Sunday, November 27, 2011

Interview with Dan Boehl

Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt by Dan Boehl is an imaginative dystopian novel set in Endless Ranches, Texas in a post-gasoline world.  One corporation, the factory, controls all of the food supply, and there is only one food:  paste.  Fourteen-year-old Naomi knows something is amiss and sets out to uncover the truth about Endless Ranches.  You can read more about Dan and his writing at  Following is my interview with Dan about his art and his life.

What were your favorite books when you were a kid?

My favorite books were by John Bellairs. Particularly the House with a Clock in Its Walls and the Trolley to Yesterday.  I also loved Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.  So, anything kind of scary and fantastic.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was 13 or 14. I had just read The Blue Sword, and I remember sitting on the front porch of my house with a pad and writing, "Kai had a sword." That was as far as I got on that one.

Where do you get your ideas?

My ideas arise from settings.  I grew up in the country outside of Baltimore, MD and York, PA.  Many of my stories have a country attitude.  Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt came about because I traded the story to my friend Naomi for a T-Shirt.  I asked her what kind of story she wanted and the book arose from her request.

Why is your first book a novel for teens?

The book just kind of happened to be for teens.  I really liked the style of writing.  It is like spinning a yarn rather than trying to write literary fiction.  It is fun and exciting, and teens are more accepting of the fantastic and the weird.

In Naomi and the Horse Flavored T-Shirt paste is the only food the characters have available to eat.  Until they discover the delicious taste of vegetables and fruits.  (I suppose only the absence of produce would make vegetables taste good to most children.)  Is the paste--I won’t give away its main ingredient--in any way analogous to the overly processed foods Americans consumer today?

Yes, I think paste is a stand-in for the overly processed foods Americans eat and analogous for American consumerism.  But really I just wanted paste to be something discussing and bland.  Something that people accepted because they had no imagination.  Naomi has imagination, and therefore she hates paste and the conformity it represents.

Your novel is set in Texas after all of the oil is used up.  No more gasoline.  What do you imagine the country would be like when there is no more oil?

Well, I think by the time the gasoline runs out there will be electric alternatives for transportation and a better bicycle and mass transit structure.  There is a lot of coal in America, so we are not teetering on an energy crisis, but there needs to be an alternative to gasoline and car culture.  I imagine fewer roads, more trains, and cleaner air.

The paste corporation controls everything to the point that children are indoctrinated with paste propaganda in their schools.  Do you think corporations have undue influence over what schools teach?

The paste propaganda in schools in Naomi is a nod to Fahrenheit 451, one of the great dystopian novels.  I do feel there needs to be less corporate presence in public schools that make junk food and sodas available to kids.  Also, in Texas, there is an ideological debate being waged about what should and should not be taught in science class.  I wanted Naomi to experience this culture in her classroom.

This is a weird question that I read in an interview once, but in light of the purple horse-flavored shirt Naomi wears, I’ll ask it.  If you could be any color, what would it be and why?

I would be two colors: pink and grey. These are my favorite colors. One is soft and pretty, the other soft and strong.

Who is your favorite Beatle?

George.  Is that the right answer?  I like his spiritual mindedness.  Have you seen that interview with him on the Dick Cavett show?  He is amazing when he talks about the Beatles and how he fits in, how he doesn't fit in.

What is your favorite food?

Maryland crabcakes.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

I was a high school English teacher in a Baltimore County prison.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

I would be a lawyer and I would sue the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of incarcerated teens.

Do you have any advice for people who want to write?

Get up every morning and write 300 words.  Do it 5 times a week.  Get one person to read your work and make sure they are only allowed to tell you good things. 

If you'd like to order the Kindle version from Amazon, click here: 
Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No Escape from Stalag 13

Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971)
Created by Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy
Starring Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer, and John Banner

Hogan's Heroes is my holiday show:  For the past few years now, I have watched it from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year's right past Valentine's Day. Until 2008, I hadn't watched Hogan's Heroes since it aired when I was a child in the sixties.  There was the brief period in the winter of '96-'97 when I had the show on at three in the morning while I was up with an unsleeping infant, but, as I was dropping off to sleep, I wasn't too focused on the broadcast.  It was the death of Ivan Dixon (Kinch) that got me started watching Hogan's Heroes again.

Incidentally, with the death this past April of John Cedar (the young Corporal Langenscheidt--only a true Heroes fan would even know who he is), Richard Dawson (Newkirk), Robert Clary (LeBeau), and Cynthia Lynn (Helga) are the sole surviving cast members.  I think the reason I watch Hogan's Heroes from November through February is thematic:  It is perennially winter at Stalag 13.  (Klink:  "Hogan, look how the winter sun glistens on the barbed wire.")  Oh, sure the deciduous trees are the green of summer, and palm trees sway in the background.  But there's white powder on the ground and buildings, and we viewers suspend disbelief and accept that white powder as snow.  Further evidence of the season are the Germans bundled in heavy coats, while the prisoners shiver in their lighter outer garments.

A few years back I saw a TV Guide list of the worst television shows ever, on which Hogan's Heroes clocked in at fifth place.  That's absurd.  I can only assume those behind Hogan's ranking on the "worst" list have never actually watched the show and mistakenly believe Hogan's Heroes to be set on a concentration camp.  Like Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, a really good movie to which many comparisons can be made--perhaps another time--Hogan's Heroes is set on a prisoner-of-war camp.  Big difference there.

It's hard for post-Vietnam viewers to accept even a prisoner-of-war camp as legitimate fodder for fun.  But in that time between World War II and the Vietnam War, all men did a stint in the armed forces.  Those men and all the vets of World War I, World War II and Korea were a large part of TV land in the sixties.  Those guys liked watching buddy pictures about the military.  Combat, 12 O'Clock High, McHale's Navy, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. were watched by all those vets and their families.  And, of course, the ultimate buddies-in-uniform program--though each of the buddies was in a different allied air force uniform, they were working together to defeat their common enemy--was Hogan's Heroes.

There's a lot of humor in this show, and some really talented actors.  Some comedic elements worth noting:  Carter's (Larry Hovis) impersonation of Hitler or any other high-ranking Nazi, Schultz's (John Banner) cowardice, Klink's (Werner Klemperer) incompetence, and Burkhalter's (Leon Askin) bullying bluster. To really have some fun with Hogan's Heroes, play a drinking game while watching.  Every time Schultz says "I know nothing," or Klink claims that "there has never been an escape from Stalag 13," or one of the grouchy Germans mentions the weather on the Russian front, drink a shot.  If you don't drink, substitute M&Ms for the whiskey.

If you'd like to order the complete series from Amazon, click on this link:  Hogan's Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant's Kollection. If you'd like to order just the first season, click here: Hogan's Heroes - The Complete First Season.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"the fruitcake files" Is a Year Old

I can't believe I've been writing this blog for a whole year, but it's true.  I launched "the fruitcake files" on November 13, 2010.  I wrote a post on blog stats on May Day, and I thought the first anniversary would be a good time to revisit stats.

In my first year in the blogosphere, I wrote 77 posts, roughly six a month.  Not too bad.  The top posts (drum roll) are:

Tom and Huck Down on the Farm
A Christmas Movie
In Defense of Chop Suey
Harry's Makeover
Celebrating the Winter Solstice Full Lunar Eclipse
Harry's Law
Grimm's Tales
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Blog Stats

Given that Harris and Me is one of my favorite books, I'm not surprised that Tom and Huck is the most read post, but I confess I didn't expect my interest in chop suey to be shared by so many.  I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one who still likes The Mod Squad (Solid), and I'm glad that others agree that Harry's Law, which I confess I still watch, took a wrong turn this season with its makeover.

Recent posts that have been hard hit in addition to the above list include:

Thirteen Halloween Movies
Veteran's Day 11/11/11
Aliens Among Us
The Galloping Hessian of the Hollow
Banned Books 
You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley
I Love Lucy and Ethel
Uncle Bill Knows Best
$200 A Day, Plus Expenses

Readers come from every continent save Africa and Antarctica.  I'm not holding out much hope for Antarctica--though it is the world wide web and those stationed down there do have computers, don't they?--but I sure would like to add Africa to my hit list.  The three countries with the most fruitcake readers, in order, are the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom.

No discernible thematic connection between today's post and Eric Clapton's "Hello Old Friend."  I just happened to be listening to it while writing today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day 11/11/11

Today, we commemorate all of the men and women who have served our country in the military.  Formerly known as Armistice Day, Veteran's Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany:  On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month World War I, or the Great War as it was known back in 1918, officially ended.  (For a really poignant story set on Armistice Day, read the chapter "A Minute in the Morning" in Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder.)

In February of this year the last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died on his farm in West Virginia.  Then in May, Brit Claude Choules, the last combat veteran of World War I, died.  Today, there is only one living veteran of World War I, Florence Green, a British woman who was a member of the Women's Royal Air Force.  In a world with far fewer people than today, more people--soldiers and civilians alike--were killed or maimed by combat and disease than in any other war.  Take a moment today to remember the Lost Generation of the War to End All Wars.

Woodrow Wilson had vowed to remain neutral when World War I began in 1914, and there was much debate as to whether the United States should become involved in the European conflict.  It wasn't until April of 1917 that the U.S. joined forces with the British.  Since World War I, Britain has been one of our staunchest allies.  Yet, America's first two wars (the American Revolution and the War of 1812) were fought against Britain.  Like the Civil War, the American Revolution pitted family members against each other.

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christoher Collier, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2005 (originally published in 1974), 240 pages, ISBN:  0439783607

Johnny Tremain and Woods Runner present the American Revolution from the side of the Rebels, or Patriots, but My Brother Sam Is Dead depicts a story of a divided family:  The father is a loyal-to-the-crown Tory; his older son Sam has joined the rebellion, but Tim, his younger son, is confused and torn.  Like the boy in The Rock and the River, Tim must make a choice between what his father believes and what his older brother believes, and the more Tim sees of the conflict raging around him, the less sure he is.  He's been raised as a loyal subject of the crown, and his father and cousins have told him that the rebels don't stand a chance of beating the whole British army, but when he witnesses the British "Lobsterbacks" attack his town, Tim isn't so sure anymore.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grimm's Tales

I turned away from the final World Series game temporarily the Friday before Halloween to catch NBC's new show, Grimm, and I've got to say that I love this comedy/fantasy/cop drama.  In fact, this is the only new show that I've sampled that I enjoy.  David Giutoli plays Nick Burckhardt, a homicide detective descended from the Grimms, a group of hunters who seek out and destroy evil fairy tale creatures like blutbotten or blutbaden (big bad wolves) and jaegerbears (hunter bears).  Burkhardt begins seeing these creatures, who look like normal humans to everyone else, when his dying aunt shows up and her grim gift is passed on to him.

Set in Portland, Oregon and its Black Forest-like woods, Grimm's first two episodes have riffed on both Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  In the pilot, girls in red sweatshirts are being kidnapped and/or murdered by a big bad wolf.  Assisting Burkhardt are his partner Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) and reformed big bad wolf Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell) who makes cuckoo clocks and keeps his inner wolf down through "a strict regimen of diet, drugs, and Pilates."  When he first meets Burkhardt, Eddie tells him, "My folks used to tell me stories about you guys.  Scared the hell out of me when I was a kid."  Unbeknownst to Burkhardt, his boss, Captain Renard, is a Grimm reaper, one of the hunters of the hunters.

In last night's episode Burkhardt had to save a young man and woman from a family of jaegerbears.  The victims, Rocky and Gilda, had entered the bears' abode, eaten their food, and slept in their beds.  When surprised by the arrival of the family, Gilda escapes out of the window, but Rocky is kidnapped by Barry, the bear family son.  Later, Gilda is also captured when she goes back with a gun to rescue Rocky.  Barry and his two friends, who look like skinheads, plan on letting Rocky and Gilda escape so that the three young bears can hunt them in the woods before ritually sacrificing them.  When the detectives come poking around, Mother bear tells the detectives to remember that "we're the victims here" echoing Eddie's sentiment that to the fairy tale villains, the Grimms are the bad guys.

This show is fun:  part fairy tale, part NCIS, and I love some of the details.  The first red-shirted girl to be attacked by a big bad wolf is running through the dark woods of Portland and lured off the trail by a little Hummel figurine.  Both big bad wolves in the pilot episode drive VWs, the reformed wolf a bug, the not-so reformed wolf a microbus.  The bears' house is decorated with bear paws and carvings. With the two most obvious fairy tale villains out of the way, it'll be interesting to see where Grimm goes from here.  Grimm airs right after Chuck on Friday nights at 9 p.m. EST on NBC.