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Friday, July 27, 2007

Heinlein's Ghost Strikes Again!

In case you missed the news, an explosion yesterday during testing of SpaceShipTwo at Mojave Air and Space Port has killed three Virgin Galactic employees and put three more in the hospital, two in critical condition. Nearly simultaneously, NASA announced that they'd discovered that a computer scheduled to fly in the International Space Station had clearly and obviously been sabotaged.

Now, I don't mean to make light of the Mojave tragedy, but readers of Heinlein's Rocket Ship Gallileo should immediately realize why these two events happened and how they're related. As Heinlein warned us 60 years ago, this is all obviously part of The Vast International Conspiracy to Cover Up The Faked Moon Landings, and all clearly intended to keep us from learning the truth about that secret Nazi base that's been up there on the dark side since 1943.

And if you believe that, I've got some stock options I'd like to sell you...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lady Chatterly's Hunka-Hunka Burnin' Love

Much like Dracula, no matter how dead it seemed the last time we saw it, this literary property seems to rise from the crypt and stalk the land again every few years, bringing yawns of terror in its wake. With the latest film adaptation of Lady Chatterly's Lover now in cineplexes, it seems a good time to ask: what's the big deal?

I think this is a case where the controversy far overshadows and outsells the actual book. I have in hand a copy — to be specific, the 35-cent Pocket Books "Cardinal" paperback edition, First Printing, July 1959, which proudly boasts that it "includes every word contained in copy No. 402 of the signed limited edition of 1,000 copies privately printed by the author in Italy in 1928," and even goes so far as to include the full text of Federal District Judge Frederick vanPelt Bryan's ruling in the landmark obscenity trial of Grove Press vs. The Postmaster General

Y'know, towards the end, Lenny Bruce used to bore his audiences to tears by reading this kind of stuff at them.

The book itself is, to be blunt, a snore. It's a sub-Harlequin bodice-ripper slowed down by long passages of class-consciousness babble. Lady Constance is a standard-issue British Upper-Class Twit; Parkin the Gamekeeper may be hunky and earthy now, but it's far too easy to envision him maturing into Owen, the hygenically repellant but sexually obsessed farmer in The Vicar of Dibley. Okay, so the sex scenes are fairly explicit, in a strangely inept way, and the language in places makes use of some earthy Anglo-Saxon terms that were, in the 1920s, probably not found in print outside of porn.

(By way of contrast, in 1968 Richard Hooker, the author of the original MASH novel, had the grace to use "motherf****r." By way of further contrast, I was in a store last night, and the "edgy" young staff had the music cranked, and the "song" that was playing seemed to consist of nothing but the word "motherf****r" chanted over and over again without the asterisks. I have trouble seeing this trend as a positive development in the expressive use of the English language.)

But on the whole: is this book really worth 80 years of well-advertised "controversy" and smug preening by literati all over the world at how this book has subverted the dominant paradigm and upset bluenoses everywhere?

Your thoughts, s'il vous plait?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I bought an anthology of contemporary poetry the other day

This was the good stuff
the best of the best
published by a well-respected
university press, and
by a major foundation
Twenty-two poets
all lined-up in a row.
Eleven professors,
two creative writing
department chairs,
seven non-teaching MFAs,
and the editors of twelve
other anthologies of
contemporary poetry.
Winners of every grant and award
(including some so silly-sounding
I think
they may have just them made up);
the authors of uncountable volumes
of poetry
by university presses or
obscure and unfindable
small-press publishers.

I waded through page after page
of broken verse
of angry grumbles
about unappreciative husbands
or old classmates
the lesbian grunts and growls
of anger anger anger or
some excruciatingly explicitly
biological confessional gay porn
mixed in with
the ingrateful poetic hand-bites
of adult children who clearly wished
their parents
had stayed
in whatever third-world pesthole
they'd originally come from
all topped-off with
scoop upon glop of thick word salad
of the sort produced
by stroke and closed-head injury patients
are struggling to remember
precisely the right words to
express exactly bungalow torpid giraffe.

And then, on page 62, I found it.
A poem sweet and lyrical,
sad and wistful,
full of loss and love
and sepia-toned childhood memories.
A song of deep-beyond-words adoration,
sung to the poet's long-lost

And that is when I shouted GAAAAAAAAH!
and threw the book across the room
and went into the bathroom
to wash my hands.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Where do you get your ideas from?

I meant to uncork a fine whine about the publishing business yesterday, but instead went with The Kid to see "The Wings of Freedom," a traveling collection of World War II-vintage aircraft that had flown into Holman Field for the weekend. This time around they were showing and giving tours of — and if you had a few hundred bucks to spare, rides on — a B-25 Mitchell, the last known flyable B-24 Liberator, and a B-17 Flying Fortress.

We went mostly because The Kid, in that inimitable way known only to kids, has lately become positively obsessed with B-17s and the 1939-1945 air war over Europe. "Dad," he said, with breathless excitement, "we've got to see it! It's a B-17G. It has the chin turret!" So we paid our money, and got in line...

To this day, I remain in awe of what my parent's generation did in those terrible years. World War II combat aircraft in particular both fascinate and frighten me; I once got to sit in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, and felt just naked at the thought of taking such a tiny and flimsy machine into a gunfight. (For reference, I felt much more comfortable in the cockpit of the Lockheed A-12.) Bombers are even worse. Essentially flying UPS trucks designed for the sole purpose of delivering bombs (When it absolutely positively has to be destroyed overnight!), these craft do not seem designed to give one spare ounce over to armor, comfort, or crew protection. Ergo, the thought of spending 12 hours in what amounts to an aluminum beer can full of high-explosives and high-octane aviation gasoline, while highly motivated people on the ground and in other aircraft are shooting at you with cannons and machine guns...

We toured the B-25 Mitchell first, because the line was shortest. Good grief, Doolittle's raiders were brave, to go attack Tokyo in those primitive things. Next we toured the B-24 Liberator, and The Kid got to have the first of many moments in High Hog Heaven:

Finally, we got in the line to go through the B-17, and it was while we were standing in that line that I made the acquaintance of "Dayton," who was standing in line next to me, and who'd just learned about the exhibit that morning and driven down from his home at the other end of the state to see it.

"I had to come see it," he said. "I haven't seen a B-17 since 1946.

"I flew on one in the war, you know. Out of England; Eighth Air Force. I was a ball-turret gunner. They picked the little guys for that. I weighed 135 pounds, then. They put you in the turret, and locked it shut, and you stayed in there for twelve hours straight. Then when you got down, they let you out, and gave you three shots of cognac so you'd forget what it was like and they could get you back into it the next time.

"A tight fit? I even had my parachute in there with me. I don't know why they gave us parachutes. If you had to bail out, the Germans just shot your parachute.

"Our captain was 19 years old. One time a major wanted to take control, to get some flight hours in, and our captain said 'NO!' It was his ship, you see.

"They're all gone now, except for the armorer. And me. And the navigator's wife, I think she's still alive, but I haven't talked to her in years.

"We were lucky. Our engineer got appendicitis, but instead of giving us a replacement they decided to keep our crew together and ship us over later. When we finally got to England, we asked about the other guys we knew from training, but most of them were gone already. Dead, or shot down."

The tour line went in through the nose hatch, which was a tight squeeze for The Kid and a contortionist's exercise for me. Dayton tried to climb in that way, but something got to him; he said it was claustrophobia. He backed down the ladder, then went around to the tail of the plane and climbed in the aft hatch. Working his way forward past the waist-gunner's positions, he spent a minute or two looking at the mechanism for the ball turret.

Then he climbed out again.
"After the war, I came back home and tried to farm with my dad, but that was a bad idea. Not because I had problems with my dad; we got along great. But it was never much of a farm and we couldn't make enough off it to support two families.

"My wife has gotten me on a plane twice since the war. And now, I think I'm done for good."

So, to answer the question we began with: where do you get your story ideas from?

The stories are all around you. Listen to them. Hear them. Tell them.

Monday, July 09, 2007

What I'm Reading: Slouching Toward Fargo

It seems Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner is not a man to let an honest story get in the way of good petty personal grudge. In 1996, still rankling over the way he was fictionalized in Bill Murray's 1980 movie, Where the Buffalo Roam, Wenner gave recently divorced, ex-Newsweek, ex-Rolling Stone, freelance — which is to say, "broke and unemployed" — writer Neal Karlen a contract, in the Mafia sense of the word, to do a hatchet job on Murray and his minor league baseball team, the St. Paul Saints.

Instead, what Karlen wound up writing was this terrific book:

I'm trying to figure out how to describe this one without using all of the usual book review superlatives. It's funny; it's at times quite bawdy and at other times deeply moving; it's full of unforgettable characters who have the added virtue of being real; and most importantly of all, it's not the usual dumb jock hagiography. This is a book about redemption, on both the professional and spiritual levels, and as much about Karlen himself as about the team. You'll come out of this one with a whole new appreciation of Bill Murray, a profound sense of the tragedy that's been the story of Darryl Strawberry, and a whole new sort-of-almost respect for all those wannabes, has-beens, and never-weres who struggle on in the bargain basement of the minor leagues, trying to find that one big hit that will help them break through and make it into the big time. (Which makes them seem an awful lot like writers, come to think of it.)

If you're looking for a good summer read: highly recommended.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Chapter One

Master Thistlewhacker, Lord of the Eastern Gardens and Scourge of the Western Weeds, awoke well after dawn. Rising from his bedchamber, he stepped into the cabinét to use the ingenious and magical self-cleansing chamberpot, and then shuffled into the kitchen, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

"Woman!" he barked, between yawns. "What does a man have to do to get something to eat around here?"

The cook, old Mrs. Og, did not lift her eyes off the basket of freshly gathered hen's eggs through which she was sorting. "He can go find himself a seat at the table and be patient," she said. "But," she added, "if my son calls me woman, wench, or scullion again, he can jolly well make his own breakfast." She set the basket of eggs aside and turned her attention to the skillet of bacon that was sizzling on the top of the cookstove, and Master Thistlewhacker, realizing he was overmatched and that discretion truly was the better part of valor, discretely left the kitchen and shuffled into the servants' dining room.

There he found Old Og, the master huntsman, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the Sunday papers. "Good morning, old man!" Thistlewhacker said by way of cheerful salute. "How fares it with thee this fine morning, grandfather?"

"Og your father," the grizzled old relic of a bygone age reminded him. "No use your pretending Og not." Thistlewhacker quickly changed the subject.

"How goes the hunt, old — Father? Do you plan to stalk another fine mastodon today?"

Og shook his shaggy head. "Mastodon season closed," he grunted. "Today, Og hunt skins and furs." The ancient huntsman let out a sort of a snorting sound, shook his head again, and then folded the newspaper and set it aside.

"Og not understand," he said to Thistlewhacker. "Much more fur there is on buffalo or deer. But Mrs. Og want Og go catch stupid little mink. Not much meat there is on mink, and it taste bad."

Og sighed. "But when Mrs. Og not happy, Og no get lucky. So Og spend all day hunting stupid little ermine and mink, and looking for shiny rocks, too. Og very much not understand."

Thistlewhacker smiled, and gave the huntsman a not unkindly pat on his massive shoulder. "That's all right," he said gently. "I've a feeling that there are some things that haven't changed since the dawn of time, and that man was simply never meant to understand."

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Big Book

Every writer who is at least halfway serious about the craft has at least one. It's The Big Book, the one you carry with you always, the one you're going to write "some day." Though you've never really officially started work on it, it's always there in the back of your mind, nagging at you, suggesting little vignettes and bits of business, popping out perfect lines and ideas during the midst of the otherwise boring moments of your life. So you're forever scribbling keywords and fragments of ideas in the margins of lecture notes during dull classes, or on the backs of church bulletins during dull sermons, or on a flurry of tiny Post-It notes that become a pastel-colored halo around the edges of your desk as you suffer through yet another deadly dull teleconference.

What's The Big Book about? It doesn't matter. What matters is that you really believe in it, and you know you're going to write it some day, and when you do, it's going to really mean something. Maybe it's going to change the world. Maybe it's going to change your life. Maybe it's only going to get something out of your system, so that you can finally move on and think about something else. And you know, you just know, you're going to write it some day.

But not today. No, today's the wrong day; the time isn't right. You need to do more research, or you're not in the right mood, or the world isn't ready for it yet, or your shoes are too tight or your chair is too squeaky or the sun is shining in the window at just exactly the wrong angle. There are a million excuses for not writing The Big Book, and I know them all, and I bet you do, too. And, like me, I bet you know in your heart of hearts that each and every one of them is just exactly that: a feeble excuse.

What keeps a writer from writing The Big Book? Fear of commitment? Maybe. Performance anxiety? Perhaps. Are you waiting for a sign, or some kind of cosmic permission? Could be. What matters is that the reason doesn't matter. What matters is that right now, you are not writing this book.

So consider this your official notice. Time's up. All your excuses are belong to us. The signal is given; if you were waiting for permission, it is hereby granted. For those of you waiting for the right time to begin, there is a very high probability that there will never be a better time.

Someday is today.

Therefore, as of today, I've begun work on my next novel. It's The Big Book; the one I've been thinking about for 15 years: the one that's going to melt brains and make everyone who reads it question all of their assumptions about life, the universe, and everything. My plan is to write at least one thousand words a day, every day, and while I know that there will be mistakes, setbacks, and dead-ends, my goal is to have a fully developed outline and 50,000 words of usable text in hand on September 1, 2007.

What's stopping you?