Reviews of novels and nonfiction books that keep getting reread, plus occasional random thoughts about nature writing, hiking and the New England cycling scene.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Page 123 and the Icepick Test
There’s more than one way to cut a swath through the field of unsolicited manuscripts sprouting like weeds in every publisher’s mailroom. Apparently a famous New York editor (I don’t remember the name) stabbed each new manuscript with an icepick, lifted away the top half, and read the resulting random page. If that one page intrigued him, only then would he go back to the beginning and read the full manuscript. If that one random page made his eyes glaze over, the rest of the pages were dumped unread and the author received a rejection slip instead of a paycheck.
A bookstore owner told me about the "icepick test" at a booksigning in Damariscotta, Maine. The "Page 123" book game gets the same result, with the added benefit of not requiring you to mutilate the book with a sharp kitchen utensil. The instructions, as reprinted on many blogs:
1. Grab the nearest book. 2. Open the book to page 123. 3. Find the fifth sentence. 4. Post the text of the next three sentences on your blog along with these instructions. 5. Don’t search around for the most popular or intellectual book you can find. Just pick up whatever is closest.
The nearest book on my desk at the moment is The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which doesn’t have any actual sentences on page 123. (And I just noticed—how come the word "Players" doesn’t have a possessive apostrophe?) The next nearest book is my own North to Katahdin: What Hikers Seek on the Trail. Here's the result.
"Entire forests were erased, their trees plucked one by one from the landscape. To the north, little Traveler Mountain faded like the slag of a sandcastle, swallowed by the sea. The ocean of fog drowned the green Wassataquoik Valley."
I'm going to break rule #5 now and walk across two different rooms to find my copy of Annals of the Former World, by the great John McPhee. As a speed-reading Woody Allen might say, it's about rocks. Unfortunately, it seems page 123 is half of a map of the world and the only other words are "Major Lithospheric Plates and Some Minor Ones."
That more or less describes Floyd Landis's topographical and emotional yo-yo of a ride at this year's Tour de France. From unheralded contender to frontrunner to his terrible collapse in Stage 16 and remarkable comeback the very next day, Landis has changed from goat to hero to suspect in less than two weeks. And the saga's not over yet.
Whether Landis is guilty or innocent, just think how upset Alexander Vinokourov must be. He was in the clear himself, but couldn't ride because five of his teammates were suspected of doping. And now they've just been cleared. Meanwhile the winner, who used to be in the clear, is now suspected of doping. What a strange year. Better luck next year, Vino. Don't forget to not take your meds.
As Landis zoomed to the finish line in Stage 17, I was thinking he just earned himself a book contract and a place on next year's bestseller list. Sort of like Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike. Perhaps he would've called it It's Not About the Bonk. He still has a book in him, but now it's going to need a new chapter or two. Hopefully it will have a happy ending.
All of this is leading up to a book recommendation: Lance Armstrong's War, by Daniel Coyle. It's more about the race itself and the grueling training that goes with professional cycling than it is about doping allegations, though of course there's some of that business, too. Mostly, though, Lance Armstrong's War is an objective observer's view of an incredibly challenging sport and the personalities and soap operas that accompany it. I'd be rereading the book right now if I hadn't loaned my copy to a friend.
I look forward next year to reading the several volumes that are bound to be written about Tour de France 2006. Ending still to be determined.
Imagine starving to death in a snowy, besieged Leningrad, licking the glue off wallpaper for nutrients. Imagine watching human beings, your neighbors, herded like cattle onto trains, en route to a clouded fate about which you and they have heard terrible rumors you cannot quite believe. In Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, these scenes from World War II seem vividly, shockingly real. Wouk takes you places you’d never want to go but somehow can’t stop reading about.
Two of Wouk’s own characters sum up the appeal of these books. In one scene, Victor Henry, a U.S. naval officer on a Lend-Lease mission to the Soviet Union, and Pamela Tudsbury, daughter and assistant of a British journalist, witness a tank battle close to Moscow. The Germans are winning. The war won’t end anytime soon. That’s bad news, but Pamela remarks:
"…I felt relieved. Relieved! What kind of mad reaction was that?" "Well, the war’s something different, while it lasts." Victor Henry gestured at the angry yellow flare-ups on the black western clouds. "The expensive fireworks—the travel to strange places—" "The interesting company," Pam said.
"Yes, Pam. The interesting company."
The Winds of War and its sequel introduce you to characters you come to know and care about, then follow them around the world from 1939 to 1945. This is more than a book of battles and death. It’s a story full of politics (a French Zionist smuggles Jewish refugees to Palestine, Roosevelt maneuvers around an isolationist Congress to convoy supplies through U-Boat infested waters to Britain), long-distance love affairs, cultural clashes, and ordinary people coping with extraordinary hardships.
Each time I reread these books they remind me a little of The Lord of the Rings. Both are world-spanning travel epics revolving around a war. In both, the protagonists start out together in a peaceful, naïve, untouched land (The Shire and the United States 1939) but then journey to nations where dark clouds gather. Natalie and Aaron more or less travel into Mordor, with Werner Beck as their own personal Gollum. Stalingrad is the Siege of Gondor, with Lend-Lease like Rohan riding to the rescue. And so forth. In the end, the survivors all gather together again, greatly changed—some with wounds that won't completely heal.
At a presentation the other day, I joked that I should’ve called my book Harry Potter and the Curse of Katahdin. Harry, Ron, and Hermione go hiking in Maine but get lost in the fog-shrouded realm of the evil Pamola. It would’ve been a hit.
Actually, I did suggest the title Of Moose and Men to my publisher, but after long discussion and dozens of possibilities, we finally settled on North to Katahdin. No wizards and flying broomsticks, though the book does have an angry Pamola howling at hikers on the mountaintop.
It’s funny how much effort goes into picking a good title and how important those very few words can be. Just for fun, I’ve been trying the think up book titles that would be surefire bestsellers. The Harry Potter Code. The Da Vinci Cod (an exciting tale of lost treasure discovered using clues cleverly hidden in Da Vinci’s sketches of fish).
How about a legal thriller written under the penname Stefan King: The Stand. Or some lucky writer named Jay K. Rowling could publish a novel: Hairy Potter, the story of a hirsute artist. Actually, anything written with the pseudonym Jay K. Rowling would probably do well, until the lawyers put a stop to it.
The cleverest real title I’ve seen is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers—a book I keep meaning to read. I wish I'd thought of that title first. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can sometimes judge how well a book will do by its title.