In 2005, after spending nearly two decades in the U.S. Army without setting foot in a combat zone, David Abrams got sent to Baghdad for 11 months. Last night he spoke at Auntie’s Bookstore about the experience and the satirical novel that came out of it, Fobbit. The title refers to the derogatory nickname for the “stay back, stay safe kind of soldiers” who don’t leave the relative safety of the forward operating base, or FOB.
Like the main character in his novel, Abrams worked in a “cubicle jungle” writing up the awful events of war as patriotic news releases for the American public. “It looks just like an ordinary day at the office,” he said.
He recently wrote an essay for The New York Times reflecting on today’s 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, and also contributed to a new collection of soldiers’ essay, Fire and Forget. Recently, though, he’s been working on a very different next book — his “Hollywood novel” — rescued from the desk drawer and just sent off to the publisher.
His right arm was tucked in a sling Tuesday night, and he started out explaining why: He had been helping his wife hang something up a wall last week when the ladder slipped, and he ended up breaking his humerus bone. “Which sadly means I will not be writing any funny books after this,” he joked.
He credited Percocet for his appearance, read excerpts from his book and answered questions from the audience. Here is an edited version of those questions and answers:
Did you find that writing the piece was therapeutic, or was it challenging to re-enter that persona that you had [while in Iraq]?
I had to read back over my journals that I kept, and that was a really painful thing. If you’ve ever kept a journal when you were a kid, like 15 or 16, and you’ve read back over them and — “Oh my god, did I really say that and think that?” — that’s kind of how it was for me going back over those.
I did have to kind of go back and explore some of where I’d been when I was in Iraq and what I thought, and try to divorce myself from that as much as possible so I could come up with new events and new characters.
Do fobbits often see combat or are they so far removed that they never see the face of war?
Well, I can tell you war is all around you over there. It’s a 360-degree everywhere war. There is no front line, there is no rear line. But you also have to remember that there are different phyla of fobbits: There are those who were like me, who were fobbits because of their job. I just kind of worked myself into a desk job and that’s what I did the entire time that I was over there.
There are those, I’m assuming, who like to be fobbits and really do kind of cower and are afraid to go out beyond the concertina wire, afraid of what will be out there — certain that they’ll find a sniper bullet in their chest the minute they step outside the gates of the FOB.
And then you have your reluctant fobbits, who are usually like staff officers, who are assigned the desk jobs but what they really want to be is [Fobbit character] Colonel Duret out there kicking terrorism’s ass. Yet, there they are, stuck in the desk job, and then they usually try to find ways to get out of their desk duty and go out on ridealongs with other patrols.
But there is a very real danger. When I was over there, we did have several mortars land inside our FOB. I never came close, I wasn’t that close in danger, but there were definitely some soldiers who were killed, like I kind of described — they were sitting there in the courtyard eating their Whoppers, and death-from-the-sky sort of thing, sadly. It can happen anywhere, anytime.
Can you comment on any comparisons to Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five and how those might have, or not, influenced you?
Yes, I’ve read both of those books and I’ve loved them. Interesting story — On January 2nd, 2005, I boarded the plane in Savannah, Georgia, going over to Kuwait, and then from there I went to Baghdad. As I boarded the plane on January 2nd, in one hand I have my M16 rifle and in the other hand I had a copy of Catch-22.
I’d never read Catch-22 before, and I figured, I’m going to war — why not do it now? Maybe it would get my head in the right head space for this war. As it turned out, it did. So it was a very interesting, surreal experience to read Catch-22 as you’re heading into a war that I think Joseph Heller would have really loved, to be honest. He would have had a lot to say about Iraq and Afghanistan and why we’re over there.
Are you surprised by the success of this book?
I really have no basis of comparison, because I’m a debut novelist and this is my first book. I’m just kind of going along with the flow. I wrote this book, I thought maybe somebody would be interested enough to publish it. That was a fairytale moment when Grove Atlantic came back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll publish it.’” And then I figured, OK, it will get published and there will be some noise in some bookstores for a few months and people will pay attention to it, and then I’ll sink back into semi-obscurity and a quiet life with my wife in Butte, Montana.
But, you know, the book has taken on a life of its own. As writers, we write these books and we set them out there — and it’s a cliché, but once you turn the book loose and it’s published, it’s not your book anymore. ... I’m just happy to see that people have been responding to it the way they have. I’ve been surprised, I actually have.
Just a reminder that this is what you have to look forward to tonight.
Just in time for the tail end of the U.S. Olympic women's boxing team trials comes a visit from boxer, trainer and boxing club owner Gail Grandchamp. She'll be at Auntie's Bookstore tomorrow, Sat, Feb. 19, to sign copies of her memoir Fighter With a Heart.
The ladies currently fighting for a spot on the U.S. team essentially owe their careers to Grandchamp. After all, it was she who spent 8 years tangled in a court case, fighting for the right for women to box as amateurs in her home state of Massachusetts. This ruling then led to the U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation making amateur female boxing legal nationwide.
By the time the court case was over, Grandchamp had surpassed the 36 year age limit set for amateur boxers. That didn't deter her dreams though; she went on to make a name for herself as a professional boxer, earning a 12-5 record before leaving the sport in 1997.
Though she no longer fights professionally, she is never far from the ring, training young athletes in her Grandchamp Boxing Club and Fitness Center in Massachusetts.
With all Grandchamp has accomplished, could she have a more appropriate last name?
Gail Grandchamp will sign copies of her memoir Figher With a Heart Sat, Feb. 19 from 11 am to 1 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, located at 402 W. Main Ave. For more information, visit www.auntiesbooks.com or call 838-0206.
The winning entries from our (mostly) annual Short Fiction Contest will hit Inlander racks tomorrow, but you can read all of them — including four we didn't have space to print — online now. Check 'em out.
Hanging on versus moving on
By Mari Hunt
The Debt Men
The closeness between designer jeans and hypodermic needles
By Shann Ray
A Good Investment
Debt versus investing, as regards fleas
By David Skies
The practical matter of resurrection
By J.P. Vallieres
Coffee and Toast
Rethinking charity cases
By Rick Boal
The Winter with Cowboy and the Mongrels of Purgatory
Art, friendship and face-eating dogs
By Mike Dragan
Searching for place, even in bad situations
By Jordan Hartt
Farhad Manjoo is lighting up the comment boards on Slate.com right now with a piece advocating the death of independent bookstores. Manjoo, Slate's technology writer, is responding to a Monday New York Times op-ed written by novelist Richard Russo, who decried Amazon.com's ruthless commercial practices and suggested they were killing the country's local literary sub-cultures.
Manjoo expresses disdain for the retail giant's more aggressive business tactics but argues that Amazon's cheaper prices, sophisticated recommendation engine and Kindle options are actually breathing new life into the book world, and that readers and writers alike should be happy about that.
"Sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers," he writes. "But what it does do —allow people to buy books anytime they want — is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it."
Question: Newspaper budgets have been slashed over the last decade because Craigslist found a better way to deliver classified ads. Travel agencies have shuttered because the Expedias and Travelocitys of the world put those services directly in consumers' hands. So are local bookstores just the next industry to be outsmarted, or do they offer a value that Amazon can't match? If so, will that value be enough to save them?
Space is devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take?
In her most recent book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, best-selling author Mary Roach explores what happens to your body when you can’t walk for a year, what happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk, how space agencies simulate space travel here on Earth, and many other fascinating aspects of life in space.
Roach’s previous works include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
As part of the 10th annual Spokane is Reading event, which was started to inspire conversation among readers and encourage more adults to read, Roach will be in Spokane for two presentations on Oct. 20. She will read from Packing for Mars, share stories, answer questions, and be available for book signing at the Garland Theater at 1 pm (327-1050) and at the Bing Crosby Theater at 7 pm (227-7638).
Tonight from 7-9 pm
Discuss Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore just east of the Spokane Valley Mall.
Sunday, April 3, from 5-6:30 pm
EWU students will discuss O'Brien's novel.
Morrison Hall, EWU campus, Cheney
Tuesday, April 5, from 6-8 pm
Military personnel will discuss O'Brien's novel at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience
Wednesday, April 6, from 6:30-8:30 pm
This film documentary is based on the experiences of soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moran Prairie Library, 6004 S. Regal St.
A Piece of My Heart
Thursday, April 7, from 7-9 pm
Shiro Lauro's drama — the most frequently produced play about the Vietnam War — will be performed readers-theater style at Whitworth University. It's about women who served as nurses in-country.
Whitworth, Weyerhaeuser Hall, 300 W. Hawthorne Rd.
Monday, April 11, from 6:30-8:30 pm
Discuss O'Brien's novel; open to the public.
South Hill Library, 3324 S. Perry St.
You’ve got three and a half weeks to read Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, before O’Brien himself will appear at the Bing as part of Get Lit!
In the meantime, there are lots of events this week in connection with the Big Read.
And what's that, you ask?
The Spokane version of the Big Read 2011 — a nationwide event, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which encourages entire cities and smaller communities to read and enjoy the same book, more or less simultaneously — is focusing, this month and next, on O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical account (which was first published in 1990). Here's some of what's coming up this week:
To get a view of Vietnam that’s complementary to O’Brien’s vision, watch Oliver Stone’s 1986 film (starring Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe and yes, a much younger Charlie Sheen). Downtown Library, 906 W. Main Ave. Wed, March 23, from 5:30-7:30 pm
Discussion panel on The Things They Carried
Experts about such topics as disabilities, engineering, media and military affairs will share their perspectives. EWU Riverpoint Campus, Phase One Building, Room 122. Wed, March 23, from 6-8 pm
Book discussion at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 51
A U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman will lead a discussion, open to all ages and backgrounds. VFW, 300 W. Mission Ave. Fri, March 25, from 5-7 pm
“Things We Still Carry: Veterans Reflect on the Big Read”
Two Vietnam vets and two Gulf War vets, all members of the Spokane chapter of Veterans for Peace, share their perspectives on O’Brien’s novel. Community Building, 25 W. Main Ave. Fri, March 25, from 7-8:30 pm
VETS: Portraits of Veterans and Their Stories
John Thamm shares his book as poets and visual artists provide additional perspectives. Visit johnthammstudios.blogspot.com. J.F. Thamm Gallery, 11 S. Washington St. Sun, March 27, from 3-5 pm
The American Experience: My Lai
An 80-minute documentary examines the 1968 massacre through the eyes of survivors on both sides; a panel discussion follows. Moran Prairie Library, 6004 S. Regal St. Wed, March 30, 6:30-8:30 pm
Book discussion at Barnes & Noble (Spokane Valley)
Everyone’s welcome in the cafe to discuss O’Brien’s novel. 15310 E. Indiana Ave., in the Market Pointe Shopping Center, Spokane Valley. Thurs, March 31, from 7-9 pm
Book discussion for EWU students
Student-led discussion of The Things They Carried. EWU, Morrison Hall, Cheney. Sun, April 3, from 5-6:30 pm
Fairchild AFB book discussion
For military personnel only. FAFB library. Tues, April 5, from 6-8 pm
Visit neabigread.com or ewu.edu/getlit, or write email@example.com or call 359-6977.
Books available over the next three weeks include a coming-of-age novel, an investigation of information systems, a road trip through Scotland, and a naturalist's view of the Pacific Northwest.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick (Pantheon, 540 pages, March 1)
Pym, by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau, 330 pages, March 1)
Edgar Allen Poe's 1838 novel is about a stow-away on a whaling ship who encounters mutiny and cannibalism before being rescued by a tribe of Africans and continuing his voyage toward the South Pole. Johnson's riff on Poe becomes a wide-ranging satire on American culture and race relations.
Rodin’s Debutante, by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 270 pages, March 1)
A coming-of-age novel set in northern Illinois and Chicago in the 1910s-'40s. A kid goes to a boys’ school endowed by a robber baron, becomes involved in football, sculpting and his studies — and also gets entangled in the aftereffects of a horrific sex crime committed during in the Depression. This is Just's 14th novel.
Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir, by Margaux Fragoso (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 330 pages, March 1)
A chilling account of how her life was controlled by a pedophile for 15 years, starting in 1985, when she was 7.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe (Knopf, 330 pages, March 8)
He doesn’t get along with his father, wife, daughter or friends. So naturally, he goes on an eccentric road trip to Scotland — during which he feels closest to his car’s GPS voice. A commentary on lack of communication in an instant-communications era.
I Am the Market: How To Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons, by Luca Rastello; trans. from Italian by Jonathan Hunt (Faber & Faber, 180 pages, March 8)
The real action in cocaine smuggling is by the ton, so forget about some drug mule with capsules in her stomach. How can you move that much white powder? Conceal it in electric cables and liquids inside the shipping containers of reputable companies. Bribe officials. Bribe crane operators. Provide your own sniffer dogs. And send out mules, hoping they'll get arrested (as diversions).
Three Stages of Amazement, by Carol Edgarian (Scribner, 300 pages, March 8)
Her husband has just moved their family to San Francisco and founded a surgical instruments company. But funding is difficult. She has her hands full with an unhealthy child, too — and then the relative she hates turns up offering starter money to her husband's new firm. This is Edgarian's second novel after Rise the Euphrates (1994; about three generations of Armenian-American women).
In Earshot of Water: Notes on the Columbia Plateau, by Paul Lindholdt (Univ. of Iowa Press, 160 pages, March 16)
Like an Annie Dillard, Loren Eisley or John McPhee of the Pacific Northwest, Lindholdt covers our corner of the country — flora, fauna, people — by incorporating Lewis and Clark, Capt. James Cook and Bureau of Reclamation records into impressive prose.
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