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...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Off to HNS

This weekend I'm heading to the Historical Novel Society conference up in Schaumburg, IL. It's my first writers' conference -- yeah, I wrote a book then went to a conference, how backwards is that? -- and I'm really looking forward to meeting other authors and readers. Some I've already met online in the blogosphere, and it will be fun to put faces to names. It's going to be a fun gathering, generally: some of the authors attending are Sharon Kay Penman, Diana Gabaldon, Michelle Moran, Catherine Delors, and Laurel Corona. It's also going to be chilly, from my Florida POV, with highs only in the low 70s and lows in the 50s. Considering it's over 90 here today, I'd better excavate a sweater and rethink my wardrobe!

I'm curious to see how different a conference like this is from the academic conferences I'm accustomed to. The 'big' conferences of the professional organizations (I belong to College Art Association and Archaeological Institute of America) can be daunting, especially to a newbie. I only go to those when I'm presenting a paper, because I don't find them much 'fun.' It's nice when they're held in cool cities, but otherwise it's a lot to take in and more than a little hectic. Smaller, themed symposia and conferences to me are much more enjoyable; I've been lucky to present at a few of those in the past few years. Since I'm not presenting anything at HNS (or interviewing for a job, another aspect of the big academic conferences), I'm free to relax and have fun. Mix, mingle, network. And get free stuff, evidently! Organizer Sarah Johnson (who blogs on Reading the Past) has promised tote bags of goodies. Yippee!! Am leaving room in the suitcase...

I'll report back on my HNS experience next week. Here's hoping it's a fabulous weekend!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Courbet

June 10 is the birthday of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), easily one of art history's most groundbreaking and controversial painters. Audiences in his time either loved his work or loathed it, and now, of course, he enjoys a special place in textbooks as the founder of the French Realist movement in art. "Show me an angel and I'll paint one" is one of his famous quotes, making the point that painting should celebrate all that is real and modern. In the textbook I use for art history survey, "The Burial at Ornans" (1848) and "The Stonebreakers" (1849) are featured; it takes some explaining to demonstrate why those particular examples were so scandalous back at the Salon of 1850, but they were. Requiring no explanation -- and maintaining their shock value -- are other of Courbet's canvases, most notably "L'origine du monde" ("The Origin of the World"), an up-close-and-WAY-too-personal painting of a woman's hoo-ha. (I don't show that one in class!) Today "L'origine du monde" hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and it's one of those artworks where it is really, really fun to watch people come around the corner and encounter it.

Van Gogh was a great admirer of Courbet and mentions him several times in the letters to Theo. In December 1888, van Gogh and Gauguin traveled from Arles to Montpellier to see the Bruyas collection housed in the Musée Fabre (still there), including the pictured painting, "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet" (1854--click image to enlarge). Courbet stands at the right with walking-stick; he's come to the south of France on a painting expedition. Collector Alfred Bruyas is the redhead in the center (van Gogh muses in his letter to Theo that he somewhat resembles Bruyas). Perhaps the most tame and least controversial of all Courbet's paintings, "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet" was one of the most famous canvases of its day.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Meet My Bookcover!

At last, I have a jpeg of the final cover art for "Sunflowers" to post and share -- and here it is! (click image to enlarge)

At the risk of sounding like I've been drinking the kool-aid in the graphic design department (as it happens, I'm the chair of that program...boy, is that a long story), here's a little discourse on my cover. First of all, I didn't realize how important book covers actually were until we got into the drafts and discussions: with my Cambridge Univ Press scholarly book, it was important, but not quite in the same way. This one needs to appeal to not only readers but the 'gatekeepers'...the folks representing bookstore chains, the independent booksellers, etc, etc. It needs to grab attention and make everyone want to pick up the book--because people DO judge a book by its cover. I really wanted a van Gogh original image, and said so from the beginning. The design team had other things to consider, too, namely the "Sunflowers" title, which automatically limits the image somewhat. (As in, people would expect to see a flower or two.) I also suspect the one-word title vs five-word subtitle vs fifteen-character author name came into play when it came time to do actual typographic layout. Everything needed to fit nicely and look good.

I wish I could post the two previous drafts and share details about the discussions, but I bet that wouldn't be very diplomatic. Sufficient to say, there *were* discussions, and this is the final result. I'm pleased myself! Not only is a van Gogh original being used -- this is a detail from the August 1888 Sunflowers now in Munich -- but I particularly like the typeface for the subtitle and my name, which looks rather 19th-century. Choosing this particular detail of the painting lends a certain turbulence that hints at the emotional turbulence present in the story itself -- the crowding of the flowers, the lines of the petals. And a 'zoom-in' like this reveals the texture of van Gogh's brushstrokes, which is always hard to convey in a photograph.

Hope everyone likes! Feel free to share your thoughts...