Monday, December 22, 2014

Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story (2005)

"Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?" (Matt Madden) 

I often teach a short Intercession (2 week) course on Comics/Graphic Novels at ECU, and in that class I try to stress the limitless possibilities of the comic medium.  A simple story, with a slight shift in words, perspective, shading, sound effects, color, or frames, can gain hidden depth and purpose.  Or it can simply become another simple story.  We always do an exercise early on lifted from Scott McCloud's seminal book, Understanding Comics, where I ask students to fill in dialogue and narration for a basic 5-frame story.  Depending on what words the students add, the story either sticks close to the visual narration or becomes hilarious, tragic, or disturbing.  Matt Madden takes this exercise to a whole new level in his amazing book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises In Style (2005), where he tells the same story 99 Ways.  These "ways" include everything from changing the style, the genre, the order, and even questioning what story is being told in the first place.  It's a clever, but surprisingly captivating read inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style which does much the same thing in words.  Yet the sheer range of Madden's technique and his profound imagination make this book more than a mere exercise; it's a story in its own right, and one that changes from page to page, even if you think you know the outcome.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

BOOKS ARE NOT PRODUCTS: Reflections on Reading Bad Reviews of Classic Books On-Line

I recently confronted someone on one of these endless book review sites (Goodreads, etc.) who gave Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a 1-star review.  The review consisted of little more than an expression of annoyance that she had even picked up the book; it was boring, it had no interesting characters, and worse still, it wasn’t even scary!  She dismissed it with a one-star review and warned others not to bother with it, since she had no idea why people considered it a classic.  I asked her if she didn’t think it was a bit harsh to give a book that had survived well over a century and was beloved by millions (and had created a cultural myth that had given rise to countless copycats, such as The Hulk) a mere one-star.  The reviewer hotly responded that it was “her right” to give the book one-star, and that “you can’t censor my reviews!”  She went on to say that “I hardly think I’m going to hurt Stevenson’s book sales, so what does it matter?”  Clearly, my “attack” on her (as she called it) was based more on capitalism than aesthetics: once assured that his books would continue to sell, and make money for his estate, I should rest easy and withdraw my petty scruples about damaging the book’s reputation.  Isn’t it all about money, after all?  Clearly that’s what pissed her off so much...that she had spent, what, a few bucks for the book (or the e-book) of the novel only to be so bitterly disappointed?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Prokofiev’s Symphonies: A Cycle for the Ages?

In classical music we refer to Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, or Schumann or Brahms’ Four, or the Nine of Bruckner or Mahler.  To a lesser extent, the Seven of Sibelius are invoked, or the Fifteen of Shostakovich, the Three of Rachmaninov, or the Nine of Dvorak (though almost no one plays the first four).  Then there are composers who despite writing a good deal of symphonies, never composed a true “cycle” in the Romantic sense.  For many critics, a composer’s symphonies need to have some kind of consistency or development which makes them all of a piece, each one building on the other or reaching to some immeasurable height.  Beethoven’s Nine are all great statements, even the early, Mozartian ones; this is certainly true of Bruckner’s massive essays in symphonic form, as each one attempts to take up the struggle where Beethoven’s Ninth left off. So what do we do with someone like Prokofiev, who wrote seven magnificent, eccentric, erratic works which often defy categorization and are almost never played (and rarely recorded as a set).  Can we approach his symphonies are a cycle, though his approach to symphonic writing was haphazard and often blatantly theatrical (as several works borrow from his stage music)?  Or even more to the point, does a cycle have to consist of equally popular and lasting works, or can some have almost no identity outside of the cycle itself?  Here’s a quick look at Prokofiev’s seven—er, seven and a half—symphonies and why they should be considered as a cycle in their own right, as well as magnificent compositions individually. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Precusors to Comics: The Art of Franz Masereel


Considered the greatest twentieth-century master of the woodcut, and by many as the grandfather of the graphic novel, Franz Masereel (1889-1972) was born in Belgium and lived throughout Europe in the years before WWI.  Honing his craft as a graphic artist in various journals, Masereel perfected an expressionist style influenced by contemporaries such as Delaunay, Braque, and Marc.  Additionally, his literary influences can be seen in the numerous illustrations he did for authors such as Thomas Mann, Stephen Sweig, and Emile Zola.  Masereel emerged as a pacifist in WWI with strong Communist sympathies—ideals embodied in his most ambitious works, his so-called “novels” in woodcuts.  These works tell visual narratives about capitalism, man’s isolation in his modern metropolis, the decadence of the bourgeois, and the rising might of the proletariat.  His most famous works are A Passionate Journey (1919), an allegorical narrative of modern man’s existence, and The City, a “vision in woodcuts,” which documents the decline and eventual fall of a Berlin-like metropolis.  Though he sided with no one political movement, his works were warmly championed by Socialists and banned by the rising Nazi movement (forcing him to flee Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation).  However, his humanity and sheer artistic appeal make it impossible to read his works as propaganda.  The pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract With God) cited him as a seminal influence on his work, and one of the first true visionaries of the comic book form—though he never viewed his work in this medium.  His influence has been further cited by notable comic book critic, Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and undoubtedly influenced Marjane Satrapi’s woodcut-style drawings in Persepolis I & II.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

"I thought myself very rich in Subjects": Re-Reading Defoe's Robinson Crusoe

“I thought myself very rich in Subjects”: Re-Reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Robinson Crusoe is a book everyone sort of knows, perhaps more for the man than for his book.  The central myth of the shipwrecked Englishman, forced to reconstruct society from the debris of a dashed vessel, appeals to a deep, secret well of childhood within us all.  For this reason, the 18th century virtually adopted it as a children’s book, with writers such as Rousseau suggesting it should be the first and perhaps only book in a child’s library.  Partly this was to inspire the imagination with bold, noble deeds of self-sufficiency, but also because the book spoke so clearly and directly to all men.  Writing in 1822, Charles Lamb noted that Defoe’s manner of writing “is in imitation of the common people’s way of speaking, or rather of the way in which they are addressed by a master of mistress, who wishes to impress something upon their memories, and has a wonderful effect upon matter-of-fact readers.”  For generations, this ability to speak to common people of a common man who did uncommon deeds assured its literary immortality.  Only later, toward the 20th century, did readers begin to draw back from its unrelenting “matter-of-fact” tone, and its inability (to paraphrase Dickens) to make readers either laugh or cry.  In a book that promised exotic landscapes, strange peoples, and the occasional scrape with pirates, Defoe merely gives us lists of seeds planted, gold discovered, and natives slain.  Pirates of the Caribbean it most decidedly is not. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein

The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)

“Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl—a pitiful individual” (Anton Rubinstein)

History is like a great wave crashing down on the sandcastle of art: for a moment, everything is obscured, but once it begins to recede, a few details of the castle remain—a tower, perhaps, standing tall against the ruins of time.  Our moment of time is like the wave; we can’t really tell what will survive and what will perish.  Only with the passing of time can we recognize art that continues to speak to us, with a voice that even hundreds of years later we can understand.  However, this metaphor leaves one important detail out: the castle can be rebuilt.  With art, the reconstruction is simple; discovering the work of one ‘survivor’ often leads to curiosity about his/her contemporaries, whose works may have been washed away into the ocean of time.  Yet most of these works remain, buried quite shallowly in the sand.  A simple plastic shovel (and in our time, the wonders of the internet) is all that is required to earth the treasure trove of riches lying scattered at our feet.  And what riches!  The ocean, it seems, is quite fickle and can’t really distinguish between good or bad, timeless or worthless art.  Quite often, a great work—say, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, or Aphra Benh’s Oroonoko—are uncovered after hundreds of years of neglect.  At other times, we merely find a completely enjoyable work of art that will probably disappear with the next wave.  Such a discovery is the work of Anton Rubinstein, a once celebrated composer/pianist whose memory lives on solely through his association with a much more lasting composer, Tchaikovsky. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rutu Modan's The Property (2013), translated by Jessica Cohen

“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina.  You came to tell me that our son is dead.” 

This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Rutu Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property.  I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel.  It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers.  Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII.  This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances.  Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now). 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Literature Professors Write Fiction?

When I was halfway through my MA program for Literature, a PhD student in the program gave me the following sage advice: “If you’re going to be a serious student, don’t take creative writing courses.”  Partly he meant that since you’re getting a degree on literature, you should chase one rabbit at a time.  Writing a short story is time you could be writing your MA Thesis, or drafting an article, or doing something to get you into a conference or PhD program.  However, beneath this was a threat of not being taken seriously: enrolling in a creative writing course at the MA level (for a non-creative writing MA) is amateurish.  It smacks of not being quite serious, or worse, being a dilletante.  “I would never enroll in a creative writing course,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.  I went ahead and took the course, since it was taught by an author whose works I deeply enjoyed.  No regrets, either: I learned a lot from the course, finished my MA Thesis, and got into a halfway decent PhD program. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Book of White: Reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King

The Book of White: Reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

Most literary folk vaguely know the story of King Arthur: that he pulled a sword from the stone to become king of England...that the wizard, Merlin, helped him achieve power through various mystical lessons...that his wife, Guenevere, fell in love with the greatest knight in the land, Arthur’s right-hand man, Lancelot du Lac...that Arthur was seduced by his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to give birth to Mordred, who became his implacable foe...and so on.  Yet no two stories of Arthur agree on all the specifics, so whether you read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, Chretien de Troyes’ Romances, or the Lays of Marie de France, you get a very different Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot.  That’s why T.H. White’s version of the legend is so welcome, since he takes bits and pieces from each and translates them from his own perspective to fit his own philosophy.  Simply put, the four books of The Once and Future King (or five, if you count the suppressed The Book of Merlyn) are one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written, and certainly among the most original.  There’s nothing quite like it in literature, though it shares a satirical heritage with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a sense of the fantastic and absurd with Nikolai Gogol.  Those expecting a grim, fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein or Marion Zimmer Bradley will be somewhat disappointed.  However, like all books, if you approach it on its own terms, and appreciate it as a wholly unique take on the Arthurian epic, you’ll be surprised, confused, delighted, and amazed by White’s achievement. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"This Class Would Be Just Perfect Without All the Students!" (and other complaints of the novice professor)

About a week ago, an article was published on Book Riot entitled “The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature,” focusing on a brief career teaching college English as a TA:

Of course, the title is misleading: the article is only about the sorrows and the thesis consists largely of this: students don’t love reading the way you do, and if you want to keep loving literature you should quit teaching immediately (or better yet, don’t go into the field at all).  This young teacher was disillusioned by the incredible disinterest of her students, particularly when she tried to share her love of language and metaphor to students who simply wanted to pass a class.  This is indeed disturbing to any teacher in love with his or her subject, but of course not surprising at all: why should students made to take a required class be expected to love it the same way as the professor being paid to teach it (or in this case, the TA)?  What bothered me about the article—and I’ve read several like it—is the sense of pervasive defeat in every sentence: you can’t teach literature to students, they don’t care, the profession is full of jargon, so I’m going to retreat into a book club and simply enjoy reading again.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My First Novel is Free This Monday-Wednesday on Amazon

My first novel, The Count of the Living Death is free on Amazon this Monday-Wednesday (e-book only, of course).  It's a short, fast-paced YA fantasy that should appeal to all ages (I mean, I wrote it, and I'm 40!), so give it a try or your money back (well, it's free, so...) 

Here's the blurb: Count Leopold always wondered about the strange chest sealed with three magic locks. His father warned him never to mention the Box—nor pry into the secret chamber where it was kept. Now the Box has begun speaking to Leopold, begging him to find the key and undo the hateful locks. If he does so, it promises him to fulfill his every desire, even offering him the hand of the forbidden—and forbiddingly named— Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti. However, before unfastening the third lock he catches a glimpse of something unspeakable inside—and turns to the only man who shared his father’s secret, the legendary Conjurer-Magician, Hildigrim Blackbeard. A man who, if the stories are true, will exact a terrible price in return for his service.

You can find it here:

ALSO, you can read a preview of the book at the bottom of this blog.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

“Classical” Film Scores: Inspiring the “Wild and Wanton Herd"

In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, the two lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are listening to music on a moonlit night.  Though Jessica is uneasy about the music—and possibly Lorenzo’s faithfulness—Lorenzo proclaims the power of love through music:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music...The man that has no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils...Let no such man be trusted (V.1.). 

In Hollywood, it’s generally assumed that there are few such men—or women—in the audience.  Indeed, the “wild and wanton herd” is always ready to be manipulated by the blood and guts power of music, which is arguably the key component to movie magic.  To test this, mute a particularly action-packed or emotional scene and compare it to the original.  More than the dialogue is missing: a crucial element of the atmosphere dissipates, leaving a kind of shadow play on screen, recognizable only to those who have seen the original.  Oftentimes scores can be needlessly obtrusive or sentimental, and for this reason can get in the way of the story and the actors.  At their best, however, music accentuates the drama and makes us feel things ‘between the lines’ of a film which no amount of acting or dialogue can possibly create.  Bette Davis famously complained that Erich Korngold’s surging, Romantic scores all too often upstaged her, which can be well imagined when listening to the soundtrack to Elizabeth and Essex or Captain Blood.  So what is the proper role of a movie soundtrack: background support or lead actor in its own right? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vaughan-Williams: the Greatest Symphonist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958) isn’t exactly a footnote in the musical history books, nor is he a one-hit wonder.  Nevertheless, he is still somewhat neglected in the concert halls (in the States, anyway), which rarely play his 9 symphonies, preferring his lighter works such as The Lark Ascending or Fantasia from Greensleves (fine works though they are).  The reason for his neglect is hard to fathom.  His music is full of gorgeous, memorable melodies, yet is hardly a throwback to 19th century Romanticism, being bold, exciting, and often dissonant.  Almost every bar of Vaughan-Williams’ music bears his unique thumbprint, and you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else, though others have freely borrowed from him (including his near-namesake, John Williams, the film composer).  He wrote in almost every form imaginable, leaving masterpiece after masterpiece: a gorgeous concerto for two (!) pianos, an outsized ballet on the Book of Job, folk-like chamber works, and numerous stand-alone orchestral works, such as the monumental Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which pits a solo string quartet against a string orchestra.  Yet it is as a symphonist that Vaughan-Williams found his truest voice.  These nine works sing out with incredible power and beauty, but also a sense of deep morality.  They seem, in some respects, to represent the voice of England’s conscience during the first 5 decades of the 20th century.  From the wide-eyed, philosophic Sea Symphony (No.1) to the stark, sometimes sardonic, mystical Ninth Symphony, his works seem a call to arms; not to fighting for king and country, perhaps, but as a witness to humanity’s horror and heroism.  Like his contemporary, the Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, Vaughan-Williams wrote for his generation in a voice they would understand, and that we, listening backward from the ‘future,’ can appreciate as one of the great hallmarks of orchestral literature.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Free Book Plug #4356

The Astrologer's Portrait is FREE this Monday-Wednesday at Amazon

But so are thousands of e-books, right?  So here are 3 well-argued reasons to download the book:

1. Did I mention it was free?  Nothing at stake except, well, the secret shame of owning a copy!  

2. It's an work of epic fantasy that isn't afraid to be funny.  You may crack a smile or two while reading it.  I don't think genre fiction should take itself so damn seriously (I  mean even Tolkein could laugh at himself!)

3. It's a work anyone could like, but English majors will particularly love.  Find all the hidden references to great works of the past!  Your college education will finally be put to good use!

Please download and give it a read...even the first few chapters.  Reviews are very welcome, since they'e a pain for people to write and most people choose not to.  But the world runs on reviews, so without reviews, Amazon ignores the book, people don't buy it, and then it winds up right back in my desk drawer where it's been for the past few years.  Remember a review could be 2-3 sentences, even!  

So that's it until Book Plug #4357, coming in a few weeks!  :) 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of Oathtaker: Writing Fantasy From the Outside

Like books in any genre, fantasy novels are often bound to the very conventions that once made them unique.  Forbidding quests, fantastic magic, terrible secrets, and unspeakable evils kept readers guessing as they race from one page to the next, their imaginations scarcely able to keep up.  Now, however, with so many books—and films based on those books—the surprise has lessened somewhat.  Indeed, we often know exactly what to expect, and many authors take a certain glee in re-writing exactly those works they once delighted in (Eragon, anyone?).  Unfortunately, fantasy literature is supposed to transport to forgotten realms, lands that exist in the mist between history and the imagination, fantastic yet faintly probable.  To do this, the world has to seem realistic, lived-in, yet unlike any other world we’ve encountered.  The characters, too, have to be like us, share our own emotions and ideals, while at the same time being not like us at all.  This is a tall order for a genre which, like most genres, seems to exist simply by writing-to-order, giving us yet another dragon story, or yet another mythical quest narrative.  Not surprisingly, even the most eager fantasy reader approaches the latest release (especially by an indie author) with considerable trepidation.  I approached Patricia Reding’s Oathtaker in this exact frame of mind: optimistic, yet skeptical that I would read anything I hadn’t read a dozen times before.  What could possibly make this work stand out in a field crowded with the great and the not-so-great? 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Buy The Astrologer's Portrait for 99 cents on Amazon!

I finally published my new book, The Astrologer's Portrait, on Amazon after the longest gestation of any book or writing project I've experienced.  I started it in 2008, worked like hell on it for 3 years, and had to put it aside, mostly finished, to work on tenure and promotion.  Once those were safely acquired, I wrote another book, terrified to look back at what I had done (it was in bad shape).  Last year I finally picked up the pieces, re-wrote large chunks of it, hummed and hawed, and spent most of this summer fine-tuning it. The result is a book I hope at least a few people will read and enjoy.  I can safely say I'm proud of it, and bad or good, the work is what I intended.  

Here's the official blurb: 
Prince Harold has fallen in love with a portrait, which he much prefers to his real bride-to-be. However, the portrait may be a hundred years old, and only the greatest sorcerer in the land can verify her existence. Unfortunately, Turold the Magnificent is currently on trial for maliciously impersonating a person of quality and despoiling her family history. Harold gets him off on the condition that they locate his lady love before his wedding to Sonya, who vows to kill him on their wedding night. Along with his faithless Russian servant, Dimitri, the three steal off to locate the true identity of the sitter—only to confront a curse much older than the portrait. To dispel the curse the prince must lead a revolution, fall in love with his wife, and release the centuries-old hands of Einhard the Black, who are eagerly awaiting their latest victim.

You can find it on Amazon for only 99 cents:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Bother With Classical Music? A Brief Q & A Defense:

Muti and the CSO: from The Chicago Reader (Jan 2013)
Classic music is too old fashioned—it’s all ballroom dancing, white gloves, and cups of tea.  Why should anyone in the 21st century listen to it?

If this were true, movie soundtracks wouldn’t be dominated by symphony orchestras.  Orchestral music is in our blood, and everything from the Jaws theme to the “shower scene” in Psycho reminds us of this.  Moments of great emotion, suspense, romance, anguish, fury, and revelation always reach to the seemingly endless resources of the modern symphony orchestra.  A great instance of this is in the conversation between the alien ships and the scientists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: they use music to find a common language, with the humans (ironically) using synthesizers while the aliens respond with tubas and other brass.  It’s a thrilling scene and it suggests something mythic about orchestral music and its ability to evoke fantastic worlds both past and present.  When you listen to past masters such as Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc., the emotions are right there—as raw as the day they were written, full of beauty, despair, anger, and pathos.  Like any art, it doesn’t age, and an attentive listener can sit down and become part of the drama. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Preview of The Astrologer's Portrait

I've spent months editing and re-writing my new novel, which I actually completed 3 years ago.  I wasn't happy with it and re-tooled it considerably after writing my second novel, which became my first.  I'm relieved with the result, but am still too scared to release the new work--not that many people will notice it, either way!  Still, I posted 3 chapters on Wattpad if you want to give them a look.  I really love the cover by Charlynn Estes, who did my first book as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Brief Defense of Fantasy Literature

At the conclusion of Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese ghost stories, Kwaidan, he introduces the mystical land of Horai, a sort of never-never land famous in Japanese folklore. As a twentieth-century writer, he takes a suitably pragmatic view of such fables:

“But that the people who wrote down those legends ever saw Horai, even in a mirage, is not believable.  For really there are no enchanted fruits which leave the eater forever satisfied—nor any magical grass which revives the dead—nor any fountain of fairy water—nor any bowls which never lack rice—nor any cups which never lack wine.  It is not true that sorrow and death never enter Horai; neither is it true that there is not any winter” (Dover, 116). 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Universal Particular: Turgenev's Fathers and Sons

Sometimes a work is so much a product of its times that, for all its genius, it no longer translates beyond those times. I’ve read many works that are full of incredible satire, insight, and profound art, yet would be virtually meaningless to a modern reader. I think specifically of a great work like Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, which makes me laugh more than almost any book written; however, so much of the laughter comes from knowing the ideas and
culture of the early 18th century, without which all the jokes at Colley Cibber’s expense fall rather flat. These books inevitably become the property of college classrooms, where a patient teacher can tease out the references so that the work, little by little, becomes enjoyable again. This is the Scylla and Chabrydis that any author must face: too topical, and the work doesn’t last a decade; too general, and the work speaks to no one at all. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Berlioz and the Orchestra of the 21st Century

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is one of the most colorful characters in all of Western music—no small feat in a room crowded with Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and so many others who led noteworthy, and often scandalous, lives.  Yet Berlioz holds his own with any of them musically as well as biographically, as he was an eccentric in an age of eccentrics. A virtually self-taught composer, Berlioz took the orchestra that he inherited from Beethoven and launched it head first into the 21st century. Yes, the 21st century, as his ideas were so radical that only recently are we able to appreciate them, much less try to emulate them. Among his many achievements are the still wildly Romantic Symphonie Fantastique, a symphony with an autobiographical program inspired by an opium dream (emulating Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, though sounding even more like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner); a Requiem for such immense forces that it seems like it would implode under its own weight; and the exotic picture postcard symphony, Harold in Italie, which sort of follows the narrative of Byron’s poem, but in reality follows Berlioz’s own adventures in Italy.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

“Neither for me honey nor the honey bee”: Reading Sappho’s Fragments

Imagine if the majority of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry had disappeared long ago.  It’s not a far-fetched proposition, when you think about it; all of Shakespeare’s personal writing and manuscripts are missing, and several of the plays are missing (Cardenio, Love’s Labors Found, etc).  However, a few scraps would inevitably survive as references in noblemen’s letters, maybe a page or two of Hamlet on a quarto used for wrapping paper, or the odd actor’s prompt.  Imagine that all we had of the famous Sonnet 18 were the following lines:

Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? 
Thou art more lovely
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
too short a date: 
 every fair from fair
 summer shall not fade
fair thou ow'st;
  or eyes can see,
So long lives this

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Science Fiction as Metaphor: Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

All fiction is metaphor.  Science fiction is metaphor.  What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors…science, all the sciences, and technology….The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.  –Ursula K. LeGuin

Despite being a subtle, ‘literary’ work from the Booker Prize-Winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a book for young people.  Even, dare I say, Young Adults (though I define Young Adults as literally just that—young adults, teenagers, those about to be adults, not 8-12 year olds, as some dumbass agent once claimed). Young adults should read this book, even if they don’t quite understand it, for three important reasons:

  • It shows the relevance of science fiction as a metaphor for modern life (instead of mindless escapism)
  • It shows that prose can be as supple and transformative as poetry
  • It discusses the most powerful theme in all literature: what makes us human, and what the purpose of a human life truly is

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Forgotten Composers, Part 4: Arnold Bax

Conventional wisdom tells us that we stop listening to a work when it no longer has anything to say.  Though Ludwig Spohr once rivaled Beethoven in popularity, his works are seldom—if ever—encountered today (though they should be).  The answer for this is simple on the surface: Beethoven aggressively reshaped the modern orchestra into a form the Romantics could play around with, but never entirely rival, whereas Spohr merely composed in the shadow of Mozart and Weber, without doing anything entirely new or striking.  So we go on playing the same few Beethoven symphonies in concert and never think about poor old Spohr, who composed a curious symphony (No.6) where each movement is in the style of a different musical era—Handel/Bach, Mozart/Haydn, a Beethoven scherzo, and a finale that mocks Italian opera conventions.  Worth a revival, eh?  In general, certain works stick with the public while others fall into oblivion.  Yet worth alone cannot account for this, since you could fill every concert hall in the world (and thousands of cds) with forgotten masterpieces.  Sometimes it’s as simple as a distinctive name, like the “Surprise Symphony” of Haydn (one of the few of his 104 symphonies that is regularly played), or some extra-musical hook that holds our attention like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and its Gothic-inspired, Goyaseque program.  In the 20th century, without marketing, you simply don’t have a product.  Yet I have to side with Stravinsky that music is music, and no matter how many Shakespearean heroes or heroines you describe in the music, it lives or dies by the music alone.  This is all preface to a great composer who is often omitted from musical histories entirely—especially here in the States.  He’s a composer who doesn’t sell himself well, doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with the audience—and yet, composes vibrant, melodic early 20th century Romantic music that anyone with a fondness for Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Vaughan-Williams could enjoy. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

“To paint, without knowing what the thing one saw actually was”: Cristoph Heinrich’s Monet

I recently taught this book on Monet by Christoph Heinrich to my Humanities II class as way to introduce Monet's life and philosophy into his paintings.  Now I can't say the students unanimously loved it--or hell, even read it!--but the book charmed me right to the core.  What makes this book so wonderful is the author's ability to paint Monet's life and culture within the context of his works, since the paintings are why we read the book.  However, unlike many an art historian, the text helps us appreciate what he painted, why he painted it, and the cultural forces that led to the birth of Impressionism.  Heinrich is very skilfully in analyzing art with an expert's eye, yet without drowning us in jargon or specialized wisdom.  My students were able to follow the text quite well, and it challenged my own ideas about Monet's accomplishments.  Here are a few great passages that made this book 'sing' for me:

"What Monet was to call l'instantaneite became his life's work, and time and again reduced him to despair, for there is an intrinsic and irresolvable contradiction in the aim to preserve in permanent form the passing moment" (32).

[On Monet's decision to paint at the Gare Saint-Lazare station when he was still relatively unknown]: "I am the painter Claude Monet...I have decided to paint your station.  For a long time I was undecided whether to take the Gare du Nord of yours, but I now feel yours has more character."  Monet got his way in everything.  Trains were stopped, platforms closed off, the locomotives fired full of coal so they belched out steam in the way Monet loved.  Tyrannically he set himself up in the station and for days, amidst universal awe, he painted, then left again with half a dozen pictures done" (40-41).

[On the painting Vetheuil in the Mist]: "Jean-Baptiste Faure, a celebrated baritone at the Paris opera and one of the first collectors of Impressionist art, bought it from Monet but quickly returned it, saying that although he himself liked it his friends never tired of poking fun at him for buying a painting with nothing on it.  Monet kept the painting till he died, and would not have resold it for the world" (47).

[On the death of his wife]: "I found myself at daybreak at the beside of a dead woman who had been and always will be dear to me.  My gaze was fixed on her tragic temples, and I caught myself observing the shades and nuances of colour Death brought to her countenance.  Blues, yellows, greys, I don't know what.  That is the state I was in.  The wish come upon me, quite naturally, to record the image of her who was departing from us forever.  But before it occurred to me to draw those features I knew and loved so well, I was first and foremost devastated, organically, automatically, by the colours.  Against my will, my reflexes took possession of me in an unconscious process, as the everyday course of my life took over.  Like a draught animal working at the millstone.  Pity me, my friend" (48).

"At times, Monet imagined what it would have been like to be born blind and then suddenly be able to see, and to paint, without knowing what the thing one saw actually was.  He felt that one's first clear look at a subject was the most honest, because least sullied by preconceptions and prejudices" (55).

"For me, the subject is of secondary importance: I want to convey what is alive between me and the subject" (57).  

"Monet was never an artist meticulous in his botanical detail.  What he was after was the harmony of the whole, the overall impression.  For Monet, flowers were bearers of light, and a feast for the eyes" (73).  

[On his waterlilly paintings]: "The sky was only a reflection now and no longer appeared at the top of Monet's paintings.  His water pictures were landscapes shorn of horizons.  However small the section viewed, it might still include the countryside, trees, the sky, or clouds--but of course these were not landscape paintings in the usual sense; Monet himself called them reflected landscapes" (83).  

"It was as if Monet's broad, chalky stroke were itself becoming an alga or waterplant.  His brushstrokes no longer ran horizontally or vertically, but coiled like mysterious tendrils, and began to dance.  It was this freedom and daring in Monet's technique, together with the distance his colours moved from faithful representation, and his audacious use of outsize formats, that made his waterlily paintings so important for future artists" (84).  

These are just highlights, of course, but they suggest the luminous perspectives that Heinrich gives to this famous--and to some, overexposed--artist.  Reading this book is seeing Monet with new eyes as if one were blind and had never seen a Monet before.  It makes Impressionism new and daring once more, and certainly helps underpin the debt that later symbolist and abstract painters such as Kandinsky, Pollock, etc., owed to his example.  The beautiful writing is coupled with so many gorgeous, full-color images, some I've never even seen before.  A wonderful introduction or re-appreciation of Monet's work and well worth reading--or teaching in class!  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Shakespeare as Music: Adaptation or Expansion (or something else)?

I ran across an interesting NY Times article about why Shakespeare is so suited for dance: more ballets have been based on Shakespeare than probably any other writer in history.  On the one hand, this suggests that Shakespeare can be translated visually--either in visual metaphors, or in the spectacle that his theatre naturally lends itself to.  However, since ballet is movement and music, we lose all language--everything must be spoken in dance.  What do we lose and gain in this approach?  Is it acceptable as Shakespeare, or is it simply something based on Shakespeare, the same way Tchaikovsky's famous overture to Romeo and Juliet suggests, rather than performs, Shakespeare's text?  You can read the article here:

However, this reminded me of all the great music I listen to inspired by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a natural draw for classical composers, who have created ballets, operas, and orchestral works based on his plays.  Here are a few of the most significant ones that have become almost as popular as the plays themselves:

Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Overture and Incidental Music (he wrote the overture to evoke the piece at age 16; decades later, he was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany the play, and used his overture as a basis: the famous "wedding march" that we hear at most weddings comes from this music)

Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict, Overture: this is an overture to Berlioz's opera based on Much Ado About Nothing.  It captures the high spirits and romance of this wonderful comedy, and the adventurous can go on and listen to the entire opera.  (Note: There are many operas based on Shakespeare, notably those by Verdi, who wrote one for Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Othello). 

Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, symphony: one of Berlioz’s most unusual scores, it is a vocal symphony (not an opera, cantata, or oratorio) which tells this famous story in a mixture of long, orchestral rhapsodies and evocative arias.  The highlights are the Mendelssohnian Queen Mab Scherzo (which does a great impression of Mercutio’s speech) and the Balcony Scene, which certainly inspired Tchaikovsky’s later effort (see below). 

Dvorak, Othello, Overture: unusual for the rather bright-spirited Dvorak, he wrote an overture to Shakespeare’s grim tragedy—and rather effectively, too.  To be fair, it’s part of a three-part work he originally titled “Nature, Life, and Love,” which he later broke up into the overtures “In Nature’s Realm,” “Carnival,” and “Othello.”  It opens with a bleak theme which gains in passion (jeaousy?) until it explodes, trumpeted out by the entire orchestra.  Though short, it is one of Dvorak’s masterpieces and is one of the only successful pieces of music I’ve heard that captures Othello’s haunting music. 

Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture, a highly successful 'adaptation' of Shakespeare musically, opening with a solemn theme that represents Friar Lawrence, which soon explodes into the fighting of both houses, and before long, the super famous love theme emerges that has been parodied in everything from soap commercials to Spongebob.  If you can listen with fresh ears, it's an amazing piece.

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, ballet: Prokofiev wrote not the first, but the greatest ballet based on the entire play.  It is an extremely moving experience to watch the entire thing, and musically, it evokes much of Shakespeare's language and power.  Especially powerful is the Final Act, where Romeo tries to make a sleeping Juliet dance with him--but she merely slumps over lifelessly.  This scene makes sense like never before.

Sibelius, The Tempest, Incidental Music: Sibelius was an extremely famous Finnish composer in the early 20th century, and he was asked to create music that could suit this very musical play--including the many songs sung by Ariel, Caliban, and others.  He succeeded marvelously with dark, mystical sounding music which occasionally evokes the music of Shakespeare's time.  One of the most powerful pieces is Ariel's song in Act One, "Full fathom five thy father lies" (great alliteration!), which is full of haunting doom, and helps us understand Ferdinand's desolation.  Also listen to the powerful Overture evoking the storm (which borrows the mood and ferocity of Sibelius’ final tone poem, Tapiola)  and the creepy “The Oak Tree,” also seemingly drawn from Tapiola.  Fittingly, this is the among the last orchestral music Sibelius wrote, just as The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final bow (minus some shoddy collaborations with Fletcher) from the stage.   

Tchaikovsky, The Tempest, Tone Poem: A "tone poem" is an impression of a poem or story set to music, and Tchaikovsky excelled at these.  Here he took on Shakespeare's last play, opening with a eerie, ferocious storm scene before relaxing into a theme for Miranda and Ferdinand.  It's a lot like the Romeo and Juliet overture, and takes about as long to play out.  (Note: Tchaikovsky also wrote a wonderful overture for Hamlet, as well as incidental music for a production, which is equally good--a dark, exciting score). 

Strauss, Macbeth, Tone Poem: One of Richard Strauss' earliest tone poems evoked the sinister world of Macbeth.  This 20-minute piece is full of all the characteristics we would later find in his more famous pieces such as Don Juan or Don Quixote, though it's a little less cohesive here.  Yet high drama is everywhere, and it would make a great curtain raiser to any production of the play (clipped a bit shorter, perhaps).  

Vaughan-Williams, Serenade to Music (Merchant of Venice): Not many composers have been drawn to The Merchant of Venice, but Vaughan-Willliams, a 20th century English composer, famously set part of the Final Act of the play (where Lorenzo and Jessica speak of music) to music in a draw-joppingly beautiful piece with soloists, chorus and orchestra.  It belies the darkness and unsettled nature of the final act, but it does capture the essential 'music' of Shakespeare's play. 

Elgar, Falstaff, Symphonic Poem: Elgar, a master of pictoral music, created this symphonic portrait of Shakespeare's famous 'hero,' capturing him at various times in his career: in Henry IV 1 and 2, as well as The Merry Wives of Winsdor.  It's a dramatic, comic piece written in Elgar's expansive late style.  

Walton, Henry V film score: one of the most famous Shakespearean film scores, this was written for Sir Lawrence Olivier's war-time film of Henry V, and contains some of William Walton's most rousing, touching music.  (Note: Patrick Doyle wrote another famous Henry score for Branagh's 1989 version). 

Shostakovich, Hamlet, film score: written by a 20th century Russian master, this score is both chilling, humorous, and exciting by turns.  His greatest film score set the standard for all Shakespearean film scores to come, and makes amazing listening in its own right.  Written for a 1960's Russian version which remains an exciting adaptation of this very long and tricky play (Note: Shostakovich also wrote the score for the famous Russian version of King Lear, which is more spare but no less evocative than Hamlet).  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Get a Free Book Just for Visiting the Virtual Astrolabe!

As long as you don't mind that it's my book! :)

My last post discusses my frustration with how some publishers/agents are defining--and limiting--YA literature, whether fantasy or mainstream.  Here is my creative response to the problem: my YA fantasy novel is free this weekend and Monday at Amazon.  But be warned!  Several characters are over 19 years old! (a no-no, I've been told); it's not in first person (teenagers of the "me" generation can't relate, I was warned); and it writes to them, not down at them (these kids aren't readers, make it read like a movie, they insisted).  The result, for all its flaws, is an attempt to write a funny, interesting YA novel that connects to much classic literature and fairy tales/folklore.  Download and read if you get a chance!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What the$#$#!@!@!! Is Young Adult Literature, Anyway?

The following is an excerpt from a rejection letter a literary agent recently sent me.  Most rejection letters annoy me, or at least frustrate me, but this one hit me below the belt.  The reason for this is because it has almost nothing to do with my novel, but espouses a philosophy of literature—and YA novels in particular—that is the very antithesis of my own.  In rejecting my novel, the agent explained,

the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds. The characters are almost too old to be considered for YA novels, as it seems the Count is 19 and most YA protagonists' ages cap at 18.

I had to take a long walk outside to recover my equilibrium; then I wrote, deleted, and re-wrote my response to this nonsense.  What bothered me the most about this rejection is the agent’s dogmatic belief that ‘Young Adult’ readers were literally incapable of accepting a protagonist beyond 18—the cap, so to speak.  Reading between the lines, the agent is basically saying, “these readers are so self-absorbed that they can’t relate to anything old, meaning anything beyond their immediate interests, and the greatest imaginative leap they can possibly make is to imagine an eighteen year-old hero or heroine.  Beyond that, they’re fit for the grave, so why bother to write a novel about them?”

Of course, I am a reader of Young Adult literature, so I found the agent’s response offensive both as a reader and a writer.  Is ‘Young Adult’ literature such a fixed, tradition-bound genre?  And how can something written for ‘young adults’ follow tried-and-true laws, when teenagers are, by their very definition, changing the rules and constantly adapting—or dismissing—the past?  Of course, this brings me to my greatest frustration with the rejection letter, and with the genre itself: “the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds.”  In the publishing world, everyone seems to have an idea of what ‘Young Adult’ is, and few of these definitions agree or fail to cancel each other out.  Is Young Adult even a genre?  I mean, when I think of genres, I think of science fiction (which itself has several subcategories and genres), romance, horror, mystery, travel writing, etc.  But Young Adult?  This is an audience, is it not?  Who the hell are Young Adults?  By definition, they are teenagers—young adults, not 8-12 year olds.  I’ve never heard the YA genre as something marketed to pre-teens, since they have other genres for that—Middle Grade Readers, etc.  But no matter which audience we decide to rest on, it remains exactly that, an audience
So the question is, what do teenagers like to read?  What are they interested in?  And perhaps most tellingly, what kind of books do they buy?  For agents and publishers, the answer is easy: they buy YA books.  And YA books, as best as I can tell from my copious rejection letters and reading the self-important babble of agents and editors on websites and in The Writer’s Market, consist of the following elements:

  • Characters that “leap off the page” and are instantly relatable (i.e., they remind the readers of themselves)
  • Language that is similar to what the readers, themselves, use
  • Romance, romance, romance
  • Zombies, vampires, and apocalypse
  • Should be told in first person from a variety of perspectives; that’s the only way to make it “immediate” and “exciting” for the reader
  • Should be a “page turner”: if the first page doesn’t grab them they give up immediately
Agents always talk down to writers as if they’ve never been teenagers themselves (or consider that we, too, read the very books that we aim to write).  Of course, I was a teenager and the kind of books I read ranged from Jane Austen to Splatterpunk to Joseph Campbell.  Sure, I enjoyed reading works whose characters resembled me in some aspect, and who I could personally identify with.  But every book?  I fell in love with Pride and Prejudice because this was a world I didn’t know, full of people who had tremendous wit, life, and character, even though none of it resembled what I could find outside my window—much less what I found staring back at me through a mirror.  And as for page-turners, I often plodded through dense works of history and philosophy that I could scarcely understand for the sheer joy of finally “getting it.”  I read widely, even recklessly, in as many genres and fields as I could since everything interested me.  And I rarely threw down a novel even after the first 50 pages, no matter how obscure or baffling.  I think you’ll find most true readers have a code of reading to the end, a code they break only in the most extreme circumstances (gratuitous violence, objectionable characters, etc.). 

My problem with this agent’s response is how it stereotypes an entire field of literature and those who read it.  Bottom line, publishers and agents want to make money.  Few of them believe in YA literature or those who read/write it; they simply want to understand why it works so they can crank out one bestseller after another.  And while some ‘truths’ might connect one work to another, it can never be universal and unshakeable.  Otherwise we wouldn’t read books or need to be young again.  Isn’t the whole point of being a teenager (in reality or spirit) to challenge the status quo and remake the world in your own image?  And yet this agent said, “oh, we know what’s best for them, we know what they like, and it’s only X, Y, and Z.”  Of course, time and again, some book comes out of nowhere and surprises the hell out of everyone, since it breaks the rules or defies some eternal truth of a publisher’s existence.  Before Harry Potter, it was chapter and verse that teenagers would never read a book over 200 pages.  So much for that!  Now it’s “teenagers only want to read about themselves and their Facebook, Twitter, Instragram generation.”  Never mind the continuing popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has characters that do not “leap off the page,” many of whom are mere archetypes, speaking stilted (yet inspiring) language, all from the mind and imagination of a man who didn’t give a damn what teenagers wanted to read. 

And here the two loves of my life—reading and education—come violently crashing together.  Publishers/agents want young people to tell us how to write, what to read, how to think about things.  True, it’s a double standard: they tell us what teenagers want to read but back it up with studies and market research: the readers have spoken!  We see the exact same thing in higher education, where universities terrified about losing students are kowtowing slavishly to student expectations.  Being “student centered” is now the norm, which translates to de-emphasizing the classroom experience for the “outside” experience: field trips, study abroad, community activities, intermural sports, on-line classrooms, etc, etc.  In essence, many in higher education are asking students “how should we teach you?  What do you want in a university?  How can we do our jobs better?”  If someone had asked me that as a teenager (and remember, I was one once) I would have responded, somewhat abashed, “how the hell should I know?  I came here for you to teach me!”  This was the very response I got in one of my recent student evaluations, where one of the last questions asks, “list ways that the teacher could improve his/her performance in the classroom.”  An anonymous student responded, “wouldn’t know, I’m not a teacher.” 

Lest I sound arrogant here, my point is simply this: the job of teachers is to educate since they spent 10+ years specializing in their chosen fields.  The same is true of writers; let them write the stories that they, themselves, find inspiring and interesting.  If readers don’t like them, so be it.  But to slavishly decide what readers want—and writers should deliver—is a sure recipe for mediocre claptrap.  It’s the very reason why the shelves of so-called Young Adult literature are clotted with endless variations on the apocalyptic theme.  Many of these works are exciting and new—but they will quickly cease to be so if that’s all we find on the bookshelves.  Just because one story—and one approach to a specific story—is successful doesn’t mean the alchemic blueprint has been discovered.  Let writers write and find themselves in writing.  Don’t tell us what sells or what ages or characters need to be.  Have more faith in your readers and in the power of literature itself, which is designed to go beyond the limitations of our limited ego and connect to something much more profound and universal.  As a reader, I found myself by reading works that were often over my head from wildly different cultures and languages.  Far from turning me off reading, it made me a better reader—and a more intelligent person to boot.  Should we deny that to our children in the interest of making a buck? 

I’ll close with the observation—obvious to anyone who reads YA literature—that the audience of this literature is as diverse as its content. Most people I know who read YA literature are not teenagers (hell, I’m 39).  And most of these people don’t just read YA literature.  I don’t even regard it as such myself; to me, literature is literature, no matter what form it takes or who reads it.  In the end, it either makes you think or it doesn’t; it either makes you dream or it doesn’t; it either makes you want to take up a pen (or a word processor) and write your own story or it doesn’t.  We can divvy up the readers or the genres as much as we like, but what really matters is the story and everything that goes into it.  Even if the characters are (gasp!) 89.  When I was a child the character I most idolized was Obi Wan Kenobi.  The man did not speak like me or share anything I could remotely relate to.  On the contrary, I wanted to be like him—not make him in my image.  And isn’t that the power of literature, to remake ourselves in someone else’s life and thoughts?  When literature is reduced to one endlessly FB selfie, then perhaps the publishers and agents will finally crack the philosopher’s stone.  But until then, they need to throw up their hands and admit that art can’t be predicted or prescribed; teenagers will read whatever interests them, and writers should be encouraged to remember the dreams they had when they were young.  No easy task, when piles of rejection letters make one feel very old indeed...