Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Art History Reading Challenge!

The blogosphere is rife these days with 'reading challenges,' wherein bloggers commit themselves to tackling X number of books in a certain amount of time with a certain theme. The Art History Reading Challenge began in 2009 but is continuing for 2010: you can find information about it here at the Challenge blog. To participate, simply subscribe to the blog and provide a link to your own blog. Then choose a level of participation (3, 6, 9, or 12 fiction or nonfiction books about art to read) and have fun!

I've never participated in an online reading challenge before, and I admit it's kind of cheating for me to do this one. After all, it's my job to read nonfiction art history books! But my personal challenge is to remember to blog about some of them, 'cause I usually forget. I'm very excited that the subgenre of art historical fiction will be busy in 2010 and plan to make that a continued focus too. This new year we can look forward to Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, Kathryn Wagner's Dancing for Degas, Stephanie Cowell's Claude and Camille [about Monet], and Susan Vreeland's Mr Tiffany and Clara. (If anyone knows of others, post a comment here.)

My first Challenge-oriented review will come this weekend: the promised yet delayed review of Ilaria Dagnini Brey's "The Venus Fixers." Happy Art History Reading!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mining for Clues...

I was all set to blog today about the superb book "The Venus Fixers," until I read this article in today's Times Online: a teaser piece about a forthcoming article in January's Art Newspaper by art critic and van Gogh enthusiast Martin Bailey. In 2005, a superbly researched article by Bailey in Apollo magazine argued that van Gogh may have learned about his brother Theo's engagement the morning of 23 December 1888 and that this news may have been the 'final straw' that led to Vincent's breakdown and self-mutilation that night. (I was so convinced by his theory that I used it in "Sunflowers." Merci, Mr. Bailey!) Bailey's forthcoming article produces additional evidence to support this theory, via a new reading of the one of the first paintings Vincent produced after leaving the hospital early in the new year. "Still Life with Onions" (click image to enlarge) from January 1889 has been seen as a "demonstration piece" (in the words of Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers, in their "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South" exhibition catalogue, p. 168) to prove Vincent's continued ability to paint and as a form of self-portrait, much like van Gogh had done in his famous Chair painting not long before. On the table we see onions (which Vincent in fact added in the background of his Chair painting), Vincent's pipe and tobacco pouch (also in the Chair painting), a lit candle (which appears in the Gauguin's Chair picture), a book about health, an empty bottle of wine, and a letter. (This painting makes a cameo appearance in "Sunflowers," by the way.)

Bailey's new article, of which the Times piece gives only a taste, evidently focuses on the letter depicted in the painting. The envelope is addressed to Vincent and must be from Theo. Bailey demonstrates that the "67" you see on the envelope indicates a post office in the Place des Abbesses, not far from where Theo lived. (Readers of "Sunflowers" know that by coincidence Rachel gains a connection to someplace in the Place des Abbesses late in the book. I can't help but giggle.) He also learned through his research that the special New Year's Day postmark seen on the envelope was placed on Paris mail from mid-December onward. Bailey argues that this letter in the painting is the very one Vincent received the morning of 23 December containing the news of Theo's marriage.

The Times article states, "It is known from a letter he [Vincent] wrote to Theo at the end of January 1889 that he had received what he called 'the much-needed money' on December 23." I scratched my head at this at first, because I didn't remember that detail from Bailey's 2005 article--because it's not there. Up until now, there's been no proof Vincent received a letter that day. That part of Bailey's original theory had to remain speculative. So I ran to my Brand New Shiny Set of Van Gogh Letters (I still need to do a proper review of this masterpiece set of books), and by golly, there IS a new piece of evidence, in the new translation of the letter Vincent sent Theo on 17 January 1889. A crucial difference in the new translation of one sentence in this letter versus the old translation we've all seen in English up until now. Clearly the Times article is leaving out this neato tidbit so as not to steal the fun from the Art Newspaper article, so I'm not going to give the game away either. But heehee hoho, Bailey's theory from 2005 seems poised to be right. Bravo!

I wait with eagerness for the full article...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to the readers of Van Gogh's Chair!

Van Gogh never painted any pictures of baby Jesus, so to mark the holiday I've chosen my hands-down-favorite Renaissance Madonna & Child image, the gorgeous "Madonna of the Magnificat" by Sandro Botticelli (1480-81, click to enlarge, image from the Web Gallery of Art). Here Mary is Queen of Heaven, quill in hand, writing the verses of the passage of the Gospel of Luke known as the Magnificat. Mary as writer, I love it!

This painting resides today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in the Botticelli room together with the more famous "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" (among others). I first visited the Uffizi in 1996, and I remember being pulled up short by the "Madonna of the Magnificat" while beelining toward "Birth of Venus." Nobody, but nobody, paints angels like Botticelli in my opinion, and Mary's face is the ultimate in beautiful serenity. Naturally I bought a postcard in the Uffizi giftshop to remember the afternoon, and Mary the authoress watches over me from the bulletin board in my university office.

Happy Holidays to all & many blessings for 2010!

ps. Speaking of Botticelli...I've just finished reading Ilaria Dagnini Brey's nonfiction "The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II." Fantastico! Review to come after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This Day in History...

On 23 December 1888 at 11:30 pm, Vincent van Gogh walked into the brothel at no. 1, Rue du Bout d'Arles in the town of Arles, asked for the prostitute named Rachel and handed her a piece of his ear, wrapped in newspaper. (Click here for a post about our sources for the incident and here for a post about my visit to the Rue du Bout d'Arles in 2007.) Against all odds and expectations, Vincent recovered from his injury and the accompanying psychotic episode, returning to his yellow house in the Place Lamartine just after the new year. The self-portrait pictured here (click to enlarge) was one of the first paintings he made after leaving the Arles hospital. He does not hide what he has done; the bandage is there for all to see. To me this painting is an affirmation -- I am still here, the man in the picture seems to say. I can still paint.

The "ear incident," of course, appears in my novel "Sunflowers." It had to -- Rachel is my narrator. But it proved to be one of the most difficult scenes to write, for two reasons. First, readers' expectations. Most people reading the book know that it's coming. I build up to it for a few chapters; the tension escalates, Vincent becomes more and more unsettled at events in his life. The scene needed to live up to what readers would expect -- it needed to be dramatic, it needed to be a true turning point in the story and in Rachel's character development. But -- the second reason it was difficult -- it had to be told in a convincing way. Think about it: he gave her his EAR. How do you write that in a way that's not too gory or worse, too campy? Tell it badly, and the reader's going to snicker: popular culture makes enough jokes about Vincent's severed ear. The scene underwent a few drafts before I reached a tone and narrative I was happy with. I aimed for spare prose, using as few words as possible, and I decided to use the fact that readers already know what's in that package. How? Read the book and find out! :-)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Parlez-vous provençal?

Readers of “Sunflowers” will notice the occasional word/phrase in French sprinkled in for flavor, but also the occasional word/phrase in Provençal — a separate language that today is spoken by a minority but in van Gogh’s time was experiencing a virtual renaissance. Provençal is a dialect of the language termed Occitan by modern linguists and known in French as la langue d’oc. Gascon and Auvergnat are likewise dialects of Occitan, but there are many others throughout southern France, as well as parts of northern Italy, Monaco, and Spain. Historically there were two major languages in France: the langue d’oc (spoken in the south) and the langue d’oïl (spoken in the north). Both are Romance languages rooted in Latin and the Roman occupation of Gaul. In the sixteenth century, the Edict of Villers-Cotterets decreed that the Northern langue d’oïl should be used for all administration; modern French thus derives from one of the oïl dialects. In fact, the closest linguistic cousin of the southern Occitan language is not modern French, but Catalan! The Provençal dialect of Occitan is native to southeastern France, and within it are variant sub-dialects. Two of these are the Rodanenc or Rhodanien sub-dialect, found around the Rhône River in cities such as Nîmes, Arles, and Avignon; and the Maritim or Centrau sub-dialect, found in the area of Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence.

In van Gogh’s time, the Provençal language was gaining increased attention thanks to the efforts of writer Frédéric Mistral and the Félibrige movement he founded in 1854. The Félibriges sought to revive Provençal literature and culture after decades — even centuries — of oppression by the French government. During and after the French Revolution in particular, Occitan and its dialects were forbidden in all official capacities. Young boys and girls (like Rachel) growing up in Provence in the nineteenth century would have learned only French in school, although they most likely spoke Provençal at home. Mistral aimed to counteract these developments, as he and other authors published books and poems in Provençal and worked to revive traditional customs and dress. Under the direction of the Félibriges, new dictionaries and grammars of the Provençal language were created. In Arles, Mistral founded the Museon Arlaten — which still exists today as a celebration of traditional Provençal culture — and a statue of him stands prominently in the city.

Van Gogh was fluent in French but knew no Provençal upon arriving in Arles. He claimed in his letters to Theo that his deficiency in the language caused problems and that many Arlesiens could not understand him. He was aware of the Félibrige movement, however, and mentioned it in his letters, while in January 1889, he attended a performance of a traditional Provençal pastorale (Nativity play) in the native language. It is unclear whether Vincent learned any spoken Provençal during his two years in the south of France, although it’s likely he picked up a few words and phrases given his flair for languages. He did very much admire the traditional Arlésienne dress promoted by Mistral and his colleagues...more on the the lovely Arlésiennes another day!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Flaming Soul

The first ever Van Gogh exhibition organized by a Mandarin-speaking country opened yesterday at the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan. "Van Gogh: The Flaming Soul" features 77 drawings and 21 paintings, most from the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, a few from the POLA Museum of Art in Japan. The show is organized chronologically to give museumgoers a sense of Vincent's stylistic development over his ten-year career as an artist. The exhibition will be on display until 28 March 2010, and as always, is sure to break some attendance records.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fun at the Library

This Saturday, December 12th, at 2pm I will be speaking at the Safety Harbor Public Library in lovely Safety Harbor, FL. I'll be presenting about "Sunflowers" (with pictures!) and signing books afterwards. The library will have books for sale at the event.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

G'day, Vincent

While the Musée d'Orsay in Paris undergoes renovation, its caretakers are sending some of its masterpieces on the road: a great way to share beautiful art with audiences around the world while raising needed revenue for the museum. Tomorrow an important show of 112 Post-Impressionist paintings from the Orsay opens in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where it will remain until 5 April 2010. Artists featured in the exhibition include Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Seurat...and of course Vincent. Once more the Orsay has sent van Gogh's "Starry Night over the Rhône" (Sept 1888) out on loan -- that painting never stays in Paris for long, it seems -- and it is joined by the Orsay version "Vincent's Bedroom at Arles," painted in September 1889 while Vincent was in residence at the asylum of Saint-Rémy. Readers of "Sunflowers" know that "Starry Night over the Rhône" is one of my absolute favorites, so much so that I gave its creation a whole chapter. Here's hoping that Vincent's Australian fans enjoy the exhibition...and here's guessing the show will break Australian museum attendance records!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Voted Most Popular for 2009...

Each year -- a company specializing in oil-painted knockoffs of art historical masterpieces -- releases its Top Ten list of paintings sold. Last year, Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" was #1. But this year, VIncent's "Starry Night" reclaims the top spot, with "Café Terrace in the Place du Forum" at #2. Klimt drops to #3, while the rest of the list includes works by Monet ("The Poppy Field at Argenteuil" is #4), Renoir ("Luncheon of the Boating Party" = #5), Picasso, O'Keeffe, and Kandinsky.

David Sasson, CEO of, comments that "Van Gogh consistently remains the most popular artist in the world, his total sales numbers have left everyone else behind." Ah, the irony...not just because of the large sales figures, but because, as I've said before, Vincent did not consider "Starry Night" an important work at all in his own oeuvre. Sasson adds, "In the business world especially, where image is everything, many companies strive to keep up with the latest interior décor trends to maintain a modern appeal that will impress customers and clients." What would Vincent think about that, I wonder, or how would any of these painters feel about their work being essentially mass-produced as "authentic hand painted canvas art"? (You can, by the way, choose from a copious list of van Gogh works beyond "Starry Night" and "Café Terrace.")

Read the full article about the Top Ten here. In 2009, sold approximately 45,000 paintings.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vincent the Blogger

The Van Gogh Museum once again shows their keen interest in twenty-first century technology/media by introducing a blog authored by...Vincent. At Van Gogh's Blog, VGM folks provide an excerpt from one of Vincent's letters accompanying a certain date. The most recent entry, from November 28th, gives a portion of one of Vincent's Antwerp letters...from 28 November 1885. A fun and creative way to introduce online audiences to the new translation of Vincent's letters.

While you're there, don't forget to download the IPhone App of van Gogh's letters...too bad I neither own an IPhone nor have the first notion how to work one...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travel as Pilgrimage

The fall semester is winding down. That means a whole lot of grading, plotting syllabi for next semester, planning projects for Christmas break, and in my case, thinking ahead to summer travels. About this time every year, the road starts to call, and the wanderlust kicks in. I look at maps and think, where do I want to go this summer? What destination is whispering to me? My last three trips abroad have all featured Paris, and one of them (in 2007) included the Netherlands and van Gogh research trip for "Sunflowers." But where to next? Ma sì, ho già deciso...andiamo!

I believe in meaningful travel. I don't choose my voyages on a whim; often there's a project linked to a trip, but not always, sometimes it's about where I am in my life and thinking, and where my footsteps are leading me. For me, travel is a pilgrimage. I become a seeker of ideas as well as things, I open myself to new experiences and people, I plan my way but also allow for the wind to blow as it will. And I've been rewarded: sure, not every destination has yielded sublime moments, but many have. Some have brought outright inspiration -- as I keep saying, I never would have written "Sunflowers" if I hadn't gone to Auvers-sur-Oise that May day in 2006. It's just a fact. That place and that day spoke to me.

How to make travel meaningful? Once I choose my destination, the planning begins. I don't mean a rigid itinerary on a clipboard that tracks every minute of the journey; I mean mental preparation. This can include brushing up on language skills -- I'm already wandering the apartment reciting Italian verb conjugations -- reading up on the art and history of where I'm going, listening to music related to the place, reading novels set in the place. And studying maps. I *love* maps. The Streetwise series of maps is my favorite; they're easy to use and discreet, so you can peek at them without holding a big I'M A LOST FOREIGNER sign. I like to feel familiar enough with the city in question so that on arrival day, I'm ready to jump right into things without wasting a second. Other advance planning includes creating a small notebook with lists of opening hours for places I want to see, timetables for trains and buses if I need them, as much practical information as I can get in advance (nowadays, so easy with the internet). I choose my accommodations as far out as I can; I might note some good restaurant recommendations, but with restaurants I prefer to choose what looks good when I'm actually there.

During the trip, I see what I'm in the mood for on a particular day. I may wake up in a museum mood, or on a beautiful morning, I may want a day that has a lot of walking outside. Do I journal? I try. Every trip, I try. With the best of intentions, I leave plenty of blank pages in my trip notebook, but it seldom happens. I find myself mute at the very moments I'd like to have words of wit and wisdom to record. Nothing I say seems to really capture what I'm feeling and seeing. It's ironic, I know that, but I guess I'm just not a journaling kind of person.

I do keep relics of my pilgrimages. Ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, funny this-and-that often dumb things that nonetheless have the power to conjure up a time and place. Just the other day, I reached into the pocket of a jacket I hadn't worn since May to find a used Paris Metro ticket. It made me smile. To give another example, in one of my 'reliquaries' -- boxes wherein reside the relics of many journeys -- lies a pair of sunglasses held together by a safety pin. I dropped and broke those sunglasses in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in October 1996, while trying to shift a cone of the best gelato I've ever tasted from hand to hand. I only have to pick up the glasses to remember the magic of seeing the Piazza for the first time. From the van Gogh trip in 2007, of course, I've got any number of postcards, brochures, and photographs. I've even got sugar cubes in a Musée d'Orsay wrapper -- I remember when I stashed them and how I felt that afternoon, giddy with too much caffeine and too many fabulous paintings.

Ah yes, the road is calling. Will I drop my sunglasses in the Piazza della Signoria this summer too? What relics and ideas and inspirations will I bring home this time?

For good reading on meaningful travel, I recommend Phil Cousineau's "The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred" and Joseph Dispenza, "The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery," both available on Amazon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet Monsieur Roulin

One of Vincent's closest friends in Arles -- and a critical character in "Sunflowers" -- was Joseph-Etienne Roulin, an entreposeur des postes (postal agent) who worked at the railway station. We first learn of Monsieur Roulin in a letter to Theo from the end of July, when Vincent enthusiastically describes the subject for a new painting (the painting seen here, click to enlarge). We're not sure when the two men actually met, but the place was likely the Café de la Gare, where Vincent was living at the time. Both men were habitués of the café, Roulin living only a short distance from Vincent; van Gogh would later say that Roulin accepted drinks as payment for modeling. Over time Roulin would be the subject of several paintings and drawings by Vincent (so would all the members of his family), but this first painting remains my personal favorite. Today in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the canvas shows Roulin proud in his uniform, cozied up to a table as if ready for a mug of beer. Roulin posed a bit stiffly for it, Vincent would complain to Theo, but still, the face shows the calmness and wisdom that would serve Vincent well in the months to come.

We know from surviving letters -- Vincent's letters and those of Roulin himself -- that Roulin and his wife remained supportive of Vincent throughout his time in Arles. According to the memoirs of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (Theo's wife), Roulin was in the brothel the night of 23 December 1888, when Vincent appeared with the piece of his ear, and helped Vincent out of there. While Vincent was in hospital during that first breakdown, Roulin and his wife Augustine both went to see him; Roulin in turn sent letters to Theo and Vincent's sister Willemien updating them on his condition. It was Roulin who apparently met with the head of the Arles hospital and persuaded him to release Vincent, when debate was being held about committing Vincent to an asylum. Even after Joseph Roulin was transferred to Marseille in January 1889 (one of the few chronological changes I made in "Sunflowers" was keeping him in Arles until August 1889), he still kept contact with Vincent. The rest of the Roulin family remained in Arles until October 1889, when Monsieur Roulin was able to move them to Marseille, and they too seem to have kept contact until Vincent left for Saint-Rémy in May 1889. Conspicuously absent from the signed petition of March 1889 -- in which many of the Arles townspeople tried to have Vincent forcibly committed -- are any names from la famille Roulin. In his letters, Vincent speaks of the Roulins as a model family, praising Joseph Roulin in particular for his wisdom, his politics (he was an "ardent republican," according to Vincent), and his fatherhood. "A good soul," Vincent calls him, and elsewhere says Roulin as an artistic subject is "in the manner of Daumier."

One of the treats of the Van Gogh Museum's new translations of Vincent's correspondence is the publication in English for the first time of more Roulin letters: four letters sent to Vincent by Joseph Roulin while the former was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the latter was in Marseille. These letters not only reveal that Vincent maintained correspondence with his friend during this time (unfortunately Vincent's letters to Roulin do not survive), but also the depth of their friendship. "Monsieur Vincent," Roulin calls van Gogh with respect, his words leaving no doubt of his high regard for the painter. We learn from these four letters that Vincent must have had good relations with Roulin's children, for Roulin gives newsy accounts of their activities, especially the then-toddler Marcelle. Roulin's notes to Vincent are reassuring, telling him that he is in beautiful country at Saint-Rémy, encouraging him to paint. Indeed, these letters suggest that Roulin and Vincent talked about painting quite a bit. Vincent certainly gave the Roulins paintings; Roulin talks about the portraits Vincent had given them and the pleasure the pictures give his family.

In the last letter surviving from Roulin to Vincent, dating from late October 1889, Roulin says, "let us hope that one day again we shall have the happiness to shake hands and to tell each other in person such good things and to cement our friendship once more; I am confident and am full of hope to see you again one day." Unfortunately for the two friends, it never happened.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I feel kinda silly: the auction I posted about yesterday and said was tonight -- was actually last night. Chalk it up to my frequent habit of having no idea what the date is on a particular day!

At any rate, Vincent's Weaver, up for auction at Christie's New York, did sell above estimate, at a final price of $818,500 (including the buyer's premium). As Allie the Hist-fic Chick pointed out in a comment to yesterday's post, that was a lowish estimate (and it turns out, a lowish final price), but that can be explained by the economic times. All the estimates seemed conservative to me. Also, one of the Dutch-era weaver paintings was not going to fetch as much as a van Gogh Dutch-era landscape picture, and no Dutch-era paintings would fetch as much as the post-Paris canvases (from Arles, Saint-Remy, or Auvers-sur-Oise). There's definitely a 'market hierarchy' when it comes to van Gogh's work.

I hope the Weaver's new owner enjoys the 'good deal' they got. ;-)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Up for Auction

The art market must be trying to rebound, because a van Gogh painting is up for auction this week in New York. In November 2007, van Gogh's "Fields" (from the Auvers period) shockingly failed to sell at auction, leading the pundits to proclaim the art market in recession. Since then, the auction houses of the world have kept Vincent on the back burner aside from the occasional minor work.

Tomorrow night (3 November) Christie's is including one of Vincent's 1884 weaver paintings in the evening Modern & Impressionist art sale: this one (F162). The estimate stands at $400,000-600,000, which is fairly standard for one of the Dutch-era pictures. (The later Arles/Saint-Remy/Auvers canvases command much more.) This painting, along with the other weavers in the series, was made just after Vincent left Drenthe (before that he was in The Hague) and settled in Nuenen with his parents. Van Gogh was fascinated by the village weavers and their machinery, completing a whole series of paintings and drawings during his first months in Nuenen.

If the van Gogh doesn't sell, what will the pundits say? I'll be watching! Go here for the write-up in the Christie's online catalogue.

Traipsing through the Blogosphere

Last night I took part in a live internet-radio interview, courtesy of and It was fun! Readers phoned or emailed terrific questions -- very insightful questions that I was happy to tackle. What do I really think about Dr. Gachet? Did I "know" the ending of the book when I started writing? What sort of research did I do to craft the character of Rachel? Thank you to all those who submitted questions and/or listened to the show. If you haven't heard the interview and would like to listen (warning: there might be a spoiler or two), tune in here!

Elsewhere in the blogosphere -- lately I've been doing a lot of 'traveling' -- Sarah over at Reading the Past is hosting a guest-post today on "Van Gogh, Reader of Novels." Did you know Vincent was a fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charlotte Bronte? My post explores Vincent as avid reader of novels.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who Was Rachel?

Elizabeth over at Scandalous Women is hosting a guest post from me on the topic of Who Was Rachel? Thank you, Elizabeth, for your hospitality!

Elizabeth is also providing a giveaway of one copy of Sunflowers, courtesy of Avon Books. The contest is open until 12pm, 5 Nov 2009 -- details at the end of the guest post. Good luck to all!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Onward Ho!

The St Petersburg Times Festival of Reading yesterday was a terrific success. Had a full house of about 70 people for my talk, a respectably sized line for my book signing, and the copies of Sunflowers available for purchase at the venue sold out! My family came down from Atlanta, which made the day extra special. Thank you to everyone who turned out on a beautiful Florida morning!

The next event is coming up this Thursday, 29 October, at Inkwood Books in downtown Tampa. At 7 pm, I'll be giving a presentation and Q&A about Sunflowers and signing books. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

*The* Newspaper Article

Since this weekend's Festival of Reading is sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, it only seems appropriate to post about THE newspaper article that best records the notorious "ear incident" and that inspired the writing of Sunflowers.

Pictured here is a clipping from Le Forum Republicain, the Sunday newspaper of Arles. The article is from the 30 December 1888 edition, one week after Vincent's self-mutilation. The article begins, "Last Sunday at 11:30pm, one Vincent Vangogh[sic], painter of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolerance no. 1, asked for one Rachel and gave her...his ear, saying 'Guard this object very carefully.' Then he disappeared." The article goes on to explain that the police went to Vincent's house and found no sign of life in the patient, then that he was taken to hospital.

The clipping as pictured here is misleading, as I discovered in my research for the book. I'd always seen the article photographed this way--the same picture appears in all the van Gogh literature--so I assumed it was the 'top story' in the paper that week. It wasn't. The "Chronique locale" (local news) section is actually on the back page. The news item about Vincent was not as prominent as it appears in this photograph; the original photographer cut and pasted the newspaper for the picture. Even so, it's easy to imagine shocked faces around the breakfast table that particular Sunday. All the more so considering that Le Forum Republicain had featured multiple editorials in the past about the prevalence of brothels and unregistered streetwalkers in the town. Even though prostitution was legal in the sense that it was regulated by the government (with strict laws), many townspeople did not approve. Of especial concern, it seems, were the number of prostitutes illegally frequenting the cafes around the Arles train station, in other words, the area where Vincent lived.

The article is noteworthy as the only known historical document that calls Rachel by name. The observation that Vincent asked for her specifically at the brothel reveals he knew her, and my question is, How much and how well? That question inspired the story that emerges in Sunflowers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Festival of Reading

This weekend is the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, held on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus (aka my workplace). I am presenting Saturday morning about "Sunflowers," and I'm looking forward to it a great deal. I've never presented at the Festival before. My talk is called "Writing Van Gogh's World" and will be at 10:15am in FCT 118 (aka my teaching classroom). A book signing will follow at 11am at the "Authors' Alley." I am hoping the weather is good so we have a nice turnout at the Festival. Many interesting authors will be taking part, in both fiction and nonfiction, local and internationally known. The schedule, list of participants, and all necessary information is online at the Festival website: Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 16, 2009

More Guest Posts

The event yesterday at the USFSP Nelson Poynter Library was a big success! A heartfelt merci to librarians Kaya van Beynen, Jerry Notaro, and everyone at the library who worked so hard to organize the event. We had a nice turnout, snacks, and a gorgeous bouquet of sunflowers to decorate the scene. Thanks to all who attended!

My "virtual tour" continues with two new guest posts: "Why I Love Vincent van Gogh" over at Historical Tapestry and "Following van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise" at Thank you to Marg at HT and Margaret at HN for your hospitality!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why First Person?

"Sunflowers" is here! Yesterday was release day, and even though I had to work/teach rather than play, it was still a special day. My parents sent me a beautiful bouquet of sunshiny sunflowers for my office, and my mom emailed camera-phone shots of my book on the shelves and tables of assorted Atlanta bookstores. I learned something very interesting: in a comprehensive bookstore, on a regular shelf, "Sunflowers" is shelved next to John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." One of Vincent's favorite books!

Now that the book is released, I'll be blogging about things related to it -- avoiding spoilers -- and if I'm asked a good question that I'd like to share with the whole class :-), I'll blog about that. I've been asked a couple of times, for instance, why I wrote "Sunflowers" in first person. I never consciously made a decision; I knew all along it would be first person. Why? First of all, I enjoy reading books written in first person. Recently, for example, I read Kathleen Kent's "Heretic's Daughter" and Michelle Moran's "Cleopatra's Daughter": both are terrific, both are written in first person, and they would have been different stories if the POV had been otherwise. I wanted readers to engage with Rachel in the way I like to engage with characters in first-person stories. Second, as a writer I thought I would "become" Rachel more easily in first person narrative. This turned out to be true!

Third, writing the story from Rachel's point of view allowed me to preserve some mystery around Vincent. If I had written the story in say, alternating third person point of view, then I would have been forced to show more of Vincent's actions and possibly inner thoughts. I wanted to maintain a certain distance rather than 'commit' to things we can't know for sure. The Vincent in "Sunflowers" is Vincent *as Rachel sees him,* and of course, she has an agenda!

First person does have limitations. There were many things about van Gogh's life and art I would have liked to include, but Rachel could not have known about them. First person *did* allow me to talk about Vincent's paintings from the POV of someone seeing them for the first time, which was fun. But she would not have known details about the symbolism or the artistic influences unless Vincent told her. Luckily, the historical van Gogh was quite pedantic about his own work, so the character could be too, when he was in the mood.

The first person viewpoint also allowed me -- or I should say, Rachel -- to choose how the story would be told. A non-spoiler example: Rachel is a prostitute. She has many customers. But she rarely talks about them, aside from an unpleasant encounter we learn about at the beginning. Why? Because it is a part of her life that shames her, that she'd rather forget. In a third-person story, I would have approached this differently, but in first-person, if Rachel wanted to downplay that or something else (eg events from her past), I let her. In this, I took a cue from the historical Vincent's letters to his brother. As detailed and thorough as the letters appear to be, Vincent *chooses* what to tell Theo and what to omit. There are many painful things in Vincent's life that he downplays, dismisses, or just does not mention, probably because they were painful. So it is with anybody recounting events in his/her life: two participants in the same incident can tell the story very differently, highlight some details, leave out others, according to how they wish to communicate what happened and who their listener is.

A rather long answer to a very good question!

Monday, October 12, 2009

T-minus...ONE DAY!

"Sunflowers" makes its big debut tomorrow! It'll be an ordinary workday for me -- teaching class, meeting with students -- but I'll be grinning nonstop. I hope readers enjoy the book!

Writing friends Catherine Delors and Julianne Douglas have posted interviews (tough questions!) and will have reviews of the book up later this week. Both are also offering giveaways of copies of the book. Please check my website for reviews of the book as they come in, as well as links to guest posts and information about upcoming events.

This Thursday, October 15th, I'll be speaking at the Nelson Poynter Library of the University of South Florida St Petersburg (my home campus) at 4pm. Books will be available for purchase at the Barnes and Noble on campus (10% off on the 15th), and I'll sign any that folks bring to the talk. A big THANK YOU to the staffs of the library and the Barnes and Noble for organizing this event -- we're going to have fun!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Coolest Website EVER

The Van Gogh Museum has unveiled their landmark website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. Holy cow, this is one heckuva site! Free of charge, visitors can access the new and updated English translations of all van Gogh's correspondence, as well as annotated footnotes, pictures of the artworks associated with each letter, the texts in their original language, and scanned facsimiles of each page. It's much, if not all, the same content as the beautiful yet expensive bound volumes due to ship to stores and customers (me!!) any day now. With one notable exception: on a website, you can have search engines. Yesterday one of my seminar students was looking at the new site with me during an appointment to discuss her upcoming presentation, and for fun we typed "olive" into the keyword search (her presentation is on two of the Saint-Remy olive grove canvases)...presto! We found like magic all the letters in which Vincent discussed olive trees, and lots of other information she'll be able to use. Visitors can further sort the whole cache of letters by period, correspondent, and place.

I've been trying not to play with the new site too much, because a) I should be working; and b) I don't want to spoil the fun of opening the books when they arrive, but I've seen enough to say this is an invaluable resource for any van Gogh lover, student, or scholar. The design is beautiful -- the Dutch are known for their graphic design panache, and this site is no exception, with its clean lines, harmonious colors, and easy navigation. And the content, the product of 15 years' research by the Van Gogh Museum curators, is simply a treasure trove. Bravo!!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Meet Van Gogh's Doctor

Holly over at Wonders and Marvels very kindly invited me to contribute a guest post about Sunflowers -- I opted for "Meet Van Gogh's Doctor," since W&M often has medical-themed posts. Holly, aka Prof. Tucker of Vanderbilt University, is a historian specializing in things scientific and medical. She is also offering a giveaway of Sunflowers -- click on the bookcover to enter. The giveaway closes on October 14th.

Stop by Wonders & Marvels to learn more about Dr. Felix Rey, the physician in Arles who treated Vincent after the "ear incident." Seeing his portrait at an exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007 inspired an entire subplot in the novel!

Thank you, Holly, for the invitation to post, and thank you, Tina, for getting it up there.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Van Gogh's Montmartre

Over the next few weeks surrounding the release of "Sunflowers," several bloggers will be kindly hosting me in a mini-blog-tour, some with interviews, some with guest posts, with blogger-authored reviews of the actual book as well. The first guest post, "Van Gogh's Montmartre," is freshly available at the French-themed blog of novelist Catherine Delors, author of "Mistress of the Revolution" (a terrific book) and the forthcoming "For the King" (which I can't wait to read). Catherine is also hosting a giveaway of one signed copy of "Sunflowers" (details on her blog) and will be posting an interview and review. Merci bien, Catherine, for the blog-hospitality!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gauguin Exhibition at the CMA

Alas, no van Gogh exhibitions opening this fall in the U.S., but opening Sunday October 4th is "Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The museum website describes the show thusly: "This landmark exhibition gathers about 75 paintings, works on paper, woodcarvings, and ceramics by Paul Gauguin and his contemporaries to explore how the artist created his signature style during the year 1889. Co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 re-creates on a smaller scale the radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized with his artistic disciples on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle—a display of about 100 paintings now recognized as the first Symbolist exhibition in Paris."

The "radical independent exhibition" is the so-called Volpini show, which Gauguin organized together with fellow avant-garde artists Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, and a few others. It was conceived as a reaction to the French art exhibition at the Universal Exposition, which was limited only to Salon painters and similarly well-established artists. Gauguin chose as a venue for the exhibition the Café des Arts -- run by a Monsieur Volpini -- on the actual grounds of the Universal Exposition, thus thumbing his nose at the establishment. The exhibition ran from May through July 1889, included a small catalogue, and was seen by contemporary critics.

At this time, Vincent had just entered the asylum of Saint-Rémy. His brother Theo did not submit any of Vincent's work to the show, believing it to be an upstart and unseemly enterprise, and in fact did not tell Vincent about it. However, somehow Vincent did learn of it and mentioned it casually in a letter to Theo of early June. Theo responded, "At first I had said you would exhibit some things too, but they assumed an air of being such tremendous fellows that it made one sick...It gave one somewhat the impression of going to the Universal Exhibition by the back stairs" (T10). In his reply, Vincent agreed that it was probably best his work not be shown ("My not yet being recovered is reason enough") but defended Gauguin and Bernard: "It remains very understandable that for beings like would be impossible to turn all their canvases to the wall until it should please people to admit them into something, into the official stew. You cause a stir by exhibiting in cafés" (LT595).

Gauguin himself learned of Theo's disapproval via their mutual friend Émile Schuffenecker. Writing from Pont-Aven in Brittany on June 10--where he'd gone after the show's opening--he defends the show and states, "I organized this little exhibition at the Universelle to show what can be done together and to demonstrate the possibilities." Unfortunately, we do not have Theo's reply to Gauguin.

"Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" will be at CMA until 18 January 2010, after which it will travel to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Favorite Self-Portrait

This week in the van Gogh seminar I'm teaching, one of our topics was the self-portraiture Vincent created while living in Paris from March 1886-February 1888. Although he'd been an artist for five years by that point, only then did he experiment with this genre. Twenty-eight self-portraits he made during that time! And each one is different: we see Vincent the city-dweller in stylish hat and fine suit, Vincent the working man in craftsman's jacket and yellow straw hat, Vincent the artist with easel and palette. The series reminds us of the malleability of self-portraits; they are constructs, not necessarily attempts to represent the person as they actually are. In van Gogh's case, we have no photographs of him as an adult (except for one, where he's shown seated from the back) to make a comparison.

I asked the students to write their weekly response paper about the vagaries of self-portraiture and to pick their favorite. It's only fair that I reveal my favorite, too, so here it is: a version that belongs today to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. Painted earlier in the sequence rather than later, this portrait maintains the neutral palette of Vincent's Dutch days and possesses a more naturalistic style than some of the others that reveal strong pointillist and other avant-garde influences. It's one of the least innovative and experimental in the series.

So why do I like it? The eyes. In all his self-portraits, Vincent gives the eyes special expressiveness, and here I see (emphasis on *I* see, since others may see something different) a wistfulness behind the gaze. For all the tidiness of the suit he wears and the well-trimmed beard, there's an almost lost feeling, as if the sitter doesn't feel entirely at home in his clothes and his surroundings. At the point when Vincent painted this picture, he was still finding his way in Paris, in a sense seeking his true identity as an artist. Some of that seeking to me lies behind those eyes. When I was writing "Sunflowers," I kept a decent-sized reproduction of this picture (from an old calendar) close by, because the Vincent of my story is a seeker too. When I traveled to The Hague in 2007, I went to the Gemeentemuseum specifically to see it in person...but alas! It was not on view that day. I had to content myself with a bookmark from the gift-shop and a consolation slice of gooey cake from the cafe.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Goodreads Giveaway!

Avon Books/HarperCollins has five copies of "Sunflowers" up for grabs in a giveaway! The contest opened for entries this morning and will remain open through November 30th. Click here for more details and to enter.

Van Gogh the Writer

Buzz is starting to build about the publication next month of the new English translation of van Gogh's correspondence, the first comprehensive English translation since 1958 and the product of 15 years' work by the curators of the Van Gogh Museum. Today's Financial Times features a review of the six-volume edition, while the The Sunday Timesincludes a chatty review/commentary by Waldemar Januszcak, himself no stranger to things van Gogh. So far only the British press is jumping on this particular bandwagon, which is not surprising, given that the Royal Academy will be presenting a major exhibition on the theme of van Gogh's letters in spring 2010. Nearer in time will be the opening of the Van Gogh Museum's own exhibition on the letters, which takes place on 9 October. I expect van Gogh coverage will be steadily increasing in the next few weeks as the new edition of the letters gets more exposure. (Which as far as I'm concerned is awesome yet coincidental timing, but that's another story!)

Initial remarks about the new edition suggest that those looking for Big Revelations and Big Scandals in the inclusion of previously-omitted passages from van Gogh's letters are going to be disappointed. I admit, I would have loooooved the new research to have uncovered Dramatic Information about the prostitute Rachel, but I never really expected that! Rather, the new edition of the letters confirms what the Van Gogh Museum curators and other mythbusters (including me, in my small way) have been saying for years: that the solitary mad genius of van Gogh-ian mythology is not the Real Vincent. Disciplined, hard-working, well-read, knew-exactly-what-he-was-doing Vincent, that's the real Vincent. It's the Vincent I've come to know, and I'm looking forward to the six volumes showing up on my doorstep in a few weeks so that I can get to know him even better. I'll be posting my own review of the new edition once I've thoroughly checked it out.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My New Cyber-Home

Fewer than four weeks until the debut of Sunflowers! Hard to believe the big day is almost here. Everyone is invited to visit my new website at, where I have posted information about the book, links for purchasing (naturally), tips for book clubs, and information about upcoming events. I will be updating the website regularly, and I will also continue posting on this blog. Expect chatty posts about people, places & paintings related to the book leading up to and after the release on October 13th!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Vincent Travels to Taipei

This week the National Museum of History in Taipei (Taiwan) announced a new van Gogh exhibition to be held from 11 December 2009 through 28 March 2010. The show will include 77 drawings and 21 paintings, many loaned from the collection of the Kroller-Müller Museum. Given the record-breaking attendance at, well, every van Gogh exhibition, I don't doubt for a second this will be another blockbuster.

A New Semester

The fall semester has just begun, hence the lack of posts the last few weeks as I got things underway with my teaching and various administrative this-and-thats. This semester, in addition to my usual Ancient-Medieval art history survey, I am teaching an upper-level seminar devoted entirely to Vincent. I have fifteen undergrads (a mix of studio art and art history students, mostly, with a psych major and anthro major for good measure) and four art history graduate students, and so far we are having a great time reading Vincent's letters and examining the phases of his artistic career. Last week we discussed his time in The Hague and focused in particular on his relationship with Sien Hoornik and his drawings of her and her family. This Wednesday we'll be in Nuenen and discussing "The Potato Eaters" in depth. Our reading list is a nifty (if I do say so myself) mix of primary sources (mostly letters), general-audience readings (eg excerpts from exhibition catalogues), and hard-core scholarly articles. The last three weeks we'll be exploring Vincent in popular culture (films, novels, children's books, advertising), but my "Sunflowers" is conspicuously absent from the syllabus. I didn't want to put students in the awkward position of critiquing their professor!

Yesterday three of the seminar students (plus one brought a friend) joined me to see "Van Gogh: Brush with Genius" at the Museum of Science of Industry in Tampa before this Imax film leaves the city on Monday. (Most of the others had to work, alas.) I saw the film back in March, as I reported here, but it was wonderful to see it again, this time with company. It's such a visual feast, and the extremely magnified details of the paintings show the texture and impasto in a way my classroom slides just cannot.

On this viewing, I found myself particularly drawn to the footage of Auvers-sur-Oise. I've now had three visits to the village, the most recent this May, and each time I find it a special and almost magical place. The film spends far more time in Auvers than in Arles and Saint-Rémy, and beautifully captures its tranquillity and serene landscape. If I ever had a financial windfall, I'd happily buy a little summer cottage there! Apparently the Swissborn filmmaker, Peter Knapp, has his own home in Auvers, which probably explains why it is given such a loving portrayal.

Seeing the movie again was an inspiring way to kick off the new semester. Between the classes, the admin work, and "Sunflowers" making its debut in October, it's going to be a very busy one!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Holy Smokes! A Starred Review!

I learned this morning that "Sunflowers" has received a starred review from Publishers Weekly! What a nice surprise and a wonderful way to start the week. Here is the text (the star didn't copy/paste...). Needless to say I'm positively giddy!

Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh Sheramy Bundrick. Avon, $14.99 paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-176527-8

In a knockout debut novel, art historian Bundrick (Music and Image in Classical Athens) brings Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and personal story to vibrant life. While Bundrick takes many liberties (recorded in an author's note) in her fictionalized account of Van Gogh's affair with her narrator, fille de maison Rachel Courteau, she gives Rachel such a believable voice that the proceedings seem genuine. At 35, Van Gogh meets lovable spitfire Rachel while surreptitiously sketching her in a garden. Having taken refuge in an Arles brothel after the death of her parents, Rachel greets Van Gogh as a customer not long after, and soon feelings blossom between them. Visiting friend Paul Gauguin and the cloud of Van Gogh's madness undercut the couple's bliss, as do financial troubles and Rachel's life at the maison, where she's kept a virtual prisoner. While infusing well-known historical moments (like Van Gogh's infamous self-mutilation) with vivid details, humanizing Van Gogh and putting his famous works in context, Bundrick generates an impressive volume of suspense, delight and heartbreak. (Oct.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Van Gogh Mystery

Police in Santa Fe are asking for the public's help with a burglary from an artist's home of about $750,000 worth of artworks, jewelry, and artifacts, including an alleged charcoal drawing by Vincent van Gogh. The Santa Fe New Mexican posted an article today about the heist but unfortunately provides no photographs of the drawing. The homeowner describes the drawing as a 14-by-17 inch charcoal preliminary sketch of the "Night Café" painting in the Yale University collection (the same painting that currently is entwined in its own legal battle) and says it is identical to the painting except that it lacks VIncent's signature.

This story intrigues me, and not because of the theft. This drawing -- if it is indeed by van Gogh -- is unknown in the canon, as far as I've been able to find out. It is not in the de la Faille catalogue raisonné, and it is not mentioned in the scholarship surrounding the Night Café painting. The homeowner says that his great-grandfather bought the drawing and it has been in his family ever since: how can van Gogh experts not know about it? And another point ... when Vincent was living in Arles in September 1888, at the time he did the Night Café painting (and the watercolor version of the painting today in a Swiss private collection), his drawing materials of preference were pencil and/or ink/reed pen. Not charcoal.

I would really like to see a photograph of this drawing. According to the article, experts at Yale have been brought into the case. I would also really be curious to know what they have to say.

UPDATE (20 Sept 2009): On 9/11 the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the alleged van Gogh drawing was discovered, along with the other artworks allegedly stolen from the home, at a consignment shop in Raton, on sale for $250. The whole thing smells odd to me: to quote John Turturro in "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" -- "That don't make no sense." Among the comments on the article about the recovery (which are otherwise pretty silly), David Brooks from the online Van Gogh Gallery (, the best non-museum Van Gogh site there is) rightly points out that "There is no such known van Gogh drawing. Saying it's a van Gogh doesn't make it a van Gogh." He's got that right.

Helen of Troy

I've been 'into' Greek mythology for about thirty years now (gasp! I'm old!), and I have to say, I never liked Helen of Troy much. She always struck me as the kind of person I would not like being around, and she always struck me as being enormously selfish. But reading Margaret George's "Helen of Troy" this summer has given me a different perspective into this character, and for that I have to thank Ms. George and her terrific storytelling. I hadn't read "Helen of Troy" before now because I feared it would annoy me as much as the movie "Troy" had done -- but Ms. George's keynote speech at the Historical Novel Society conference convinced me to give it a whirl. I'm glad I did!

Ms. George had a lot to contend with in crafting this story. The Iliad only covers one small part of the Trojan War saga; there are many other tales woven into the mythological tradition, and unfortunately, we know about several epic poems that no longer exist. Ms. George admirably brings together all the threads of the story: she even brings in the Amazons (readers may think she made up the Amazons coming to Troy for her novel, but she did not--a now-lost epic poem called the Aithiopis detailed this episode). At the same time, she introduces enough of her own flourishes to create a cohesive tale and flesh out the narrative. The Bronze Age isn't my academic specialty, but I've read enough of the scholarship to recognize that Ms. George has read it too. She captures the spirit of the times and introduces some of the latest archaeological findings while avoiding the dreaded 'research dump.' Those who are familiar with the mythological tradition will find plenty of places to smile, appreciating the way Ms. George deftly incorporates this or that detail.

Ms. George's Helen is a complex character. The novel is told in first person, which allows the reader to engage closely with Helen and understand her choices a bit more (even if the reader does not agree with them). For Helen, her beauty is a curse, and while there is a bit of "don't hate me because I'm beautiful" here, it works with the story. The scenes of the Ilioupersis (Fall of Troy) are particularly moving.

The one quibble I have concerns Achilles. True, in the Iliad Achilles acts like an arrogant jerk, but in Ms. George's novel he is the one character who is basically two-dimensional. Also true that Helen does not have an opportunity to 'get to know' Achilles, but Ms. George changed something that troubled me, the only time in reading the entire book that I went "nooooo!" In the Iliad the so-called Ransom of Hektor scene, when king Priam visits Achilles in his tent to retrieve his son's body, is the turning point of the entire poem. It is Achilles' redemption. (In fact, it's the only episode that the movie "Troy" got close to right.) But Ms. George adds a 'postscript' of sorts to that scene -- something Achilles demands of the Trojans the morning after -- that is not in the Iliad. And I have to say, that 'postscript' spoils the character of Achilles as we know it from the Homeric tradition. Most readers might not notice or care, but it disappointed me. For all Achilles' faults, I love that guy!

That one quibble aside, I loved this book, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Greek myth and seeks a retelling that is faithful to the spirit of the original stories.

Monday, August 10, 2009

At The Bookbinders!

The Van Gogh Museum announced on Facebook today that the six volume new edition of Van Gogh's letters is now at the bookbinders. They've posted photos of the stacks and stacks o'manuscripts at Flickr. (Photo of a sample set from

Somewhere in those stacks is the set that will come to ME in October, preordered months ago from Amazon. I'm totally geeking out here.

:-) :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On This Day...

On 29 July 1890, not long after midnight, Vincent van Gogh breathed his last in an attic room of the Auberge Ravoux at Auvers-sur-Oise, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen. His brother, Theo van Gogh, was with him.

Rest in peace and sunlight, mon ami.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Keeping Up Appearances

I am happy to announce my first appearance/book-signing: Saturday 24 October at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, to be held at my lovely waterfront campus, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. I'll be giving a 30-40 minute illustrated talk on "Writing Van Gogh's World" and signing books (available for purchase at the venue). I've asked if I can speak in my teaching classroom for maximum comfort and convenience! The Festival of Reading is in its seventeenth year and is the largest such event in the Tampa Bay area. Each festival features an array of Florida and national authors, a special series of kids activities (including a storytime with local celebrities), and in general is a fantastic event to promote reading and literacy. The final schedule and lineup are not yet posted on the Festival of Reading website, but some of the author bios are (including mine), and more information will appear as the day draws close.

Especially for USFSP students, I'll be giving a talk on "Why (and How) I Became a Historical Novelist" on Tuesday November 4th as part of the Faculty In Residence lecture series. I'll sign books if students bring 'em, and I'll be giving away a copy as a door prize.

I've been invited to another Florida book fair in spring 2010, but since it's not a signed-sealed-delivered deal yet, I'd better not say which. I'll be part of a panel on debut novelists.

Luckily for me speaking in public and giving lectures is my job ... and more than that, my passion!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Elusive Vincent

The Clever Pup -- who commented on my last blogpost, thus inspiring me to go immediately to her blog -- has a good post about this alleged photograph of Vincent van Gogh. I ran across the claim myself a while ago, and for the record, I don't think it's him (neither does The Clever Pup). The person in the photograph is too old, for starters (Vincent was only 33 in 1886, the date claimed for the photograph); two, Vincent didn't like photographs in general, he didn't like his own appearance, and I can't see him posing for a professional photograph; and three, as The Clever Pup points out, Saint Hyacinthe, the home of the photographer, is in Canada. Vincent never went to Canada. For most of 1886, from March onward, he was in Paris living with Theo.

The only confirmed photograph of Vincent as an adult -- there are two of him as a teenager -- shows him from the back, sitting on the banks of the Seine at Asnières with Émile Bernard.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer of Love

The summer of 1888, spent in Arles, was one of the most productive times of Vincent's career -- and one of the times when he was most happy. Harvest time in June resulted in a bevy of paintings and drawings, and even when the harvest was done, Vincent roamed the countryside around Arles looking for new subjects under the sun. He loved summer "like a cicada," he told his brother Theo, and the locals must have wondered at the foreign redhead painting for hours in the heat. It was the colors of the Provençal summer that inspired him: the rich golds and greens, bright flowers in a rainbow of's no wonder that the Arles paintings today tend to be the most popular among art lovers.

In July 1888, Vincent tried painting a new subject, one that he would intermittently return to for the rest of his time in Arles. The painting shown here depicts a corner of the public garden in the Place Lamartine, the square near the railway station where Vincent lived. (In July he was still living above the Café de la Gare, although already using the lower rooms of the Yellow House for studio space.) Scholars have even identified *which* corner: on this map, look for the sliver of park just north of where it says "Roubine du Roi canal." The entire square lay outside the medieval city walls and was part of the town's expansion around mid-century; according to Arles city records, the garden was planted in 1873. Vincent describes this painting to his sister: "I have also got a garden without flowers, that is to say a lawn, newly mown, bright green with the gray hay spread in long streaks. A weeping ash and a number of cedars and cypresses, the cedars yellowish and spherical in form, the cypresses rising high into the air, blue-green. At the back, oleander and a patch of green-blue sky. The blue shadows of the shrubs on the grass." (W5)

Vincent did another series of four paintings of the garden in the autumn, and a number of drawings spread over the time until he left Arles in May. He came to call this place "a poet's garden," associating it with the poetry of Petrarch and poetry. Is it a coincidence that just on the other side of the canal and the city wall lay the brothel district, the place Vincent called "la rue des bonnes petites femmes," the street of the good little women? Rachel's brothel, for instance, was located at the north end of the Rue du Bout d'Arles (marked on the map). Did Vincent somehow associate this lush garden with the women he met in the brothels? One can only speculate.

Unless one is writing fiction. In which case, you can make it so!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Real Van Gogh

There's been talk for a while now about a 2010 Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London -- and this week they made the formal announcement. "The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters" will run from 23 January to 18 April 2010 and is being described as the largest van Gogh show in Britain since 1968. A selection of 35 original letter manuscripts, lent by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, will be featured along with 65 paintings and 30 drawings from not only the VGM's collection but others in Europe and the United States. This seems to be a different exhibition than the VGM's "Van Gogh's Letters: The Artist Speaks," appearing in Amsterdam this fall, although both shows are intended to celebrate the VGM's long-awaited new edition of Vincent's correspondence.

The new exhibition is discussed online in articles in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and

Friday, July 10, 2009

Here Comes the Chimaera

Visitors to the Museo Archeologico in Florence -- in my opinion one of the most overlooked and underrated museums in Europe -- will for the next six months miss one of its treasures: the spectacular Chimaera of Arezzo, an Etruscan sculpture from around the early 4th century B.C. The Chimaera is off to the Getty Villa in Malibu for a chimaera-themed exhibition from 16 July through 8 February, starring among other artistic representations of the ancient monster and its conqueror, the Greek hero Bellerophon. The "Chimaera of Arezzo" show is the first in a series of planned collaborations between the Getty and the Museo Archeologico di Firenze; it's no secret (I don't think) that the Chimaera and other long-term loans are part of the deal worked out between the Getty and the Italian government, when the museum agreed to return close to forty ancient objects on suspicion that they were looted.

I have a mental list of the top ten artworks I would happily install in my home if given the opportunity, and the Chimaera of Arezzo is one of 'em. He is a beautiful thing. Photographs do not capture his elegant lines or the luster of his bronze surface, the ferocity of his snarl, the arrested power of his pose. Unfortunately his installation in the Museo Archeologico is less than flattering; at least in 2004, he was perched on a pedestal seemingly stuck in the center of a corridor, no real room to step back and admire him as he deserves. I hope while he is in Malibu his owners are making him a new home.

In antiquity the Chimaera was a dedication to the Etruscan equivalent of Zeus, placed in a sanctuary. We know this from the inscription on his right foreleg: TINSCVIL, or gift to Tinia. He was discovered in Arezzo in the mid-16th century, and when word of his beauty reached Florence, none other than Cosimo de'Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, made it his business to acquire the statue. But at first everyone thought the Chimaera was a lion -- his snaky tail was missing when first discovered. Renaissance-era artist and historian Giorgio Vasari tells us that fragments of the tail were later recovered and the Chimaera's true identity revealed; however, the tail itself was not restored until the 18th century. Earlier restorations done soon after the Chimaera first came to Florence are said to have been done by renowned sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, including perhaps part of the left foreleg.

Some scholars wonder if the Chimaera was originally part of a group sculpture which included Bellerophon vanquishing the beast -- he would therefore be snarling at a specific figure and aiming to pounce. But I don't think the Chimaera needs another figure. Certainly in antiquity everyone would know the myth, and without a second statue, the viewer him/herself "becomes" Bellerophon and faces the monster. To me that is the emotional impact of encountering this statue, having it threaten YOU.

Admission to the Getty Villa (not be confused with the Getty Center in Los Angeles) is free but requires an advance, timed ticket. See the Getty website for more information about the Chimaera of Arezzo exhibition and how to visit.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth!

Let's celebrate Independence Day with one of the most iconic of all American artworks: "The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull. There are actually two versions of this painting: a 12x18 foot version (pictured--click image to enlarge) in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, and a smaller version that hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery along with other paintings and drawings bequeathed to the university by Trumbull. Even in its day, this was a celebrated picture, its popularity spread through engravings done by artist Asher Durand in cooperation with Trumbull.

John Trumbull is an interesting figure. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a witness to the Battle of Bunker Hill, and after the war he traveled to England to further his artistic education with painter Benjamin West. (In those days, England was still the place for American artists to study.) The initial "Declaration of Independence" painting (the Yale version) was begun with none other than Thomas Jefferson as a historical consultant and with many of the figures posed from life. The fame of the painting led to the commission of the larger version for the Capitol in 1816. Trumbull painted many other scenes associated with the Revolutionary War, including images of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and portraits of notable political figures, among them George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

The truly amazing part? Trumbull lost the use of one eye in an accident when he was a child, and so painted his pictures half-blind. But he did not let this hinder his drive to create and desire to celebrate the new United States. His achievements are a lesson for us all.

Happy Fourth!

Monday, June 29, 2009

East of the Sun

Summer is the time for reading. So it was when I was small and joined the Vacation Reading Club each summer at the Woodstock (GA) Public Library -- so it is now when I am not teaching and can steal a lazy hour (or two, or three) stretched out on the sofa in the balm of Florida air conditioning. There's nothing like discovering a Wonderful Summer Book (WSB). Personally, I find myself drawn to stories set in hot climates these days: it's just too weird reading something about a cold place when it's 95 degrees out! So I was excited to learn of Julia Gregson's "East of the Sun," set in 1920s India, which already from the vivid-hued cover looked like it was going to be a WSB. First I spotted it at Target, then we got copies in our goody bags at the HNS Conference. It was fate.

And it's wonderful! "East of the Sun" follows three young British women as they make their way from England to India: Rose, the shy pretty girl hastily engaged to a soldier she barely knows and en route to be married; Tor (Victoria), the a-bit-plump, desperate-to-be-married girl happy to escape her overbearing mother; and Viva, the mysterious would-be writer with an enigmatic past, hired as their chaperone. The first part of the book takes place on the ship, where the trio meet other intriguing characters that you know will be important later in the story; the rest in India as each girl struggles to make her way in a new land. Their stories separate, come together, separate, come together, and the reader is taken to such places as Bombay, Poona, and Simla high in the mountains. While "East of the Sun" has romantic elements, it is not solely a romance story; Viva's story in particular brings more than a little mystery to the plot.

I appreciated most the careful attention to setting. At the HNS conference, "Setting as Character" was one of the panels...although the author panelists warned *against* making setting a character. I respectfully disagree. While one must be careful not to let setting overwhelm or overshadow the "real" characters, Place can be a player in its own right. "Gone With the Wind," for instance -- arguably, the city of Atlanta is very much its own character. So too in "East of the Sun," India seems to become a character as much as the three girls and similarly undergoes a form of character development. As the girls prepare for their voyage and experience their sea-crossing, we have only hearsay of India: Viva's childhood memories, Rose and Tor's imaginings what it must be like. But as the book unfolds, the reader sees more: first the India of the Raj as the British experienced it, then, slowly, the India beyond the Raj, through Viva's work in a slum orphanage. Gregson gives enough detail for us to know India as her characters do, but does not indulge in information dumps or purple prose. The way she uses setting is a superb writing lesson!

I highly recommend "East of the Sun" for anybody's summer reading fun. Enjoy it with a chai latte by your side for extra spice. (I'm hooked on David Rio Tiger Spice Chai myself...)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The New Acropolis Museum

Today is a special day for all lovers of ancient Greek art: the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. The New York Times has an article and slideshow, as do other news sites online. It is exciting to see the objects installed in their new home! Their old home was a cramped 1874 building wedged in a corner of the Acropolis, an environment that was not very safe for them given the massive number of visitors. I was always amazed something didn't get broken right in front of me during my visits, the way tourists sometimes paid no heed to what stood right behind them. No longer a problem -- from the pictures it is clear that there is ample room for the objects and for visitors to circulate and enjoy them.

Slide 2 on the NY Times slide show particularly made my heart go pitter-pat. At the top of the staircase in the photo are the remnants of a large painted limestone pediment, part of what scholars refer to as the "H-building" or "Hekatompedon." Dating from about 560-550 BC, that building predates the Parthenon that still stands today, and in fact, most scholars now are in agreement that it stood on the same site as the later structure. In the old Acropolis Museum, the H-building sculptures were tucked into rooms too small for them, too narrow for visitors to get a good look or a good picture. And yet, despite the lacunae in the sculptural composition, these are archaeologically very important objects. Finally! Now they are displayed to their best advantage. The bit you see there in the center shows a lion savaging a bull, an apotropaic power symbol appropriate for protecting a temple. In the other slides, you can see the beautiful new display of the Erechtheion caryatids (who also used to be cramped), some of the sculptures from the so-called Old Temple of Athena that predated the Erechtheion, assorted Archaic statues, and the famous Kritios Boy. The Archaic sculptures' smiles seem to indicate happiness with their new home! I wasn't sure how good the pieces would look in such a modernist building, but if the photos are any indication, the place is a knockout.

The top floor features some of the Parthenon sculptures, the ones that remain in Athens after various pieces were taken away in the nineteenth century. The Greeks are hoping that the museum's completion will re-energize debate about the ownership of those Parthenon sculptures missing from the new museum, namely those owned by the British Museum. Just last week, the British Museum offered a three-month loan of their sculptures in exchange for Greece formally acknowledging British ownership; not surprisingly, the Greeks refused. (In my opinion, the British knew they would say no. Because the three-month loan period seems ridiculous for some of the most important sculptures of the ancient world--to put it another way, I think it would be terrible to risk the safety and integrity of the sculptures by moving them for a three-month period. It was all politics, folks.)

The Acropolis Museum is conveniently located just south of the Acropolis. To get there, take the Metro to the -- guess what -- Acropolis stop. The museum is very near the station. I look forward to getting back to Athens and checking it out for myself...sometime!

Friday, June 19, 2009

My New Neighbors

For those wondering what happened regarding the visit by the Critter Master, here's the deal. He came today. And yes, I have bats. About 15-20 of them, he guesses, living in the attic and roosting above my bathroom. Families they are, with babies. But here's the problem.

He can't get rid of them until mid-August.

Why? Because bat colonies are protected by law; the babies cannot fly, and so at night when Mommy and Daddy go out to eat twice their weight in insects (I learned this today), the babies stay home. If the Critter Master performs what's called an exclusion -- seals up the openings while the bats are gone for the evening -- the babies will be left without Mommy to feed them. And they will die. This is animal cruelty under the law. By mid-August, baby bats are grown and can follow their families outside to feed. And then the critter control folks can safely exclude the bats without harming any of them. They will then find a new home...probably in one of the other apartment buildings, I was told today. I support not harming these animals -- they are not dangerous to people (we're talking the 'Mexican free tailed bat' also known as the 'Brazilian free tailed bat'), rarely carry rabies, and eat gnats, mosquitoes, all the flying things that can be very annoying. They should be able to live freely.

But I wish it wasn't two months away. I hear them, you see, moving around sometimes. And it's FREAKY! The one route into my apartment is sealed up with duct tape (and the critter man said I did a good job), they can't get in, but it's FREAKY.

I did learn something else very interesting today: the bat last week did not run into my living room wall because of the lights. He ran into the wall because all electronic devices when plugged in emit signals that interfere with his 'radar.' The computer, tv, microwave, phone, lamps, all that stuff threw off his sense of direction. And that's why he crashed. But the nice man reassured me that they run into things all the time and odds are the bat was not hurt. In fact, he probably found his way safely back to my attic.


Internet Treasure Hunting

At the Historical Novel Society conference last week, whenever the subject of research came up in a panel, the Internet was not far behind. All the authors agreed: the Internet brings a whole new dimension to novel research (or any research), not to mention convenience. And it's true -- as much as I stress to my students the importance of libraries and 'real books' for their essays and pooh-pooh Wikipedia, there is plenty of value to be found online, information that can be trusted and used. For "Sunflowers," I found many scholarly articles online via JSTOR (a subscription only site that I get through the university), and sites like the Van Gogh Gallery saved a lot of time. Google Books has a number of out-of-copyright nineteenth-century goodies scanned into its database, including old French guidebooks and even Salon catalogues. Museum websites nowadays tend to be very informative and provide bibliographic and provenance information for their collections. You can even access nineteenth-century New York Times articles online!

But sometimes what you need can be found in unexpected places. To give a couple of examples: I found a short but helpful video on an absinthe distributor's website demonstrating the nineteenth-century way of mixing absinthe. I had read a description, but seeing the video made a big difference (at that time absinthe was still illegal here, so there was no buying some to mix it myself). Another example: I wanted to describe a Spanish-style bullfight (corrida) in the amphitheater of Arles. When I went to Arles, I saw the amphitheater, I walked up to the top, but no bullfights were scheduled during my trip. Nearby Nîmes has a gallery of toreador costumes in its amphitheater, so I saw those, but had missed by a few days their sequence of corridas for the city's yearly festival. Reading a description wasn't giving me the vividness I sought: what to do? One word--YouTube. I searched 'bullfight Arles' and found amateur videos that helped fill in missing details.

There are even ways to help you get inside a character's emotions using the Internet. In "Sunflowers," Rachel experiences things that I have never come close to experiencing myself -- one event in particular (and I don't mean the 'ear incident') made me wonder how 'real women' cope. So I went online and found a forum dedicated to it. I read real women's stories, and while I didn't use any specific one as inspiration for Rachel's experience, reading the posts helped me understand and capture what she would be feeling.

Not everything on the Internet can be considered a reliable source, of course, and this is the skill I stress to my students: learning to discern what's good and what's not. But there's no shortage of places to look, and who knows what you might discover?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Are Watching

Once in a while I have an Iranian visitor to this blog; I'll see 'Tehran' or 'Isfahan' and the Iranian flag on the Sitemeter. It always makes me smile when I have visitors from so far away, because it reminds me not only of the power of van Gogh's art, but also the power of the Internet, which helps bring our world together.

This is not a political blog, but it is impossible to watch the images coming from Iran and not be moved to speak. For me as a woman and a university professor, the particular sight of women and students -- thousands of them -- peacefully marching for freedom and change, at great peril to their own safety, fills my heart with great emotion.

We are watching you, friends, and we pray for you. You march in silence, but your footsteps echo around the world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bats in the Belfry

I think I have a bat colony living in my apartment building.

Clue #1: An actual bat emerged from my laundry room one night last week and flew like a, um, bat out of hell across my living room. BAM! He ran into my bookshelf and fell to the floor. (That blind as a bat business is no lie.) I crept close to see if he was dead; he didn't move. I poked him with a broom--he squeaked--NOT DEAD! Ahhhhh! I opened the balcony door, and once he had recovered from his daze, I persuaded him to crawl outside. (Translation: I beat the floor beside him with a broom and yelled "Get Out Damn Bat!" à la Lady Macbeth at the top of my voice until he inched his way out. This barefoot and in me nightie at 11pm.) In the morning, he was gone, having I assume recovered and flown away. And I cardboarded and duct-taped the place where I think he came from, a crevice around the washer hook-up. Told the nice lady in the leasing office as a heads-up, thought he was probably a loner, and went to HNS, forgot the whole thing.


Clue #2: Just now I went into my bathroom and switched on the light. Commotion behind the wall that sounds a lot like squeaking bats. Ahhhh! They can't get in, I know that (thank you duct tape), but it's freaky deaky! I have called leasing office and nice lady is getting the Critter Master (yes, that's his name) out here asap to check it out. I'm on the third floor, so it is possible bats got into the attic somehow and have taken up residence. My complex abuts wetlands, and apparently loads of fruit-bats live in the mangroves. Nice. Am hoping they go back to sleep and do not squeak any more.

So what the heck does this have to do with van Gogh? Why, he painted a bat once (click on image to enlarge), and I've been looking for an excuse to post this fairly well-known picture. It's actually a stuffed bat that he might have seen in a fellow artist's curio collection in Holland. The painting, known as "Flying Fox," dates from autumn 1885 based on the style and color palette. I was intrigued to note while finding an online image that the CDC used this painting on the cover of a 2002 journal on infectious diseases involving, you guessed it, bats. Luckily -- despite the array of prehistoric wildlife that live in my adopted state of Florida -- this is NOT the kind of bat currently co-habitating with me. Wee three-inch fuzzy critters is more like it. But they need to bat it, um, beat it. Asap!

Hearing Voices

At one of the Historical Novel Society conference panel discussions, an aspiring writer in the audience asked Margaret George how to handle questions about a character, for example, if one is not sure how a character should look. "Ask her," Ms. George said calmly. "She'll tell you."

Once I would have tittered at this and thought it rather loopy-lou, but now it seems natural, as it probably did for many writers in the audience that day. Characters DO talk to you once you've gotten to know them, and while at first it seems rather scary and schizophrenic, if you let them have their say, you'll have your story. While writing "Sunflowers," I would wake up in the middle of the night and have somebody's lines ready to scribble down, or in the shower, or driving in the a certain point, it was like being a scribe for Imaginary Friends. At lunch one day during the conference, a fellow author asked me did I ever have dreams with my characters. She had, she admitted, experienced a dream recently with a character in her current project where he was quite grumpy with her and urged her to keep working on his story. (He's a historical person, this character, not fictional.) Yes, I answered, but only once. Vincent appeared in one dream about six months into my writing, when I was finally getting the swing of it and really starting to hear the characters. What did we talk about? I don't remember, but I remember he hugged me, and I woke up feeling very peaceful and cozy inside. The author I was speaking with nodded her head. "He was happy," she said. "Happy you were telling his story."

So how does one reach this state of total connection with one's characters? Margaret George, in her keynote speech at the Saturday night banquet, discussed some of her methods: obtaining clothes, jewelry, objects somehow related to the characters and keeping them near; traveling to the places they were; playing music from their time period to create a mood; keeping pictures of relevant artworks nearby. While writing her book on Cleopatra, she even obtained perfume that she felt evoked the character and wore it while she worked. For "Sunflowers," I wallpapered my writing corner with van Gogh paintings cut-out from old calendars, and while I can't listen to music while I write, I did play something from Debussy or other composers from Vincent's time just before starting to work. Getting into his head, though, was easily done through reading his letters. That's how I really started to hear him speak. As for Rachel, she appeared quite naturally, and once she did, I couldn't keep her quiet! There's something magical about it, really, when your creative mind is so active and engaged that the characters' voices flow without prodding. (Writing arguments, I found, is especially fun--suddenly somebody lets loose a real zinger, and you think "Ho! She did NOT go there!" and chuckle with glee as you type the line.) And in some ways, it can't be forced, no matter how many tricks you use. Relaxing and *listening* is the key. They'll talk. Just give them time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Boy, oh Boy!

Further musings about HNS are officially interrupted by the Van Gogh Museum's announcement today about the exhibition "Van Gogh's Letters: The Artist Speaks," which will be held at the VGM from 9 October 2009 to 3 January 2010. *120* of the original van Gogh letters from the museum's collection will be exhibited alongside paintings and drawings he wrote about. An additional three letters written to artist Emile Bernard will be on loan from the Pierpont Morgan Library. 340 total manuscripts, paintings, and drawings will be on view in the show, the largest devoted to Vincent's correspondence. Holy cow. The Plot to Get to Amsterdam After Fall Term Ends is now underway...

In other VGM news, the museum announced that a whopping 530,000 people visited the "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" exhibition during its Amsterdam showing. That's half a million people in three months, one of the best-attended shows in the VGM's history. Again I say it -- Holy cow. Vincent kicks attendance butt AGAIN!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Blast About the Past

The Historical Novel Society conference this past weekend was FABULOUS!! So much fun, meeting fellow writers and readers, putting faces to names. Panels on everything from fact vs fiction in historical novels to marketing/promotion were interesting and helpful, as already-published authors shared their ideas and experiences. I came away with a lot of ideas and thoughts on the craft...and very jazzed up about promoting "Sunflowers" and working on my new project!

I roomed with Julianne Douglas over at Writing the Renaissance, who's been my online buddy for over a year but I'd never met her in person. It was a giggly girly slumber party! I was happy to spend quality time with Catherine Delors, another online friend: now I want to reread her marvelous "Mistress of the Revolution" so I can hear her lovely French accent in the words. And so many other folks I enjoyed meeting and chatting with, whether it was only for a few minutes or for longer: Lucy Pick, Laurel Corona, Christine Blevins, Vanitha Sankaran, Michelle Moran...the list goes on and on. Everyone was so nice and friendly, and so excited about books and history, that everybody you met became an instant friend. The networking was as good as the panel discussions, if not better. The organizers deserve great big kudos for their hard work in giving attendees a well-run and enjoyable experience.

And yes, it was very different from academic conferences, as I suspected the other day. Academic conferences do not have costume contests or late-nite sex scene readings, and they sure don't come with tote bags of free books!

I'm still mulling over things I heard and saw at the conference, so I'll be posting more thoughts, I'm sure...