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March 2012

Guest Blogger: Barry Malzberg on Kurt Vonnegut's Kindle Single, "Basic Training"

Basic TrainingThirteen years before the publication of Cat's Cradle, a 27-year-old Kurt Vonnegut wrote the dark, devilish novella, Basic Training, under the pseudonym of Mark Harvey--that foreshadows the novelist's powerfully anti-authoritarian world view. Never before published, it appears for the first time as an exclusive Kindle Single.

Here, writer Barry Malzberg describes its genesis:

This novella is a find, a work of anti-mythology disguised as a family memoir. Vonnegut doubtless intended it for Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post, the slick magazines which represented the apogee of the market and Vonnegut’s own desire in the late 1940s and early 50s. The work failed to sell and lay in Vonnegut’s trunk for 60 years. Here it is now, fresh and gleaming, fierce in its observation and as deadpan a demolition of the American authoritarian myth as anything he later produced. Everything old is new again.

Vonnegut was about 30 when he wrote this novella. In a long filmed interview with Eric Solstein in 1999 for Solstein’s documentary Trout, Vonnegut said “I was making a hundred a week and GE was paying for our health insurance, our pensions. One day a check came [for a short story] from The Saturday Evening Post for $700. I said to my wife, ‘This is very interesting.’”

The story seems autobiographical—too deliberate to be fully invented. The details are too precise and Kurt Vonnegut, his wife Jane and his daughter Nanny, Courtesy of Nanny Vonnegutthe insanity of the “General” who stands at its center too scattered and yet deliberate. Mark Vonnegut, the author’s son, confirms this, noting that “The pseudonym under which Basic Training was written is probably a conflation of my name and Harvey Cox, my mother’s father. It was great fun to read Kurt’s early version of his take on the military and heroism. There’s fantastic language throughout and a very mature voice for someone not quite thirty. The women and the General were, if anything, more fully drawn and human than characters in later [novels].” Another letter, from Vonnegut’s daughter Nanny confirms the personal nature of this story. The adolescent Kurt spent a summer on a farm near Indianapolis where Vonnegut grew up, administered rather brutally by a family friend who called himself the “Captain”. There was even quite a difficult stallion on the farm. And further like the protagonist of Basic Training, Vonnegut enjoyed playing the piano as a young man.

The lunacy of the “General” (Vonnegut obviously felt a promotion was in order) lays over the events of this story as thoroughly and convincingly as the madness of Campbell or Rosewater in Vonnegut’s later novels. Hope, the object of the hapless protagonist’s adoration in Basic Training is an embryonic Montana Wildhack, Billy Pilgrim’s sidekick in Slaughterhouse-Five. All of Vonnegut’s central concerns—the madness of Kings, the improbability of existence, the contingent and transient nature of all known experience except the purest of love—are clearly demonstrated and enacted through these 20,000 words. Vonnegut’s work suggests that flight is the only humane manner of dealing with madness… but where does one flee? The General is everywhere, and the General seems to almost every outsider he encounters so utterly “reasonable”.

At the heart of this novella, as at the heart of all Vonnegut’s work, is a simple and terrible acceptance. Heigh-ho. So it goes. Onward. The General has a secret and that secret, revealed at last, can be traced through another fifty years of Vonnegut’s writing to capture us yet again today and tomorrow.

—Barry Malzberg

Photo: Kurt Vonnegut, his wife Jane and his daughter Nanny, courtesy of Nanny Vonnegut.

What's in a Name?: "Jewball" Author Neal Pollack Knows

PollackBefore I self-published my novel Jewball last October, and before Thomas & Mercer rescued me from certain permanent obscurity, I got a call from my mother. She said, “Your father and I think you should change the title because some people might find it offensive.”

“I don’t care what some people think,” I said.

And I still don’t.

The title Jewball represents a point of pride for me. The book is about Jewish basketball players in the 1930s, a time when global anti-Semitism was nearing its peak. In the U.S., though, Jews had started to move out of the immigrant ghetto and into the mainstream. They were getting educated. They were getting powerful. And they dominated professional basketball.

Old-school Jewish basketball didn’t much resemble what we see today. They played below the rim. They jumped ball after every made basket. Well into that decade, they had to play in cages because bigots in the crowd would throw broken bottles at them. It was a gritty fight in front of a tough crowd. And the guys who played it called it Jewball, without hesitation or neurosis.

So in calling my novel Jewball, I’m honoring the memory and achievements of players like Inky Lautman, Harry Litwack, Gil Fitch, and Shikey Gothofer, many of whom have been forgotten by history. I want to reclaim their legacy and their unmatchable contribution to the world’s greatest game. People should know that Jewish men played the game hard and played it well.

When I search for the word “Jewball” on Twitter, I don’t see ethnic slurs. Instead, I see references to Jewish Community Center rec leagues in cities like Cleveland and Durham, where young Jewish guys—the spiritual and ethnic heirs to the characters I wrote about—are excited for their Tuesday-night run down the court. “Jewball is gonna be epic,” they say. It will be, because it always has been.

When it came time for Thomas & Mercer to fully unleash Jewball on the world, some people in the company were understandably nervous. They wanted me to come up with an alternate title because, like my parents, they were worried that some people might be offended. I thought of Inky’s Game—referring to the main character, Inky Lautman—but that fell kind of flat. The editors liked Inglorious Baskets, because the central team in the book spends a lot of time fighting homegrown American Nazis. It seemed like a funny idea, but after a couple of days it also started to seem derivative.

Finally, I got an email from Thomas & Mercer saying they had decided to keep Jewball as the title. They might even have called it genius.

To the book’s genius, I cannot speak. But I do know it’s full of action and romance and fun, and there’s lots and lots of basketball. Plus it’s got that awesome title.

—Neal Pollack

Ready to Enter the Creepy Funhouse?

Guest post by Frank Wheeler Jr. 

DeadMan9 Carnival of Death, Bill Crider’s contribution to the twisted men's adventure books known as The Dead Man series, is a thrilling walk into that creepy funhouse you’re not quite sure about entering.  Once the action gets going, it is a bloody, relentless spectacle that keeps you glued to the page.

Matt Cahill, the protagonist of The Dead Man series, was an ordinary man leading a simple life...until a shocking accident gave him the ability to see evil acts before they take place. And thanks to Mr. Dark, everywhere Matt goes he runs into unleashed evil.

In Carnival of Death Matt has found work as a security guard at a traveling carnival. He hopes this job will help him stay anonymous, making it harder for Mr. Dark to find him. Matt soon witnesses a group of boys trying to rape a high school girl. Matt helps free the girl, and all through the incident, he feels the familiar hand of someone he can’t see. But this is no isolated incident. Not long after, a man goes crazy on the midway, claims he’s been cheated, threatens violence, and has to be restrained.  Immediately following this episode, the snake lady’s tame and well-fed Burmese pythons try to squeeze the life from her during her performance. Matt kills the snakes with his trusty ax before they can snuff the life from her. All in all, not bad for a night’s work.

After all the customers’ madness, Matt finds a moment to talk with a very interested Madame Zora, the palm reader. She knows that something has followed Matt here. She wants to help him figure out what is happening, and perhaps to prevent further dangerous situations. What neither of them know, however, is that Mr. Dark has already gotten a firm grip on the customers and the carnival worker he brushed shoulders with that evening.

The climax happens the next evening, and it’s a doozy. The girl Matt saved, the boys that assaulted her, the ill-tempered man on the midway, and the snake lady all come back looking for bloodshed. Matt and Madame Zora must face Mr. Dark in the form of these now-disturbed people. Matt must use his ax to cut a path to his old enemy, and face him if he can.

Editor's note: Carnival of Death is the ninth book in The Dead Man series which blends horror and men's action/adventure fiction in novella-length books. See the entire series here.


Frank Wheeler Jr. is the author of the forthcoming book The Wowzer, a violent and darkly comic thriller about a sheriff’s deputy who moonlights as an enforcer for local drug traffickers.

"Legacy of the Dragon": J. Gregory Smith on How to Tame the Beast

LegacyDragonOne of the tricky things about writing an edgy hero is being able to come right up to the line without crossing into true psycho territory.

Detective Paul Chang—who appears in Final Price and my new novel, Legacy of the Dragon—doesn’t just have a dark side. He has an aggressive and powerful persona that seeks to assert itself and assume control in the gravest of situations.

Every year is the year of the dragon for Chang, a Chinese American ex-cop and now private detective—but that’s nothing to celebrate. He endured a difficult childhood torn between traditional Chinese culture and fitting in with his more westernized peers in New York’s Chinatown. His Uncle Tuen taught him to bury his anger and learn to become a prosperous businessman. Chang did his best, but after witnessing the brutal handiwork of a Tong assassin when Tuen refused to pay extortion money, he was never the same. 

The ball of anger inside Chang became an egg that gave rise to the dragon, a vindictive alter ego whose impact on his life is anything but metaphorical. He turned to a career in law enforcement, but the dragon seeks a more pure form of justice. In order to coexist with the dragon without succumbing to madness, Chang slakes its thirst for vengeance from time to time by giving it influence over his body. 

The detective struggles to rein in the dragon rather than try to eradicate it. When he feels stressed or threatened, Chang finds the dragon ready and eager to expand his senses, sharpen his reflexes, and pour strength into his muscles. Much as he hates to admit it, he needs the release.

Unlike the tools and weapons Chang has mastered, the dragon refuses to be tamed. The detective relies on his alter ego, and he also relishes the rough justice it can dispense. Likewise, the dragon depends on Chang’s boundaries to prevent it from driving them both to destruction.

The combination of man and dragon makes Chang an intense investigator, a loyal friend, and a terrible foe. It also makes him one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever created. It was well worth the effort to capture his true essence: a man who searches constantly for his place in the world and ways to protect those who deserve to stay safe. 

—J. Gregory Smith

The Sweet Potato Queens’ Top 10 Ways to Survive Whatever Life Throws at You

FITN30Excerpted from Fat Is the New 30, the brand-new installment in the Sweet Potato Queens series, by New York Times best-selling author Jill Conner Browne:

10. The best survival tool ever devised is the Concept of Complete Denial, aka: "Let's talk about watermelon."

9. Hyperbole is also helpful. If there is the slightest hiccup in our day, we immediately go to "This is the worst day of my life!"

8. There is hardly anything in life that cannot be improved by gobs of gravy.

7. Feeling full feels better than being thin does.

6. Spa time should be considered a necessity, and there should be legislation introduced to provide it.

5. If what you've got is a money problem, well, then money is pretty much the only thing that will solve it.

4. Time is one of the very few—if not the only—fair thing in the entire universe. Everybody gets the same daily allotment of 86,400 seconds, and the spending of those is our exclusive option and responsibility.

3. There is a popular misconception that one has no choice but to maintain a close and lifelong association with persons who share one's DNA and/or had the same street address during one's formative years. I beg to differ.

2. Get as happy as you can manage about the fact that you are still having a birthday.

1. Go gator huntin'.

David Shields on the Power of Human Connection in "Jeff, One Lonely Guy"

David Shields is the author of twelve books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and the New York Times bestseller The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.  He is the co-author of Jeff, One Lonely Guy, which he wrote with Jeff Ragsdale and Michael Logan

Jeff-One-Lonely-GuyLast October, Jeff Ragsdale, depressed after a bad breakup, posted a flyer around New York City that read: “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me.” He signed it “Jeff, One Lonely Guy” and left his cell phone number. It went viral, and soon thousands of people were calling Jeff from around the world to confess, to joke, to cry, to connect.

What I love about this book (and I can say this because it's less anything any of us did, and it's more the voices that came in on Jeff's cell phone) is what it tells us about what it's like to live in America right now.

I can't think of a contemporary book that evokes more specifically how people talk now (the new words and phrases and sayings are extraordinary—it’s a virtual Roget’s of contemporary slang); how much they hunger for connection to themselves, to each other, to a larger community; how energized and enervated they are by Big Media and digital culture; how confusing love is in a 24/7 porn environment; and how baffling transcendence is—how brief flickers of fame seem to beckon out of every internet portal.

Jeff, One Lonely Guy is a remarkable document of contemporary existence. 

"Nightfall": An Unrelenting Thriller

Guest post by author Stephen Leather.

NightfallIn Nightfall my hero--former cop turned private investigator Jack Nightingale--inherits a mansion that used to belong to his father. But with the windfall comes bad news--Nightingale's father was a Satanist who had made a deal with a devil. On Nightingale's thirty-third birthday, just weeks away, that devil is coming to claim his soul.

The more Nightingale looks into his past the more secrets he discovers. And when everyone he talks to about his father dies horribly, he realises that perhaps devils do exist and that he faces an eternity in the fires of Hell.

Readers often ask about one of Nightingale's peculiar habits…his non-stop smoking. Jack Nightingale is a forty-a-day man. He's a Brit but he prefers to smoke Marlboro.

I'm a non-smoker--unless you count the half dozen or so I tried at school. I never liked it, never saw the point in it, and could never afford the habit anyway. Now that I can afford it I know the dangers and wouldn't dream of smoking. But when I started writing Nightfall I knew that Nightingale had to be a smoker.

It's something to do with the fact that smokers are the new underdogs, hounded by all and sundry because of their habit. Smoking has been banned almost everywhere and the anti-smoking lobby has pretty much forced smoking off movies and television. Books really are the last bastion of the habit.

I get emails from people complaining about Nightingale's love of nicotine but I like the fact that Nightingale smokes. It makes him an outsider, and a bit of a rebel. The only downside is that when I'm writing about Nightingale I get a craving for a cigarette myself. It's been forty years since I last held a cigarette, but when I write about Nightingale the urge kicks in. So far I've managed to resist!

Nightfall is the first book in a trilogy--the further adventures of Jack Nightingale will follow in Midnight and Nightmare. And as the series continues, Nightingale will continue to smoke. I just hope that I can resist the urge to smoke myself!

Stephen Leather is one of the UK's most successful thriller writers. Before becoming a novelist he was a journalist for more than ten years on newspapers such as The Times, the Daily Mail and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

Bestselling Kindle Author Karen McQuestion's "Easily Amused" for $2.99

Easily Amused Karen McQuestion is the best-selling author of more than five books, including A Scattered Life, Lies I Told My Children, and Life on Hold.

A sweet romantic comedy, Easily Amused centers on the life of twenty-nine-year-old Lola Watson. When Lola unexpectedly inherits a rambling house in the suburbs, she thinks it just may be the cherry on a banner year. After all, she’s happily single, with fabulous friends and her dream job working at a popular magazine. Life is perfect--until her new neighbors make her their new “project,” a heartbroken high school friend crashes indefinitely at her house, and her younger sister announces she’s getting married…on Lola’s thirtieth birthday. Suddenly Lola’s not so keen on her newfound domestic bliss. But when she meets handsome, mysterious Ryan Moriarty, Lola dares to hope she’s found the perfect guy to one-up her sister and add a little spice back into her life. Breezy and fun, Easily Amused serves as a gentle, often amusing reminder that love can often be found in the place we least expect--under our very noses.

If you're looking for a light-hearted weekend read, check out a sample or download a copy of Easily Amused for $2.99 today.

In a book club?  Be sure to check out the reading group discussion guide at the back of the book or download a copy online.

Wolfram Fleischhauer on Tango, Codes, and the Music of Astor Piazzolla

Wolfram Fleischhauer is the author of, Fatal Tango. In it, his characters Giulietta Battin and Damián Alsina share secrets via coded dance steps, and pursue a dark truth linked to Argentina’s brutal past. We asked Wolfram about his inspirations from the world of dance.

Fatal-TangoQuestion: What inspired you to write this story?

Wolfram Fleischhauer: The first time I spent an evening in a Milonga (a tango club) I knew I would one day write a novel set in the tango universe. What immediately fascinated me were the codes. I was completely taken in not only by the sophistication of the music and the dance, but also by all the rituals that go along with it: the unspoken rules, the glances, the body language. I love codes. I think art is a way of expressing the unspeakable. So from the very beginning I had the idea of a tango dancer whose dance contains a secret.

Q: How did you become interested in tango and how did you decide to use it as backdrop for this story?

WF: I discovered tango for two reasons: Astor Piazzolla and Feminism. Piazzolla’s album Tango Zero Hour just blew my mind. I must have listened to this record a thousand times. This was in the late 1980’s. I was living in Berlin, I had almost completed my MA in German and American Literature. I wanted to write novels but had no clear idea how and about what, and I was single again after a painful breakup. At that point in time, feminism had reached its peak, especially in Berlin. So when I visited some tango bars, I was very surprised to see that the place was teeming with women who I knew to be very outspoken about male chauvinism. The same women who considered it a provocation if you held the door for them were dancing tango in sleazy tango joints-- dressed to kill and expecting to be led!  The Tango Renaissance in the 1980's was the first sign of a strange cultural reversal and as such it was an ideal starting point for the kind of novel I write: the cultural suspense novel.

Q: How did you create the tango code featured in this story?

WF: Tango is already in code. Anyone learning tango will soon be familiar with the names of the basic figures and sequences like basse, ocho adelante, ocho atrás, giro a la izquierda, traspié and so forth. Some sequences of dance figures are very common, others are more rare or difficult, and some are impossible. Damián does not only dance tango. He uses tango to mask his trauma, his anger, and his grief. He imposes his own language on the traditional tango language and this makes him so special and controversial. He breaks the mold by creating strange sequences that, if you analyze them, yield names of events and people that haunt him.

Q: Are there any particular tango albums or artists you’d recommend to your readers?

WF: As I already mentioned, Piazzolla’s Tango Zero Hour was a revelation for me. It was like an infection, a fever. So while I was writing Fatal Tango, I constantly listened to tango music, especially one album by Julia Zenko. She was my muse. Her version of Renaceré sends shivers down my spine, and every time she sings Chiquilín I have to fight the tears. I love Milva’s version of Oblivion, and El Violin de Becho. The tango music universe is so vast. I started on the contemporary end with Piazzolla, but for you it may be Troilo, Di Sarli, or Pugliese. Just go and discover it for yourself--but be prepared: it may change your life.

Read more exerpts from our interview with Wolfram Fleischhauer in the Kindle Store.

Guest Blogger: Sanjay Gupta on his novel, "Monday Mornings"

Monday MorningsNearly 20 years ago, I finished medical school and started my training as a neurosurgeon. Since then, I have been fascinated with a ritual-laden, somewhat secretive meeting that takes place in hospitals all over the country. It is known as “Death and Complications” or “Morbidity and Mortality,” and it is one of the most dramatic and indelible meetings a doctor will ever attend. At this insiders-only gathering, doctors openly discuss their mistakes, complications, and yes—deaths. From a practical standpoint, the meeting is sort of a quality-assurance mechanism to allow surgeons to police themselves and even debate clinical gray zones, but the stories were the most riveting I had ever heard.

Over the years, I have observed many of these gatherings and one thing was constant—the discussion of mistakes is tremendously unsettling, even for the most seasoned surgeons. There is, however, a spectrum of surgical personalities, from the forthright and the blunt to tentative and even evasive. Many surgeons are quick to blame anesthesia or any specialty other than their own. Other surgeons are born entertainers, using showmanship and black humor to distract their colleagues. Many times, I have seen the meeting turn into a battle zone, with surgeons picking sides and forging alliances.

I would often jot down notes after these meetings to remember the important teaching points that can result from a medical mistake, but few years ago, I realized something else when re-reading my old notepads. There was a remarkable narrative that had emerged, and it was a story that had never been told.

In Monday Mornings, I decided to give readers an honest, transparent and sometimes raw peek behind the curtain at one of the most hallowed traditions in medicine. There are five main characters that are all composites of people I have met over the last two decades, and they represent both important lessons about medicine and also the convergence between humanity and healing.

This is a story about Chelsea General, a fictitious hospital where some of the greatest surgeons have honed their skills. Sometimes the path to greatness is a little messy. Some surgeons emerge stronger than ever, and others are crushed, never fully re-engaging in the practice of medicine. The real story behind these surgeons begins at those secret gatherings on Monday mornings.

--Sanjay Gupta