Thursday, June 11, 2009


Some material I've written is going to be in a comedy sketch/variety show at the Strawdog Theatre in Chicago. The show is called Democracy Burlesque and the title of the upcoming production is called "Labor Pains," a social/political satire of the working world, the rough economy, organized labor, and being the little guy. 

Show dates are July 21st, 28th, and August 4th. Those are tuesdays.

There will also be a clown named Toast and some great music. I have seen a number of the sketches in rehearsal and there is some mighty funny stuff! Please check out the website and consider attending one of the three performances. This looks to be a great show!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Miles Harvey visits Roosevelt University and tells us to explore!

Creative nonfiction professor and author Miles Harvey stopped by Roosevelt University yesterday to read from his new book Painter in a Savage Land and talk about how he wants his students to approach writing. I think everyone in the Roosevelt University Creative Writing Program who attended agrees that Miles Harvey had some great insights!

Painter in a Savage Land is the story of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the first artist to travel to the what is now the continental United States with the express purpose of recording the New World visually. The artist and 300 Frenchmen land in Florida in 1564, and an adventure full of shipwrecks, mutiny, and discovery begins. This book is both a fascinating and exciting piece of creative nonfiction. 

Miles Harvey also shared some of his thoughts on writing. He said he tries to get his students to be explorers. To seek out questions that haunt them and won't let them rest until they've found an answer. He said that great creative nonfiction starts with a question that troubles the writer so much that the writer has to pursue it. He also talked about "place" in writing and how puzzling it is that place seems to be disappearing from the work of younger writers. Someone will write about his apartment in New York City without so much mentioning the city in the outside world. Someone will write about their traumatic childhood without mentioning how rural Iowa fits into the story. Harvey was not talking about simple landscape descriptions, he was talking about world building, how place defines characters, their values, their assumptions, their realities.  

Harvey and the other attendees offered their ideas on why developing writers seem less concerned with place:

1) Since we are so connected by the internet, networking sites, cell phones, instant mass media, we subconsciously assume that everyone's experience is the same regardless of place.

2) With the suburb explosion in America's cities, every place IS starting to look the same (Applebee's, shopping mall, cookie cutter homes, etc.) 

My own personal thought is that with the explosion of MFA writing programs, blogging (hahaha), livejournaling, and memoir writing, fiction and nonfiction have turned egocentrically autobiographical. Of course, we all bring ourselves into our writing, I don't see how you can avoid that, but I do see a whole generation of young writers who think they can now make a living writing nothing but personal memoir or fiction inspired by autobiographical events that could just as well be nonfiction if they changed a few character names. Looking at commercial writing, I think this is especially true, and self-disclosure on the internet has become the new form of self-expression in the twenty-first century. Excuse me while I go twitter this random thought that just popped into my head...

Okay, I am back. In some ways this is good because it gets people interested in writing, and indeed, I think this is how many of us first become interested in writing. It's an art that appeals to the ego. If you are like me, you probably wrote about a defining experience of your childhood for a high school English II assignment, and your teacher told you it was funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. This, of course, made you feel like YOU were funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. And instead of looking at the story and everything you did right--your craft, your language, your grounded sense of place, your handling of tension (things you probably couldn't even articulate at the time), you looked at yourself and concluded YOU to be the strength of your writing. You narcissist! I am completely exaggerating of course, but I think there is something to that. 

When I think back to books on writing that I read even as late as undergrad, I realize how much those books appeal to the developing writer's ego. In fact, that is probably why those books are commercially successful: "Do continuous journal writing exercises for hours on end, record your every thought, get it all out there on the page, some if it will be ugly, but some of it will be surprising, insightful, even beautiful." That thinking has great value in generating someone's interest in writing, and that egocentricity is an important developmental stage that many writers have to go through. But I think this is what creates insular writing if one doesn't unlearn that approach just a little bit. 

I suspect most writers can never completely escape their own ego. We are, after all, artists, and presumably we think highly enough of ourselves to put our words out there for an audience. However, I see a lot of writing that is incredibly egocentric, self-focused, and exists solely for the writer's own catharsis. This, I think, is the possible reason for the general neglect of things like place. Writers are turning inward, because that is what they have been encouraged to do, because that is how they first found those clever sentences and witty remarks that caught their first mentor's attention. That kind of validation was incredibly valuable and possibly essential for us in becoming the writers and artists we are today, so it's a tough habit to break, to stop writing for yourself and start writing a product for an audience. But writing ultimately has to be an ego-less process, because it's the story that is the most important, not you. (Sorry!!!) 

Anyway, to come back to Miles Harvey, I loved what he said about writers needing to be explorers. And no, Mr. emo livejournaler, he wasn't talking about exploring inward (we all do that enough), he was talking about turning outward, walking around your city, traveling, researching a topic, reading history (gasp!), looking at paintings and old maps, engaging questions that trouble you, and coming back with a report! 

I conclude with a quote from the director of University of Las Vegas' MFA Creative Writing Program. The program requires ALL of their students to serve in the Peace Corps before finishing their MFA (weird?).  At the AWP seminar I attended, he said "our fiction and nonfiction workshops are a lot more interesting." Is this because that program literally forces their students to be explorers? To first turn outward before turning inward to finish up those theses? I suspect that has something to do with it. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ysabel = Ysabad

Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy novel Ysabel is the story of Ned Marriner, the son of a famous photographer who tags along with his father for an extended shoot in the beautiful Provence region of France. Ned is fifteen, sarcastic, Canadian, and happy to be missing school so he can hang out in a villa with a pool in Provence. While Ned is exploring a cathedral that his father is preparing to shoot, he meets an American girl named Kate Wenger. Kate is a history nerd, but Ned is attracted to her nonetheless, and flirty banter ensues (and unfortunately doesn't stop, but more on that later...). Things turn fantastical when Ned and Kate encounter a mysterious figure lurking in the cathedral. Ned suddenly develops powers of intuitive understanding (because of some important traits that run in his family, we find out) that reveal the man is centuries old. A long lost aunt shows up and cautions Ned that he has walked into a story that has been repeating itself for thousands of years. One encounter with a giant stag-horned-man-creature later, and Ned and Kate's stay in Provence gets a lot more interesting. Well, not really. 

Yes, my glibness is intentional. I had a really hard time getting through this one. Everything was perfectly clear, and I never got confused, but I found the writing style really grating, even for a novel that (I think) could be classified as a young adult novel, though I realize it is not marketed as one. 

Ned's sarcasm and the constant jokey banter between all the characters is extremely tedious and gets old really fast. I also wondered if the gratuitous mentions of Ipod, Google, and Coke earned Kay some extra cash for product placement. I think Kay tries a little too hard to place his fantasy world in this world, which is one of the things that the book is praised for in critical reviews I have found, but for me it just doesn't work. The pop-culture references come off as Kay trying to be cute, not an honest attempt at creating his own world.

For example, on page 134: "Ned wondered if Stephen King had ever encountered a figure with stag horns under a watchtower. Maybe he had. Maybe that was how he got his ideas. Ned doubted it."

This passage made me cringe. It took me out of the story and reminded me I was reading a novel instead of keeping me immersed in the world. By citing another fantasy/horror author, the sentence says "LOOK AT ME. I AM ANOTHER FANTASY NOVEL. GET IT?" And what is the payoff here? A cute joke? Okay, I guess I get it, but I think it is harming the story by being too oppressive to the reader's experience. I thought there were a lot of passages like this where Kay could have showed some restraint on the cute jokes and funny pop-culture references and just tell his story. In fact, the line "Ned doubted it" is rather telling, I think, in illustrating Kay's obsession with constantly undercutting everything in this novel with weak humor. He even undercuts his weak humor with more weak humor. It shows how pointless this little joke really is. 

To be fair, there is a nice fantastical story buried in here, and Kay's descriptions of Provence are both beautiful and ominous and do create the illusion of being in a lucid dream. I am not sure why Kay feels the need to constantly undercut himself and take us out of that dream by shoving Ipods, Cokes, Stephen King, Google, and joke after painful joke into our faces. It is clearly a conscious decision. But I think it's miscalculated. I read a lot of reviews for this book, and there are many people that obviously disagree with me, but as a fellow crafter of fiction, I think Kay made some poor judgements with this novel. I think he had a decent story, but made some tactical errors in executing it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


For those of you not familiar with Catholic hijinks, Lent is a season stretching from Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) to Easter (roughly forty days). Usually we give something up or do something above and beyond what we would do in our normal daily life. As I kid, I didn't really like Lent. My parents would usually MAKE me do something like giving up Nintendo (harsh!) or was there one year we actually attempted giving up TV as a family??? If we did, I blocked that Lent out due to trauma. 

In recent years though, I have actually gotten some valuable life changes out of it. The first big Lent I had was my sophomore year in college. It was a big year for me. I was teaching religious ed. classes at the private Catholic school in Iowa City (Regina), I sponsored a good friend going through the RCIA program (to join the Church), and I was a leader and participant in several retreats at the Newman Catholic Center. I wanted that year's Lent to be a BIG one. One Lent tradition for Catholics is to not eat meat on fridays. I decided to give up meat altogether. I wasn't really thinking of becoming a vegetarian permanently, but that is what ended up happening. And I have been all the happier for it ever since.

My Junior year of college, I was in Rome for the spring semester. Obviously, the Easter season is a big deal there. The city turns into a mecca for the six weeks of Lent. It is insane. I saw the Pope, went to Good Friday Mass at the Vatican, and walked through Saint Peter's Square on a near daily basis.

Last spring, when I had already graduated, I took up my running habit from my cross country days in high school. I hadn't run consistently since I had gone to college and thought the semester off would be a good time to work a running routine back into my DNA. Lent was the perfect excuse to force myself to do it, and a year later, I completed my first half marathon. 

What does this have to do with writing? Well, now you see where I am going: Lent. It's a great way to force yourself to do things. And I seem to take it fairly seriously. Maybe it is self manipulation to do something that I know I should be doing anyway, but if it works, it works. I think I can write one short story per week. When Lent is over, I will have six (albeit probably rough) short stories. I wrote a 12 page short story in more or less one day last week, and feel like I have caught a writing bug that I need to take advantage of before it goes away for another string of months! Is this crazy or even doable? Talk to me on Easter. Also, now that I have declared my intentions (or shall we say Lententions???), I have to adhere to them. Shucks. Happy Lenting. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review of CORALINE

As I sat down wearing my theatre-issue 3D glasses for Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novella, I was excited! Coraline the film follows Coraline the blue-haired, chuck-wearing, Michigan-girl protagonist (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her move to the woods of Oregon with her family to an old mansion shrouded in mystery. Coraline's parents are both writers, trying desperately to reach a deadline with no time for a lonely and frustrated daughter. While exploring her new house, Coraline begins to discover several peculiarities including an odd neighbor boy who isn't allowed to talk about the house, two nineteen-twenties era actresses living with a collection of taxidermy dogs in the basement, a russian circus performer (with some very interesting body hair) who lives in the attic, and, of course, a door that leads to a parallel dreamworld! 

At the outset, everything in this netherworld seems custom made for Coraline and her complaints about the real world. In this other world, her parents are attentive to her every need, the annoying neighbor boy doesn't talk (just smiles creepily), and Coraline gets to attend theatre performances and a circus of mice. The catch comes, however, when Coraline's new mother wants Coraline to trade in her eyes for a pair of buttons and join this world and its other button-eyed inhabitants forever. The more Coraline resists, the more this dreamworld turns into a nightmare, and Coraline must save herself, her real parents, and even some trapped souls from the sinister reality of this other world. Sounds awesome, right? And it is, for the most part.

Let's be clear. The stop-animation in the film is beautiful. The 3D glasses component also adds to the illusion and lets the viewer really see the layers of Coraline's macabre, surreal, attractive, textured universe. Coraline strikes a remarkably consistent tone of being in a dark lucid dream, even in the parts of the film that take place in "the real world." The dialogue is interesting and unexpected. The score by Bruno Coulais is darkly etherial and fills the dusty spaces of Coraline's gothic house with a cathedral-esque atmosphere. Coraline is a delight to the senses, especially to those with darker tastes. One is almost content to linger in Coraline's world indefinitely, continuing to explore its rich and haunting layers for hours.

Indeed, I feel that the first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the film does just what I described above. It lingers and explores and reveals itself to us over the course of an hour. Some might actually describe the first half of the movie as slow, and I don't completely disagree, but I don't mind it either. The film knows it is showing us something visionary, and it gives the viewer plenty of time to take everything in. While I was sitting in the theatre, I heard multiple "oooh's" and "aaahs" as this door would open or as that flower would bloom. 

But the film has to come to an end, and at some point, the plot must take over in order to wrap things up. While the first half or two-thirds of the movie had this languid dream-like pace, the climatic action of the third act felt rushed. I have not read Neil Gaiman's book, but I found the game sequence a little unfulfilling. For all this world's mystery, vividness, and terror, Coraline manages to unravel the whole thing pretty easily in about ten minutes, and with a rock. There are also some plot points that could be tighter or better integrated into the film. Again, the rock. Where does it come from? Why do the two old actresses have it? How do they seem to know that Coraline needs it? Also, the cat. The cat is really the only concrete connection between the real world and the other world that remains unchanged. We are told that he can move in and out of the world as he wishes, more or less without fear. Why? Again, I haven't read the book, but I think these are loose ends that could be better explained without that much effort (certainly by people as creative as Gaiman and Selick), and having them better integrated into the logic of Coraline's world would only serve the overall illusion. 

I realize the film has largely marketed itself as a kids' movie, but I think most viewers will sense that it is reaching for something greater: timelessness. Will it become the cult hit for alternative-dressing highschool and college kids like The Nightmare Before Christmas has? (something it is obviously striving for--there are a lot of midwestern hipster girls who will be attracted to Dakota Fanning's credible attempt at a Michigan accent, Coraline's chuck sneakers, blue hair, colorful leggings, and hand-knit sweaters) Or will it achieve something less permanent like James and the Giant Peach or The Corpse Bride (other films hailing from the Selick and/or Tim Burton school of stop animation)? I think Coraline gets closer than (and surpasses at least visually) all the rest, but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Scott Blackwood's WE AGREED TO MEET JUST HERE and the 2009 AWP Conference

So, some pretty exciting stuff is going on in my school at the moment. It's a thrilling time to be a student in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Roosevelt University. First of all, my fiction teacher and director of our program Scott Blackwood has a brand new novel out today called We Agreed to Meet Just Here. I've had it pre-ordered for a few weeks now and can't wait to dig in. We Agreed to Meet Just Here was the recipient for the AWP Award Series in the Novel in 2007. I haven't gotten to read it yet, but here are some reviews I pulled off New Issue Press' website:

We Agreed to Meet Just Here is a lyrical mystery about disappearance, told in precise and luminous prose. A young lifeguard in an Austin suburb vanishes one night while returning from a screening of The Third Man. A doctor, ill with cancer, goes missing from his home, and is later seen, bearded and ragged, wandering the aisles of a grocery store. A car is stolen, the unseen consequences tragic. One child is given up to adoption, another is lost up a tree. The absences are so keenly felt, in the drifting lucidity of the author’s sentences, that every reappearance reads like a small miracle.”

       —Robert Eversz, Judge AWP Award Series in the Novel

"This little gem of a book puts on lush display Scott Blackwood's talent for measuring and connecting the previously un-connectable in lived experience, and making of it an entirely new whole which we immediately accept as true, natural, exhilarating, even inevitable. He is a lovely sentence writer, and this first novel sparkles with invention."

       —Richard Ford

“Extravagantly beautiful and yet offhand, We Agreed to Meet Just Here sweeps us along with its lush, hypnotic prose. Each of its characters is drawn to the illusion of forbidden perfection, the belief that the darkness, absence, and silence from which babies arrive and into which the dead enter is numinous proof our every wish will be fulfilled. As readers, we see what Scott Blackwood’s characters can’t see: a world so perfectly wrought every small gesture or urge matters.”

       —Debra Monroe, author of Shambles

"A sense of imminent and unskirtable dread hangs like woodsmoke over Texas native Scott Blackwood's finely wrought first novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here. . . . a triumph of language and atmospherics and — as we're drawn deeper into the characters' private worlds, hallucinations, and dreams — a travelogue of unfamiliar emotional terrain."

       —Mike Shea, Texas Monthly, January 2009

Congratulations Scott! Speaking of AWP, the 2009 AWP Conference is coming to Chicago February 11th through 14th! And Roosevelt University will be hosting the keynote address, as a major sponsor of the conference, by Art Spiegelman in our beautiful Auditorium Theatre. I will be attending countless events over the entire weekend, including a reading and release party for Scott Blackwood's book. I will also be working a booth at the conference that promotes both Roosevelt's Creative Writing Program and this year's issue of Oyez Review. Keep Checking in for exciting updates as I get a front row seat to the largest gathering of the preeminent writers in the country. It doesn't get ANY bigger than this in the world of literature! 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, Volume 1

Neal Stephenson has become one of my favorite author's over the past two years. I picked up a copy of his The Diamond Age or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer while I was in Rome. Not sure how a copy of that ended up in some used paperback news stand in Italy, but it caught my eye and hooked me as a solid fan of Stephenson. 

Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy (though Stephenson has tried persistently to avoid the term) that takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Baroque Cycle is available in the three volumes in which it was originally published, with each volume containing 2 to 3 smaller novels. Indeed, Quicksilver is actually three novels: Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, and it is these three novels that make up just the first volume in the three volume series. You can purchase the Volume I novels as three separate paperbacks, but I recommend just getting the whole thing. It's a hefty 1000 pager, but come on, what else are you spending time doing? 

Quicksilver begins in colonial Massachusetts, with the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root arriving to fetch an aged Doctor Daniel Waterhouse back to his native England to resolve an intellectual dispute between the two greatest natural philosophers of the day: Isaac Newton and Gottfried Whilhem Leibniz. The first novel follows Daniel's treacherous voyage across the atlantic to return home as the ship transporting him evades a fleet of pirates. The novel then jumps back in time to Daniel's intellectual rearing at Cambridge with Isaac Newton. In this plot line, Daniel quickly realizes he must settle for the occupation of political savant while leaving the cataclysmic philosophical discoveries to the unmatched mind of Newton. Daniel also must come to terms with his Puritan upbringing as it both informs and collides with the fraught political atmosphere of post-civil-war England. Accusations of Catholic popery and Protestant extremism abound, and Daniel must navigate and eventually shape this powder keg of national, religious, political, and intellectual tensions. 

In King of the Vagabonds, we meet half-cocked Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond, pirate, mercenary, theif, wit, and lover. He meets the enchanting courtesan Eliza and together they form a lucrative partnership (and romance) that navigates the religious and territorial wars on the European Continent and masters the exploding trade markets in Amsterdam. 

Odalisque picks up several years later to find Daniel fully evolved into a man of domestic and international politics. Increasingly a secularist, Daniel is caught between the Catholic tendencies of the monarchy that he closely advises and the separatist Puritan elements who see him as a natural leader. While Daniel seems most interested in his original love of natural philosophy, he ends up in the middle of the Glorious Revolution, the torture chambers in the Tower of London, and even on the operating table in the notorious freak show that is Bedlam insane asylum. Having become a figure of international trade, Eliza finds herself forced into espionage to protect her fortune made in the Amsterdam markets. She takes up residence at Versailles while sending encrypted letters to Leibniz, dukes, and intellectuals in an attempt to position herself advantageously for the oncoming Glorious Revolution. Both Eliza and Daniel must contend with the likes of King James II, King Louis XIV, William of Orange, and their various agents in order to save their lives and alter the course of history in Europe. 

Quicksilver (I'm speaking of Volume I as a whole now) is a momentous world map of the early modern era. It is hard to pick out an area of 17th century Europe that Stephenson leaves untouched. The clarity, mastery, and sophistication that be brings to every aspect of this era's religion, philosophy, politics, science, stage drama, social decorum, dress, geography, economy, war, metaphysics, and technology trace elegant lines of latitude and longitude across this globe that he has created. 

Stephenson bridges many genres among and within his different works. The Baroque Cycle is as credible and thoroughly researched as any historical fiction out there, but the science fiction is hard to miss. In the time of Newton, alchemy, philosophy, astrology, religion, and what we would call "science" were inextricably linked, and Quicksilver shows us the period that began to pull them apart. Stephenson captures the birth of calculus, binary code, epistolary cypher, a universal philosophical language, and Newton's Principia Mathematica in a way that only a science fiction author can. 

The hard science fiction in Quicksilver can sometimes be a bit daunting, especially if it's been a while since your last class in advanced physics or calculus. Stephenson has a talent for making complex ideas clear and tying his science thematically into the plot, but you probably will get a little dizzy more than once if you are not a veteran of hard science fiction. There are also a TON of characters, so many in fact that Stephenson even includes a glossary of names and titles at the end of the novel to help you keep everything straight. Nontheless, Stephenson's skill at vivid world-building and sophisticated wit will make rereading some paragraphs well worth the effort. I am about 100 pages into Volume II, The Confusion, which so far is just as delightful.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making Sex and the History of Medical Theory

I have been researching a lot about medical theory during the early modern/renaissance period (16th-17th century) and found some really interesting things. I don't know how much, if any, of this research will ultimately end up in a fiction piece that I am doing. So I wanted to share because I think it's really fascinating stuff. One of the books I've spent a lot of time with is Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by University of California Berkeley's Thomas Laqueur. Most gender historians seem to focus on gender and its social history, Laqueur reminds us that there is a social history of sex, too (when I say "sex" I am referring to it in the biologically understood male or female sense and not the intercourse sense), and that ideas of sex have been shifted by the social/cultural milieu just as much as ideas of gender. One chapter called "New Science, One Flesh." explains the medieval/early modern medical conceptualization of sex. 

Whereas today we GENERALLY understand that there are two distinct sexes (I'm aware there are exceptions), either male or female, this was not how early modern academic understanding conceived it. Biologically determined sex (as opposed to socially determined gender) was the mutable factor whereas socially determined gender was the fixed, divinely ordained factor. Interesting we generally understand this the other way around today, I think. You are born a particular sex, but gender identity is flexible. It seems almost the opposite in early modern thinking. 

In the 16th and 17th century, and well before that, your sex was determined by the amount of heat present at your conception. A hot enough conception would yield a male. A conception lacking enough heat would yield a female, the less desirable outcome. This was understood on a continuum, though, in the context of ONE sex (a masculine one, of course), and NOT two distinct sexes. Thus a woman's anatomy was described completely in terms of being inferior or colder VERSIONS of a man's anatomy. A vagina was an inverted penis, and the ovaries were undescended testes. Indeed, the same terminology was applied to what were thought to be the same organs in men and women, instead of testes and ovaries, you just had testes, external if male, internal if female. Instead of scrotum and womb, you had one word "bourse" or "bursa" which meant sack or purse, external if male, internal if female. Medical thinkers of the age called these organs the same thing because they theorized them AS the same thing, even though the organs served completely different functions (when, guys, was the last time you found a fetus in your... I'll stop there). Had there been enough heat during the woman's conception, these organs would have simply "sprouted" out of her and she would have been a man. 

Thus, a man that lactated was thought to be "colder" than the average man, and a woman that had more masculine physical features would be thought of as a "warmer" woman. And indeed, this theory also accounted for people born with both female and male genitalia, someone who, temperature-wise, was caught in the middle. So there was this weird continuum when it came to your biological sex that could even be shifted AFTER you were born, according to medical understanding. 

For example, the theory of the four humors, an idiosyncratic balance of hot and cold, dry and wet internal body substances that determined a persons health, necessarily implied that the balance of hot and cold could be manipulated (through blood letting or ingesting hotter or colder liquids) to make someone more masculine or more feminine if that individual was seen to be either physically or socially defective. This was just one part of a health system that could account for ANY physical or mental ailment, not just sexual. A headache or a quick temper could mean that one had an excess of hot blood, which needed to be drained. I find this idea of an understood continuum of biological sex really fascinating. Even though the ability to change one's biological sex surgically has only come about very recently, these issues of "what is sex?" and "can sex change?" are more than 500 years old. 

The other interesting thing is that, despite the new science of exploratory dissection becoming much more ubiquitous during this time period (16th-17th century) due to the work of physicians like Andreas Vesalius, which greatly shifted understandings about anatomy and health and disease, the understanding of female anatomy remained basically unchanged for a few more centuries. Anatomical drawings from the period are fairly accurate (see Andreas Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica from 1543), so we know that these things were observed (again, these people never saw a fetus inside a scrotum even though they theorized it to be the external correspondent to the womb), but the social interpretation of them remained fixed. This reminds me of mischaracterizations of conception that still exist today: the passive egg, the charging sperm! Even though that is not an accurate reflection of what actually goes on during conception, that description is still informed by cultural understandings of men and women. I think this is also a good case study of how science is not immune from the social forces at work in the surrounding culture, yes, even today.

How will this all end up in my fiction you ask? I'm not sure. I think one of the great opportunities that writers of historical fiction often miss is the ability to present a consciousness that is completely different from our own. The idea that a medical scholar in 16th century London walked down the street and understood the men and women that passed him by in a COMPLETELY different way than I do is literary gold! Aristotle and Plato had different, in some cases, completely opposite views of the nature of reality itself. How did this change how they physically looked AT things, how they saw themselves in the world. If as a writer, I can briefly get someone to look at the world through these different lenses, that is a very rich experience to offer. 

There are a few books I can think of that create a completely new consciousness pretty well. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is one of the best historical examples I can think of. Non-historical examples include Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping. All of these books present ways of looking at the world that are unfamiliar and new. Every sentence is imbued with the shifted sense of reality that these authors have created. The thing that is particularly impressive about Jesus' Son and Housekeeping is that they DON'T take place in a different world, but contemporary Iowa and Montana, respectively. However, they MIGHT AS WELL be in a different world. This, again, is the tragedy of a lot of historical fiction. It DOES take place in a different world, but the craft, language, and vision don't push those boundaries to create a new consciousness and a new reality that bend the lens through which we look at OUR world. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Back to the Auditorium Building!

It does NOT look this nice outside. This photo is from my summer visit to Roosevelt University, which is that tall black building in the background. NO! Just kidding. That is the Sears Tower. We are the big square building in the middle of the picture. The Auditorium Building in Chicago, where Roosevelt University is located, is actually quite a historic building.

It was designed by the famous architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The firm Adler and Sullivan was transformative to the face of Chicago and American architecture, and  it is where the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright developed much of his architectural sensibility. When the building was dedicated by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889, it was the tallest building in Chicago and the largest building in the United States. 

It was also one of the first buildings in the world to be completely outfitted with electric bulbs. Throughout the building (the lobby with its grand staircase, the library with its plaster molded arches, and the breathtaking theatre), the chandeliers still feature plainly exposed lightbulbs in keeping with the building's original decor, which displayed the bulbs proudly as a sign of how modern it was. It also housed the largest theatre in the city until the opening of the Civic Opera House. 

I have not been inside Roosevelt's Auditorium Theatre yet, but I will see it shortly for the upcoming AWP conference, which is the largest and most important national conference for the literary community and creative writing programs in the United States. Art Spiegelman will be delivering the keynote address for the conference inside our theatre. Pretty exciting. More on that later. 

Anyway, the Auditorium Building is one of Chicago's gems. It was declared a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975. The building is located on Michigan Avenue, with the Art Institute two blocks up the street, and it rests right in front of Grant Park where President Obama gave his 2008 election victory address. 

I missed coming to this building over the long winter break, and I am happy to be back. I can't believe this is the building where my school is!

Here are some more pics of the Auditorium Building, Roosevelt University:
1) stained glass windows in the stairwell
2) grand staircase in the front lobby on Michigan Ave
3) Auditorium Theatre
4) lobby entrance on Michigan Ave
5) Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University's smaller performance space

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, Not so?

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) is one of my favorite historical figures. He and the movement he incited with the founding of the Franciscan Order is one of the most fascinating threads in the history of the Middle Ages. 

My favorite novel, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose deals with the fractious politics surrounding the Franciscan Order. My novel in progress features Saint Francis as a character. I have been to La Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy and still take a simple wooden rosary from Assisi in my pocket when I get on an airplane. On my door hangs a wooden plaque (also from Assisi) with the famous prayer that the Saint composed:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Words to live by? Maybe. Actually written by Saint Francis? Well... probably not. A New York Times article from January 22 explains the true story. An article published in L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, says that the prayer can be traced only to 1912, a far cry from the 12th century in which Francis was born. 

The prayer was printed in L'Osservatore in 1916 which caused it to become wildly popular during the traumatic years of World War I. At some point, the prayer ended up being published on the back of cards bearing the picture of the Saint, hence the confusion. The NYT article also points out that figures like Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa spoke the prayer and attributed it to Francis in public. Interesting that the prayer can only be dated back to two years AFTER Mother Theresa was born.

I have to admit, this makes me a little sad. But in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oyez Review Volume 36

I must start by saying my friend Adam Morgan took this picture while we were checking issues on Friday night, and I am too lazy to take out my camera and photograph my copies of the magazine myself. 

For those of you who don't know, last semester I enrolled as a student editor in a class/internship which is structured around the production of Roosevelt University's literary magazine Oyez Review (pronounced Oy-yay!). The Creative Writing program at Roosevelt publishes the magazine annually, which includes about 100 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art. Oyez Review circulates mainly in Chicago, and you can find it in several local and indy bookstores around the city, though the easiest way to get one is to contact us at oyezreview@roosevelt.edu. 

This year's issue, Volume 36, features writers from Chicago and all over the country. Inside, you'll find an eclectic mix of speculative, historical, humorous, and traditional literature. For more information on contributors, ordering, and past issues, see Oyez Review.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tudors Season 2

So this is how I spent the last week of my long and boring SIX WEEK vacation from school: TV on DVD! As a writer and reader of historical fiction, who focuses on the medieval and renaissance periods, I take an interest in any film or television series dealing in these eras. In general, medieval and renaissance work on the screen is hard to do well just like it is in writing fiction. One risks falling into the familiar traps of getting caught up in formulaic romances involving knights and fair ladies like all those King Arthur movies with people like Richard Gere, war epics like Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven (which has some siege scenes that could have been ripped straight from Lord of the Rings), or conspiracy thrillers about the Catholic Church a la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code phenomenon. 

Indeed, The Tudors, one of the only TV series ever set in the renaissance that I am aware of, avoids lots of these pitfalls. It offers a MUCH better handling of the King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga than the film The Other Boleyn Girl and its novel counterpart. To be fair though, The Tudors covers in two seasons (each containing ten one-hour-long episodes) what The Other Boleyn Girl attempts to cover in two hours. 

Nonetheless, this is why I think historical material can work so well on television: It can cover the complicated and unfamiliar terrain of a different era and culture with a depth that films sometimes cannot. The film The Other Boleyn Girl makes the decision to focus primarily on the romance between Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters while almost completely passing over Henry's decision to break with the Catholic Church, a huge historical detail that changed the course of christendom in England and had repercussions throughout the world. 

The Tudors slows this narrative down immensely and fully explores the formation of Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn, his gradual and fraught decision to break away from Rome, the political consequences for England and its relationships to France and the Holy Roman Empire, the social upheaval and near revolt this caused inside Henry's kingdom, and how the break away from Papal authority both enabled and eventually doomed Anne and Henry's marriage. Anne's beheading at the end of Season 2, due to Henry's frustration for her being unable to produce a male heir, makes much more sense when you understand the political, social, religious, and emotional cost of Henry's decision to divorce his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn. 

Getting off my history soapbox, The Tudors exhibits an intensity characteristic of most Showtime series with nudity, uncomfortable (sometimes sickening) torture scenes, lots of executions, and sexual coercion of female characters on a regular basis. The show is well cast. Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Henry VIII is eccentric, unstable, charismatic, passionate, vulnerable, powerful, and sexual. Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) fully realizes her character in the second season by adding fear and vulnerability to a formerly icy and calculating presentation. Dormer also does an excellent job of injecting brief cracks in Boleyn's sanity as she begins to abuse alcohol and laugh hauntingly in short hysterical outbursts as she senses her oncoming death. Jeremy Northam stands out as Thomas More with his balance of peace and anger. Henry Cavill's character (the Duke Charles Brandon) also improves in the second season by growing up a bit. James Frain who plays Thomas Cromwell is another standout performance, especially in the season finale when we get a glimpse into his guilt for his role in all the carnage in the last few episodes. 

Weaker performances include Nick Dunning (Boleyn's father) who does a good job of playing the heartless scheming father but can't seem to break out of that type. I would have liked to have seen the writing and the acting push this character a little further. He puts his family through a lot, and the pressure he puts on Anne is enormous and cruel, and he never seems that conflicted to me. Maria Doyle Kennedy (Queen Catharine of Aragon) is also pretty one-dimensional. Whenever we see her, she is sad, confused, and sitting. Seriously. Does this character ever walk? I also found her unwavering naiveté and devotion to Henry VIII, despite his cruel treatment of her, a little unbelievable. It would have been nice to see her show some different emotions other than flabbergasted hurt. She is boringly constant. 

The Peter O'Toole guest spots as Pope Paul III are entertaining. O'Toole brings charisma, sophistication, and humor to any role he plays, but the cutaways to these scenes in Rome seem a little out of place at times and don't always have a direct bearing on the plot back in foggy old England. The cuts to Rome are also noticeably absent in the last episode as the events of the entire season climax. If the O'Toole spots continue in the third season, I would like to see them better integrated into the show or otherwise dropped altogether. 

Back to history for a moment. The sets look authentic, and the costumes are beautiful. The show is filmed in Ireland, and this serves the series well with lots of shots of saturated misty mores and stone manors and palaces. The computer graphics of Whitehall Palace leave something to be desired. They look cheap when contrasted with shots of the actual Tower of London and other various onsite shots at country manors and palaces. But the large budget for the series appears in the costumes (In virtually every scene, Henry has a new wardrobe that is as equally ornate and complex as the last). Sets that aren't too grandiose, extremely accurate enactments of 16th century court masques, and proper use of titles, customs, and royal ceremony show superb attention to historical detail. 

Overall, The Tudors is a compelling political, religious, and romantic drama. Almost every character faces a crisis of conscience, guilt before God, personal ambition, betrayal, political maneuvering, and in one way or another the chopping block. There is very little relief from the intensity of the drama. It is constant almost to a slight fault and can sometimes approach draining. Some comedic relief may benefit the series, or even just more of the interesting tone shifts that we saw in the opening of the season finale (with the choir and the swans and the delayed climax) would serve the show well and give the viewer some time to recover from Henry's wrath. Generally speaking though, this is first rate drama that is character driven with beautiful costumes and set design and enough historical credibility to satisfy most history enthusiasts.

It will be interesting to see how the show carries forward beyond the Boleyn narrative, which has been the thrust of the show for two seasons. It is hard to imagine the Jane Seymour character (Anita Briem) being as captivating as Anne Boleyn, though it appears a new actress is taking on the role. Historically speaking, the subsequent marriages (and divorces) of Henry VIII were not as traumatic as the first "Great Matter" of Henry's divorce from his first wife Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne. The Tudors will have to come up with something new to drive itself, though Henry's capricious romances will undoubtedly remain a part of the drama. This closing of the Boleyn story is actually a good thing though. We have seen so much of Anne Boleyn over the past view years. Now that she is good and dead (Come on, we all knew the ending, I'm not spoiling anything), we can finally see Henry VIII develop beyond that relationship.