Kesey used to be the best-kept secret in American literature, but with Pacazo the secret is out. In this debut novel Kesey strides up alongside Graham Greene, melding intrigue, religion, and exotica into a story as edifying as it is entertaining. Ultimately, though, Kesey's greatest achievement lies in his ability to illuminate all that is grand and horrible in love." (Ron Currie Jr., author of Everything Matters!: A Novel)


Dreams of Molly by Jonathan Baumbach: Baumbach, the father of filmmaker Noah Baumbach, has been "a staple of the literary scene for over forty years" (according to the Jacket Copy) and the back-cover blurbs from writers Michael Cunningham, Russell Banks and Robert Coover certainly attest to his influence.  Cunningham (author of The Hours) testifies: "Jonathan Baumbach has been a hero of mine since I started writing. I was then, and remain today, avid for novelists who push the limits of the novel's form without sacrificing its traditional human juices. Baumbach is just such a writer."  Starting with its wonderful cover design of an out-of-focus face, Dreams of Molly seems to be one of those books which make you float on a cloud of words.  Dreamy, cosmic, richly-worded.  Here are the Opening Lines:
It was not the same. It was all the same. I was in Italy sitting at my desk in a luxuriant Villa writing the story of my invented life. I was in bed in Brooklyn dreaming I was in Italy at the Villa Mondare, which was a made-up place in any event, writing the first sentence of a fictional memoir. My wife, who was no longer my wife, who had left me years ago for greener pastures, was in the bathroom dyeing her hair (back to its original dirty blond) so that I would remember with regret what she looked like when I let her get away. I kept asking her if she was done to which she would say, "Any minute now," but hours passed without her emergence. After awhile, my impatience dissipated. I reinvested my concentration on the first sentence of my new book, a sentence so important in the scheme of things, it produced near-unbearable anxiety just to be in its presence, a sentence that, if it were doing its job, which was to segue between the distant past and the relatively near past, would probably need to resist conclusion indefinitely. I heard the toilet flush in a secretive manner as if evidence were being destroyed. "Is everything all right in there?" I asked. "I'll be out before you know it," she said.


A Heaven of Others by Joshua Cohen: Published under Dzanc Books' imprint Starcherone Books, Cohen's novel has a most unusual plot.  Unusual, and intriguing.  Jacket Copy: "At age 23, before he had begun his contemporary landmark novel, Witz [an 800-page telling of the life of the last Jew], Joshua Cohen composed this novel of a 10 year-old Israeli boy exploded by an equally young Palestinian suicide bomber, who arrives in a heaven no one in his tradition has prepared him for. A Heaven of Others stands at the crossroads of a conflicted city, Jerusalem, and word-play that both celebrates and dismantles tradition."  Blurb-worthiness:  "Reading A Heaven of Others... there was that same kind of shock one gets when entering certain works of Faulkner or Woolf or Joyce, where you simultaneously are thrilled and a little intimidated by the surface, but it doesn’t take you long to fall into it, since the text is teaching you how to read the text. It’s been so long since I’ve discovered a book like that." (Kyle Minor, The Rumpus)



Asunder: Stories by Robert Lopez:  Jacket Copy:  "The unforgettable stories in Robert Lopez's Asunder vary in length and style, but all of them devastate, all constantly cross the boundaries between poetry and prose. Here we have characters who are uncertain of themselves, of the people surrounding them. Here people are in trouble and need help. The compressed lyricism of these stories seems driven by the silence of what is not said, what lies beneath the lines and between them. As in his novels Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, this elliptical tension of the language gives way to moments of grace and savage humor, leaving the reader startled, as though the world were a complete surprise."  You can tell a lot about a story by looking at its first lines, the gunpowder to the narrative's rocket lift-off.  That's why, leafing through Asunder, I can already sense Lopez' short-short stories (some no longer than a paragraph on a single page) are the kind which prod and provoke the brain.  Most of them start in the middle of conflict, at the uncomfortable off-kilter edge of odd image against odd image--like a rhinoceros eating a popsicle.  A sampling:

      A man with a geographic tongue is in the corner. ("Geographic Tongue")

       The closest thing to tumbleweed in New York City are the people.
      I say this out loud to the woman next to me because I think she is from Arizona.  ("Everyone Out of the Pool")

      This Deborah talks out of the left side of her mouth, as if she's trying to keep what she says secret from her own right ear.  ("Scar")

      I am out the window today.  ("Bricks")

       They kiss.
      I am disappointed in you, she says.
      I am a disappointment, he says.
      You should know better, she says.
      I am trying, he says.  ("Your Epidermis is Showing")


So, what's in Dzanc's future?  They continue to crank out exciting, illuminating fiction, stories which cast off convention and bring readers along on the authors' visionary trips into language.  A few of the titles I'm looking forward to in the next six months include A Tendency to Be Gone by Pamela Ryder, The Art of Coughing by Josip Novakovich, and Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross.  Looking farther into the crystal ball, I see Dzanc will publish George Singleton's next collection of short stories.  The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: If a helicopter falls from the sky and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?


The merciless revision of Fobbit* continues...

This past weekend, I cut another 13,000 words from the manuscript of my novel-in-progress about the Iraq War.  I re-shuffled major portions of the story, added a new opening prologue, and artificially separated sections into chapters.  When I sat back in my chair Sunday night, a vein on my temple throbbing painfully, it felt good to have "killed my darlings."  But the novel looks different to me now--as if it went from being a toddler throwing food from his high-chair to a kid who neatly combs his hair and says "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir," when asked to clean his room.**  My book is starting to behave and that pleases me.

What makes me a little melancholy, however, are all those bits and scraps I whittled away.  These were words I created, pulled from the thin air in my head, and made an integral weave in the fabric of the novel.  Their absence makes the novel cleaner and leaner, but it's sad to see them go to waste.  Some of the excised sections will probably have a second life in a short story somewhere down the line, but others are meaningless outside of context.

So, lucky you, I'll post a couple of them here at the blog, for better or worse....

The following section was cut because it didn't advance the plot in any significant way, only adding a bit more "atmosphere" to what goes on*** in the 7th Armored Division's task-force headquarters in Baghdad.  For those new to the blog, here's the pitch for the novel:
Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. never wanted to be a soldier, but after 16 years as a journalist in the Army, he’s deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team.  In the cubicle jungle of military headquarters, he must juggle the demands of phone calls from CNN, compile reports of daily body counts, and placate a boss prone to nosebleeds (Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad).  Gooding lives the safe, air-conditioned life of a rear-echelon soldier, but out on the streets of Baghdad, it’s a different story.  The novel also follows a platoon of combat infantry soldiers led by Sergeant Brock Lumley—another career soldier who is also questioning his role as a warrior stuck between bringing peace to a country that may not want it and carrying out the orders of his less-intelligent superior officers, one of whom takes impetuous action on a mission which might just spark an international scandal.  Gooding, the public affairs soldier, must eventually deal with the media fallout from the actions by Lumley’s men.

You can read more excerpts from the novel by clicking on the Fobbit label.  A couple of other things to know:  1) "SMOG" stands for "Secure Military Operations Grid," the computer network which links Army units in Iraq and tracks Significant Activities of units out on the streets.  2)  Major Philip "Flip" Filipovich is the 7th Armored Division's media relations officer; he can't stand Harkleroad and seizes every opportunity to weasel out of doing the things he's asked.


From the Diary of Chance Gooding Jr.

June 5, 2005:  Periodically during my shifts, I’m required to log onto the SMOG computer where I download the latest Sig Acts, then print them out.  I sort them by type, location and intensity.  Then, pencil in hand, I enter the statistics onto what I call our “bubble chart”—a spreadsheet categorized by events like IEDs, SAF (small-arms fire), hand grenade, Escalation of Force, etc.  The chart is lined with rows of circles where I’m supposed to fill in the unit, the Sig Act number and the time it was reported.

It seems like a mindless task, filling out the bubble chart, but it really does help us mentally compartmentalize the Sig Acts which can come at us in blizzards of up to 60 a day.

At the end of the day, that bubble chart and the day’s Sig Acts are stapled together and put in a pile in a cardboard box underneath my desk.

That’s it—they go no further, not even Harkleroad’s inbox.  The only ones who even peruse the bubble charts are me and Specialist Carnicle, who is required to perform the same task during her graveyard shift.

Apparently, when we reach a certain number of bubbles on the “Total Attacks” row, it’s supposed to indicate different levels of alarm we’re supposed to be feeling.  Eight attacks?  A slow day—a terrorist holiday, perhaps.  20 attacks?  Better keep an eye on it.  35 attacks?  Uh-oh.  45 and above and we run out of bubbles on the chart.  At that point, I think the sprinkler system goes off and alarm bells ring.

Downloading, printing and tracking the Sig Acts is something I’m supposed to do once every two hours…or when I hear increased chatter over the SMOG loudspeaker and I know some bad shit is going down out there on the streets of Baghdad.

And sometimes, like this morning, the bad shit just walks right up and shakes your hand:

11:19 a.m.  Lt. Col. Harkleroad bumbles his way over to my desk with that ass-pucker expression on his face.  “Sergeant Gooding, I need you to pull out your PR template for downed aircraft and get it ready.”

“Why, sir?  Something happen?”

Harkleroad just looks at me and I don’t even need a verbal answer.  I know by the panic in his eyes that we’ve lost another helicopter.

He quick-marches back out of the cubicle, bound for some contingency meeting.

I look over at Major Filipovich, but he’s no help at all.  He’s pretending to sleep, but I can see his eyes crack open in a half-squint every so often.  He’ll just let me sit here marinating in my own sweat and piss no matter how bad it gets.  Thanks a lot, sir!

I open my press-release template folder, but realize I don’t already have one prepared for a situation like this.  So, I start from scratch—which is easy at this point since I don’t know diddley squat about what happened.

I go to the SMOG computer and log on to see what they’ve got on the helicopter.  Not much—apart from a time and grid coordinate.

I go back to my computer and type a two-sentence press release.

11:54 a.m.  Harkleroad returns, details clutched in his clammy palms.  I set to work.

12:16 p.m.  After the colonels sprinkle their holy water over the press release, blessing my words, I send it up to Corps:  “A Multi-National Division-Baghdad helicopter crashed June 5 around 11 a.m. northwest of Baghdad.  The crash is under investigation.”  That’s it.  Just 19 words (if you count the numbers, too).  But you wouldn’t believe the gut-knotting approval process those 19 words have to go through here in the headquarters building.  I can hear the decision-making chatter buzzing throughout the cubicles:

“Hmm, do we want to identify what kind of helicopter it is?”

“No, I don’t think so, because if we do it will too-closely identify the unit it came from.”

“Do we say ‘crash’ when we’re still not sure if it was shot down or not?”

“I think we’re safe with ‘crash’ because, after all, that’s what happened when it hit the ground.  It crashed into the ground, right?  No matter who did what to get it there.”

Do we know who did what?”

“I’m not at liberty to divulge at this juncture.”

“That’s a nice, safe answer.”

“It’s what I’m sticking with.”

Meanwhile, on the TV at my elbow, Fox News is breathlessly squawking about the helicopter being shot down:  “Witnesses report seeing a white trail of smoke shooting up from the ground toward the aircraft just moments before the Blackhawk plunged to the earth.”  They’ve scooped everyone else and they’re practically peeing their pants with excitement.  We’ve said nothing (so far) about it being shot down.

Of course, the fact that Fox is saying it over the airwaves—beaming it into the television sets of families back home in Georgia—causes a brief flurry of apoplexy in the command group.  “No one’s said a goddamned word about enemy fire bringing down this bird!  We still have no proof of what brought it down, goddammit!!”

Colonels and generals descend from the third floor, converging on Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad.  The voices seep from under his office door out into the floor of the operations area.

Harkleroad defends himself with a squeaky, “I didn’t say anything to them, sir.   My lips have remained sealed, as ordered.”

The third-floor colonels subsequently direct Harkleroad to call up Fox and find out what the good-goddamned tiddlywinks they think they’re doing reporting unreliable information—information which could compromise our on-going recovery operations right now.  They’re putting U.S. lives at risk, for God’s sake!

Harkleroad (meekly):  “Will do, sir.”

12:57 p.m.  A Japanese television station calls and I can barely hear the reporter through the static, but I realize he wants me to comment on the helicopter which, um, fell from the sky.  He wants me to confirm shoot-down; I only confirm “fell.”  Nothing more, nothing less.

1:07 p.m.   Fredericka from Reuters calls and I repeat the same information to her.  I talk to Fredericka about once a week and, out of all the reporters, she’s always the most polite and usually sounds somewhat astounded when I give her information she can use—”Oh!  Thank you, thank you so much, Staff Sergeant Gooding!”  It’s like I told her I’d be over in an hour to clean her bathroom and bake some cookies.

1:10 p.m.  CBS News calls.  They get the same yadda-yadda.

1:16 p.m.  Fox News has the story on their website—complete with the Blackhawk being “shot down.”  A dozen follicles of hair fall from Harkleroad’s head in a nervous, spontaneous shedding.

3:29 p.m.  Major Filipovich, who thinks he has the answer for everything when it comes to dealing with the media quickly and fairly, retreats deeper into his cubicle, muttering, “We’re hitting a fly on the wall with a hammer.”  I’m not sure what it means, but he repeats it several times in the course of an hour, in between slamming down the phone and throwing a chair halfway across the cubicle in one of his tempers.  Even going to the gym in the afternoon doesn’t help him work out his frustration and aggression.

7:42 p.m.  I receive confirmation from Air Ops that the Blackhawk experienced “engine malfunction” and was forced to make a “hard landing.”  No one was hurt and the pilots walked away, bruised and grinning sheepishly.  I rewrite the press release with the new facts, get it approved by Harkleroad, et al.

8:02 p.m.  I issue the update to the media on my e-mail distribution list.  I get no response (apart from two bounce-back undeliverables).

8:21 p.m.  Just before I go off shift for the night and Specialist Carnicle arrives with the new paperback novel she’ll be reading on graveyard, I check my e-mail one last time.  Gus from ABC writes, “Thanks a lot for the anti-climax” and Fredericka gushes a predictable “Thank you SO MUCH for this update, Sergeant Gooding!  Have a nice night!”

News of the copter crash has evaporated from the TV at my elbow, trumped by reports from Terri Schaivo’s bedside that there’s a kink in her feeding tube.  Her right-to-die struggle is, after all, a viable life-and-death story.



*For those playing along at home, I still don't have a new title for the novel.  I've had some great suggestions so far from blog readers, but none have clicked-and-hummed with my agent.  I'm still keeping some of the suggestions on the back burner, but for now I'm sticking with the original name for the book, Fobbit, until something better comes along.

**As a parent, I'm well aware this is only a brief, blessed phase in the life of a child.

***As with many episodes in Fobbit, this "diary" entry was taken nearly word-for-word from the journal I kept during my tour of duty in Baghdad in 2005.  I've thrown in a few embellishments, but the meat of the scene remains true.

Monday, July 25, 2011

My First Time: Maile Chapman


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Maile Chapman, author of the novel Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto.  Her stories have appeared in A Public Space, the Literary Review, the Boston Review, and Best American Fantasy Writing as well as many other journals.  She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Junot Diaz had this to say about her first novel: "Maile Chapman is one of my favorite writers and in Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto she has given us an eerie gift of a novel.  It is a superb hallucinatory piercing, an ominous dispatch from that Gothic frontier of the Female Body."


My First Writing Contest

I entered a writing competition for the first time through my elementary school when I was in the fifth grade. I remember being excited about the prize: a ticket to a conference with grown-up writers and illustrators who would talk about books. Could anything be better? I gave my story to the school librarian with high hopes.

My childhood readings included a lot of Ray Bradbury, the supernatural shelves at the public library, and all kinds of scary stories intended for adults...I liked anything with a mysterious or creepy atmosphere. (I also picked up a few Gothic paperbacks whose coded erotic content went mostly over my head.) For the school competition I wrote a story called "The Shadow Box," in which a boy named Marco and a girl named Kristen find themselves trapped in an abandoned old mansion with a beautiful, scantily-clad woman who sometimes appears as a giant snake. The snake-woman forces men carry her around on a litter, through a series of decrepitly opulent rooms and hallways, and she owns the titular box that Marco wants to open.

It was my first submission, and my first rejection. The school librarian–one of my favorite people in the world at the time–handed the story back to me saying that the judges thought my mother had "helped" me, because it didn't seem like fifth-grade subject matter. I assumed this meant it was too scary, and the next year I wrote a simpler story: a boy and a girl (their names were also Marco and Kristen) find themselves lost on a beach during a sudden storm and take shelter in a cave, where they see a bearded and drunken (but not sinister) elderly ship's captain clutching a bottle of brandy and dozing by a warm fire. He mumbles some sage advice, and they get home safely. It was ghostly but not scary. The judges, whoever they were, accepted the story, and I was invited to attend the conference the second time around.

But there wasn't much joy in it by then. I had belatedly felt the sting of what the judges were implying, and it violated all my young ideas about fairness–especially because that first rejection, the off-handed dismissal of the year before, had been delivered by an adult I admired and whose good opinion I craved. I wasn't offered a chance to defend myself, and it permanently tainted my feelings about the librarian, and the conference, and probably a lot of other things, too.

Now I see the funny side, because quality and/or authenticity aside, there is no way the school would have sent me anywhere with those lurid pages clutched in my hot little hands, despite the fact that only a fifth-grader, in our post-Freudian world, could have innocently written a tale in which a young boy has a crush on a half-nude woman who is also a large snake...a woman with a mysteriously compelling box and sadistic tendencies...in a labyrinthine house of secret rooms with red-painted walls.

That the contest readers imagined my mother (or any mother) sitting down at the kitchen table in the evenings to coach me into writing a phallic-symbol-strewn horror story is hilarious in the morbid, uncomfortable, queasily transgressive way I have come to appreciate most. Kristen, the girl in the story, was deeply jealous of the sexy older woman; did the judges think this somehow reflected my mother's wishful thinking? Whether the judges were male or female, that's an awful thought...and also pretty funny.

At this stage in the game I could probably come up with a more mature meta-retelling, in which someone submits a disturbingly suggestive tale about two children and a sexy older snake-lady to a grade-school writing contest. (The new title will be something like "The Age-Inappropriate Box" or "The Erotic Munchhausen-by-Proxy Box"...or maybe just "The Daughter Doppelganger Box.") In the updated version, questions will be asked outright: did an eleven-year-old girl really write the story? Or was it her repressed suburban mother? If it was the eleven-year-old girl, then aren't the judges themselves being a little perverted in reading too much into the story? But if it really was the mother's influence at work, wouldn't it be awesome if she turned out to be as normal as blueberry pie, and totally oblivious to the symbolic content?

I'm sure "The Shadow Box" was a really bad story, and rejection is a fact of life that all writers have to learn not to internalize (and the earlier, the better). But to be so casually accused of–I can barely even write the word–plagiarism? Because I was such a conscientious little student this hit me where it hurt, and, now that I think about it, I've gone an awful long way academically since then to legitimize both myself and my interest in morbid tales–as far as a doctorate in creative writing with emphasis on Freud and Narrative and Gothic Literature. I know it was a wee little contest that nobody else has any reason to remember, but the fact remains that I wrote that story myself, with my feverishly uncensored childhood brain, and judges, for the record, it sucks that you assumed otherwise without even asking.

Photo by Wayne Wallace

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Soup and Salad: Jane Austen on the Auction Block, A Pittance for Melville, Writers Famous for the Wrong Book, The Carolyn Parkhurst Collection & Nathan Englander's Coffee

On today's menu:


1.  A "lost" Jane Austen manuscript recently fetched a hefty sum on the Sotheby's auction block when Oxford's Bodleian Library bid three times the expected amount (£993,250) for "The Watsons," an unfinished novel started between Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. The novel tells the story of four sisters who are the daughters of a widowed clergyman, and their attempts to marry well.  The Daily Mail has the full story.


2.  I'm not sure how much Jane Austen earned for her novels (certainly not anywhere near a million pounds), but Bibliokept has this chart of Herman Melville's "lifetime literary earnings."  It comes as little surprise that his greatest work, Moby-Dick, is near the bottom of the chart.  Back in the day, it put a total of $1,259.45 in Melville's threadbare pocket.


3.  My assertion that Moby-Dick is Melville's triumph is, of course, only my humble opinion.  Many other readers stand by Typee.  To each his/her own.  The Guardian has no argument one way or the other for Melville, but it does have a short list of writers who are "Famous for the Wrong Book," including Evelyn Waugh, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Joseph Heller who, the article claims, should be known for Something Happened rather than Catch-22.  My hackles went up at that, but before I start throwing punches, I should probably sit down and read Something HappenedThe Guardian is not the first to tell me good things wait for me in its pages.

3a.  Speaking of Heller's classic World War Two satire, Catch-22 turns 50 this year and I have plans for a week-long birthday bash sometime this Fall.  If you haven't already read this novel, now is the time to do so.  Then come back here and join in the discussion.  It'll be major major fun.


4.  I leave you today with two videos.  First, Carolyn Parkhurst (The Dogs of Babel) shows us how to make the perfect book trailer.  This infomercial for "The Carolyn Parkhurst Collection" is really a pitch for her latest book, The Nobodies Album.  But you may be laughing too hard to realize that.



Next, Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) shows us how to make a perfect cup of coffee, but he also serves up a side order of writing advice.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

There's Evel in the Air


Tonight, a few blocks north of my house in Butte, Montana, a man will mount a motorcycle, cinch his helmet tight, accelerate down a wooden boardwalk, zoom up a ramp, and fly 1,390 feet through the air above one of the town's most popular barbecue joints.  Before he hits the dirt ramp on the opposite side of the building, he will attempt to do a backflip on his bike.  Those of us watching from the sidelines will probably spill our Budweisers as we scream and cheer him along on this outrageous stunt.

If he lands safely, we'll be talking about it for days.  But if we're honest with ourselves, deep down in our hearts, we're half-hoping, half-expecting him to crash and break a few bones.  This is why we've come to Evel Knievel Days here in Butte: to watch foolhardy men (and a few women) push their courage to the limit and fail spectacularly.  There is nothing that reminds us of our mortality better than the shard of a broken bone poking through a leather suit.

The man on the flying bike over Sparky's Garage restaurant is not Evel Knievel (he died and went to daredevil heaven in 2007), but Keith Sayers knows a thing or two about adrenaline and crowd-pleasing, death-defying, gravity-scorning stunts.  Like Knievel, he was born in this southwestern Montana mining town and like the high-flying, cape-wearing showman, he lives up to the civic motto: "Butte Tough."  Whether he does a two-wheeled landing or ends up in an ambulance screaming toward the hospital, the self-proclaimed "Godson of Evel Knievel" will succeed in at least one thing: he'll put our hearts in our throats.

In honor of this year's 10th annual Evel Knievel Days, I started reading Leigh Montville's new biography of the infamous Liberace of Harley-Davidson earlier this week.  Montville, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated and biographer of other sports figures like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Dale Earnhardt, writes in a florid, overbearing style which paints his prose several shades of purple.  Hell, even the book's title gets not one but two colonic subtitles: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.
He was a character straight from the dusty back roads of self-promotion, from the land of carnival shows and fast talk, three-headed goats and cotton-candy excitement. He didn’t have a talent, really, couldn’t sing or dance or juggle pie plates, but his fearlessness, his courage or craziness, depending on the point of view, was certainly different. The size of his guts, his nuts, his stones, agates, crokies, testicles, family jewels, balls—the balls of a giant, biggest balls on the planet, etc., etc.—attracted instant attention.

Reading sentences like "He always lived as if his pants were on fire" can be off-putting at first; but eventually I caught on to what Montville is trying to do in these pages: he's turning his book into the equivalent of a Knievel show.
He had so many bumps, scabs, abrasions, that it seemed as if he had bumps, scabs, and abrasions on his bumps, scabs, and abrasions. He was a cartoon version of a cartoon version of a character that has undergone a physical mishap. There may have been a cast on at least one extremity. Perhaps two casts on two extremities.

What we're holding in our hands is a pyrotechnic, glitter-flecked, star-spangled, razzle-dazzle reading experience.  Let go of this book and it would jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace and land on the other side, both wheels on the ground.  Robert Craig Knievel would be proud.

Or maybe not, because Montville unzips the white jumpsuit and lifts off the helmet to reveal the 1970s icon's true character, warts and all.  A liar, a cheat, a thief, a womanizer, a bullshitter, a no-good scoundrel.  That was Evel. 

Montville calls the man "a skyrocket of a character who flew across the sky, bright and dazzling, spectacular for a moment, then fell apart in full public view and dropped back to the ground, his life following the same arc as one of his many jumps."

The bad-boy reputation continues even today in Butte.  Yesterday, while getting drinks at a local bar, I asked an old-timer if he was enjoying Evel Days.  "Naw, I never go Uptown for any of that.  I want nothing to do with that bastard."  (Never mind the fact that EK Days itself has little to do with its hometown son anymore; it's all about the thrills, baby....Well, that and the invasion of hundreds of fat bikers, all wearing size-too-small t-shirts.)

Montville's Evel zips and darts around the biographical timeline, never content to tell a straightforward account of a life "filled with half-truths, semi-truths, and flat-out whoppers."  The author does a good job culling the facts from the whoppers and interviewed dozens of Knievels friends, acquaintances, and enemies to get the full story of a man who "has more stitches in him than a Raggedy Ann doll, enough metal for a full Erector Set."

We see young Knievel running wild in the streets, getting in trouble with the law (but always tap-dancing his way out of a conviction).  We watch him ride his first motorcycle at 15, almost kill himself, then go out and buy a used Triumph TR5000.  We witness his early days as an insurance salesman (yes, he lived a life built on irony).  We read about his first big showy show: jumping his motorcycle over a pair of mountain lions and a box of rattlesnakes.  We see him boast about his life-long dream of the Ultimate Stunt: jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle (he would have to settle for going over the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket).  Through it all, there is the wide-open mouth, the corkscrew tongue, the neon teeth.

This is a book that revels in 1970s pop culture, the era of prevaricating presidents and snake-oil entertainers.  It's a biography of America as much as it is of one man on a motorcycle.  It may be over-the-top and full of sentences that bulge at the edges.  It may exhaust and irritate some readers, but one thing's for sure: it is never ever dull.

Evel Knievel was slick, Montville's book is even slicker.



Photo: Evel Knievel lunchbox, Miracle of America Museum in Polson, MT, July 18, 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Freebie: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace


Congratulations to Cindy Fanning, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Music Lesson and True Confections by Katharine Weber.

This week's book giveaway is last year's hit novel The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace.  The debut novel, now out in paperback, is a magical mystery tour of the senses.  Here's the publisher's jacket copy:
In the early 1800s, a young Italian contessa, Carolina Fantoni, realizes she is going blind shortly before she marries the town's most sought-after bachelor. Her parents don't believe her, nor does her fiancé. The only one who understands is the eccentric local inventor and her longtime companion, Turri. When her eyesight dims forever, Carolina can no longer see her beloved lake or the rich hues of her own dresses. But as darkness erases her world, she discovers one place she can still see-in her dreams. Carolina creates a vivid dreaming life, in which she can not only see, but also fly, exploring lands she had never known. Desperate to communicate with Carolina, Turri invents a peculiar machine for her: the world's first typewriter. His gift ignites a passionate love affair that will change both of their lives forever. Based on the true story of a nineteenth-century inventor and his innovative contraption, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an enchanting confection of love and the triumph of the imagination.

In her review at [tk] reviews, Hannah Wood had this to say about Wallace's novel:
For a book with blindness as a central theme, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is strikingly visual. Wallace’s writing creates a richly evocative feast of light and color and texture, from the lush Italian hillsides to the exotic galas held within brocaded palazzo interiors. This renders the inexorable progress of Carolina’s disability even more acute; Wallace makes us, as readers, powerfully aware of what she is losing. It also explains why, as her waking world diminishes, Carolina’s dreams suddenly come alive—she compensates for her blindness with a surreal inner landscape that both echoes and departs from real life.
If you'd like the chance to win a new paperback copy of The Blind Contessa's New Machine, all you have to do is answer this question:

What is the name of the annual arts retreat in Michigan which Wallace founded?  (The answer can be found by poking around the author's website)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 28--at which time I'll draw the winning name. I'll announce the lucky reader on July 29.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Help Me Name My Novel and You Could Win a Walk-On Role in its Pages


Dear Blog Readers,

We've had a marvelous relationship, you and I.  I've told you about books I love and you've gone out and bought them.  I've hosted contests and you've enthusiastically sent in your entries (some of you have even won).  I've written about my sex life and you've said "Enough already!"

But now, I really truly need your help: give me a catchy, sure-fire title for my novel.  I'm at the point where my agent is ready to start making the rounds of publishing houses, but he's a little "eh" on the manuscript's current title (Fobbit).  I've brainstormed a few ideas, but none of them really leap off the page into my lap.  I'm hoping somebody out there might have a better idea, something that will take my agent from "eh" to "Hey!"

Fobbit has been the working title of my novel about the Iraq War from the start and I am probably too tightly married to the name at this point.  I wanted something simple, direct and memorable (like Catch-22, for instance), but now I'm wondering if it's too obscure for the average reader.  The term is a derogatory military put-down for support soldiers of modern warfare, combining "FOB" (Forward Operating Base) and "Hobbits" (Tolkien's characters who are afraid to leave the shire).  This paragraph from the early pages of the novel gives further explanation:
They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.  Crack open their chests and in the space where the heart should be beating with courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey softness which only went a little way in explaining why they fiercely clung to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph, home to the U.S. military task force headquarters at the western edge of Baghdad.  If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then they were pressed hard against the pleats.

Here's the pitch for the novel--the brief summary to capture editors' interest (I'm open for suggestions on how to improve the pitch, too):
Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. never wanted to be a soldier, but after 16 years as a journalist in the Army, he’s deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team.  In the cubicle jungle of military headquarters, he must juggle the demands of phone calls from CNN, compile reports of daily body counts, and placate a boss prone to nosebleeds.  Gooding lives the safe, air-conditioned life of a rear-echelon soldier, but out on the streets of Baghdad, it’s a different story.  The novel also follows a platoon of combat infantry soldiers led by Sergeant Brock Lumley—another career soldier who is also questioning his role as a warrior stuck between bringing peace to a country that may not want it and carrying out the orders of his less-intelligent superior officers, one of whom takes impetuous action on a mission which might just spark an international scandal.  Gooding, the public affairs soldier, must eventually deal with the media fallout from the actions by Lumley’s men.  Gooding and Lumley reflect the two different experiences of the military in combat: the boots-on-the-ground infantryman and the rear-echelon support soldier.  A dark comedy in the vein of Catch-22, my novel highlights the insanity of war and the media circus that fuels it.

For excerpts from the novel, visit this page to get a better feel for the tone of the book.

I was noodling around with ideas for new titles last night and this is what I came up with:

Soft Men, Hard Bullets
The Smog of War
The Soft Soldier Goes to War
Of Men and Marshmallows

Surely you can do better.  If you have a suggestion for a new title (or if you think I should leave well enough alone and stick with Fobbit), please send it to david.abrams@gmail.com

If I like it (or, better yet, my agent calls me in the middle of doing handsprings and cartwheels), there's a chance I'll give you a small, walk-on role as a character in the final draft of the novel.  At the very least, you'll get a thank-you from me in the acknowledgements and a special Certificate of Appreciation printed from my computer and mailed directly to your home address.