Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Alice Knew - A Literary and Literate Mystery Starring Henry James?

Review of: What Alice Knew -- A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen

For anyone who reads and loves Henry James (as I do), the very title of this elegant mystery by Paula Cohen evokes contrasting emotions: gratified recognition (James’ novella “What Maisie Knew”) and skepticism (really, Jack the Ripper?). After my initial reaction of an inward ladylike snort, I immediately found myself absolutely captivated by the James siblings—Henry, his philosopher brother William, and their invalid sister Alice—as they come to life in Cohen’s pages. William is invited by Scotland Yard as an early prototype of the modern psychological profiler to help investigate the infamous Whitechapel Murders. With Henry and Alice already resident in London, the three join forces to uncover the identity of the brutal killer. What could have been a preposterous fictional undertaking is from the first a deeply touching story about three very complex human beings, struggling to overcome and somehow resolve their individual pain, longings and life choices through work, love and attention to life’s psychological details.

Various other fin-de-siècle characters drift in and out: Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, Mark Twain, to name a few, adding wit and verve to the bright and brittle conversations over the sumptuous dinner tables of the Bloomsbury crowd of 1888 London. Cohen deftly weaves in references to various stories by Henry James and quotations from the somewhat dense philosophical studies of William, and decorates the plot twists with characters from paintings by Singer Sargent—a delight to the informed reader, and an incentive to discovery by those who wish to find out more. The novel is literary, philosophical, witty and thoroughly entertaining. Cohen, who has written novels treating both Austenian and Shakespearean themes in modern settings, has presented us with a new standard for the historical mystery story. [Note: this review was first published in the Historical Novel Society Review, November 2010.]

Personally, I was fascinated by Ms. Cohen's inclusion of Singer Sargent and his paintings, as I have been working on an historical novel about John Singer Sargent during three critical years in Paris, 1882-1884. I've just spent the last four months editing and re-working it from an earlier (supposedly finished, ha!) version, and have just sent it to my literary agent, Krista Goering, with the brightest hopes for publication in the new year! Check out my website for more info! 

Happy New Year!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Twelve String Guitar, William Blake and Loudon Wainwright III

All right, I'll admit it -- I am an unrepentant, undeconstructed, dyed in the wool hippie from the sixties -- and I can't believe I have just 'discovered' Loudon Wainwright III.  Yes, I've heard his name from time to time, but I wasn't paying attention. I was listening to KFOG (104.5 in San Francisco) the other day, and his song "School Days" came on -- I was transfixed! And of course, it being Acoustic Sunday Morning on KFOG, they just played five or six more songs in a row and didn't say who the singers were! So I jotted down the opening words of the song ("In Delaware, when I was younger") and googled it and bam! Found a great interview and live performance at a Canadian radio station. Apparently Loudon has done a reprise album of some of his best songs from the sixties, School Days included, which obviously I'm going to have to buy. 

Here's the url: 

I seem to have become enamored recently of twelve-string guitar music -- that quintessential sound of the sixties -- you know, The Byrds, CSN&Y, etc. And this song in particular, though written from a guy's point of view in those halcyon college days of long ago -- really resonated to my own experiences in college. You know--peace marches, LSD, free love, William Blake, Les Fleurs du Mal, Aubrey Beardsley posters in the dorm -- all that stuff. But I don't at all wish I were back there--I'm having way too much fun right now where I'm at, writing, creating, living. "Now" is always the most interesting time of life.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

One of the best conferences for Historical Novelists...

Registration is now open for the 2011 North American Historical Novel Society Conference, to be held in San Diego, CA from June 17-19, 2011.  I attended the 2009 conference in Illinois (in Schaumberg, a suburb of Chicago) and it was great!  There's a super line-up of speakers, agents and editors this year (again) and great sessions that will get your historical heart pumping. Go to to check out the details and register for this conference. Attendance is limited to 300 people, so get your registration in soon!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Departures - A Stunning Film, Gorgeous Music, Life & Death & Love

Here's a passage from Paul Bowles' book The Sheltering Sky, which I just saw referenced below a YouTube clip from a fascinating, emotional, incredible Japanese film: Departures. Get it now! Watch it! And be prepared to cry and laugh. Cut and paste this link ( to listen to the film's main theme, a beautiful solo cello piece, as you read and think about this passge.

"...Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? ...Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless...."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review of a Hemingway Novel - A Man's Man, and then some

Hemingway Cutthroat
by Michael Atkinson

Ernest Hemingway was an infamously unlikeable guy, and Michael Atkinson’s frank portrayal calls for adjusting one’s “empathy” threshold to very low. Atkinson’s premise is that this is what really happened to Hemingway in Spain in 1937, providing the content for his most famous book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway is a journalist, sending back dispatches to U.S. newspapers about the Spanish Civil War. When a Spanish friend “disappears”, Hemingway throws himself into the fray like the proverbial bulldog clamped onto the bull’s neck, and won’t let go until he finds out the facts.

As a woman reader of historical novels primarily written for women readers, I decided to challenge myself to read a novel about this outrageously macho man, written by a man, to see if the content, style and overall experience could possibly be all that different. Honey, you don’t know the half of it. Atkinson is a good writer and at times, delivers some great sentences; for example, after witnessing a cold-blooded murder, “The inside of his heart was a slightly different country now, cloudier, brutalized by midnights and less beguiled by mornings.” But there’s also non-stop swearing, drinking and passing out, whoring, fighting, beatings, torture, kidnapping, car chases and precious little sleep. The atmosphere is hot, dark, smoky and utterly masculine; the few women who appear are either hard-boiled American dames who cross swords with Hemingway (and lose), or tough Spanish women who defy him then invite him into their beds. Hemingway’s occasional moments of clarity about the meaning and direction of his life, his writing, and his family aren’t enough to make him truly sympathetic, but they help. Occasional observations about the experience of writing are intelligent and interesting; I would have liked more of this and less action-adventure à la Jack Bauer. A challenge for Austenites!

Minatour Books (St. Martin’s Press, New York), August 2010, $24.99, pb, 272 pages, ISBN: 978-0-312-37972-8

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Launch in Chicago is Terrific! and HOT!

Naturally, this particular August in Chicago has to be the Hottest on record for umpty-up years (that's what they say in Chicago) but at least they have perfected the engineering art of Air Conditioning, so the Borders bookstores were cool and dry. Sunday was at Oak Brook, a western suburb in the lazy afternoon, but had a decent crowd with good questions.  Tonight was in my home-town of LaGrange, another Borders, and we sold out all the books they had; great group of people with really good questions. And afterwards...burritos and margaritas at Chipotle! yay! I had decided to launch my book tour in Chicago once my hometown relatives decided there was going to be a family reunion (my mom's side, Croation -- check out (a website I created/designed) for more info -- and it coincided nicely with my book's publication date in July. So it's going well, but I sure am looking forward to being back in the cool, very cool (so I hear) foggy summer of San Francisco -- leaving Thursday for the Coast. Yes. Just one more gig tomorrow, at Women & Children First on N. Clark Street in Chicago - looking forward to being there!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Glastonbury Abbey, King Arthur and Gregorian Chant

I'm starting research for my next historical novel and I've been musing on things medieval. A friend dropped by the other day with a book about the Glastonbury Abbey, a most holy and beautiful place of ruins (blast you, Henry VIII and your greedy minions!). Way back in pre-history, apparently, there were settlements in the area, and it is thought that Druids held ceremonies there in the centuries before the Common Era. By the time the Romans came and went, and Christianity took over, there were hermits and holy folk assembled in small huts on the Glastonbury Plain, which eventually grew into a huge monastic community that lasted well into the 1500's. Absolutely fascinating reading. Sometime in the 1200's, a gravesite was dug up and the remains of a tall man and a blonde woman were unearthed - determined by the abbot at that time to be King Arthur and Guinevere. They were reverently re-buried, but then that darn Henry VIII 'reformed' everything and the grave was despoiled. There's only a plaque there now. Another section of the book talks about the music at the Abbey, and how one of the abbots tried to replace the popular Gregorian chant with "new" music of the day, and wasn't very successful. I'm going to have to dig up my old chant CD's and play it as background while I attempt to start a new novel.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Woman Who'sWriting the Bible - Like, Right Now

San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum has been hosting an exhibit of a woman scribe (a soferet) who is writing out a Torah - the first five books of Moses, written on sheets of vellum (made from treated, scraped, softened cow-hide -- kosher of course -- and written with a quill pen and special black ink. Her name is Julie - yes, she's a J-Writer - and I met her today when I went down to view her exhibit. Julie is a well-spoken, slightly built young woman who is one of a very, very few women in the world who have trained to be a soferet. Her Torah, when it's finished (probably early next Spring), will be given to some lucky synagogue (reform or conservative, as orthodox congregations would not find a Torah inscribed by a woman to be acceptable) for their use in religious services. And, not only did I meet and speak with her, I gave her a copy of my "J" book - she almost gasped when she saw the cover, and said she couldn't wait to read it! I sure hope she likes it.

Anyone who's in the San Francisco Bay Area should definitely catch this exhibit - check their website ( for days and times - it's absolutely fascinating -- and there is a collection of old Torah scrolls and other beautiful, wonderful artifacts both new and historical to help present and explain the Jewish traditions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vietnam-Era Novel - Surprisingly Good

The Man from Saigon
by Marti Leimbach, Doubleday, 2010     

Here's another review I wrote for the May Historical Novel Society Review:

An absorbing, often gripping novel of a young woman reporter on tour in war-torn Vietnam in 1967, The Man from Saigon is gritty, realistic and poetically written. Leimbach is a master at describing the visceral: the humidity and heat of the jungle, the ache of hunger, the recoil of the body and the brain under fire, the insanity that comes from being surrounded by bombs falling for hours and bullets like hot rain.
    The protagonist, Susan, works for a woman’s magazine in Chicago and is sent to the war to gather human interest stories. She’s not supposed to leave Saigon, but of course she does. She gets drawn in to the addiction of war reporting, inching ever closer to the heavy action while putting light years of distance between her and the ‘normalcy’ of life back in the States—until life in the war zone becomes what’s normal. Two men, the Vietnamese photographer of the book’s title, and another reporter, an American, weave in and out of Susan’s mental, emotional and physical existence in a country too far from home.
    The images are often disturbing, but the insights into war and human frailty, love and courage are meaningful and intelligent. An excellent read.
-- Mary F. Burns

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Evening's Empire -- A Look Back at Rock'n'Roll

I recently reviewed Evening's Empire by Bill Flanagan, for the Historical Novel Society (it's online and in their print publication for May 2010). Here's what I wrote:

With a title nod to Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, Flanagan’s 645-page epic about  rock music spans more than four decades in the life of the Ravons (Rave-ons), a fictional band that starts in London and careens like a pinball through the music universe that unhinged the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Beatles. The behind-the-scenes tales are told in the steady, likeable, first-person delivery of the band’s manager, Jack Flynn, who starts as a neophyte lawyer who shoulders the management of the Ravons’ tours and music contracts from his firm’s senior partners. The charismatic star—Emerson Cutler—is being sued for divorce and wants to catch his faithless wife in flagrante in a hotel in Spain (as leverage against his own adultery). Jack is dispatched to do the job because “you are young, Flynn. You are part of this…new vogue.”  The year is 1967 and Jack’s life is forever changed.

The band members have very distinct personalities, and it’s quite a ride as the group breaks up, reassembles, suffers reversals, betrayals, marriage, divorce, drugs, alcohol, wealth and poverty. Seen through the pragmatic eyes of Jack—the manager as confessor/father/nursemaid/fixer—the last four decades of the 20th century come alive in small details that give rise to larger, context-setting philosophical musings about how humans respond to the changing culture with fear and love, wit and courage, greed and selfishness. Even if you weren’t there, it’s fun to revisit the times—except when it’s not. The crashes, the greed, the waste of talent and energy, the money-grubbing snobbishness—from Woodstock up to 9/11 and a few years beyond—the last four or five decades have a lot to answer for. The story drags here and there, but at the end, you don’t want to leave Jack and his friends behind.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What Music Goes with "My Book is Published!" ?

Today at, my debut novel finally is "in stock" and officially for sale! I have yet to see an actual printed copy of it -- but the box of twenty books I ordered a month ago is due to arrive tomorrow -- so exciting! Please visit for more information about "J" and my Grand Book Tour, which starts in Chicago in August.

So I was wondering, what's the best background music that goes with such an event? I'm thinking "Fanfare for the Common Man." What do you think?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Springtime, Lilacs and Chopin

Two weeks ago I was in Poland, and the whole country was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of their favored, most beloved musician, Fredyryk Chopin. Here’s what I wrote one day while there:
I’m riding in a Mercedes touring coach with twenty-eight lovely people from the SF Bay Area through the incredibly green and at this point sopping wet countryside on the way from Warsaw to Krakow. We stopped some way outside Warsaw to visit the grounds of a Chopin park, wherein is located the small house in which he was born. The landscaping of the park is in many places so recent the plants are barely six inches tall, but in other areas, there are lilac bushes waving overhead, dripping in the light rain, and exuding the heavenly fragrance that only fresh lilacs in the May rain can send forth. I was reminded of growing up in Illinois where lilacs were profuse—I so miss that smell in California, where it doesn’t get cold enough in the winter (at least along the coast) to grow lilacs properly.
We have been treated to three piano concerts of Chopin’s music in the last two days, one of them in a huge park with open air seating for Sunday concerts throughout the spring, summer and fall. The other two were private concerts arranged just for our tour group, the last one  in the living room of the Chopin family home where he was born. The pianists (all of them women, one very young) were excellent performers, award-winners of various Chopin competitions. What makes these performances particularly wonderful and poignant is the realization (as our guide told us) that under the Nazi regime for the five years of WWII, it was forbidden to play or even listen to Chopin – under pain of death or banishment to a camp! The Nazis held the Poles and their culture just half a notch above the utter disdain they felt for the Jews, and they spent a good deal of effort and dynamite destroying anything Polish that they could. Approximately 85% of the city of Warsaw was burned or dynamited by the German occupying force, including the murders of some 800,000 people of the 1.2 million who lived in Warsaw, about 10% of whom were Jews. When the Russians took over after the War, the Polish Communists in Warsaw insisted on raising money to restore the city to its former state “exactly”, using old photographs and paintings from the 19th century to re-create the centuries-old buildings, palaces and churches that had been reduced to rubble.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Music...

NetFlix has brought home the waning years of the Cold War, Smiley-style, to our house these past few days. Of course I'm referring to the seriously wonderful adaptation of John Le Carre's book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that aired in 1979, starring the inimitable Alec Guinness as John Smiley. The pace is deliciously slow, the dialogue at times poetic, banal, philosophic, arch. Very British. Very late 1970's, dripping with cynicism and a sad kind of nostalgia for days when honour meant something, even among spies.

But the crowning glory, in a very real sense, is the music that plays over the ending credits of each episode (there are six). Sung in English by a Cathedral choirboy of twelve at the time (Paul Phoenix), the heart-rending words of Simeon, an aged prophet of the Jerusalem temple, float across the landscape of London as white clouds slowly drift in a deep blue sky. Simeon says these words (as recorded in Luke 2:29-32) after he has witnessed the "Presentation at the Temple" of the child Jesus by his parents, Joseph and Mary.  

Here is the text used for the song, originally scored by composer Geoffrey Burgon; it is part of the Evening Prayer in the Catholic Daily Office, said by all priests, religious, and many laypersons every day, and is a soft and beautiful prayer of resignation and grace received:

Lord, now let Thy servant depart in peace
According to Thy word.
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
Which Thou has prepared before the face of all peoples
To be a light to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Thy people, Israel.

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.

If you want to hear this truly, deeply, spiritually enchanting song, go to: .

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On The Road with Jack Kerouac - and "Bop" Music

I can't believe I haven't read this book already! Way back in the early 1960's, I was reading Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, even William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, anyone? which brings to mind the great Simpsons take on that, when Nelson, the school bully, and his buddies are seen walking out of the movie theatre where the marquee reads "Naked Lunch" and he says, "I can think of two things that are wrong with that title!"). Anyway, so I never read "On The Road", and I'm reading it now. And liking it quite a bit, too. 

The story starts in 1947, quite a bit earlier than I had imagined it would, so that's interesting right off the bat. When Jack (or "Sal Paradise" as he is called in the edited version, more on that later) gets to Chicago, he says, "At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis. And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends..." It makes me want to learn more about how jazz started out being called "bop" (related to be-bop?) and when it started being known as jazz.

Kerouac's style is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, plain talk stitched together with beauty and grace, like when he says that Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) "stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word...." In the "pre-edited" edition, or the "scroll" edition, which a friend of mine bought when I got my own book, all the names are the real people Jack wrote about: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Cassady - the whole Beat generation from New York to San Francisco (and yes, he calls it 'Frisco' - oh well). The word "beat" by the way, comes up a lot, but seems to mean different things. I've decided to track all the uses of the word "beat" in the book, and see how and if it changes - it may not, it's just an idea I want to follow.

I wish I were about to go across country on a long road trip, but for now I'll read Jack's story.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves - A Review

As a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society Review (in print and online at, I sometimes get really lucky and receive a great book that is more than just fun to read, it's a truly literary experience. That's the way I felt about Elizabeth Kostova's latest novel, The Swan Thieves, and this is what I wrote about it earlier this year for the HNS Review:

An enchanting story and a deeply human experience. At the end of it, one feels compelled to paint, or write, sing or make music, or simply live with greater intensity. The crisis of mind—and soul—of a famous artist that begins the story leads the narrator,  psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, on the reluctant hero’s journey as he unravels the haunting obsession that has caused his patient to attack a painting with a knife. Kostova deftly weaves two stories of love and art from the Impressionist era in Paris to contemporary rural Maine and New York. The larger-than-life figure of Robert Oliver, the artist-patient, looms over the narratives of the women who have loved him and the doctor who is determined to free him from the silent cage he has chosen to inhabit.
Kostova’s writing is always good, and sometimes exquisite. Here’s a sentence describing how Andrew feels upon seeing his 90-year-old father for the first time in a few years: “When I saw him waiting for me in his good summer clothes…I felt as always both his reality and the thin air that would one day replace him.” She uses letters, narrative, dialogue and exposition with ease. The story is weighty, and moves slowly, thoughtfully—not a book to rush through, but to savor and ponder as you read it.
There is a little unsteadiness in the plot. The fortuitous connections seem just a touch too easy, and the last chapters almost rush to the conclusion. But these are minor issues compared to the over-arching quality of the writing and the humanity of the characters. The Swan Thieves is a deeply involving story, and one that will resonate for a long time after you’ve closed the book, like the sound of a very old church bell at dusk.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

1967 - A Stellar Year for Music

My little sister emailed me late tonight that she was listening to Simon & Garfunkel's wonderful song, For Emily Whenever I May Find Her -- from the Parsley, Sage album. She was remembering how we used to listen to it in our bedroom at night - she was in 8th grade, I was a senior in high school. Our two older sisters had already left home: one for college, one for married life -- it used to be all four of us in one room! But for a little while, back in 1967, it was just me and Peggy and the songs we shared: Richie Havens, The Doors, the Beatles (of course). So, even though it was late here in San Francisco, and even later in Chicago where she lives, I called her up and we talked.

I remembered when that S&G album came out, the winter of 1967-68, and there was one night when my friends and I trekked out to Naperville from our town of LaGrange (some 30 miles west of Chicago). We took the commuter train, and our friend whose family lived out there came (with his mom driving) to pick us up. Naperville back then was still country - farmland, and old farm houses here and there. It was a frosty night, just like in the song; the trees were cloaked in ice, the stars were very close in the black sky--and our young love was going to last forever.

Thanks, Peggy, for remembering our songs!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day, Irish Music and My Dad

The local classical station is playing Irish music today for 'the day' and it makes me think of my Irish Dad and how he used to sing around the house. There were seven of us kids, and two adults -- and one bathroom! How we used to line up in the hallway in the mornings! My Dad had a good singing voice, and he would treat us to funny songs like "I've got tears in my ears from lying on my back, crying at night over you" as well as sentimental ones like "Do you remember, that time in September, when life was young, and oh so pleasant" (or something like that). My Dad was "mostly" Irish, with a little bit of French Canadian, and he was a master punster. We all used to groan at his jokes but we thought they were great, and to this day, my siblings and I email each other jokes and puns to make each other laugh. Happy St. Paddy's Day, Dad! Here's mud in yer eye!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Guns - In America, a Literary, Musical Psychotic Heritage of the Frontier

I can't get over the news reports of people wearing their guns to Starbucks, among other public places, just because they can. It made me think about all the popular songs that mention guns: from "I Shot the Sheriff" to Queen's opening line, "Mama, just killed a man, put my gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he's dead."  I just googled "songs about guns" and found a site that lists 2,584 of them! I don't even want to know how many stories, although offhand I recollect a novel which became a TV mini-series called, simply, The Gun, about all the different owners a single gun passed through, and those people's stores - sort of like the Red Violin, only it's a gun.

What's the deal with our national obsession with guns? I suppose it goes back to the Wild West, where the absence of The Law created the necessity for each person to own a gun for protection, from both animals and humans. The whole notion of the Frontier and what it has meant to the U.S. is a fascinating one for me. I have recently read Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" originally published in 1893, and find his analysis both interesting and disturbing. He presented his ideas at a speech at the Chicago Columbia Exposition in 1893, opening with the announcement that the U.S. Census Bureau had officially declared the frontier "closed" in 1890. I keep going back to that idea as a starting point for a novel, although I'm not quite sure what it means at this point. It's just such a darned fascinating idea!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"One must suffer to be beautiful"

My sisters and I heard this phrase a lot growing up, particularly when our mother was doing something like combing knots out of our hair and we would yelp and complain. It was a concept that was very much in keeping with our Catholic upbringing, what with the nuns telling us to "offer it up" whenever we had a reversal or problem, and the annual Lenten practice of giving up something you really liked in order to purify your soul and focus on spiritual things. And I don't disagree with the concept, especially as a writer -- a good friend of mine once said, "when you're happy, all you can write is Hallmark cards." And from the musical perspective, it makes me think of Ringo Starr's best song (imho), which has the opening line, "You have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues...and you know it don't come easy." Which brings up the question, why would you "want" to sing the blues, i.e., be unhappy?  

It's not about choosing to be unhappy - Lord knows, we don't have to go looking for opportunities! I think the key word here is "sing" -- if you want to sing the blues -- if you want to express the deep places of the human heart and how it feels to be there -- if you want to write or compose or dance or draw or paint or photograph the essences of life, the richness of experience -- we're talking about the transformation that comes when one experiences suffering, loss, privation, death -- and is able to move through them, in them and with them to a better understanding, a deeper, truer love of life and friends and love. I want to sing the blues, and I'm happy to pay the dues.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Musing on Frank Lloyd Wright - in Song, Word and Stained Glass

I'm taking a stained-glass-window-making class at a great studio/store The Cradle of the Sun on 24th Street in Noe Valley. I made one window there about a year ago, in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie" designs for windows -- long, thin strips of glass, not too much color but lots of texture and uneven lines -- perfect for a novice window maker! I called the first one my "Winter Window" because it looked like snow falling on a city, and the only colors were shades of blue. This second window is "Spring" and naturally has shades of green, with some really interesting glass that has seed-like spots embedded in it. I'm going to finish off the Four Seasons over the next year or so, whenever I need a fix of "manual" creation (instead of sitting and thinking/typing/reading/writing) - it's really good for the hands and soul to make something from start to finish (cooks know this, as do all artists).

But speaking of Frank Lloyd Wright, I recently read the book "Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan (2008) which chronicles the intensely interesting years of his love affair with a woman named Mamah Cheney (pronounced May-mah), who left her husband and children and escaped to Europe with FLW for a while, then lived with him in Wisconsin -- his wife refused to grant him a divorce. Excellent book - a debut author, too (as I myself will be come this July yay!)

And the song reference for FLW?  Two I can think of offhand: Simon & Garfunkel's "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album; and a reference in a song on Sufjan Steven's Illinoise album, to wit, "What would Frank Lloyd Wright think?" Anyone know any other musical or literary references to the great architect?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Variations on a Theme - Music & Novel?

At the SF Symphony a week ago, listening to Beethoven's "Eroica," I was struck (again) by the inherently wonderful idea of Theme and Variations, which he employs in the last movement. And of course, Bach's famous Goldberg Variations came to mind as well. So, being a writerly sort of person, I thought, how about a novel, or series of connected short stories, that would parallel the musical structure of a variation? And immediately following was another thought: I'm sure it's been done. As indeed it has.

A Google search brought up scores of pages of references, one of which I found really interesting enough to request it from my local library branch: "Goldberg: Variations" by Gabriel Josipovici (2002) about a writer in the early 19th century in England who has taken on the job of reading through the night to a man who suffers from insomnia -- which is how the legend of the original Goldberg Variations goes (only substitute Bach and his music for the writer). The novel has 30 chapters, for the 30 variations, and I think it's going to be a very interesting and intellectually stimulating experience to track the two structures together. More to come!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Milton, Dostoyevsky and the Temptation of Christ

I recently began attending Mass at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, a beautiful and large cathedral-like church on the campus of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. Last Sunday, Feb. 20th, the Gospel reading was about the three temptations of Christ by the Devil -- you know, "Turn these stones into bread", whereupon Christ says, "Man does not live by bread alone." And the second one, where the Devil tells Christ to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple, because "It is written, He shall send his angels to minister to you, so that you shall not dash your foot against a stone" -- prompting the familiar saying ever-after, that "even the Devil can quote Scripture." The third temptation is the Devil offering to give Christ the power over all the earth, if he would only bow down and worship the Devil. Anyway, after this impressive reading, the presiding priest, a resident Jesuit, commented that there have been many paintings depicting this biblical event, as well as several literary presentations -- to whit, Milton's Paradise Regained and Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor section.

Well, I sat there nearly open-mouthed with awe and delight as a delicious feeling swept through my brain (can one 'feel' with one's brain? no matter!) -- it was like being at a mini-graduate seminar! like being back at college, listening to a favorite professor open up the mysteries of great literature. I looked around me at the members of the congregration, and saw people nodding their heads knowingly and appreciatively. This would never have happened at the homey parish church I had been going to previously -- as good and as nice as those people were, I'm sure they'd be scratching their heads at the mention of Dostoyevsky and Milton! At the end of the sermon, I gave a little sigh of satisfaction and joy. Man, I love those Jesuits.