Friday, January 31, 2014
Back in the spring of 2006, I sat down for a casual conversation with the President.
Okay, it was in Burbank. And it was an interview for a magazine article I was writing. And it was a pretend president. But still… Jimmy Smits seemed commanding anyway. It was only about 48 hours before some eight million viewers would watch Smits—as Democratic presidential candidate Matt Santos on “The West Wing”—eke out a victory over Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda).
Folks were calling him the “Abe Lincoln of Latinos” for snagging a stint as a presidential candidate (the irony being that there had always been a Latino president on “The West Wing,” as Martin Sheen was born Ramon Estevez). Smits told me that he thought long and hard about accepting the final-season role on the NBC drama, “But I can show you letters and e-mails I received from people in the business who heard about it, and they all said the same thing: You have to do this. You have to do this.”
So perhaps the line between fantasy and reality isn’t as distinct as one might assume. When Smits was on "L.A. Law", fans would approach him about legal matters, and Latinos would tell him he was the reason they pursued a law degree. Maybe it’s not so surprising that a headline on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper that hadn’t endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1872, declared “MATTHEW V. SANTOS FOR PRESIDENT.”
I am fascinated by fictional presidents. Thus I offer a Why Not 100 tour of pen, paper and Pennsylvania Avenue—a journey through the long list of literary presidents. I won’t even touch film and TV here. Or stage productions. Or comic books. Just U.S. presidents in the pages of novels. And there are, literally, hundreds of them.
One of the most appealing aspects of science fiction is its potential to become fact. It is fantasy rife with possibility. Not always, to be sure, but often enough to launch the imagination. Case in point (and pardon the alliteration): The prescient practitioners of possibility in the pantheon of sci-fi writers. Seers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.
How prophetic were they and some other science fiction writers, including the likes of E.M. Forster and Mark Twain? Consider these 19 notions that came true, roughly in chronological order of their actual invention:
1. THE SUBMARINE (predictor: Jules Verne)
Submarines—or submarine-like vessels, at least—have been around a lot longer than we all think. First military submarine capable of independent underwater operation was a hand-powered acorn-shaped device in 1775. It was called the Turtle. The first submarine not relying on human power for propulsion was launched in France in 1863. It was called the Nautilus. So why credit Verne, who published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seven years later and gave Captain Nemo’s submarine the same name? Because he imagined its potential—militarily, politically, socially, even psychologically. Plus, the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean didn’t arrive until nearly 30 years later.
Verne conceived “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale… The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log-books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a whale, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science.”
2. SCUBA DIVING (predictor: Jules Verne)
Here again, Jules Verne didn’t so much as invent scuba diving as fast-forward the possibilities. In 1860, a decade before Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a French engineer designed a self-contained breathing set with a backpack cylindrical air tank. It was meant to help miners avoid drowning in flooded mines. Four years later, he and a navy officer adapted the invention to diving. Divers could go no more than 10 meters deep and for no longer than 30 minutes at a time. In fact, the typical diver of the day wasn’t even that far along—still wearing a cumbersome suit, tethered to a ship by an air hose. But Verne’s apparatus “consisted of a reservoir of thick iron plates, in which I store the air under a pressure of fifty atmospheres. This reservoir is fixed on the back by means of braces." With this gear, the diver could explore the deep for seven or eight hours at a time.
William Shakespeare claimed, “Brevity is the soul of wit”—a self-supporting line if ever there was one. Another genius wordsmith, Mark Twain, once admitted, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Which, as any writer knows, has a kernel of truth to it. This was typical Twain because it was both pithy and profound. It makes you chuckle and ponder at the same time.
With that in mind, it’s time to celebrate a form of writing that isn’t often championed—headline writing. What’s that you say? How hard could it be? Well, simply take a trip to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a remarkable museum devoted to celebrating the First Amendment. Walk into any bathroom on any floor of the museum There you’ll find tiles embedded in the walls that reveal failed headlines from history, headlines like BABIES ARE WHAT THE MOTHER EATS and RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE.
So headline writing can be a bit of an art form. And, of course, as Twain so brilliantly exemplified, satire is, too. If you can combine the two—the succinct and the satirical—well, then you can strike literary gold. And there’s no better example of that combination than “The Onion,” which in 2013 celebrated 25 years of laconic lampooning.
Start touring “The Onion” headlines from over the years, and you’ll soon realize that it’s a hard habit to break. So I’ve taken it upon myself to gather 85 of the best ones. Of course, this being a Why Not Books blog, we’ll start with a publishing parody (and end with another):
1. Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up in Harry Potter Craze
2. Winner Didn’t Even Know It Was Pie-Eating Contest
3. CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years
4. Wealthy Teen Nearly Experiences Consequences
5. Jurisprudence Fetishist Gets Off on Technicality
Monday, January 27, 2014
Here’s something you don’t hear every day: Ten of the world’s top crime writers are competing to see who gets to have a morgue named after them. Yup. A morgue.
It’s part of the “Million for a Morgue” campaign to help Scotland’s University of Dundee raise funds for a new research facility at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. Fans can go the Million for a Morgue website, donate money and make their vote count. The competition closes once one million pounds have been raised, and the writer with the most votes—whether it’s Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver, Jeff Lindsay, Stuart MacBride, Peter James, or Val McDermid—gets immortalized (unlike the corpses stored therein).
Which got me thinking: What other things have been named after authors?
It can be a somewhat tricky excursion into the facts. For instance, there is widespread speculation that the Oh Henry! candy bar was named for William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym O. Henry. Not true. Apparently, it was named for a boy who frequented the company store and was often asked—“Oh, Henry!”—to perform odd jobs.
But for this installment of the Why Not 100, I did manage to locate 22 pretty darn cool (and a few pretty darn curious) entities—from beers to butterflies and from whales to words—named after authors.
I’ll rank them, too, roughly according to the impressiveness of the honor:
1. A dinosaur (Michael Crichton)
I mean, c’mon. A dinosaur? Imagine the wonder on the face of any eight-year-old boy if you told him that someday somebody was going to name a prehistoric beast after him. An ankylosaur species, discovered somewhat recently and formally described by a Chinese paleontologist, was named in honor of the author of Jurassic Park. So while the beast may be extinct, it is forever immortalized as a Crichtonsaurus.
When I think of opening lines of novels, I tend to think of Snoopy. I picture him, as Charles Schulz so often did, sitting atop his doghouse, typewriter before him, aching to retrieve a second sentence from the recesses of his precocious canine brain. All he can come up with is the hoariest of clichés: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Those seven words—often mocked, occasionally with a wink (Madeleine L’Engle used the line as a starter for A Wrinkle in Time)—are considered the purplest of purple prose. Writer’s Digest once described the line as “the literary poster child for bad story starters.” Or not. The American Book Review once chose it as one of the best first lines from novels. Beautiful writing is in the eye of the beholder.
The opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford actually was this: It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Not bad really. But then, I don’t always agree with historical literary consensus. Take Charles Dickens, for instance. The protracted first sentence to his 1859 classic A Tale of Two Cities is considered among the iconic openers: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Me? I think that’s a bunch of overwritten nonsense. The epoch of incredulity? Really?
Alas, you won’t find that one on the following list, the Why Not 100 ranking of the 94 finest openers in fiction. There are actually a couple offerings from Dickens, just not that one…
1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)
2. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)
After all… why not?
You’ll notice, of course, the list is almost entirely dominated by the creations of three authors. That’s because Brandon Mull’s Candy Shop Wars, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Roald Dahl’s delicious masterpiece are brimming with the best magical treats. And maybe some of your favorite, sweetest books didn’t make the list. But like candy, every ranking is inherently a preference. This is ours, starting with what we believe is the ultimate in confectionary wonder:
1. Wonka Bar (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl)
Yes, it’s really just a candy bar. But the notion of five of them—among the millions sold—containing a Golden Ticket that promises entrée into a “world of pure imagination,” not to mention a lifetime supply of chocolate… can you really beat that?
2. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
“A Risk With Every Mouthful!” So goes the advertisement for perhaps the most famous sweet in the wizarding world. It’s the risk that appeals—certainly not the taste. Sure, you can find chocolate or peppermint or coconut or strawberry. But you can also find sardine or liver or ear wax or vomit. Buyer beware.
3. Brain Feed (The Candy Shop War)
Not for human consumption. But if you feed some to an animal, the beast temporarily gains human intelligence, including the power of speech and memory. Dr. Dolittle meets the Candy Man.
Fifty years ago—on February 9, 1964—John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Beatles are to songwriting what Shakespeare is to playwriting. Second place (sorry, Rolling Stones and Eugene O’Neill) is far behind. But the Why Not 100 is a blog about books. So I wondered: How can I inject my Beatlemania into an eclectic look at literature? Easy, actually. I’ve found 64 Beatles songs that can be found as book titles.
And I didn’t even use When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them.
You see, I gave myself some rules. First, no books about the Beatles themselves. Among those options are titles like Strawberry Fields Forever, Love Me Do, You Never Give Me Your Money, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Can’t Buy Me Love, Carry That Weight, Fixing a Hole, Please Please Me, Eight Days a Week, A Hard Day’s Night, Glass Onion, and I Me Mine. I also decided not to include illustrated song lyrics like Octopus’s Garden and Yellow Submarine.
Second, no nonfiction. As much as I love the genre, I wanted to keep it to novels—and the occasional short story collection, comic book tale, or picture book. As you can imagine, there are a whole bunch of marital self-help books called We Can Work It Out. And a few inspiring true-life tales called With a Little Help From my Friends. I could go on. In fact, I will:
We at Why Not Books named our company after a statement of possibility, a call to conjecture, a challenge to the accepted order of things. We named it after skewed perspectives and a belief that the infinite is attainable. We named it after our favorite description of imagination, a George Bernard Shaw quotation: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why.’ I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” RFK borrowed the line for a speech while running for president. Before repeating Shaw’s quote, he said, “I don’t think we have to accept the situation, as we have it at the moment. I think that we can do better, and I think the American people think that we can do better.”
So do we. So we call ourselves Why Not Books.
And here we offer our 92 favorite perspectives on the power of imagination:
1. “You see things and say ‘Why.’ I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw
2. “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ― G.K. Chesterton
3. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein
4. “Imagination is the voice of daring.”― Henry Miller
Sunday, January 26, 2014
We at Why Not Books try to tell it like it is. So Francis and Eddie is, indeed, a picture book about the amazing true story of amateur golfer Francis Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery. And Dragon Valley is, yes, a chapter book for kids—written by a precocious kid—about talking dragons and the valley they call home. And My Mantelpiece, the memoirs of civil rights icon Carolyn Goodman… well, sometimes titles are a bit more cryptic.
From hundreds of submissions of tongue-in-cheek tomes, we’ve ranked the 100 best:
1. Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak) – Skipping Dinner is Like Dropping Acid
2. Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx) – The Hills Have Guys
3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) – Eat Until You Feel Pretty
4. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) – Diary of a Wimpy Kid
5. Oedipus the King (Sophocles) – How I Met Your Mother
6. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) – My Dad is Cooler than Your Dad
7. The Devil Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger) – The Satanic Purses
8. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) – A Zombie Learns French