Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

My First Novel is Free This Monday-Wednesday on Amazon

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

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

You can find it here:

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Free Book Plug #4356

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of Oathtaker: Writing Fantasy From the Outside

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

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

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

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

You can find it on Amazon for only 99 cents: