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Here's another pick from publishing insider Carl Lennertz.
I'm back from the mind-bending Winter Institute, four days of e-mania in San Jose, CA, with 400 indie booksellers sorting things out, sharing ideas; it's quite a high, actually. Been on planes too much, and I'm the last one in the office in the snow, and I love it. Got Pandora cranked up on my Subdudes ‘channel.'
Speaking of which, getting out to hear live music is like bookstore readings; there is nothing like seeing artists in person. My top 5 live music highs of 2009:
5 – BoDeans, Minneapolis
4 – Shawn Colvin, Ann Arbor
3 – Cracker, Portland, ME
2 – Tom Rush @ BB King's, NY NY
1 – Subdudes, of course!! And in Woodstock, NY, of course!
I am telling you, I am not a religious man, but when the ‘dudes come off the stage into the audience, as they do every time, and sing two songs a cappella, the same two every time, I can almost feel it. It is unique in any musical experience I've ever had. PLEASE go see them on the road. Please.
Oh, the book connection? Tom Rush and I have been in touch about a book. Oh the stories he has! And yes, songs are stories, in the most condensed, you-fill-the-rest-of-it-in way. I think Shawn Colvin has a book contract, as does my other fave, Chuck Prophet. Storytellers all.
Ok, some one-liners:
Bumper sticker the Car Guys would like to see: "Honk if you love Jesus. Text if you'd like to meet Him."
From the SF Chronicle's picks for best first sentences of the month: "When Ralph Bailey, attaché to the President, entered the family chambers at 5:26 a.m. with the news that aliens had contacted the American government, the President was on the treadmill."—"First Contact: Or, It's Later Than You Think," a novel by Evan Mandery
Full disclosure: I edited First Contact, and I confess to loving this book. I read it 4x and loved it more each time. The Prez is a W-like figure who ends up having a knockdown debate with an Ambassador for a much more superior species—not hard—and dang, he holds his own. But the rest is cataclysmic, and a love story, and well, don't take my word for it. A bookseller emailed this to me; the underlines are mine:
"I apologize for taking so long to compose this note—the delay was all scheduling: I loved this book. I picked the ARC up off Kelly's desk because of a cover blurb comparing it to Adams' work. But, due to my history of being cruelly let down by blurbs like that, I started the novel with a bit of cynicism in my heart. But I quickly forgot any concerns and, as I said, tore through the book.
I am impressed with Mr. Mandery's concisely drawn yet vivid characters, with his "translation" of the aliens' lives, and with the insightful commentary woven gently and insistently throughout the book. Plus, it has the best sentence about PTAs that I have ever read. Mr. Mandery's handling of the post-modern, self-referential trope is masterful and refreshingly light—I think this work, despite its multi-layered complexity, is also extremely accessible. I hand-sold two of these books the first day we had them in, and I feel confident in recommending First Contact to anyone who likes Vonnegut, Adams, Fforde, satire in general, and—yes-even Mr. Pratchett. Maybe to fans of David Foster Wallace, too. I also found the aliens' rabbi prank hilarious and, yes, disturbingly incisive. And the shrinking universe jokes. And the heartbreaking kindness of the last minutes of the collapsing universe. And the Gordon jokes. And the chapter titles. And... well, you see? I thought it was all great."
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Read Carl's blog at www.publishinginsider.net
First Contact: Or, It's Later Than You Think
By Evan Mandery
WHEN RALPH BAILEY, ATTACHÉ to the President, entered the family chambers at 5:26 A.M. with the news that aliens had contacted the American government, the President was on the treadmill.
"Good morning, Mr. President," he said.
"Good morning, Ralph," said the President. "You're up early today."
"Yes, sir. I have important news."
"I have some big news too."
"This is very important, sir."
"Well, so is this. Yours can wait a minute, can't it?"
Ralph wondered about this. It seemed a rather important item, the fact that aliens had reached Earth. The Secretary of State had told him to tell the President straightaway, to get him out of bed if he had to, but setting the agenda for conversations was an executive prerogative of which this president took full advantage.
"I suppose it can, sir," Ralph said.
"Good." The President stopped the treadmill, stepped off, and removed his sweaty shirt. The President liked being bare-chested.
"I ran my five miles in under thirty-five minutes this morning. That's less than seven minutes per mile."
"I haven't done that since I took office."
"It is very impressive, sir. It is a very impressive time."
"Seriously, Ralph, how many men my age do you think could run five miles in under thirty-five minutes?"
"Not many, sir."
"I bet I'm the fastest president in history."
"You might very well be, sir."
WHAT RALPH KNEW AND the President did not was that the treadmill in the family quarters was calibrated in kilometers, not miles. He had thus run five kilometers in thirty-five minutes, which comes out to a little more than ten minutes per mile. This explained the President's absolute preference for the treadmill to running outside. When the President ran outside, his times were, of course, in the range of ten minutes per mile. The President attributed his diminished fleetness outdoors to allergies and car exhaust and hence preferred to exercise in the controlled, allergen-free, positive-ion-charged environment of the White House, where his improved performances were, he felt, more reflective of his natural abilities. Ralph, who had overseen the installation of the exercise equipment, knew better. He had thought of explaining the error to the President but, wisely, rejected the idea. A longtime jogger, the President was quite invested in his physical fitness and the importance of physical fitness generally. He took enormous pride in the fact that since entering office, he had knocked three minutes per mile off his running times.
THE PRESIDENT POPPED INTO the shower. He emerged glistening, took a towel from the rack, and began the process of drying himself, beginning, ceremoniously, with his hair and underarms.
Ralph felt an increasing sense of urgency to get the news out. He imagined the Secretary would be quite upset with the delay. The Secretary knew how the President could be when he got his mind on something, particularly in the morning when he brimmed with energy, but this was big.
"Tell me, Ralph," the President said as he wiped his chest. "Suppose we were to stage a race among all the presidents of the United States. Ten-k, flat course. Who would you pick to run against me?"
"Just the living presidents in their current physical condition, sir?"
"Ha!" roared the President. "You're obviously not much of a sports fan, are you, Ralph?"
"It would be meaningless to make a comparison on the basis of two athletes' current physical state. Suppose someone asks you who is better, Kobe Bryant or Oscar Robertson? You're obviously going to pick Kobe. He is thirty-one. Oscar Robertson is seventy-one. So you have to go with Bryant. But in his prime, son, Bryant couldn't have carried the Big O's towel. That's the interesting question, Ralph: Who was better in his prime?"
The President moved the drying process down to his feet. He paid careful attention to a bunion.
"Living presidents would be no competition for me. Who did you have in mind? Carter? Clinton? One of the Bushes? I don't think any of them could run a twenty-minute mile. They couldn't beat me even if you let them run as a relay team." The President laughed. "No, Ralph," he said, "the question is me as I am today against any president at the peak of his physical fitness. If you want to pick FDR, you can have him with his good legs. Now, who's it going to be?"
"I'm not sure, sir. I've never really thought about this before."
This was, of course, true. Ralph had never thought of the question before.
"Well, think about it now," the President said.
As Ralph thought, he understood the question was not really who could offer the President the best race, but whom Ralph could choose without insulting his boss. It would be bad to pick someone who the President perceived as unworthy, not so much because it would make for a bad hypothetical competition, but because the President would be hurt or even outraged that Ralph would think so little of the President as to select for his adversary someone whom the President held in such low regard. It would be particularly bad if Ralph inadvertently chose a former president who was effete, or more relevantly whom the current president believed to be effete. It would be particularly bad to pick a liberal.
Teddy Roosevelt seemed like a safe choice.
"I think I would go with Teddy Roosevelt, sir."
"TR!" the President bellowed. "You have to be kidding me! TR couldn't hold my jock. Everyone thinks TR is such an athlete because he bagged a few moose and took a hill in battle. Let me tell you a little secret: the Spanish had already abandoned the hill. And, besides, TR went up on a horse. He was a fat turd. Have you even seen Mount Rushmore? They only did the faces because they would have needed another whole mountain for TR's ass. I don't think he could even walk six miles. I'd kick TR's butt."
The President snapped Ralph with his towel. It was soapy and wet.
THE PRESIDENT IS NOT without basis in diminishing Teddy Roosevelt's efforts in Cuba. The Spanish had not abandoned Kettle Hill, as the President claimed, but Roosevelt's deeds were widely inflated in the press. He was the only one of the Rough Riders to remain mounted during the charge, primarily because he did not think he could keep up on foot in the tropical heat. Furthermore, the Spanish incomprehensibly kept thousands of soldiers in reserve at the nearby city of Santiago de Cuba, even though the Americans outnumbered them on the battlefield by more than ten to one. Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, but the victory could be attributed as much to Spanish incompetence as to American valor.
While Roosevelt may not have been as much of a hero at San Juan Heights as is popularly thought, he would have been in every other respect a worthy opponent for the President. A sickly, asthmatic child, TR embraced vigorous exercise and literally willed himself to robust health. In pictures of him as an undergraduate, he appears stout and barrel-chested. He wrestled and rowed crew while at Harvard, climbed the Matterhorn at the age of twenty-two despite a bad heart, and boxed well into his forties. At the age of fifty-five, Roosevelt led an expedition to chart the Amazon River, then known as the River of Doubt. This was toward the end of a life during which TR served as police commissioner in New York City, a colonel in the navy, governor of the state of New York, and president of the United States. Roosevelt managed in these various capacities to, among other substantial accomplishments, establish the National Park Service, mastermind the construction of the Panama Canal, and negotiate the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War.
TR understood in a very fundamental way the importance of living life to the fullest. As Roosevelt liked to say, he sucked the juice out of life.
BY COINCIDENCE I AM eating an orange right now, which I am doing by sucking out the juice but discarding the remains. This is how I like to eat oranges, though it seems like a waste and gives me some pause about the whole live-life-to-the-fullest thing. Any physician worth his salt will tell you the pulp is where the fiber is.
THE SNAPPING OF THE presidential towel suggested to Ralph his choice had been a success, which indeed it was. The President may have dismissed Roosevelt, but he was not insulted. He regarded Roosevelt as an opponent of worthy character, if not adequate swiftness, and he accepted the choice with good humor.
"Who would you pick, sir?" Ralph asked. It was obvious he was expected to ask this.
"That's a thoughtful question," the President said. He began a vigorous two-handed attack on the lower half of his torso as he pondered. "I'd pick Nixon," he said finally.
"Was Nixon particularly fit, sir?"
"No. He was a good bowler. Good poker player, too. Not particularly fast, though. I just think he'd find a way to get the job done."
"But you would beat him, sir."
"I like to think so."
The President lost himself in thought for a moment.
"Imagine if we could have a footrace among all the world leaders throughout history," he said. "That would be a truly fascinating competition. I bet Napoleon could run like the wind. And Gandhi too. He looks swift."
"Sir, I have this news I mentioned."
"In a minute, Ralph. I have one more thing for you."
"Yes, sir." Ralph thought again about the Secretary of State, an impatient man to begin with, sitting in the Map Room waiting for Ralph to return with instructions from the President, who was at that moment standing stark naked, having dropped his towel to the floor to facilitate his rummaging through the presidential wardrobe. He removed from the drawer a pair of underwear, which had been folded and sealed in the manner a dry cleaner would return a boxed shirt, though this pair of shorts had the presidential seal across it and not the "We ♥ Our Customers" labeling that the local dry cleaner emblazoned across Ralph's dress shirts.
THIS CAREFUL, ALMOST OBSESSIVE attention to laundry seemed, to Ralph, to be an overindulgence, albeit one of many in the White House. The kitchen maintained a reserve of 475 gallons of ice cream in the freezer and had a chef on duty at all times. The former executive chef of a Michelin three-star restaurant in New York manned the graveyard shift in case the President ever wanted an omelet or a cup of gazpacho in the middle of the night. Not only had the President, who prided himself on being an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, never taken advantage of the overnight cuisinier, he ate the same thing for breakfast every morning—Rice Krispies and coffee; ate the same thing for lunch every day—a ham and Swiss cheese from Blimpway; and for dinner had either spaghetti and meatballs or macaroni and cheese. If he had to attend a state dinner, where pasta could not very well be served, at least not in a form he would tolerate, the President would have a bite of the capon or fish that was on the menu, then steal off afterward for a plate of noodles, which he would eat while watching sports.
Knowing of the President's fondness for mac and cheese, the head chef of the White House, himself the former culinary director at a four-star restaurant in Los Angeles, experimented during the first several months of the President's term with various recipes for the dish, arriving ultimately upon a mélange of thin gemelli with diced bits of pancetta, caramelized onion, and roasted asparagus in a creamy Asiago-Parmesan sauce that several White House staffers who acted as taste testers described as the most exquisite thing they had ever eaten, bordering on orgasmic, and which the President rejected in favor of the Kraft product that came in 99-cent boxes. Still, they kept vats of caviar, foie gras, and truffles in the kitchen, in the event the President awoke one evening with a case of the munchies and an epiphany of palate sophistication.
NOW HE WAS STANDING in front of Ralph, nude but for his underwear. Ralph had witnessed this scene more times than he cared to remember.
"Here." The President pulled at the material between his buttocks and turned around so Ralph could have a clearer view.
"Here," he said. "Can't you see?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I can't."
"It's grabbing at me, son. Everywhere I go, it's grabbing and bunching."
"You know the president of the United States can't just fix himself like everyone else. I mean, I sit in meetings six hours a day, and half the time it's up there in my butt-crack. I'm aware of it. You shouldn't be aware of underwear. But I can't just go up there after it. I can't say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Premier of Kazakhstan, my wears are riding up today and I'm going to go and have me a tug.' I can't very well do that, now, can I, Ralph?"
"No, I don't suppose so, sir."
"Well, what are we going to do then?"
"I don't know, Mr. President. I think we may have tried everything."
INDEED THEY HAD TRIED seemingly everything. In the beginning, Ralph tried the offerings of the various popular commercial brands—the Gap and J. Crew, Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic. When it became clear none of these were satisfactory, Ralph did what any good government official would do: he threw money at the problem, thereupon entering a world he had never imagined existed. He bought the President Armani underwear at $89 a pair, Dolce & Gabbana for $109, and Versace at $129 a pop. None worked. The material of the Armani abraded the President's testicles, the Dolce Gabbana rubbed on his thighs, and the Versace bunched just as much as the Fruit of the Loom.
Thereafter, Ralph retained, at considerable expense to Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Taxpayer, Mr. Hirohito Sun of Hong Kong, tailor to the Sultan of Brunei and the Prince of Monaco, the world's most exclusive clothier, who handcrafted suits of the finest gabardine wool for $25,000 apiece, and who, on the rarest of occasions, and for the most exclusive of clients, dealt in the crafting of bloomers. For the President of the United States, Mr. Sun flew to America, conducted a fitting, and created, after four months of research and development, a sui generis composite of silk and cotton—a magnificent, almost historic, undergarment, which the President dismissed after a twenty-second trial as too "nubbly," a word Ralph had neither heard before nor could find in any dictionary.
Ralph sometimes wondered whether this might be an elaborate test of his loyalty, some kind of bizarre hazing ritual, because nobody who had a history with the President, including several people who went back years with him, all the way to his days as commissioner of sanitation, recalled him taking any interest in his underwear. And still, despite the extraordinary efforts undertaken on his behalf, the President insisted he was not difficult to accommodate.
"You know, Ralph, I bet I could walk into the Wal-Mart and get this thing taken care of in two seconds."
"Yes, sir," Ralph said, even though it was most emphatically not true because the President had tried on every kind of underwear Wal-Mart sold by the first April of his presidency. The President failed to recall this because he had since tried some 250 other varieties of underwear, none of which, of course, had been to his satisfaction.
"Wouldn't that be something if I just walked into the Arlington Wal-Mart? That would cause quite a stir. Get those liberals all up in arms."
"Get them talking about raising the minimum wage and the plight of workers in America and all that crap."
"You know, back when I was an alderman, I used to hit the Wal-Mart all the time. I'd always go in there around Christmas and do my shopping. Always made for a good picture in the town paper. Don't suppose I could do that anymore."
The President changed clothes, first removing the problematic underwear in favor of his familiar boxers, several pairs of which had been with him since his early days in state government and which had become, through repeated wearing and washing over the years, tattered and threadbare.
AT THE SAME TIME the President complained to Ralph about the bunching in his underwear or, more accurately, at the same time I wrote that the President complained of the bunching in his underwear, I began to notice bunching in my own underwear. This could be an example of the peculiar manner in which life imitates art. The same could also be said of my experience with the orange, although I ate oranges in this manner long before I began writing this book. On the other hand, I have never had a significant problem with bunching other than during a, pardon the pun, brief experiment with boxer shorts in college.
UPON DONNING HIS UNDERWEAR and the remainder of the standard uniform of the American politician—a starched white shirt, blue suit, and red necktie, knotted in the President's preferred half-Windsor—the conversation finally turned to the matter that Ralph had come to discuss.
"So what was it you wanted to tell me, Ralph?"
"Sir, the Secretary of State has asked me to inform you that aliens have contacted the American government."
The President fixed his knot in the mirror. He had high knotting standards.
"Well, tell him to handle it. I'm sure he'll know what to do."
"Sir, the Secretary believes this matter requires your urgent attention."
The President flashed a look at Ralph off the mirror. His ire was up. "Does the Secretary really expect me to drop everything every time some Mexicans try to get across the border?"
"These aren't Mexicans, sir."
"Who are they then? Cubans? I'll be pissed if it's the Cubans again. What did they do this time? Try to make it to Miami in a shoe box? Those damned Cubans can't even build themselves a proper boat."
"Sir, it's not illegal aliens. It's real aliens, from outer space."
The President turned away from the mirror to face Ralph directly. "You mean Martians?"
"I don't think they are actually Martians, sir. NASA has found no evidence of life on Mars. These people appear to have come from several hundred light-years away."
"I'll be damned," the President said. "Martians in my White House." He shook his head and said to himself, "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
Then he asked, "What was the message, Ralph? What did they say?"
Ralph replied without editorializing. "It said, ‘Mr. President, would you like to have brunch?'"
End of excerpt.
Copyright 2010 by Evan Mandery. All rights reserved.
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