Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cover Reveal: The Cutpurse Apprentice

This may be the cover for my new novel, which I'm currently in the final stages of revising for publication. Excited about it so far, though once I'm totally, completed finished with the book the title--and cover--could change once again. Time will tell! 

If interested, you can read some of the preliminary chapters on Wattpad for free here:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Disappearing Dwarves

In his 1987 book, Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax (famed founder of Dungeons and Dragons) discusses what makes a good role-playing adventure—which, surprisingly, is the same thing that makes a good novel or story. Foremost for Gygax is a plot that contains a central mystery that gives a group of characters (each with his or her own motivations) something to solve, search, and discover. Every story in virtually every genre can be boiled down to a few basic plots, since the point of a story is to delight and amaze the reader, and to frustrate and challenge the characters. To illustrate this, Gygax took a single plot, called “The Disappearing Dwarf” and adapted it to numerous genre-specific scenarios, as seen below:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Painting a Day: Barnet's Winter Afternoon (1981) & Others

Painting(s) of the day: I decided to offer a series of paintings today, since I just discovered a new painter, though sadly he was a very old and renowned one: Will Barnett, who died recently in 2012 at the age of 101. Read his obituary here:…/….
I ran into his painting, Winter Afternoon (1981) at the OKC Art Museum this Tuesday, and was instantly blown away. I took a picture of it so I could study it later, but foolishly forgot to make note of who painted it! Luckily, a quick e-mail to the museum clarified this omission. The museum also told me that the painting had just been installed this May, so I came at just the right time...I encourage others to check it out if you can, since it might not be there forever.
The painting is striking in its simplicity and silence: a young woman sits sewing with a cat watching over her--but also looking out the window at a winter landscape: a bare tree leafed by numerous crows. This painting exhibits many of his artistic trademarks: a two-dimensional perspective that evokes Japanese printmaking or art nouveau posters. His people and animals owe something to the cartoon abstraction of Rousseau, but also the iconic isolation of Edward Hopper's men and women. Like the latter, Barnett's men and women (but mostly women) are seen in isolation, caught in the act of waiting. They seem lost, puzzled, worried--but in many cases, content. This young woman seems comfortable in her self-exile, knowing that the lines of the window (and the couch) keep her hemmed in from the disasters of life. She might be alone, but at least it's a solitude of her own making.

Despite their quietness, all of Barnett's paintings have an epic quality. By capturing the small moments of life, those hours spent waiting, watching, thinking, he makes us realize that to know ourselves, we have to find ourselves here. We all wear many masks, but the self at work, or in company, might be our greatest illusion. Only when we're alone with no one to watch are we truly 'naked' to the world--and truly, starkly ourselves. All of these women are confronting themselves in these quiet hours, and while the revelation might not be consoling, it's still comforting to see yourself who who and what you are. Maybe no one else can truly see this side of you...unless a sneaky artist is painting you through the window.

And aside from all of this, they're simply beautiful paintings with sharp lines celebrating the relationships of men and women with themselves--and their favorite animals. Some of my favorite moments are those spent with my family and my dog and cats, alone, without the watchful eyes of the world. I think Barnett was comfortable there, too.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Painting a Day: Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875)

The painting of the day: Edward Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875). Burne-Jones is one of my favorite painters, as he shamelessly celebrates the voluptuous, late Romantic values of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Such paintings fell out of critical favor throughout the 20th century, though art lovers have always responded to sheer beauty and drama of these images--and notably this one, which has no specific theme other than a hypothetical gathering of Venus and her hand-maidens before a pool of water. Let the allegorical associations commence...
Many people wonder what "Pre-Raphaelite" means, and basically, it was a movement that wanted to uncover the artistic and thematic traditions prior to the Renaissance. They adored Greek, Gothic and Medieval subjects, though ironically they approached these from a Renaissance perspective, evoking the luminous colors and shapes of Botticelli and Raphael himself. Following their spiritual mentor, Ruskin, and composed of many artists-poets such as Rossetti and Morris, the movement sought to combat the excesses of Industrialism with visions of a purer, more human time where beauty and magic existed hand-in-hand. The best literary equivalent of their work would be the poems of Robert Browning (who often evoked painters in his work), and a fitting soundtrack would be the music of French impressionism--Debussy (esp. La Mer, Nocturnes) or especially Ravel (La Valse, Tombeau de Couperin, etc.), or even the British Impressionist Arnold Bax (Tintagel especially).
But back to this painting: the difficulty of examining a work of Burne-Jones is the seduction factor. It's so amazingly caloric in terms of beauty that you are apt to simply drown in the images and call it a day. The layout of bodies is almost balletic in how they rise and fall, assuming stylized and theatrical movements. The flowing garments seem plucked out of a Greek statue, though they hug the body in a distinct late 19th century manner, setting off the models to best effect (and the Pre-Raphaelites all had their favorite models, many of whom they married or had affairs with). Venus is the only one standing, clad in the blue of a morning sky, but looking curiously forlorn or defeated. She takes no glory in her court and almost seems to lament their fate as she looks down on them looking down on themselves. The girls, too, stare somewhat curiously into the pond, seeking an answer which seems to elude them. Only one girl looks up to Venus as if to say, "what is the meaning of this, mighty goddess?" And Venus, having done and see it all, doesn't even try to respond. "You'll find out soon enough," she seems to suggest.
Naturally, the legend of Narcissus is evoked by this image, with the young, beautiful women staring back at their own reflections. Also of note are the lotus pads in the pond, alluding to the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey, where the inhabitants of a far-flung island eat the lotus flowers and fall into an apathetic existence, never seeking to flee or to question their existence (this was also the title of a poem by Tennyson, another poet allied to the Pre-Raphaelites). Is Burne-Jones suggesting that to be young IS to be a lotus-eater, intoxicated by the narcotic of youth, and assuming that all things will come to you in time--which you have an endless supply of? Or is the painting a more general allegory on the nature of beauty itself--that it's little more than a pool of water which, when disturbed by the slightest breeze, all but washes away? The fact that the painting is itself so beautiful is part of the message: we are so dazzled by the surface of things that we forget to look beyond, or ahead, where our true destiny lies.

Monday, June 5, 2017

To Kill or Not to Kill Your Heroes

In our recent Academia discussion (, we asked whether the trend of killing of main characters in fiction was innovative or a voyeuristic fad. After all, many writers boast of killing off their heroes, notably George R.R. Martin, who has made an entire career of it, inspiring thousands of copycat authors to follow suit. On first blush, it seems like a refreshing, “think outside the box” literary idea: instead of knowing that your hero will somehow survive countless perils and death-defying scenarios, how much more exciting would it be to know that he or she might not?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Painting a Day: Holbein's "The Duchess" from The Dance of Death (c.1525)

The painting (or in this case, engraving) of the day: "The Duchess" from Holbein's series of prints called The Dance of Death (c.1525). The Dance of Death was a genre in European art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, mocking the pretensions and vanity of various professions who think themselves free from the touch of death. Yet Death ultimately chooses us each for a partner and dances us straight into the grave. These generic images also contain a healthy share of satire and social commentary, usually showing how Death sees through the sham and hypocrisy of religion/society to reveal the truth that riches can blind. Holbein took this genre and made it much richer, adding increased realism and making his pictures seem to move by the placing of bodies and action--nothing is static. These pictures were meant to delight and frighten, and hopefully, to make people see the corruption of the world around them. Yet it also offers a note of consolation, since Death is not a mindless, malevolent force, but also akin to the Greek Furies, delivering revenge on a host of disreputable popes, monks, kings, and lawyers.
Though any picture in this series is worthy of scrutiny, one of my favorites is "The Duchess." Of all the images, it's one of the most cinematic: the perspective is dynamic, as we see the duchess from behind, allowing us to share her perspective as she beholds the two skeletons tugging her into consciousness--and death. Clearly she lives a sumptuous life, as she has been awakened in bed (during the day, perhaps?) and has popped up with a start. Yet far from screaming or running out of the room, she seems more shocked and bewildered, as if to say, "am I dreaming? Is this real?" Her hands clutch the bed (her worldly wealth) for protection as the skeleton tugs on her skirt. Her mouth is open, perhaps calling to her servants to come to her aid (yet no aid is forthcoming). Her dog, too, doesn't seem to be barking at the skeletons, perhaps too frightened--or too docile--to do so. In short, all of her protectors--her servants, dog, and wealth--have abandoned her in her moment of need.
The other skeleton is sawing away on a violin, playing the danse macabre to usher her into the dance. Both skeletons sport the remains of hair--tattered, unruly locks that suggest that they were once young and beautiful, too. Yet they have now come to tear away her youth and beauty, as if to remind us that beauty is not a virtue, anymore than wealth. Both pass, and neither of them are granted through virtuous acts. The tremendous detail that Holbein lavishes on this image reminds us that though we long for earthly goods, they don't weigh in the balance of good or evil. In fact, they might weigh us down--as we imagine the woman's voluminous dress will, as she tries to escape.
This image is even more striking if you realize how small it is: the size of about 4 postage stamps put together. On a very small canvas, Holbein inscribed an entire world, as well as the fate of that world, for all to see

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Reviews as Blind Dates (Not Diary Entries)

The great (but largely forgotten) composer Max Reger (1873-1916) received more than his share of bad reviews. After reading a nasty review of his Sinfonietta, he wrote the following response to the critic in question: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” This little witticism reflects the pose that many artists adopt—a pose that is only skin deep. For even if you toss the review behind you, or into a convenient trash can, the words don’t go away. A bad review is a bad review forever, haunting the writer, or composer, or artist with the thought that he/she simply isn’t good enough; that he/she really doesn’t have any talent, and that the critic has seen through his/her facade to the ‘real’ man or woman beneath the mask. We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Clearly these words were not written by an author—or anyone remotely involved with the creative arts. Reger, or someone much closer to their art, might have revised this to read, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will cut my throat!”