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‘Pen & Sword: Five Novelists As Soldiers’

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I sometimes have to remind folks, some of whom seem a tad skeptical about my claim to be a professional writer, that I don’t content myself with just dashing off the occasional magazine article on jazz or whatever.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on my second book, titled Pen & Sword: Five Novelists As Soldiers,  for which I’ve signed a contract with Algora Publishing , a serious-minded NYC publishing house (check out its Web site). I’m grateful for this opportunity to continue my writing career at a challenging level, and I look forward to presenting this little-known intersection of military history and literary biography.

An outgrowth of articles published in Military History magazine and elsewhere, this book is about five famed novelists who experienced military combat as actual soldiers, versus ambulance drivers (Ernest Hemingway), nurses (Walt Whitman), or journalists (Stephen Crane):

  • Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), who lost the use of his left arm as a young Spanish soldier fighting the Turks in the famed Battle of Lepanto. Afterward, while returning to Spain he was captured by North African pirates and held captive in Algiers for five years. Both episodes appear in his famed Don Quixote, which he wrote years later.
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who served four years as a gunnery officer in the Russian Army and saw fighting both against Muslim insurgents in Chechnya and in the Crimean War, including the Battle of Sevastopol. This was why he able to imagine Napoleon’s invasion of Russia so convincingly in War and Peace.
  • Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), who enlisted with the Canadian Army during WWI and was seriously concussed by German shelling, echoes of which can be found not only in his hard-boiled detective novels featuring Philip Marlowe, but in the Hollywood screenplays he wrote, including The Blue Dahlia and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
  • George Orwell (1903-50), who (along with many Americans) fought against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War and caught a bullet in the throat before fleeing back into France one step ahead of Stalin’s death squads. Most people who’ve read Animal Farm don’t know that this, not the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, is the real historical backdrop to that novel.
  • Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), who was a POW for a year and half after being captured in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge, during which time he barely survived the firebombing of Dresden, which is mentioned in several of his novels, especially Slaughterhouse-Five.

This book reflects my academic background in literature and history, and is neither traditional military history nor personal biography, but rather an interdisciplinary genre perhaps best described as “literary nonfiction.”

Others, who know about this project, have asked me “What’s taking you so long?” Well … this isn’t some short work of fiction or a personal memoir I’m just dashing off the top of my head here! This is serious history, which takes years to write and requires a LOT of research.

In this particular case, I not only have to read the biographies (emphasis on the plural) of each of these fellows, as well as the histories (again, plural) of the war in which each fought, I ALSO have to read the books they wrote in which elements of their combat experiences are found, albeit sometimes in disguised form. This means (re)reading stuff like War and Peace and Don Quixote — not exactly light or quick reading.

I just thought I’d put this out there to clarify things a bit.

‘Tenor Madness’ concert at Drake

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sjfWhen Bill Bergen, jazz trumpeter about town, asked me to write a review of an upcoming Feb. 9th concert presented by his educational foundation, Synergy Jazz, I happily agreed — especially when I learned that along with sax player Jack Wilkins, music professor at the University of South Florida, it would also feature tenor/soprano sax player Dave Sharp, backed up by three extremely talented local heavyweights: pianist Jason Danielson, bassist Dave Altemeier, and drummer John Kizilarmut.

I’d already heard Dave, a music professor at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, perform a couple of times — once with Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi and prior to that with Czech pianist Emil Viklicky, both of whom I’ve interviewed for the Web site ‘All About Jazz.’

It was a terrific show in a nice venue, Drake University’s Patty & Fred Turner Jazz Center, with a great audience, and my write-up will be posted soon on SJF’s Web site.

(l to r) Jason Danielson, Jack Wilkins, Dave Sharp, Dave Altemeier, John Kizilarmut

(l to r) Jason Danielson, Jack Wilkins, Dave Sharp, Dave Altemeier, John Kizilarmut